Are you a spy or a journalist?

In December 1968 the Soviet newspaper Izvestia ran an expose claiming that during the post-Second World War years ‘named leading British journalists working for the national newspapers had a covert relationship with the British Secret Intelligence Service which involved their recruitment as agents and the use of intelligence-derived material in their articles in the press.’

At the time the British government dismissed the report as typical Soviet propaganda and lies. However over time it has emerged that the expose was factually correct: proof given by first by ex-journalists/spies confessing all in their memoirs, second to further documentation released by the Soviets and others, and third to investigative journalism by the very organisations that were accused. On top of this, it became more generally known that all secret service agencies had set up widespread networks to gather information that not only included journalists but businessmen and others too. (The British businessman Greville Maynard Wynne being one such well-known example who was used as a courier.) Unsurprising of course: it made eminent sense because of their contacts and access to organisations that would be difficult for a professional ‘spy’ to infiltrate. What is more surprising is that there was ever any doubt or that the denials were believed.

The issue was also raised within the British parliament in June 1950 (albeit in an oblique way) as journalists were apparently being unfairly expelled from communist countries. A short debate was initiated by Ronald Russell, the MP for Wembley South:

‘Regarding the exclusion of nine British journalists from certain Communist countries in the last five years. May I recapitulate these nine cases, as they were given to me by the Minister of State in answer to a Question about seven weeks ago?

‘In 1946, Mr. Derek Selby, a correspondent of the “Sunday Times” was ordered to leave Poland on the grounds that he consistently misrepresented the facts. In 1948, Mr. Alec Collett of the “Daily Telegraph,” Mr. Alexander Lawrenson also of the “Daily Telegraph,” and Mr. Karl Robson of the “News Chronicle” were refused permission to stay in Czechoslovakia; and Mr. Patrick Smith of the B.B.C. and Mr. Christopher Buckley of the “Daily Telegraph” were refused entry visas to Czechoslovakia. In 1949, Mr. Denis Weaver of the “News Chronicle” was refused an entry visa to Poland, and Mr. Eric Bourne of the Kemsley Press was expelled from Czechoslovakia; and last April, Mr. Vincent Buist, Reuter’s correspondent, was expelled from Poland, for “unobjective reporting.”‘

Those in the trade knew that reasons such as ‘unobjective reporting’ were euphemisms for spying.

Observer foreign correspondent Mark Frankland talked candidly in his autobiography of his time spent in the SIS in the late 1950s revealing that: “Journalists working abroad were natural candidates for agents and particularly useful in places such as Africa where British intelligence was hurrying to establish itself.”

Two types of spies were taken on by the SIS or MI6: those who were employed fulltime by MI6 and then sent out under the guise of being journalists and working temporarily in a country; others were employed full time by newspapers whose owners were more than happy to oblige and do their duty for King, Queen and country. When the spy Anthony Cavendish entered MI6 in 1948, he discovered that ‘a number of MI6 agents were sent abroad as journalists. The Kemsley Press allowed many of its foreign correspondents to co-operate with MI6 and even took on MI6 operatives as foreign correspondents.’ Later he would become a journalist himself, in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, while still maintaining his friendships with former colleagues.

One such operative working with Kemsley was the wartime Army intelligence officer, Antony Terry, who was given journalist cover on the Sunday Times when posted to Vienna. Ostensibly he was overseen by Ian Fleming but it would seem he was ‘run’ directly by the MI6 head of station, George Kennedy Young.

Ian Fleming?

Yes. Once the Second World War was over, Fleming needed a job. That job came from Kemsley Newspapers, owned by Viscount Kemsley who had built up a stable of papers including the flagship The Sunday Times, the Daily Graphic, the Daily Sketch, the Sunday Chronicle, Sunday Mail, Sunday Sun, and the Manchester Evening Chronicle.

Fleming was asked to set up – and was then put in charge of – the grandly named Kemsley Imperial and Foreign Service but known in short by its cable address ‘Mercury.’ Fleming started the Service in 1945, employing a mix of ex-wartime correspondents as well as recruiting others as the department’s geographical reach expanded. He called himself the Foreign Manager – though he was later to regret that he had anointed himself with such a lowly title.

In 1951, Ian Fleming was to confess all when he wrote to a former Naval Intelligence Department colleague that he was ‘engaged throughout the year in running a worldwide intelligence organisation and…carry out a number of tasks on behalf of a department of the Foreign Office.’  In other words the foreign correspondents and stringers who supplied stories to the Kemsley Press.

At the same time it was also a serious and indeed much respected news gathering organisation. The example pages below, from a manual issued by Fleming in 1948, gives some indication of the work that was done, and largely consists of instructions to the foreign correspondents, a procedural manual with several signs of the Fleming touch. One such example might be Point 13. Dynamite. A ‘dynamite’ is a story, or an instruction, of sudden and supreme importance. If a ‘dynamite’ story happens in your area, flash Mercury in a dozen words, no matter what the hour. Drop everything else, forget the Agencies (our papers will want their ‘own man’) and file your story at once. For a big enough story which breaks at night, printers can be recalled for a special edition. But the story must be BIG.”

A manual issued to all correspondents. 126 by 76mm. (size of leaves), 56 leaves, ring bound within black binder.

Muriel J Williams (often referred to as MJW or MW) and whose name is included in the manual was Fleming’s Assistant and was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Department in particular the liaison with the “stringers” who, from far flung parts of the world, submitted stories for inclusion. Not shown at this time was Edwina C. Smith, who was (in her own words) “bilingual secretary to the Foreign Manager of Kemsley Newspapers, who was Ian Fleming” Another assistant was John Pearson who went on to become the first biographer of Fleming.

Two years later Kemsley published The Kemsley Manual Of Journalism, for which Fleming contributed a chapter on Foreign News. He describes the nature of gathering foreign news, how a department should be run, and the qualities that a foreign correspondent needs. I wondered (in a lighthearted way) whether there would be any hint of possessing expertise in spy craft in the words he wrote.

From Fleming’s chapter showing the location of his foreign correspondents.

With an open (or suspicious) mind it is always possible to uncover coded hints. He identifies three types of journalists who might be employed: the permanent resident who has become part of the ‘local scene’, whereas the roving correspondent might well ‘have informed himself of the Whitehall background’ before travelling out on his assignment. He also mentions the part-time stringer who might be prone to ‘blowing his contacts’ and ‘will have plenty of explaining to do at the Ministry of Information and the British Embassy. ‘Whitehall’ ‘blowing contacts’ ‘British Embassy’ all sound like coded hints!

In fact Fleming preferred on-the-ground permanent correspondents but he had found that they needed direction as some were possibly better at gathering straight intelligence than writing newspaper articles that would inspire the reader. He and his team in London were forever trying to encourage them to not be ‘dull’ in their reporting and they should always ‘add some colour and sparkle.’ (Perhaps peppered with disguised secrets they had picked up?)

Fleming goes on to describe the type of correspondent that they employed – of which there were over ninety: ninety-eight per cent were British; sixty-three per cent had a university education; the average age was 38. Each knew 3.01 foreign languages; and among their number were only seven women. In terms of character ‘he must be a credit to his country and his newspaper; either a bachelor or a solidly married man’; his personality ‘must be such that our Ambassador will be pleased to see him when occasion demands.’ Now here is something: he must ‘enjoy a drink with the meanest spy or the most wastrelly spiv’ and that ‘he must be able to keep a secret.’ Like James Bond (my words) he must be ‘physically strong’ but sadly ‘not addicted to drink’ (which would, of course, leave him prone to a loose tongue.)

Only the names of a few of these correspondents are known today:

Eric Bourne: always a journalist and covered Eastern Europe

Leslie Brodie: based in Australia.

Stephen Coulter: Paris

Edward Howe: was with the SOE during the War and recruited by Fleming to be the corresponant for the Middle East based in Cairo.

Richard Hughes (or Dikko Henderson): worked both full time and as a freelancer in Japan, Hong Kong, and China.

John Izbicki: Paris.

Geoffrey Jenkins – author and journalist who wrote an unpublished continuation novel that he had originally worked on with Fleming before his death.

Doris Lee Karwick: one of the correspondaents in the Far East.

Norman Lewis: served with the Field Security Section, and reported from Cuba.

Donald McCormick: correspondent in north-west Africa. His name is written into the manual sent to all correspondents. (See the first images further up this page.)

Anthony Terry: had experience and expertise in German culture from his youth and later his service in the Second World War, making him an ideal man for the job in Berlin. However in October 1953 Fleming had to admonish Terry about the costs he was incurring and despatched this letter:

“Dear Tony, I have been looking over your expenses for the last few months and I really must urge you again to try and institute some fairly drastic economies. Berlin is now far and away our most expensive centre, with an average of something like £300. a month in expenses and overheads. With our present restricted service, I am afraid this cost is quite unjustifiable and at any moment the whole position of Berlin will be put under a magnifying glass. In preparation for that inevitable day, we must somehow cut these costs down. For instance, entertainment, stringers and payment for information in September, were over £100., and we cannot even afford half of that. Your invaluable Miss Michelau is costing £50. a month and you are the only one of our correspondents with a secretary or assistant. What are we to do about it? The telephone bill for September was nearly £80. It must be halved. These are dreadfully hard words and I would not be writing them if they were not one hundred percent justified by the current situation. By hook or by crook you must cut the Berlin overheads down to £100. a month, even if your service has to suffer in the process. Anyway please let me know how this can conceivably be achieved and don’t forget that you have all my sympathy in your appalling task. Yours ever Ian Fleming”

But in another letter he asks Terry to do a bit of digging which might have been used in many ways: from a story for Atticus as claimed, to being passed on to MI6.

A Fleming letter.

In fact there was a voluminous correspondence between Fleming and Terry on many matter including asking Terry for essential details that could be included in the novels.

John Sampson – foreign correspondent in the US.

Frederick Sands: a journalist, and an interesting article can be found online that details the conversation he had with George Simenon, the writer of Maigret, about the time Fleming and Simenon met to discuss writing.

And what was Fleming like in this job? John Hayward (literary critic and editor) said this of Fleming when interviewed by John Pearson: ‘He was always a very vain man. He really enjoyed having Foreign Manager on his door at the Sunday Times although he was never really any such thing.’ And Fleming himself had told his friend Robert Harding that he had ‘counted fifty seven varieties of executives doing fuck all.’

Fleming’s motto for the service: Get it first – but first get it right.’

Postscript: A BBC Radio 4’s investigation and broadcast in 2013 said that that the accusations published by the Soviet newspaper were probably genuine including that the BBC’s World Service would broadcast coded messages as part of their programmes.

And nowadays the British security services are more open about the nature of spies – as seen on their web-sites:

Intelligence officers are members of intelligence services [for all states not just the UK]. They will be highly trained in espionage techniques and the use of agents. They may operate openly, declaring themselves as representatives of foreign intelligence services to their host nation, or covertly under the cover of other official positions such as diplomatic staff or trade delegates.

Some intelligence officers may operate under non-official cover to conceal the fact that they work for an intelligence service – posing as a business person, student or journalist for example. In some cases they may operate in “deep cover” under false names and nationalities. Such spies are dubbed “illegals” because they operate without any of the protections offered by diplomatic immunity.

The Kemsley Manual Of Journalism, Various. Cassell. 1950

Dorril, Stephen (2015) “Russia Accuses Fleet Street”: Journalists and MI6 during the Cold War. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 20 (2). pp. 204-227. ISSN 1940-1612

Ian Fleming The Notes. John Pearson. Queen Anne Press. 2019.