MI5 ordered to spy on `subversive' opinion poll

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The Independent Online
The Security Service spied on Mass Observation, the public opinion poll, in the run-up to D-Day on the orders of Winston Churchill, a top secret file opened this weekend at the Public Record Office reveals.

Churchill asked his link with MI5, Major Desmond Morton, if the wartime heads of Mass Observation could be prosecuted for a breach of the Official Secrets Act for asking in a vox pop poll where they thought the Allies would land in the invasion of Northern Europe.

It was, say M15: "a moment of stupidity" which, although well-intentioned, provoked an outburst of paranoia in the security services. They raided the offices of Mass Observation, seized the results of the research and destroyed them.

Only certain Cabinet members, Allied chiefs of staffs and senior intelligence officers were privy to the secret of the Normandy beach-head and it was feared that careless talk, filtered back from interviews conducted by the organisation's canvassers, might give the game away to the Germans.

Mass Observation was left by its founder, Tom Harrisson, in the hands of his wife and second-in-command, Henry Willcock, when he was called up into the Special Operations Executive. In March 1944, just three months before what was to be D-Day, its researchers were asking people in the street to "describe in as much detail as possible your feelings about the second front. Include where you think we shall land, how soon you expect an opening of the second front, your fears and hopes focusing on the second front."

Churchill demanded of Major Morton in a memo of March 1944: "Who are the people behind Mass Observation? I presume the names and addresses of the `observers' are known? I should have thought they were criminally liable."

Major Morton replied to the Prime Minister: "Mass Observation is an infernal nuisance and potential danger. So far, however, the law officers of the Crown can find no means of bringing an action to suppress it. It is constantly watched by MI5. It is a business venture by someone on the lines of the Gallup Poll."

The file came as a complete surprise to Dorothy Sheridan, archivist of the new-look Mass Observation, which has been restarted at Sussex University with similar objectives to the late Tom Harrisson's organisation.

"We are no longer regarded as being dangerous subversives, although we did put out a questionnaire about the Gulf War. Currently we are trying to get a picture of national attitudes to the health service. MI5 may still be watching us, but I somehow think they will be disappointed."