Death of an iconoclast: Cal McCrystal considers the life of James Rusbridger, whom he met in 1992

WHAT IS one to make of the death of James Rusbridger, a lonely communicator who sought media attention in abnormal measure, writing up to a dozen letters a week to newspaper editors scourging the intelligence services and political egos, plus some challenging books; who, running out of steam, and cash, ended up hanged, clad in a black oilskin coat and wearing a gas mask?

'I like the sound of my own voice,' he confessed to me two years ago. Last week, it was cut off. The final sound he heard was of his own breath labouring in the Second World War gas mask. Was it suicide? An accident? Murder?

Devon and Cornwall police are still examining photographs, documents and video cassettes removed from Mr Rusbridger's rented cottage near Bodmin. But in advance of the post-mortem results, which will provide at least some of the answers, investigators are not treating the death of this exposer of state secrets as suspicious.

Mr Rusbridger also volunteered, in that 1992 conversation, that he was 'doing a book on pornography', a subject that, until he mentioned it, seemed beyond his range of curiosity. The police and ambulance people who removed his body from the cottage would have noticed soft-porn pictures, mainly of black women, pinned up in discreet places.

The circumstances of Mr Rusbridger's death are as bizarre and mysterious as the recent fate of the Tory MP Stephen Milligan. The latter's colleagues angrily denounced disclosures about his corpse (naked but for women's stockings, bag on head, orange in mouth, flex around throat). They seem unexercised by the equally prompt - and weird - disclosures concerning Mr Rusbridger's (the oilskins, the gasmask - and a rope connecting neck and ankles to a series of pulleys). Why did the man-in-a- mask in Bodmin rate a less anxious response than the man-in- a-bag in Hammersmith?

That, at least, may be simply answered. Scorned by a disenchanted press, the parliamentarians were given, through the Milligan affair, a chance to rally round one of their own and attack their media persecutors (journalists might have bribed policemen, it was suggested). The iconoclastic Mr Rusbridger, however, was less deserving of their concern.

James Rusbridger might have revelled in the disparity, could he have foreseen it. What he did foresee was a persistent burden of debt, failing health, eviction from the cottage, and, above all, marginalisation in his chosen arena, where conspiracy cohabits with incompetence.

His literary agent, Andrew Lownie, who saw him in December, says: 'He had a heart attack last year, and wouldn't talk about it. But one knew he was down. He was frustrated about the poor distribution of his books. He was an expert defence witness in the recent trial of the KGB operative Michael Smith. It took him away from his work for longer than he'd expected. He also felt the defence lawyers had not treated him very well in the way he'd been compensated. He took a complaint to the Law Society. All this put him off his stride.'

His stride frequently took him along the cliffs of Cornwall after a prolonged session at his word processor or fax machine. Mostly, his cogent letters had something important, if not disturbing, to impart.

Last Sunday, he posted his last letter to the Independent on Sunday. Addressed to Leonard Doyle, of our foreign staff, it was a typical testament to his expertise in espionage techniques: 'As a small tailpiece to your interesting article today about the National Security Agency, it is worth mentioning that, ever since the end of the war, both the NSA and GCHQ have continually trawled patent applications around the world to see if any new encryption devices are being developed.'

In the United States and Britain, he explained, any patent considered to be detrimental to 'national security' can be impounded by the government. 'When the new Global System Mobile (GSM) cellular telephone technology was first inspected . . . engineers from MI5 and GCHQ found the A5 digital scrambling code GSM was to use (which is similar to the Army's Ptarmigan) was too secure and would make it impossible for them to tap calls. As a result, BT insisted the manufacturers downgrade security to the A5X digital system, thus enabling MI5 and GCHQ to continue eavesdropping . . .'

Mr Rusbridger's 2,000-odd letters to editors suggest a man bent on recognition as a force to be reckoned with. The death of his father, a colonel in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, stopped him going into the Army (he became a sugar dealer instead). His older brother Charles, now also dead, had been in Naval Intelligence. His cousin was Peter Wright, the ex-MI5 officer whose memoir, Spycatcher, got up Margaret Thatcher's nose, lodging there despite injunctions to have it removed.

Mr Rusbridger, on the other hand, was destined for the intelligence fringes - in the 1960s as an MI6 and CIA courier, later as self-appointed watchdog until his death at 65.

The past year's output claimed that 'corruption, fraud and errors' in the DSS was more than matched by the pounds 1.2bn 'squandered' by the Ministry of Defence (Sunday Telegraph); lashed the intelligence agencies 'who, like drunken sailors, have propped up each other's extravagant lifestyles' (Telegraph); revealed that the Home Secretary never asks to see the complete files on persons he allows to be bugged (Independent on Sunday); corrected an article on the Russian spy George Blake (Sunday Times); rubbished the Home Secretary's claim that MI5 is accountable, through him, to parliament (Times), and delivered acerbic comments on a wide range of other matters, from expenditure on the Royals to Foreign Office sanitising of intelligence reports for politicians.

I knew he had almost completed a book on the sinking of the Lusitania, which might have been as successful as his The Intelligence Game and (with Eric Nave) Betrayal at Pearl Harbor. But he never referred further to the porno book. On looking back over his published letters, however, I came across one - in the Independent last April - about an advertisement for the Vauxhall Corsa. 'Parts of it are pure pornographic fetishism. . . . one of the most popular forms of sado-masochistic fantasy is men being dominated by coloured women dressed in leather or rubber.'

And so to the black pin-ups. 'Friends', popping up anonymously last week, recalled for the Press Association that the fire brigade once rescued Mr Rusbridger after he became stuck in a garden shed. His clothing on that occasion was 'bizarre', and the gas mask was again in evidence. There were whispers about a past 'mental condition'.

Whatever the truth, James Rusbridger's whistle-blowing must have created enemies. Experienced, independent- minded journalists insist he was 'extremely accurate on security matters' and 'showed many government people to be liars'. Might someone have wished him dead?

Last week, Mr Rusbridger sent bundles of research material on the pornography industry to a television station and a newspaper. The documents were said to have named certain members of the Royal circle with 'exotic sexual appetites'. This material must form a tiny section of voluminous Rusbridger files painstakingly assembled over the years. Who will claim them? What embarrassments do they hold? Is there a will? An explanation?

Among other puzzles is how he came to run out of money, having earned substantial royalties (he mentioned advances of pounds 50,000 on two of his books). Behind with his rent by pounds 6,000, he was about to be turned out of his cottage.

His phone and fax had been cut off, for non-payment of bills. This may have been enough for suicide. But in that case, why did he not leave a suicide note?

A year ago, Mr Rusbridger penned a short outburst to the editor of the Independent. 'One of our greatest codebreakers in the last war, Alan Turing, was a homosexual,' he wrote, 'but the police did not concern themselves about this until after the war when, it has been alleged, their harassment led to his suicide.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
News
i100
Sport
footballLatest scores and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties