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Reuters was paid to help spying: Boxes of documents released at the Public Record Office chart the activities of British intelligence and its network of agents from a century ago. Stephen Ward reports

THE Reuters news agency assisted Queen Victoria's ministers with spying operations, secret papers reveal.

A private letter, signed in July 1894 by Baron H de Reuter, head of the agency, and Sir T H Sanderson, a Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, formally sets out the company's offer to work closely in the gathering and dissemination of news.

He promises, in return for pounds 500 a year, that 'confidential reports from our agents will be compiled . . . all of which will be communicated to the Foreign Office as soon as received.

'The company pledges itself to observe the strictest secrecy in regard to the origin of news communicated by the Foreign Office for publication.'

A later letter points out that British government information could be distributed by Reuters to the United States via the Associated Press.

Foreign Office correspondence makes it clear that Lord Kimberley, the Foreign Secretary in Lord Rosebery's government, had sanctioned the arrangement. He added notes in red ink, signed 'K'.

The agreement continued for five years, paid for by the secret fund, despite the scepticism of civil servants about its value. It was cancelled by Lord Rosebery's successor, Lord Salisbury, in 1898, after unreliable information about the British fleet in Port Arthur was transmitted by the agency.

The close links apparently continued, however. The subscription was renewed for Reuters' North China Agency in 1909, at a cost of pounds 200 per annum, a later file shows. The cost was justified on the basis that it was vital to keep the agency afloat, and in the tense state of international relations, to avoid being reliant on a rival German agency for information on the region.