Leading Article: Spying and leaking

Click to follow
THE STORY of Mrs Melita Norwood is a classically British one in more ways than one. The 87-year-old great-grandmother, whose wispy grey- haired exterior masks a life of studied betrayal, was for 40 years one of Russia's most effective Cold War spies. There has been a characteristically British touch of ambivalence in the reaction to the news: the old lady is simultaneously dubbed a "great" spy to rank with the "Magnificent Five" of Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, and yet there are calls for her prosecution on the grounds that "treachery is never forgivable".

A familiar debate will now begin over whether she should be prosecuted, echoing the arguments over the prosecution of elderly Nazi war criminals. Does time extenuate such a transgression? Does her motivation - "misguided rather than evil" in the words of the academic who unmasked her - dilute the offence? Or does a society need to send out firm signals on such crimes? Can motive be separated from outcome? Should she be subjected to a full trial, but be treated with compassion if found guilty? What best serves the "public interest"? And so on.

But what perhaps most typically reflects our national way of doing things is the manner in which the information came out. The KGB defector who supplied the information about Mrs Norwood was debriefed by MI5 and MI6. They jointly decided to leak the information to a favoured academic, Christopher Andrew, who then did a deal with publishers, television and a newspaper. The rest of the academic world is incensed at such partial leaking. It is not the first time this has happened. Another scholar, Gordon Brook-Shepherd, was the object of similar resentment over his book on the Western Secret Service and the Bolsheviks last year. It all contrasts, as ever, with the way such public records are released in the United States, where everything is made available to all academics and members of the public at once. In Britain, you see, we are as keen on spin-doctoring the past as the present.