When the spooks get a grip Richard Gott`s KGB links are another blow to a battered left, says Neal Aschers on

Neal Ascherson
Sunday 18 September 2011 06:55

Dear Richard, Open letters seem to be the style for the "Richard Gott debate". So I will contribute one more. It was good to see you at that party the other night - neither of us knowing that two days later you would open the Spectator, read its story about your KGB contacts, and resign from the Guardian. When we meet, I always think of you in Chile in the terrible days after Pinochet's putsch. I see you in the British Embassy at Santiago, a red-bearded lion roaring with rage and scorn at the callous, evasi ve ambassador and his diplomats. Not all your fights were in worthy causes. That one was.

What is happening to you also strikes me hard. We were in the same business, you and I, during the Cold War. We were independent left-wing journalists travelling the debatable lands between East and West, between the caricature of socialism in the Sovietempire and the ruthlessness of American imperialism in the Third World. In those oppressed places there were angels and demons, phantoms and a multitude of spooks. We travelled in hope. That hope was that we would find ourselves in a land where liberty,equality and fraternity were being made manifest. Sometimes we were tempted to think that we had found that country when we had not.

The spooks of both sides often plucked at our sleeves, and we had worked out a rough set of rules for dealing with them. You knew those rules, too, but you flouted them. I can't believe you were on the KGB payroll, as the Spectator alleges, but on your own admission you accepted freebies to meet someone who considered himself your controller. Richard, people like us do not get away with that sort of thing, even when we secretly despise the spook and tell him nothing of value. We all have faults. Mine isdisabling pessimism - not just of the intellect. Yours, I guess, is vanity. Others, you thought, could be damaged by that sort of flirting, but not you.

Let me quote two of those rules (you know them, but younger readers do not). The first is that if you get involved with one lot of spooks, the other side will get to know about it. Journalists are just dispensable informants to intelligence services, whowill trade us in or drop us in the mire when it suits them. This seems to be what happened to you. A KGB defector - Oleg Gordievsky or another - had your name on a list which he presented to the British. The upshot, after a long wait, was the Spectator article. I don't believe that piece has much to do with research in Moscow. It feels more like another example of MI5 using its friends in the press as a conduit to achieve some political end - in this case, avenging the Guardian's campaign against Tory corruption.

Another rule is that openness is the best defence against spooks. If they get some grip on you and you are too frightened to tell anyone, you are lost; the grip merely tightens. I have escaped twice by this method: once from the Brits and once from the Poles. I told everyone who would listen what MI6 wanted from me and eventually wrote an article about it; they have left me alone ever since. As for the Polish blackmail attempt (unknown to me, my articles were being syndicated to neo-Nazi publi cations),I told my editor and ignored them.

But it does not always work. The reason that you broke this rule and told the Guardian nothing about the KGB episodes may have been your memory of a Fleet Street journalist whom I will call James. Polish intelligence framed him in an adulterous affair, and threatened that if he did not sign up to work for them they would tell his editor. "And because English editors are so moral, that will be the end of your career!"

James, with an inward laugh at their naivety, signed everything they pushed at him, flew back to London and told all to his editor, who sacked him on the spot. The trap for journalists had suddenly acquired teeth, and this particular editor had rendered the KGB and their allies a service much more valuable than anything you told them.

Interesting about the money, too. The Spectator says you took cash from the London KGB, but you say you didn't. When a certain Mr Tykocinski defected as head of the Polish military mission in West Berlin, a platoon of respectable anti-Communist journalists were arrested a few weeks later. The defector had brought all his agents' reports, detailing their costly lunches and large payments to these gentlemen in return for information. But the journalists only had to produce their engagement diaries to win release. There had been no lunches or even meetings, and the agents had merely been fiddling their expenses. This anecdote should worry the Spectator.

But I notice, in the article you wrote in the Guardian last week about your KGB contacts, that you do not attack the Spectator itself. That is wise. The magazine was entirely justified in publishing that material, or at least the large part of it which you agree to be true. And it was entitled to use information from a security service - with the proviso that it should acknowledge the source. This coup, as you evidently realise, was primarily meant to blow a hole in the Guardian; the hole i n your reputation was merely instrumental. But there is collateral damage. Can I now convince young journalists that there was once a left-wing position which was not Stalinist and not capitalist and which had integrity? I wish you had left those Russian s alone.

Yours, Neal

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