SECRETS AND SPIES
“Revolution is to take place after the total loss of the Channel ports and defeat on the Western Front …
There would be a short civil war, the Government would leave first for Bristol and then for the Colonies,
General Ironside would become dictator and after things had settled down Germany could do as she liked with Britain.”
MI5 reports on Dr. Leigh Vaughan-Henry (above), May 1940.
Somewhere in the labyrinth of the Security Services archives are – or at least were – a series of documents detailing the names and aims of the British pro-Nazis plotting one of three armed fascist coup d’état during the dark days of spring 1940.
Evidence that Dr. Leigh Vaughan-Henry, a celebrated musicologist, conductor and ardent anti-Semite, had created a substantial organisation to lead this revolution is held in an otherwise obscure Treasury Solicitors’ file, open for inspection at the National Archives in Kew.
It contains extracts of reports from undercover MI5 agents who penetrated Vaughan-Henry’s innermost circles; these show that the self-proclaimed “Leader” was getting ready to replace the elected government with a pro-Hitler puppet régime just as soon as German troops landed in Britain.
To ensure the coup’s success, he was planning the “intimidation of certain people by threat and possible action against their wives and children; bumping off certain people (this to be organized with great care)”. He had established a network of safe houses and escape routes to Eire in case of trouble; he had also acquired a “large stock” of blank passports to be provided to his followers, and was in the process of buying an enormous arsenal of .303 rifles and ammunition for them.
But the details of exactly who belonged to the 18 “cells’ (each boasting 25 members), as well as the undercover agents’ full reports and the fate of the weapons cache are absent from the Treasury file. They are held instead in Vaughan-Henry’s MI5 dossier, originally listed as PF 42909 in the Security Service’s Registry. Yet that file – or rather files: it ran to at least three volumes – is missing. It has either been withheld from the National Archives or destroyed. Nor is this unique.
To write Hitler’s British Traitors I examined scores of once-secret files – often running to several hundred pages each – on a remarkable (and remarkably large) stratum of men and women who spied, committed acts of sabotage and worked for Nazi Germany throughout the war. 70 were prosecuted, mostly in secret trials; four were sentenced to death, two were executed. Beyond them several hundred more British fascists were interned under wartime defence regulations; their files show that MI5 accumulated concrete evidence against them.
It took between 60 and 70 years for the British Government to de-classify these dossiers and release them to the National Archives. But buried within them are the reference numbers of files on numerous other pro-Nazi British fascists, mostly occupying elevated positions in politics or the aristocracy. Most were – from the fragmentary evidence available in the de-classified files – involved in activities which sent less well-connected traitors to prison or the gallows; yet the evidence of their treachery remains locked in MI5 files which remain secret.
This is inexplicable. Not simply because there can be no threat to national security by releasing documents which were created almost eight decades ago, but because the fundamental issue they expose – the treachery by these British citizens (aristocratic or otherwise) – has already been disclosed in outline in the de-classified files. Nor can it be justified on strict legal grounds. Even by the absurdly over-secretive standards of the post-war 50 Year Rule, these folders should have been turned over to the people who paid for their creation – the British taxpayers – in the 1990s; and beyond that, the Freedom of Information Act (2000) abolished any such waiting period.
But a loophole in that Act means that it is impossible to challenge the continuing secrecy. MI5 (let alone its sister intelligence service MI6, which also played some role in the investigation of Nazi spies and their British sub-agents) is specifically excluded from the provisions of FOIA (2000). Other than an appeal to the Security Service’s conscience, there is simply no mechanism for prising historic files from its grasp.
Other nations do not take such a close-mouthed approach. Even the United States, where the intelligence community guards its secrets with some vigour, both the FBI and the CIA are subject to FOIA legislation; in theory, and often in practise, their vaults can be pried open by persistent researchers.
For seven decades the story of Hitler’s British Traitors, and of the Security Service’s to catch them, was a close-guarded secret. The refusal by successive governments to reveal the truth ensured that academics and historians falsely argued that the so-called “Fifth Column” was a myth.
The files on Leigh Vaughan-Henry and hundreds of other wartime pro-Nazi spies, saboteurs and traitors show that it was all too real. But until all the records are open the full breadth of their treachery remains unclear. It is high time to consign this secrecy to the dustbin of history.
OF KENNEDYS AND CONSPIRACIES
What’s the difference between a conspiracy theory and a conspiracy ?
At first glace the answer might seem self-evident – and to a degree it is. But lurking behind the obvious is something fundamentally troubling about the practice of modern journalism.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. He had just won the California Democratic Primary a vital step in his campaign to become President.
Had he lived it is likely – though not guaranteed– that he would have beaten Richard Nixon in the in November 1968 general election. What is certain is that under a second President Kennedy, the United States would have been a very different country: it would have been spared the scarring scandal of Watergate and his determination to fight social, racial and economic injustice would have begun a long-overdue process of healing the divisions which blighted America then, and do so to this day.
Internationally, too, he promised change: withdrawal from Vietnam rather than Nixon’s escalation of the war (let alone its covert expansion into Laos and Cambodia) was his most immediate commitment, but his speeches throughout Latin America two years earlier made clear that he believed the United States should treat honestly and openly with its neighbours. It seems unlikely that Ronald Reagan’s adventures in Central America – the Iran-Contra scandal was but one of several – would have happened had RFK occupied the Oval Office before him.
For all those reasons, the shooting of Robert Kennedy in a kitchen pantry at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles was a seismic event. It warranted a thorough, honest and open inquiry by Los Angeles Police. It did not get one. Los Angeles Police mounted only a simulacrum of an investigation and with the DA’s office constructed the criminal equivalent of a Potemkin village – a Hollywood-style set whose façade concealed the truth that evidence was overlooked, destroyed or suppressed, and witnesses were ignored or intimidated into silence. After which they locked the whole sorry saga away, hiding their mis-deeds and incompetence behind impenetrable walls of official secrecy for two full decades.
Independently and then in tandem, I and former CNN journalist Brad Johnson, have spent more than 25 years investigating the RFK assassination. I made a one hour documentary about for Channel 4 in 1992 (viewable on the films pages of this website), and Brad produced a film for the Discovery Times channel in 2007. Last week our book on the case – The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy: Crime, Conspiracy and Cover-Up – was released; it was accompanied by a substantial serialization – five full pages over two separate days – in the Daily Mail.
The book, and our films before it, presented clear evidence that the man convicted of murdering Robert Kennedy – Sirhan Sirhan was arrested in the pantry with a smoking gun – could not have done so. The autopsy revealed that Kennedy was shot from behind at a distance of no more than three inches; all the eye-witness testimony evidence placed Sirhan and his gun in front of Kennedy, and never closer than three feet. Simply put, the physics were impossible. A man standing a yard in front of his supposed victim cannot shoot him from behind, three inches away; which means there was a second gunman.
The ballistic evidence, too, proved the existence of a second gun being fired in the pantry. Los Angeles Police, the FBI and the LA Sheriff’s Office found – and photographed – evidence of 14 bullets or bullet holes in the walls or woodwork. Since Sirhan’s revolver held on eight bullets and several of these were recovered from the other victims that night – someone else had to have fired a weapon: 14 into eight just does not go.
Brad also located the only recording to capture the assassination – an audio tape made by a freelance reporter called Stanislaw Pruszynski. He arranged for it to be analysed by three accredited audio experts: they found clear evidence of at least 13 shots being fired, and that some of those shots so too close together that it would have been impossible for a single gun to fire them.
The Pruszynski recording and all the ballistic, forensic and eyewitness testimony was collected by Los Angeles Police. Rather than investigate it, however, LAPD suppressed and then buried it for almost 20 years. Its records remained sealed until 1988 – which is when Brad and I separately began investigating. Those records – as well as the FBI files (also suppressed for almost two decades) are vast: 50,000 pages of LAPD documents (plus tens of thousands produced by federal investigators), hundreds of transcripts of eyewitness testimony, scores of audio and visual recordings as well as 990 photographs. In total the collection occupies 36 cubic feet at the California State Archives in Sacramento: little wonder, then reviewing, analysing and cross-referencing it took Brad and I so many years.
Today, newspapers and broadcast networks in America and Britain have carried reports on the 50th anniversary of the shooting. Almost all repeat the official narrative: that Sirhan Sirhan was a lone gunman, solely responsible for the murder. Where once the commercial media would have questioned and analysed this, now it feels no requirement to do so. It is easier and cheaper to trot out the official line and then move on. Even the doubts belatedly expressed by RFK’s son and namesake, Robert Kennedy Jnr – breaking the family’s half century of silence – are either ignored or, more troublingly, publicly denounced.
Which is where the ‘C word’ comes in: the vast mountain of evidence which disproves the conventional narrative are lazily dismissed as a “conspiracy theory”. Why “lazily” ? Because this fails to make the important distinnction between conspiracies and conspiracy theories.
The latter are exercises in speculation – hypotheses drawn out from events (real or supposed). By contrast, a genuine conspiracy is, at heart, no more than an agreement between two or more people to carry out an act that is, by implication, immoral or unlawful.
And genuine conspiracies happen. Watergate was a conspiracy, as was the selling of arms to Iran to generate unauthorized funding for Nicaraguan rebels; Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington D.C. – 9/11 – were the product of a criminal conspiracy. Whilst each of these may be still surrounded by claims and counter-claims – conspiracy theories – the facts show that the conspiracies themselves existed.
So, too, do the facts of the Robert Kennedy Assassination. Buried in the LAPD files are the details of three conspiracies reported to it in the immediate aftermath of June 5. Each was well-sourced – indeed one came from another police department; each named the alleged conspirators; each involved RFK’s sworn enemies in organised crime and the Teamster’s Union. Our book reveals – for the first time – those alleged plots; it does so by reproducing exactly the LAPD file documents. It also shows what the police did with the information about those conspiracies: nothing.
Neither Brad nor I are “conspiracy theorists”. We are old-school, old fashioned journalists; When we began investigating we didn’t set out to prove a belief that it involved a conspiracy. Our approach was always to ascertain the facts – slowly, patiently and forensically – from documentary evidence and witness testimony, and to pursue those facts wherever they might lead.
Nor do we claim – unlike some other reporters – to have “solved” the case. Journalists don’t solve crimes: that job belongs to the police, prosecution authorities and the courts. Our role is to investigate, locate evidence – new or overlooked – and, where that shows that the historical record is wrong or deficient, to present it with a strong recommendation for the case in question to be re-opened.
Individually and in tandem, we have done our journalistic job for the past 25 years. We believe that the preponderance of evidence we (and others) have unearthed clearly indicates the presence of a second gunman in the Ambassador Hotel pantry – and that whilst Sirhan Sirhan wounded other people, an as-yet unidentified second shooter fired all the bullets that struck Bobby, one of which killed him.
We also believe that there are strong evidential grounds for the murder to have been the result of a conspiracy. We present that evidence and show that on the balance of probabilities – the standard used by prosecutors to determine whether any investigation should be pursued – it points to Robert Kennedy’s arch-enemies: organized crime and its allies in the Central Intelligence Agency. We also reproduce documentary evidence of the involvement of each.
Does our investigation prove unequivocally that the CIA and the Mafia murdered the man who was thought by many to be on his way to the White House ? No, it does not. But dismissing genuine investigative journalism – without bothering to check whether it has a solid evidential basis – as “a conspiracy theory” is dangerous. It abrogates the fundamental job of journalism and paves the path for its antithesis – the mushrooming of bogus ‘fake news’ websites, paranoid conspiracy theorising masquerading as real investigation, and the toxic spread ill-informed opinion over facts.
On the 50th anniversary of the shooting in the pantry – but also as the constant repetition of ‘alternative facts’ by today’s occupant of the Oval Office begins to sap the public’s ability and willingness to sift truth from lies – it is time to demand a new, honest and official enquiry into the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
 Kennedy actually died of his wounds in the early hours of June 6.
BBC AND THE MYTH OF COMPETITION
Amid the outrage – political and – over the BBC’s revelation that it pays its male “stars” considerably more than their female counterparts a more fundamental problem has been completely overlooked.
The Corporation’s justification for paying eye-watering sums of public money to such “talent” as Chris Evans (£2.2 million), Gary Lineker (£1.75 million) and Jeremy Vine (£750,000) is that there is “a market” for such people, and that to compete the BBC must pay vast salaries.
This is pernicious and dangerous myth. The BBC’s charter contains no requirement for it to compete in any such market for presenters (and the vast salaries revealed yesterday are almost exclusively paid to presenters) or anyone else. Nor did it used to do so.
I joined the BBC in 1983. I was hired – for the princely sum of £11,000 a year – as a researcher on Roger Cook’s Radio 4 investigative series, Checkpoint. Commercial broadcasters paid much higher salaries, but it was understood and accepted that because the BBC was paid for by licence payers it would not try to match them. There was, as a result, a career path, well-trodden by lowly production staff and stars alike, which led from the Beeb to ITV. My predecessor on Checkpoint had just availed himself of this, and three years later both Roger Cook and I were bought by Central Television for its new series “The Cook Report”. I have no idea what Roger’s fee was, but my salary almost doubled.
And no-one – inside the Corporation or without – questioned the principle behind this. The BBC was a Public Service: just as with the Civil Service, people then joined its ranks accepting that the quid pro quo for taxpayer funding was a duty to serve, not profiteer.
When and why did this change ? Step forward Margaret Thatcher and her disastrous belief that greed was not just good, but God. The keynote of her decade of economic and political vandalism was that the market – and only the market – should rule. The old post-war consensus and the belief in public service were thrown on the scrapheap, replaced by the new creed of casino capitalism.
I detailed the damage this caused to the most essential element of British broadcasting – the programmes themselves – in my recent submission to the Government’s consultation on Channel 4 (blog posts passim). It is an uncomfortable fact that while both the range and quality of programmes has degenerated (as, not co-incidentally, have audience figures) the salaries paid to senior managers and the “stars” they hire have exploded. Put simply, these people are paid vastly more for achieving a great deal less.
The BBC salaries row will die down quickly. The public will shrug its shoulders and get back to worrying about how to get by in today’s miserable economy. The press and media will sadly – not join the jots between the two issues.
I have spent the past year working on a new book which highlights how we got into the current mess. The book tells the story of one of the more unlikely alliances of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike: , in the middle of the most turbulent period of post-war Britain, and in what was the most bitterly fought industrial dispute for a generation, a group of young and idealistic gay men and women made common cause with a very traditional community in the South Wales coalfield, and helped to keep them alive as Mrs. Thatcher’s government sought to starve mining families into submission.
The story of that seemingly unlikely alliance between Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and the coalfields of Dulais Valley was dramatised in the (very fine) feature film, Pride. My book is a companion to that movie. To write it, I met and interviewed the men and women of both communities; doing so brought home the importance of ideals, integrity and service.
The Thatcher government set out to destroy all of those qualities: it is her creed – greed over need, the market ruling every aspect of our lives – which links the devastation wreaked on Britain’s coalfield communities and the obscene spectacle of the BBC paying Chris Evans £2.2 million to be a national irritant.
 Pride” The Inspiring True Story Behind the Hit Film. John Blake Publishing – on sale August 10.
GIRLS HAVE BALLS; MEN TALK BALLS
In a week when the Chancellor of the Exchequer pronounced that driving a train is so easy “even a woman” could do it, and when the announcement of a female actor as the latest Dr. Who sent some male fans into paroxysms of angst, we should be grateful to Channel 4 for broadcasting a new documentary about the time when women playing soccer was deemed so outrageous that the (all male) Football Association outlawed the female game.
The struggle by women to be “allowed” to play football is a truly remarkable piece of social history – and it goes much further back than story of the most famous team – Dick, Kerr’s Ladies – whose success between 1916 and 1921 largely brought about the events portrayed in C4’s film.
In 2013 I published a book about the secret history of women’s football:
“Girls With Balls” traced (amongst a great deal else) the origin of the game back to 1881: in May that year, newspapers carried reports of the the first-ever women’s matches between Scotland and England – and of the riots which ensued. The Nottinghamshire Guardian’s May 20 account was typical:
“… a few roughs broke into the enclosure, and as these were followed by hundred soon after, the players were roughly jostled and had prematurely to take refuge in the omnibus which had conveyed them to the ground. Their troubles, however, were not yet ended, for the crowd tore up the stakes and threw them at the departing vehicle and but for the presence of the police some bodily injury to the females might have occurred.”
For the next 30 years a unpleasant cycle would be repeated again and again. Women attempting to do nothing more than play a sport they loved were attacked – both physically and verbally – publicly denounced and repeatedly exploited. By whom ? By men.
Nevertheless – to borrow a disgraceful reprimand levied in February on a woman Senator by one of the most senior politicians in America – they persisted. And by the middle years of World War One, they were needed. Hundreds of working-class women across Britain, formed teams and Leagues to played matches in aid of war charities. They raised staggeringly large sums of money and drew crowds which sometimes surpassed those of professional men’s clubs. In doing so, their fate was sealed.
In 1921 the Football Association banned women from playing matches at the grounds of any of its members clubs. It followed this by banning FA-registered referees from officiating. Inevitably the women’s game slowly withered and died.
Two books other than mine have told the remarkable story of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. Gail Newsham’s “In a League of Their Own” and Barbara Jacobs’ “The Dick Kerr Ladies” offer very detailed accounts of the team and its stars: I heartily commend both.
But for anyone wanting to understand the much longer struggle of women to play football, and how this played a vital role in the fight for women’s rights, I unashamedly recommend my own book. It is both history and her-story – and the latter is a shamefully undervalued part of the story of all of us. Yet, when even that bastion of mansplaining, The Daily Mail, publishes a review praising the book as “a fitting monument for all the intrepid women who turned out to play the beautiful game in the teeth of male scorn”, there may be hope.
Daily Mail review
Perhaps one day soon the stories of all the remarkable, brave women who battled male prejudice will make the journey from her-story to widely-known history. And then, perhaps, no future Chancellor of the Exchequer will so casually denigrate women, and the hiring of a female actor for an iconic role will not induce a spasm of wounded male outrage.
 For the paperback edition, released earlier this year, the publishers decided on the slightly less ‘challenging’ title: Women’s Football – The Secret History.
RE-LOCATION, RE-LOCATION … AND CHANNEL 4
In 1988 I pitched an investigative film about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to one of the BBC’s most senior editors. I had been given access to evidence – then mostly still kept under lock and key inside Los Angeles Police Department HQ – which showed that the man convicted of the murder, Sirhan Sirhan, did not kill RFK.
The BBC editor pronounced this to be “a page one story”. But before he commissioned the documentary, he had one concern: how, he asked, could I make a film in Los Angeles when I was based in Yorkshire ? Surely only those with offices in London could tackle such a serious investigative task ?
It struck me then – as now – as a bizarre presumption. World In Action – the best investigative current affairs series – emanated from Granada Television (location: Manchester). Yorkshire Television (location: Leeds) produced the best documentary films in its First Tuesday strand.
But since the BBC editor was evidently sincere in his belief, I took the idea to Channel 4 instead. It was then rather less metro-centric in outlook and the resulting film was broadcast, as part of the much-missed Secret History series, in 1992. It did rather well.
Fast-forward 30 years and Channel 4 is engaged in a fierce fight with the Government over plans for the forcible re-location of its HQ from London to a provincial city. C4 now makes largely the same claim as the idiot BBC editor: being based in London is a television imperative.
The Channel’s resistance has some influential supporters. Peter Preston, formerly editor of The Guardian, used his column in today’s Observer to pour scorn on the idea of prising C4 out of its ostentatious Horseferry Road HQ.
“C4, with nearly £1bn in revenue last year, needs presence and easy access to an ad [advertising] industry that hangs tight to its metropolitan base. Another [argument against moving] is the extra slog of having to get independent from Exeter or Southampton to travel to Birmingham, Leeds or wherever the government decides to send it.”
Preston is apparently blithely unaware that neither Exeter nor Southampton are overburdened with production companies – and therefore the likelihood of anyone having to make a round-Britain trek to pitch ideas converges on zero. Nor does Preston seem to have grasped that whereas it once commissioned purely on the merit of an idea – regardless of the city in which the producer worked – Channel 4 today has sweetheart deals with vast ‘mega-indies’ to churn out swathes of homogenized rubbish. And where are these factory-producers based ? London, of course.
Channel 4’s problems go much deeper than its geographical location. I detailed many of these in my submission to the government’s consultation enquiry into the Channel’s future. I published that on this blog in June, but make no apology for reproducing it again.
A FAIRY FROM THE WAIST DOWN - Tim Tate DCMS Submission
But basing at least one of our (notional) Public Service Broadcasters outside London is vital to re-establishing the diversity of voices, opinions and experiences on British television. ITV used to fulfill that function – and for four decades performed it extremely well. Now it, too, is almost entirely run from, by and for the capital – and its output is indistinguishable from the rest of the London-centric production business.
Channel 4 is the epitome of that metropolitan outlook. Its only unique selling point is a self-assumed ‘too cool for school’ attitude. High time, then, that its overpaid, overweening and unadventurous executives were forced out of their lair and back into the real world where producers from Yorkshire can make serious and important films – even in Los Angeles.
My 1992 Channel 4 documentary – The Robert Kennedy Assassination – is viewable on the Films page of this website. My new book, re-investigating the story with former CNN-journalist Brad Johnson, will be published next year – the 50th anniversary of RFK’s murder.
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE CHANNEL 4 ?
So, farewell then, Jay Hunt. Channel 4’s “Chief Creative Officer” has announced her resignation after six years at the (notionally) Public Service Broadcaster. She is unlikely to be missed, except by a fairly small number of production companies which have benefitted from her tenure.
Coincidentally, the future of the Channel is once again under official scrutiny. After toying with the – very bad – idea of privatisation, the Department for Culture Media and Sport has opened a public consultation on whether Channel 4 should be forced to move out of London to an as yet un-named location.
In the context of this week’s general election, the question of Channel 4’s geographical base may seem like small beer. The DCMS consultation ends in July, by which time Britain will have a new government that – whatever its political colour – is likely to reveal very different priorities to Theresa May’s somewhat opaque administration.
But the problem of Channel 4 – and it IS a problem – is both urgent and fundamental to the crumbling failure of this country’s democracy. Because it, and all British Public Service Broadcasting has abandoned its obligation to educate and inform the public: these broadcasters have, instead, concentrated on cynical, audience-grabbing entertainment (which happens to make many of those involved a tidy sum of money).
As a result, the population – the vast mass of people who will vote on Thursday (or who will not bother to do so) – is at best under-informed about the issues on which the election will be decided.
I worked in public service broadcasting for 32 years, making serious films for all channels. I therefore feel well enough qualified – and sufficiently angry at the erosion of this vital element of our democracy – to have made a detailed submission to the DCMS consultation.
I have little confidence that my submission will be received sympathetically: it dissects how successive governments relaxed regulation to allow once-serious broadcasters to degenerate into purveyors of lazy, lowest common denominator television pabulum. But it also puts forward a blueprint for a radical re-invigoration of Public Service Broadcasting. For that reason I am posting the submission below.
A FAIRY FROM THE WAIST DOWN - Tim Tate DCMS Submission
Jay Hunt’s resignation could – given a government determined to return to real public service broadcasting – be A Good Thing. She was not, of course, the whole of the problem with Channel 4: she was merely the most recent of its bosses who pushed it ever further along the path of shoddy entertainment (collecting, on the way, a £139,000 performance bonus in 2015 in addition to her £612,000 salary).
Whoever replaces her can either continue down that road, or can return to commissioning serious public service programmes. But unless the DCMS and the industry regulator, Ofcom, understand that moving the Channel outside London will not – on its own – re-invigorate British television, the likelihood is that Channel 4 will carry on broadcasting the same shameful democracy-rotting candy floss that had characterised Ms. Hunt’s time at Horseferry Road.
 It may – or may not – be an indication of how serious DCMS is about this consultation that it initially managed to publish a non-working e-mail address for submissions.
TRUMPING NORTH KOREA
Yesterday afternoon (Washington DC time), President Donald Trump took to Twitter to articulate (in so far as that is possible) his latest stab at foreign policy.
“North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
Having already dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the seas around the Korean peninsula, Trump followed up his tweet by giving an interview with Fox Business Network.
“We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.”
Trump’s bellicose threats ratcheted up tensions in the single most dangerous potential flashpoint on the planet. In North-east Asia five of the world’s biggest military-spending nations – America, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea – face each other across the South China sea. The region is ground zero of a largely US-driven an arms race which has been spiralling out of control for almost a decade.
Given the unique seriousness of this global threat, you might assume that western attitudes to North Korea – more formally known as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) – are based on profound and empirical knowledge. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. North Korea has become a lazy journalistic – and political – shorthand for despotic cruelty and eye-watering craziness. Remarkably, as we shall see, many of those those pumping out these crude stereotypes have never been to what they insist on calling “the hermit kingdom”.
There are four main sources for the information – in the loosest meaning of the word – about North Korea relayed by newspapers and television.
The first is its own state news service, KNCA.
The second is South Korea, and in particular the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service.
Reports by respectable human rights organisations provide the third, supplemented by often-sensational stories from those who have either escaped or defected.
And the fourth source of information is the output of “expert” think-tanks – mostly based in the US.
The problem is that three and a half of those four “sources” are grossly and routinely unreliable: often the “news” they provide is completely false.
Following the official DPRK news feed on Twitter can be a surreal experience: yesterday it posted a photograph from Star Wars and advised its 180,000 followers that the “creature known as ‘Yoda’ is denounced for philosophical and moral deviations from Juche teachings of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung”. So far, so nutty.
On the other side of the 38th parallel, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has been responsible for equally outlandish claims. In June 2015, for example, it “reported” that Kim Jong-un had disposed of one of his senior advisors, General Hyon Yong-chol, by shooting him with an anti-aircraft gun. This story was quickly published around the world as evidence of the bestial cruelty of Kim’s regime. Rather less well-publicised was the NIS’ subsequent correction: that Hyon might not have been killed at all, let alone blown to pieces by heavy artillery.
(This sorry tale followed a familiarly dishonourable pattern of South Korean claims about the North. In August 2013, Kim was alleged to have had his pop-singer girlfriend, Hyon Song-wol, publicly executed with a machine gun for making pornography – a lie that ran round the world before the truth got its boots on. Curiously few journalists subsequently reported Ms. Hyon’s live appearance on state television a year after her supposed execution.)
There is no doubt that North Korea is a repressive, single-party state with a sorry record of human rights abuses. Reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN have all clearly documented the plight of political prisoners and the existence “re-education camps” for dissidents.
Unfortunately, these solid, serious investigations can be overshadowed by what amounts to an metaphorical arms race in exaggerated claims – ever more grotesque allegations of torture, mass starvation and cannibalism – by defectors seeking to grab the attention of sensation-hungry western media. In January 2015, Shin Dong-hyuk, a (self-identified) survivor of North Korea’s prison camps , admitted that some parts of the shocking story told in his widely-promoted book, “Escape from Camp 14” were “inaccurate”.
What makes these over-sold exaggerations most worrying is that they find their way into the thinking and output of ostensibly-reliable western experts and think tanks. In October 2010 I had personal experience of the reality of their attitudes and expertise.
I was asked to be part of a panel at the London Frontline Club. The subject under discussion was Kim Jong-un, who had just emerged as the man most likely to take over from his father, Kim Jong-il. (He did so just over a year later). The reason for my presence was a documentary I had recently made inside North Korea. (“Dirty Little Secrets”: Al Jazeera, March 2010 – viewable on the films page of this website).
My fellow panelists were an academic North Korea expert, a UK-based South Korean human rights worker, the American director of a major think-tank, and a BBC World Service editor. I was somewhat surprised to discover only I and the BBC journalist had been to North Korea. I was rather more astonished by all the other panelists’ bluntly-stated hostility to visiting the country and doing their own investigations.
The academic, Aidan Foster-Carter –Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University and Mark Fitzpatrick, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies angrily denounced the suggestion that this was necessary, while on behalf of the BBC, Charles Scanlon (who said his total experience of North Korea amounted to half a day spent at Panmunjon, the border village tourist site) pronounced that it was often unhelpful actually to visit the countries on which he reported.
By contrast to my colleagues that night, I made no claim to be an expert. I could – and can – only report my experience of making a documentary inside the DPRK. But that experience could – and possibly should – have been instructive
That hour-long film investigated North Korea’s long-standing allegations that during the Korean War United States forces had used biological weapons, spreading anthrax, typhus and bubonic plague. It took me four years of patient requests to gain filming permission from Pyongyang. And, as the documentary made clear, we were dependent on the regime for transport (we traveled all over North Korea), on the ground translation and the choice of interviewees, including eye-witnesses to the alleged germ warfare. We had no way of independently verifying the identity of these elderly men; but the callouses and dirt deeply ground into their hands did appear to support their claims to be ordinary farmers rather than political bureaucrats.
One of the other interviewees we were required to film – an official state historian – was, however, even more intriguing. There was little doubt that his statements had been rehearsed with, and cleared by, the regime’s leaders. When I asked him what it would take to repair the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, he said slowly and firmly that if the United States was prepared to admit having used biological weapons then North Korea could begin serious discussions.
At the time there was no official dialogue between the two countries, nor any effective mechanism for this to happen. In the previous decade, both had used US-based North Koreans as a back channel. It seemed to me (and to my senior colleagues back at Al Jazeera) that the historian’s statement amounted to an attempt by Pyongyang to send a message to the new Obama administration. I duly tried to pass it on to the State Department.
Two things evidently prevented State from listening. The first was the fact that the Korean War has never official ended (there was a truce, but no armistice in 1953) and as a result both sides continue to view each other as enemies. The second was that Obama had not then turned his attention – nor that of his State Department – to the Korean peninsula.
Fast forward to January 2017. The outgoing President had taken the time to consider Korea: he left the new and completely inexperienced occupant of the Oval Office an urgent warning. North Korea, Obama advised Trump, was the most important national security problem facing America.
President Trump is not a man given to in-depth reading, and has repeatedly denigrated his predecessor. This makes it unlikely that he will heed Obama’s warning – much less put in the detailed forensic study required to sift fiction from fact about North Korea.
The real danger is that his ignorance, short-attention span and need for perceived “success” will lead him to rely on bullet-point versions of the already-shoddy sensationalism of lazy journalism and soi-disant experts. Truth, as ever with Trump, will be a casualty. But if he baits North Korea – or, more likely is baited by it – into military action, the most unstable and geo-politically dangerous place on earth is likely to be engulfed by a terrible, possibly nuclear, war.
 This is a viewpoint repeatedly depressingly often by people who ought to know better. In the introduction to his book, The Korean War, Max Hastings, one of Britain’s most celebrated newspaper editors and authors, was not ashamed to boast that he “made a decision from the outset to make no approaches to Pyongyang” because it would be impossible to get any worthwhile insights from “a society in which the private possession of a bicycle is considered a threat to national security”. One insight he might have obtained, had he ventured into North Korea, is the enormous number of bicycles ridden by its citizens.
 I hold no brief for North Korea. I deplore its human rights record. But it is an uncomfortable fact that the western nations who hold Pyongyang’s feet to the flames routinely turn a blind eye to exactly the same – though vastly larger – abuses by China. Double-standards are deeply unedifying, especially when shouted from the moral high ground.
 Subsequent filming in the US – including with an elderly US Air Force veteran – seemed to support the North Korean claims
PIE AND THE INDEPENDENT CHILD ABUSE INQUIRY
But such an investigation will be held within the framework of IICSA’s examination of “allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster”.
On Wednesday, I e-mailed IICSA, asking whether it planned to follow up my evidence concerning the failure of the Metropolitan Police and Home Office to investigate or monitor PIE members (see blog post below for this submission). Today, the Inquiry’s legal team today sent the following e-mail.
“Any issues related to the Paedophile Information Exchange are likely to fall within the ambit of the Inquiry’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse and exploitation involving people of public prominence associated with Westminster.
“As explained in the Inquiry’s internal review report, the Inquiry expects to invite applications for core participant status in relation to the Westminster investigation during the third quarter of 2017. A preliminary hearing will be held following that at which an update in relation to the investigation is likely to be provided. As the investigation is ongoing it would not be appropriate, at this stage, to provide further information about matters that are, or are not, being considered as part of that investigation.”
This apparent in principle undertaking to investigate PIE – the first such commitment by IICSA, as far as I’m aware – is very good news. As my evidence to the Inquiry showed, several men who were on PIE’s 1984 membership list held by the Metropolitan Police were convicted of a succession of child sex offences years later. The Met’s senior management must be asked to explain why it failed to protect their victims during the intervening years by doing nothing with the PIE list.
But IICSA’s decision to frame its PIE enquiries within the alleged Westminster and VIP paedophile investigations is distinctly odd. There is very little evidence that any MPs or famous people were members of PIE: certainly, there are none shown on the 1984 membership list I obtained and which I passed on to IICSA.
There is, by contrast, strong prime facie evidence which raises questions about the conduct of at least two government departments – the Home Office and the Attorney General’s office (detailed in my submission to IICSA).
Will IICSA investigate these ? I hope so. The report of its internal review, carried out after Prof. Alexis Jay took over as Chair, and published in December last year, contains this statement about its existing enquiries into “allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster”:
“We have requested and obtained documents and statements from political parties, individuals and the Home Office. We have inspected documents held by the Cabinet Office and the security and intelligence agencies.”
For now IICSA is maintaining a not unreasonable secrecy over its exact plans. We must wait until the autumn to see the scope of the proposed PIE investigations. Until then, two small, cautious cheers, and a guarded welcome for the Inquiry’s very important commitment to examine PIE, its members and its actions.
Mark Frost, 70, one of Britain’s most prolific child rapists today pleaded guilty to 45 historic sex offences against young boys in the UK and Thailand.
His case raises serious questions about the failures of the police and Home Office in dealing with the Paedophile Information Exchange in the 1980s.
Frost, previously known as Andrew Tracey and a former teacher and Scout movement volunteer, was first convicted in 1992 for possession of child pornography. Further convictions followed in 1993 and in 1998: in the second case he was sentenced to 12 months in prison for indecently assaulting a young boy. In 2002 he moved to Guernsey, where he was investigated for paedophilic offences, but left the island before he could be charged. He then travelled freely in Europe and the Far East. In Thailand he sexually abused boys aged between 7 and 13, recording the offences on video.
But the Metropolitan Police knew that Frost/Tracey was a paedophile at least eight years before his first conviction. Andrew Tracey’s name and address appeared on the Paedophile Information Exchange membership list held at New Scotland Yard in 1984. His membership number was 268.
I obtained a copy of this list in October 2015. I wrote then (blog post dated October 29, 2015 – scroll back to find it) that an analysis of the names on it showed that several had been convicted some years later of serious offences involving children. It appeared the police and the Home Office had failed to appreciate the threat these men posed. Mark Frost, aka: Andrew Tracey, is merely the latest example of this.
In July last year I submitted a detailed dossier of evidence to the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse. It highlighted the cases of a number of PIE members who – despite being on the list held by the Metropolitan Police – had been left free to commit child sexual offences in the UK and abroad for many years. I urged IICSA to include the Met’s failure – and the Home Office’s remarkably relaxed approach to PIE – in its investigations. I attached the PIE list to my submission. (See blog post dated August 5, 2016).
Other than an acknowledgment of receipt, I have heard nothing from IICSA.
Today, Ogheneruona Iguyovwe, from the Crown Prosecution Service described Frost/Tracey’s crimes as “one of the most serious cases that I have dealt with as a prosecutor and one of the most serious cases of child sexual abuse”.
The IICSA should no longer ignore the evidence of repeated – but desperately belated – prosecutions like Frost/Tracey’s. Members of the Paedophile Information Exchange posed a threat to children: the failure of the Metropolitan Police and Home Office to accept this in the early 1980s led directly to the subsequent abuse of large numbers of young children in Britain and overseas.
IICSA must now publicly commit to investigating this historic failure. In case it has mislaid my original evidence, I am re-posting it here.Submission to the IICSA - redacted version
JUSTICE FORGOTTEN – 70 YEARS ON FROM NUREMBURG
On October 1, 1946 The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg handed down its last verdicts against the 24 surviving leaders of the Nazi state.
The Nuremberg Tribunals were a unique and ground-breaking attempt to create a system of international justice: a court in which those who committed war crimes , crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace could be tried by proper legal standards.
Seventy years later the successor to that brave attempt – The International Criminal Court – is struggling. Today, South Africa, one of the 124 nations which have signed up to be bound by the court, became the latest country to announce that it was pulling out. The announcement – and the reasons for it – are a depressing indictment of the failure to learn the lessons of Nuremburg. And that indictment stretches far beyond Pretoria.
The framers of Nuremberg – America, Russia, France and the United Kingdom – agreed (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) that the end of World War Two should not be marked by traditional victors’ justice. In place of a wall and a firing squad, the men who had ruled the Third Reich were to be afforded the legal due process that the Nazi state had denied so many of its victims.
They were provided – free of charge – with lawyers to represent them, given access to the prosecution’s evidence and allowed to defend themselves as they saw fit. Three of them were acquitted by the court.
Nuremberg was a temporary tribunal. But its creators envisaged the future establishment of a permanent court which would enforce (albeit retrospectively, as all courts do) the most important international laws: those prohibiting war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against the peace of the world.
It took another 57 years for this to happen. The Cold War was responsible for some of this delay. But much of it was caused by opposition from countries which should have known better. Seven nations voted against the Treaty which established the court: five – China, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Qatar – had the sort of oppressive or dictatorial governments which made their hostility predictable. The other two were Israel and the United States: democracies both.
The International Criminal Court began work in 2003. Since then it has opened 10 investigations, indicted 39 people and issued arrest warrants for 31.
It is one of those defendants – Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir – who has caused South Africa to announce its withdrawal. Not because there is no evidence to justify al-Bashir’s appearance at the Hague – there is a miserable abundance of evidence to support the court’s indictment of him for genocide and war crimes – but because South Africa is putting good relations with its continental neighbours above the principle of justice.
Why – aside from the anniversary – does this matter now ? What relevance does this have to anyone on the bus or tube home tonight ?
Sadly, South Africa’s tawdry decision is part of a wider international retreat from justice. And Britain and its closest ally, the United States, are at the heart of this. America first.
Successive US governments have refused to ratify the Treaty which established the International Criminal Court. Their argument has been that American soldiers, fulfilling their country’s call to be a de-facto world police force should only face trial for any misdemeanours in American court rooms.
US soldiers have repeatedly committed many of the same crimes which brought Nazi leaders to the gallows. But they are rarely brought to justice. And if the United States, the sole surviving military superpower, won’t join the Court it’s hardly surprising that other countries are beginning to desert it.
Britain’s position is a little different. In theory, at least, Her Majesty’s government remains committed to the idea that those who perpetrate the worst crimes in international law should be brought to justice. But on October 4, Prime Minister Theresa May fundamentally undermined this principle. She announced that her government plans to immunize British soldiers against the provisions of another international law – the European Convention on Human Rights. This, she announced, would suspend human rights laws on the battlefield and prevent victims of military crimes from suing soldiers.
“What we’ve seen is human rights legislation being used to generate all these vexatious claims and troops finding themselves in some difficultly in worrying and concerned about the future as a result of that. We need to stop this industry of vexatious claims which has grown up, with lawyers appearing to chase around to see anybody who will bring about a claim about our troops.”
Brigadier Telford Taylor was one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg. Twenty-five years later he published a slim book in which he outlined clearly America’s retreat from the legal principles which underpinned the Tribunal and the way this had enabled its military to commit crimes against humanity in Vietnam.
That book – Nuremburg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy – should be at the top of the reading list for South Africa’s President Zuma. But on the 70th anniversary of Nuremburg, it is also an moral indictment of the United States government – and of Mrs. May’s grubby little proposal.