There was an interesting article by Jamal Osman in Monday’s Guardian. Jamal is the Africa correspondent for Channel 4 News. He was originally born in Somalia and arrived in this country in 1999. He wrote of his “nightmare at the hands of Britain’s security services” and claimed that, in a job that requires frequent foreign travel, he had “been detained, questioned and harrassed almost every time I have passed through Heathrow airport.” He also wrote that he has been frequently approached in the UK by other intelligence officers whom he described as “the Vauxhall guys”. (The formal headquarters of MI6 being at Vauxhall Cross of course). Their clumsy recruitment approaches have included offers of cars, a house and even, most insultingly, help to marry four wives. Of late, because of his refusal to co-operate, the approaches have become more menacing. Most recently he was detained at Heathrow airport and told by his would-be handler that he was “an idiot”, “a bad person” and that he would “die angry” and that “the world would be a better place without him.” Hardly the perfect start to an agent-handler relationship.
      Jamal appears to assume that these approaches are to do with terrorism. It is more likely to be something else. The background is that after avowal in the 1990s, the intelligence services were faced with the problem of how to handle their public image now that they officially existed. By 2003, there was much talk among journalists that MI6 was going to open a formal press office and that a number of senior officers would be cleared to liaise with the media. All of this was suddenly quashed in 2004 with the arrival of John Scarlett, still raw from his exposure over the “dodgy dossier” affair. It is not clear whether it was his idea, but the service suddenly dropped plans for a press office and decided on a more manipulative approach which was to be known as “the press initiative”. Key journalists would be targeted for behind-the-scenes offers of private briefings. These briefings would be on a “take it or leave it” basis, but of course any journalists who didn’t print what was expected would see their access cut off pretty sharpish. In a world where many journalists are working on fixed contracts and where job security depends on the quality of their contacts, this has proved to a powerful tool in managing the media.
     The whole scheme was outlined in October 2007 by the Spectator magazine in an excellent article by David Rose, a journalist who had initially been part of the scheme, but later tried to assert his independence and was cast into the outer darkness. In fact David had been offered private briefings as early as 1992, which makes it clear that the initiative was not exactly new but rather the continuation or reinvigoration of an old practice. Even then it did not have universal support within the service. One of Rose’s MI6 contacts said: “The need is for a properly staffed, formal press office. … Unfortunately the current chief seems to take the view that no news is good news … that’s not only wrong, but naive.”
     The initiative continues to this day and it is likely that Jamal was one of the latest targets. Channel 4 News would be a prime asset for the intelligence services and a recent immigrant was possibly seen as a way in to a group with a high level of integrity. He is a brave man to resist their approaches because they can make life very unpleasant for him. Let’s hope that he and his colleagues continue to resist.


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