- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

LONDON — Confidential papers obtained by the Sunday Telegraph reveal that the British Broadcasting Corp. allowed intelligence agents to investigate the backgrounds and political affiliations of thousands of its employees, including newsreaders, reporters and continuity announcers.

The files, which shed light on the BBC’s hitherto secret links with the counter-espionage service known as MI5, show that at one stage it was responsible for vetting 6,300 BBC posts — almost a third of the total work force. The procedure was phased out in the late 1980s.

The files also show that the corporation maintained a list of “subversive organizations” and that evidence of certain kinds of political activity could be a bar to appointment or promotion.

The BBC’s reliance on MI5 reached a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at exactly the same time as millions of viewers were tuning into the fictional adventures of George Smiley in the popular spy dramas, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.”

The papers show that senior BBC figures covered up the links in the face of awkward questions from trade unions and the press. The documents refer to a “defensive strategy” based on “categorical denial.” One file note, dated March 1, 1985, states: “Keep head down and stonewall all questions.”

The BBC has always refused to be drawn out on the extent of its collaboration with the secret services. It was only after a request by the Sunday Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act that it has released details of the vetting operation.

The documents do not name any of the individuals subjected to vetting, but it is possible that some of the BBC’s biggest names were scrutinized.

Different posts were vetted for different reasons. Senior officials, including the director-general, and their support staff were checked because they had access to confidential government information in relation to their jobs. But thousands of employees were vetted because they were involved in live broadcasts and the BBC was worried about the possibility of on-air bias or disruption.

In 1983, 5,728 BBC jobs were subjected to this second kind of scrutiny known as “counter-subversion vetting.” The system applied to dozens of job categories, including television producers, directors, sound engineers, secretaries and researchers.

The details of freelance television and radio staff were also routinely passed on to the security services and even the posts of editor and deputy editor of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour were subject to background checks by MI5. In many cases, the spouses of applicants were subjected to scrutiny.

The BBC tried on several occasions to be more open about the system, but was blocked by security services. A memo, dated March 7, 1985, states: “Secrecy of the complete vetting operation is imposed upon us by the Security Service — it is not of our making.”

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