The Point of No Return

This inter­view by E Jane Dick­son was pub­lished in The Inde­pend­ent news­pa­per in Janu­ary 1999, and cov­ers the time “on the run”, the failed extra­di­tion attempt, and liv­ing in exile in Paris.

The pale noon of Paris fails to pen­et­rate the hotel lobby where David Shayler is wait­ing. It is not a fash­ion­able estab­lish­ment; rather, one of those rack­ety joints where Anglo­phones gather to swap memor­ies of Her­shey bars and HP sauce. But, for the pro­fes­sional couple in the back booth, this is both a refuge and an oper­a­tional HQ. This is where Annie Machon stayed when she came to visit David Shayler in gaol. This is where they gather their friends and resources and try to work out how on earth Shayler is going to get home.

Last Novem­ber, when David Shayler walked free from La Sante prison, he looked like New Labour’s worst night­mare: an unre­con­struc­ted hairy lefty in a Middles­brough FC shirt, shout­ing the odds about free­dom of inform­a­tion in our brave new Bri­tain. The French court had refused to extra­dite  Shayler, a former MI5 agent who blew the whistle on  incom­pet­ence in the Secur­ity Ser­vice, on the grounds that his rev­el­a­tions were a polit­ical act. He is, for the moment, a free man, but should he set foot out­side any French bor­der, it is under­stood that the extra­di­tion pro­cess will start all over again. “It could be worse,” says Shayler, on the way to lunch at a nearby res­taur­ant. “lt could have been Bel­gium that I wasn’t extra­dited from.”

The grim humour is typ­ical. For a man going nowhere, Shayler laughs a lot, but his eyes are deeply shad­owed by 18 months of uncer­tainty. In August 1997, five months after the left the Ser­vice, Shayler decided to speak out against the cul­ture of obsess­ive bur­eau­cracy and bungling he had wit­nessed in MI5.

In an art­icle in the Mail on Sunday he alleged that secret files had been held on prom­in­ent Labour politi­cians, includ­ing Jack Straw, Har­riet Har­man and Peter Man­del­son. For many, this rev­el­a­tion was so unsur­pris­ing as to be hardly worth break­ing the Offi­cial Secrets Act for. In the late Sev­en­ties and early Eighties, the thrill­ing pro­spect of your very own MI5 file was all too often the prime reason for join­ing uni­ver­sity Labour clubs. It was enough, how­ever, for the Gov­ern­ment to slap an injunc­tion on the Mail on Sunday to pre­vent any fur­ther rev­el­a­tions and for Shayler to skip the coun­try with pounds 20,000 from the Mail on
Sunday for expenses.

Much more dam­aging were Shayler’s sub­sequent claims that the Gov­ern­ment had been party to an assas­sin­a­tion attempt on Col­onel Gadaffi, the Libyan leader, some­thing the For­eign Office strenu­ously denies, and that the Gov­ern­ment had had prior warn­ing of
ter­ror­ist attacks includ­ing the bomb­ing of the Israeli Embassy in Kens­ing­ton Palace Gar­dens and the IRA bomb­ing of the City of Lon­don. Because of a chain of incom­pet­ence within MI5, Shayler alleged, these warn­ings were not acted upon, res­ult­ing in avoid­able injury and loss of life.

I’m not a spy and I’m not a traitor,” says Shayler. His words are meas­ured and inflec­ted, like a man­tra or con­fes­sion of faith. “I’m not a spy and I’m not a traitor. I simply raised issues that I believe are of great import­ance to the nation. If I had wanted to be a traitor,
it would have been very easy for me to do it while I was in MI5. I could have sold inform­a­tion for mil­lions of pounds and nobody would have been any the wiser. I didn’t do that because I believe in stand­ing up for what I believe in.”

The Gov­ern­ment, how­ever, takes a dim view of Shayler’s pat­ri­otic prin­ciples and has pur­sued him with the full weight of inter­na­tional law. After a year on the run, when they bur­ied them­selves in rural France, Shayler and Machon were tracked down to Paris where he was appear­ing on the David Frost break­fast pro­gramme. Shayler was watch­ing Middles­brough play on satel­lite tele­vi­sion when he was arres­ted. Two months in prison gave him plenty of time to con­sider his pos­i­tion, and he paces his argu­ment like a mara­thon run­ner who knows every inch of the track.

Occa­sion­ally, how­ever, he gath­ers a head of out­rage that sends him pump­ing for the fin­ish­ing line. “At one point,” he says, pink with indig­na­tion, “it looked like I was going to be extra­dited and Gen­eral Pinochet wasn’t. Jack Straw stood up and said that they were think­ing about send­ing Pinochet back to Chile on com­pas­sion­ate grounds. I read that in a French news­pa­per, in a French prison, and I was think­ing ‘this is abso­lutely ridicu­lous’. This is a man who has murdered and tor­tured thou­sands of people. I have writ­ten a
bloody news­pa­per art­icle and he {Straw} is going for me and not for this other guy. IRA pris­on­ers are being released, people who have been in cam­paigns to murder people, and yet I’m being houn­ded for telling the truth.”

David Shayler hardly fits the per­ceived idea of a secret agent. Born in Middles­brough and edu­cated at state schools and Dun­dee Uni­ver­sity, he was part of MI5’s red­brick recruit­ment drive, a post– Cold-War ini­ti­at­ive to demo­crat­ise the Secur­ity Ser­vice. He applied for the job through the careers pages of The Inde­pend­ent in 1990. “Are you wait­ing for Godot?” ran the enig­matic advert­ise­ment, which stressed the need for people with inter­view­ing and ana­lyt­ical skills.

Shayler, who had pre­vi­ously failed to com­plete The Sunday Times gradu­ate train­ing
pro­gramme, thought that he was apply­ing for a job in news­pa­pers. In the course of his second inter­view, he explained how, as editor of his uni­ver­sity news­pa­per, he had cour­ted con­tro­versy by pub­lish­ing the banned text of Spycatcher. This inform­a­tion, which might have given less subtle minds pause for thought, did not deter his future employers.

Shayler rose, not rap­idly, but respect­ably through the ranks.  He met Annie Machon, a Cam­bridge gradu­ate with an impec­cable ser­vice record, in the MI5 lib­rary and, by 1997, the couple were suf­fi­ciently dis­af­fected to leave and find jobs “out­side” as man­age­ment consultants.

The obvi­ous ques­tion,” says Machon, a neatly glam­or­ous woman in ankle-length fake fur, “is why didn’t I blow the whistle when I had been there even longer than Dave? I know exactly what he’s talk­ing about and so do a lot of other people there. They all agree with him but most people just say, ‘Well, you can’t change the sys­tem,’ and quietly leave to go on to other jobs. At the time, I really didn’t want Dave to go pub­lic. I knew what it would mean for us and I asked him not to do it. But in the end,” she says, thread­ing her fin­gers round Shayler’s, “some­body has to stand up and be counted.”

Shayler seems faintly bewildered by the drub­bing he has received at the hands of a free press. Much has been made of a quote by Shayler’s old head­mas­ter, who remem­bers a clever boy who liked to “sail close to the wind”. “The papers just fell for this idea that because some­body was slightly rebel­li­ous when he was 17, he must be Pub­lic Enemy Num­ber One,” says Shayler. The same teacher, pressed for fur­ther details of Shayler’s
con­tri­bu­tion to school life, recalled a cred­it­able per­form­ance as a mad­man in the school play. “The Sunday Tele­graph ran a piece say­ing ‘Shayler was a mad­man’ and when my mum, who has been a Tele­graph reader all her life, wrote to com­plain, they ran another photo with the cap­tion, ‘Mummy’s Boy’.” Shayler spreads his curi­ously cher­ubic hands,
the soft, scrubbed paws of a choir­boy, with nails gnawed to the quick. “You just can’t win.”

If Shayler is bewildered by his media image, Machon is “bloody furi­ous” about it. “The name-calling makes me so indig­nant and it’s so per­sonal. Dave is a big, well-built chap, and this is used against him, as if a heavy build is some­how mor­ally dubi­ous. It’s medi­eval,” she mur­murs, gaz­ing over to the fly­ing but­tresses of Notre Dame, “on a par with say­ing a hunched back is a sign of wickedness”.

Cer­tainly the artic­u­late and easy-humoured man on dis­play today bears no resemb­lance to this sham­bling bogey of the Right. If he didn’t know the rules of engage­ment before, he cer­tainly knows them now, so why on earth did he choose to have his image flashed
around the world in that filthy old foot­ball shirt? For the first time this after­noon, Shayler seems rattled. “I did it for the obvi­ous reason that I wanted to stick two fin­gers up at ‘them’ and I thought that was the best way of doing it.”  Annie sighs and pleads pret­tily for a spoon­ful of Shayler’s tiram­isu. A woman less in love might have settled for a kick on the shins.

Whatever else it is, this is one hell of a love story. It has been said that Machon, the  daugh­ter of a Guern­sey news­pa­per editor, is Shayler’s best asset, and while she spits fire at the idea, Shayler is the first to agree.

Without a shadow of a doubt,”  he says, “I couldn’t have done it without Annie. We have always had a very close rela­tion­ship and this is the biggest and most con­tro­ver­sial thing that came into it. When I was just start­ing with the whole idea of going pub­lic, Annie didn’t want to know about it; not because she was frightened for her­self, but in case things went wrong, so that she couldn’t say any­thing that might dam­age me. That did put a bit of a
strain on our rela­tion­ship, but the way it’s worked out has made us much closer. By far the worst thing about being in prison was being away from Annie. Not being able to hold her or kiss her; it sounds incred­ibly corny, but it was like a phys­ical craving.”

It is the kind of close­ness few couples could with­stand. Since Shayler’s arrest, the
two go every­where together, even to the shops for their morn­ing baguette. When they were hid­ing out in la France pro­fonde, 30km from the nearest train sta­tion, they often wouldn’t see another soul for days on end. “Fights were just impossible,” recalls Annie. “I’d stamp my foot and say, ‘Right then, I’m going … I’m going … up the lane.’”

Right now the big prob­lem is find­ing reas­ons to get up in the morn­ing. There is a limit to the num­ber of romantic walks a couple can take, even in Paris. Neither has a job and funds are run­ning low; to be pre­cise, they have pounds 5,000, a gift from Shayler’s par­ents. Both speak com­pet­ent French — Shayler’s improved dra­mat­ic­ally while he was
in prison — and Shayler talks about tak­ing up teach­ing Eng­lish as a for­eign lan­guage. They have found a cheap stu­dio flat, but it is a tem­por­ary meas­ure; soon they will need to apply for a Carte de Sejour, a per­mit to stay in France, and for that they will need proof of
income.

At the moment, they give shape to the week by reg­u­lar vis­its to one of Paris’s Inter­net cafes, where they cor­res­pond with friends and sup­port­ers in Bri­tain, and WH Smith, where they bone up on day-old news from home. There are almost daily calls to Liberty, the Brit­ish civil liber­ties organ­isa­tion, which has taken up Shayler’s case. Parisi­ans,
Annie is pleased to report, have been amaz­ingly friendly, not at all the stand-offish ste­reo­type, but fol­low­ing fam­ily vis­its at Christ­mas the couple now find them­selves feel­ing rather flat.

Shayler misses Middles­brough FC and proper fried break­fasts; Annie misses hav­ing her
own things about her. After their Pimlico flat was raided by Spe­cial Branch, their worldly goods were par­celled out to friends and rel­at­ives around the UK. “You just don’t expect to be still liv­ing like stu­dents when you’re in your thirties,” she says. “There is a basic human need to settle down, which you don’t really under­stand until it’s denied you. And even though Dave is ‘free’ in France, we’re con­stantly look­ing over our shoulders. You never know if you’re being fol­lowed. And even if you’re not, the para­noia is exhaust­ing. I think people under­es­tim­ate what fear does to you on a daily basis. There were huge peri­ods when we were abso­lutely ter­ri­fied. “The one good thing to come out of all this,” jokes Machon, sum­mon­ing fem­in­ine van­ity like a reminder of nor­mal­ity “is I’ve lost loads of weight.”

The para­noia is under­stand­able. While Bri­tain may not want to do a deal with Shayler,
he remains vul­ner­able to other, pos­sibly less scru­pu­lous, agen­cies, who could use the inform­a­tion he is party to. “Our lives are far more like some­thing from a Le Carre novel now than they were when we were work­ing for MI5,” says Shayler, who star­ted a novel of his own while he was in prison. He knows, how­ever, that any work of fic­tion with the faintest ref­er­ence to his former life will be injunc­ted before you can shake a Martini.

Mean­while, his nego­ti­ations with the Gov­ern­ment appear to have reached stale­mate. The Par­lia­ment­ary Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee has refused to hear his evid­ence and the Home Office has stated that while Shayler “insists on immunity from pro­sec­u­tion as his price for set­tling the civil pro­ceed­ings, an agree­ment will not be pos­sible”. For Shayler’s part, he has offered to return the money he received from the Mail on Sunday, some pounds 40,000 in total (hardly a sum to retire to Rio on). He also knows that any fur­ther rev­el­a­tions will risk redoubled attempts for his extra­di­tion, but he is run­ning out
of ideas. “I said no new rev­el­a­tions,” he points out, “but that’s not a pos­i­tion I can main­tain for ever.”

For all his bravura, you feel that in his heart, Shayler still can’t quite believe that the Gov­ern­ment doesn’t care what he has to say; they just don’t want him to say it. And it is surely not unreas­on­able to expect more from a party that ran its Oppos­i­tion on a civil liber­ties ticket. Most galling of all is the know­ledge that if he had made his dis­clos­ures before the Con­ser­vat­ive gov­ern­ment tightened the Offi­cial Secrets Act in 1989, he could have cited the pub­lic interest defence which exis­ted then and was only repealed after strenu­ous oppos­i­tion from the Left.

It is a mat­ter of record that Tony Blair, Jack Straw and John Mor­ris, the Attor­ney Gen­eral, all voted against remov­ing the pub­lic interest defence pre­cisely because it would deter polit­ical whis­tleblowers,” explains Shayler. “So why have they changed their stance now they are in gov­ern­ment? It seems there is no longer any embar­rass­ment threshold in
these matters.”

Still he hasn’t given up hope — he still has his Middles­brough FC sea­son ticket. For Machon, without such an incent­ive, the pro­spect is not so bright. “I’m not sure how easy we’d find it to settle in Eng­land now, after everything that has happened,” she says.
“I’ll fight for the right for Dave to go back, but I’m not sure I want us to stay once we get there.” The point is, in any case, aca­demic. “I can only assume,” says Shayler, with obvi­ous hurt, “that the Gov­ern­ment is quite happy to let me rot out here. I sup­pose they think that maybe I’ll just shut up and go away.”

The prob­lem, both lit­eral and meta­phys­ical, is that Shayler simply has nowhere to go. So he might as well take the scenic route. He gath­ers Annie into him and their shad­ows merge on the grey bank of the Seine as they stroll, slowly, back the way they came.