Guardian Interview 2000 — No place to hide

The Sabine Dur­rant inter­view with me in The Guard­ian, April 2000
No place to hide

How big a price can a woman pay for stand­ing by her man? The part­ner of exiled MI6 whis­tleblower David Shayler lives and loves on the run — with Big Brother watch­ing her every move

Annie Machon and her boy­friend, David Shayler, the former MI5 officers now liv­ing in Paris, have got used to feel­ing watched. Their phone plays up. Their emails go miss­ing. Even the walls of their flat seem to look down on them. If they want to dis­cuss “an issue”, they find a safe café to do it in. A dif­fer­ent one each time? “Of course,” says Machon with a slight curve to her lips. And in bed? “We have dis­cussed that, yes,” she says. “You just try and blank it out and get on with your life.”

She is poised and con­trolled. She remains cool even when recall­ing “sweaty cop­pers” read­ing out her love let­ters in the course of an  inter­rog­a­tion. Even when describ­ing the state of her under­wear (“inside out, with the crotches turned up as if they’d been sniff­ing them”) after their flat in Pimlico had been searched.

Machon, who is 31, has been at Shayler’s side since he fled to France in 1997 to escape pro­sec­u­tion for break­ing the Offi­cial Secrets Act when his claims of MI5 incom­pet­ence were first pub­lished in a Sunday news­pa­per. They packed for a fort­night. They’ve been gone two and a half years.

Shayler is a straight­for­ward love or hate fig­ure. He is either the whis­tleblower, fired by moral pur­pose to draw atten­tion to bungling within the intel­li­gence ser­vices, from rev­el­a­tions that they mon­itored “sub­vers­ives” includ­ing such threats to national secur­ity as Har­riet Har­man and the reg­gae band UB40, to his more recent alleg­a­tions that MI6 was behind an illegal assas­sin­a­tion attempt on Muam­mar Gadafy, the Libyan pres­id­ent. Or, as MI5 would have it (in an inter­est­ing mélange of con­tra­dic­tions), he is the traitor, the self-publicist, the breaker of offi­cial secrets, the fantasist.

Machon has remained a much more enig­matic fig­ure. At first she was just “Shayler’s girl­friend”. With her blonde hair and big blue eyes, she looked like a deb, a nurs­ery school teacher, caught up in events bey­ond her con­trol. A former MI5 officer her­self, she made no dir­ect alleg­a­tions while sup­port­ing Shayler in his. But this may not have been cau­tion so much as sound management.

Unlike Shayler (who spent four months in jail before extra­di­tion pro­ceed­ings failed; he is now being sued in the civil courts) she is at liberty to come and go in Bri­tain. “It’s import­ant that I remain free to travel, import­ant I remain out of reproach.”

Machon was in Lon­don to deliver to Scot­land Yard a dossier sup­port­ing Shayler’s Gadafy claims (an MI6 file recently pos­ted on the inter­net also appears to con­firm the alleg­a­tions). She holds press con­fer­ences. She meets with MPs. With law­yers. She wants account­ab­il­ity. She wants free­dom of expres­sion. She wants amnesty. She wants Shayler to be listened to. Taken ser­i­ously. To be allowed home. Then she wants to be left alone.

We meet at Vaux­hall under­ground sta­tion, close by the MI6 build­ing, although she doesn’t
want to hang around long. The closest café is too close. She walks very fast to the next. She doesn’t look over her shoulder once. She sees con­nec­tions where oth­ers might see blank walls. There are advert­ise­ments for laptops nearby. She refers to the recent stor­ies of the mugged MI5 officer, whose laptop was nicked and the drunken MI6 officer who mis­laid his. “What a coin­cid­ence,” she smiles sar­don­ic­ally. If she and Shayler win their case, she says she doesn’t think they’ll ever come back to Lon­don. “Dave would feel quite uncom­fort­able liv­ing here,” she says. “I would too. It’s just that sense of unease all the time.”

She is all in black, although her nails are gold. She is pale and slim, unlike Shayler whose plump­ness in pho­to­graphs can make him look like a yob. (“He put on weight at MI5, actu­ally. Social­ising after work — that drink­ing cul­ture he talked about — and also a sense
of unease. He eats when he’s feel­ing stressed. He’s joined a health club now. He swims nearly every day.”)

It’s not the only reason they seem an unlikely couple. A Middles­brough boy, with working-class roots, Shayler is said to be chippy about public-school Oxbridge types.

Machon, who is the daugh­ter of a pilot turned news­pa­per­man, and from an old Guern­sey fam­ily, went to a private girls’ school and then to Cam­bridge, where she stud­ied clas­sics. “Yes, yes, I know. I think he did think I was a bit posh at first, but he squared it with the fact that I was a schol­ar­ship girl. Also we both moved around a lot when we were young. We had that in common.”

Machon says that as soon as they met in an MI5 lib­rary they made each other laugh and that their rela­tion­ship is “pas­sion­ate”. There are hints of that in her story. The night before she came back to Eng­land for the first time, sus­pect­ing she would be arres­ted, but not sure whether they would con­fis­cate her pass­port, they lay in bed and held each other and cried, “not know­ing when we would see each other again”. Then, after 10 months in hid­ing at a farm­house in south-west France, when he was sud­denly taken into cus­tody, for days she walked around with “no one’s hand in mine”.

Inter­est­ingly, too, while Machon looks as though but­ter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,
she found out soon after join­ing MI5 (after sit­ting the for­eign office exams), that  psy­cho­lo­gical pro­fil­ing had marked her out as a mav­er­ick. “I was hav­ing a bit of a debate with my man­ager in the office and she said, ‘I’ve been warned about you’.” She smiles enig­mat­ic­ally. “I was quite flattered.”

She and Shayler had already left MI5 when Shayler decided to go pub­lic, both had nice well-paid jobs as man­age­ment con­sult­ants. They had a nice social life, nice Pimlico flat.
She didn’t want him to go to the papers. “It wasn’t so much doubt as fear. I knew they’d come after us and I knew what they could do against us. If you’ve worked for MI5 it doesn’t help your para­noia, put it that way.”

She slips a lighter out of her cigar­ette packet and lights up. “And I must say I was shown to be right. Not that I’d ever say I told you so to Dave.”

The papers ran the story on a bank hol­i­day week­end. Machon and Shayler got the last plane out of Heath­row on the Sat­urday night, to Ams­ter­dam. They braced them­selves. Then Diana, Prin­cess of Wales was killed. “In one sense it was a relief because the pres­sure was taken off us. In another it was ter­rible. An injunc­tion had been put on the paper and if she hadn’t died, Fleet Street would have been up in arms about gag­ging the free press, they would have been more bal­anced in their assess­ment of Dave, demand­ing
inquir­ies. As it was, there were a lot of back­room brief­ings against him, say­ing he was a loud­mouth, unbal­anced, and we were bur­ied there.”

She uses the word “bur­ied” a lot. It’s hard to tell whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for someone who needs pub­li­city (“it’s our only pro­tec­tion”) and yet longs to hide. On the run, they “bur­ied them­selves” in the French coun­tryside, a dif­fer­ent hotel every night, pay­ing cash.

After that they were “bur­ied” again in a remote farm­house near Per­pig­nan, “freez­ing cold, miles from the shops”, liv­ing off their £40,000 news­pa­per earn­ings, where Shayler wrote his novel (it has since been banned) and she kept house. The Brit­ish gov­ern­ment pre­ten­ded to nego­ti­ate with them, she says. “They thought we’d run out of money and rot abroad. They wanted to bury us.”

It was only when Shayler was in prison, when the worst had happened, that she got
her con­fid­ence back. “I found I was tougher than I thought. Dave had always been the more ebul­li­ent char­ac­ter. And sud­denly when he was arres­ted, even though I was des­per­ately lonely, it was, ‘Right, you’ve got to do it.’”

Actu­ally, there was worse to come: an approach by an armed Libyan a week after Shayler’s release. He offered a six-figure sum in exchange for names linked to the Gadafy plot and evid­ence on Lock­er­bie (Shayler had been an expert). He fol­lowed them
when they refused. A few nights later their buzzer rang for five minutes in the night: “We cowered in the corner with our kit­chen knives.” They repor­ted the incid­ent to MI5, and were told it was a mat­ter for the French, who told them it was a mat­ter for the Brits.

What does Machon hope for now? She says she can’t think what to do with her life. “I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son to the one I was two years ago.” Maybe an old house in Nor­mandy: Shayler could con­tinue writ­ing, nov­els, his column for Punch.

What about chil­dren? “I don’t want those. Neither of us does. We never have. I’m not at all mater­nal. I’ve never felt the desire. My brother is 11 years younger and I don’t have a
romantic view of chil­dren. I know what they’re like.”

I was going to sug­gest that when she hits her mid-30s she might change her mind, but then I saw the look in her eye and changes of mind didn’t seem to come into it.