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.