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.