In November 2002 I witnessed one of the worst media stitch-ups in recent times. The London press has helped ministers, many of whom voted against the Official Secrets Act (OSA) when it was passed in 1989, to persecute, convict and imprison MI5 whistleblower, David Shayler, with barely a murmur.
From the start, the government focused on traducing David’s character to divert attention not only from his allegations but also from Tony Blair’s failure to even hear what David had to say.
In case we forget, this includes MI5 files on government ministers, MI5 failing to stop IRA bombs going off in the UK, the wrongful conviction of two innocent Palestinians for the Israeli embassy bombing in London in 1994, and an illegal phone tap on a Guardian journalist.
Most heinous of all was the fact that in 1995 two MI6 officers gave £100,000 of taxpayers’ money to extremists linked to Al Qaeda to assassinate Colonel Gadaffi of Libya. The attack went wrong, killing innocent civilians. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary of the day, did not sanction the assassination attempt, making it a crime under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act.
It also meant that shadowy MI6 officers were deciding British foreign policy, not our elected ministers. So did our fearless national media call for the intelligence services to be held to account? No. Instead craven editors of national newspapers — who were only too
ready to enjoy the front-page stories David provided — have left him to face the consequences of whistleblowing alone.
After surviving three years of exile, he returned to the UK voluntarily in August 2000. He then had to wait over two years for trial. After conviction, he spent three weeks locked up for 23 or 24 hours a day in an overcrowded 12’ x 8’ cell in HMP Belmarsh before being transferred to HMP Ford.
He had already served nearly four months in prison in Paris, awaiting an unsuccessful extradition attempt. At trial, the government felt that the risk of embarrassment loomed large. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, therefore signed Public Interest Immunity certificates (PIIs), “gagging orders”, against David to prevent him from saying anything in open court.
The judge, Mr Justice Moses of Matrix Churchill fame, acceded to these without a blush, and then imposed reporting restrictions on the proceedings. The “D” Notice Committee then advised against any media coverage of these interventions. Even though David had to conduct his own defence in the courtroom, the judge and the prosecution censored
any questions he needed to put to anonymous MI5 witnesses.
David was also prevented from explaining why he had gone to the press. Despite David going into this trial with both hands tied behind his back, and despite the judge ordering the jury to convict, it still took a group of twelve randomly chosen people more than three hours to convict David. When they did so, some of the jurors were in tears. Although the courtroom was packed with journalists, the media wilfully ignored the facts of the case.
The documents alleged by the prosecution to contain “agent information” were just that – information gathered from agents and summarized for general government consumption. In fact, in summing up and sentencing, Mr Justice Moses made no reference to agent lives being put at risk. He also made it abundantly clear that he accepted that David was not motivated by money; and that David believed he was acting in the public interest (even though the law did not allow such a defence in this case).
That is why the judge gave him the relatively light sentence of six months. Had David been a traitor, as sections of the media trumpeted, he would have been tried under Section 1 of the 1911 OSA and received a fourteen year sentence. A whistleblower does not operate in a vacuum. Journalists play an important role in airing these subjects in our
In journalistic parlance, David Shayler has been a fantastically valuable source for over five years. This has not been reflected in his treatment. With a few extremely honourable exceptions, most hacks were merely interested in leeching David of information rather than protecting a man who risked everything to expose murder, terrorist funding and incompetence on the part of the intelligence services.
The truth is frightening. Editors, MPs and ministers are scared of the shadowy people who really run this country: the intelligence services. By not holding the services to account, the government and media is letting them get away, literally, with murder.