Some Due Diligence on Aaron Bastani

Aaron Bastani at  The World Transformed  in 2017 (Image: John Lubbock, Wikimedia)

Aaron Bastani at The World Transformed in 2017 (Image: John Lubbock, Wikimedia)

With over 50,000 followers on Twitter and often acting as a stand-in for the Labour front bench in the media, Aaron Bastani has become an influential voice in British politics. He’s the co-founder of Novara Media, where he is also a senior editor and contributor. In 2017, The Guardian reported that Novara had ‘200 contributing writers, 700 supporters and 10,000 committed viewers and listeners’, while Bastani claimed its Facebook content reached three million people during the last general election.

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader, Bastani has also become a frequent pundit in the mainstream media, with appearances on the BBC’s Daily Politics and This Week , Sky News, Channel 4 and others. While many see him as a fresh new commentator on the left, he has been criticised for, among other things, airing various conspiracy theories about the novichok attack in Salisbury and calling the British Legion’s annual poppy appeal ‘white supremacist’.

In 2019, Bastani will have a book published by Verso, titled Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto. He’s in a strong position to replicate the success of books by Owen Jones, Laurie Penny and other left-wing commentators. His credibility both as a commentator and writer is heavily bolstered by his impressive-seeming academic credentials. Verso’s website states that he ‘holds a PhD from the New Political Communication Unit, University of London, examining social movements in the digital environment which fail to correspond to the traditional logic of collective action’, and his doctorate has often been cited in his media appearances and articles, as can be seen at The Guardian, The London Review of Books, appearances at academic institutions and on panel discussions, and in Novara Media’s bio of him.

Bastani is a public figure, and his credentials are worth scrutinising. Especially as it turns out that he is hiding something. On reading his PhD thesis, I found that he had committed several extremely serious breaches of ethics in it. The details are below, but in summary he deliberately concealed the prominence of his own role in the field he was researching. He:

  • Omitted key facts about the extent of his involvement in events he analysed;

  • Failed to discuss or cite multiple sources relevant to his research because they identified his true role;

  • Failed to discuss or cite any of his own articles that revealed his true role;

  • Failed to take into account that his activities shaped and disrupted the events he was analysing;

  • Failed to declare his very clear conflict of interest as a result of the above, because it would have invalidated the entire thesis.

I think these omissions and deceptions are an obvious breach of Royal Holloway’s regulations on academic misconduct, notably clause 2(f).

I put my points to Bastani via email last week. He denied one point: that he had written or even known about two pseudonymous articles in The Guardian that used his initials for its name and cited his work. It is likely unprovable either way, but it’s hard to see why else it isn’t in his thesis: one would think two articles in the national press by one of his main case study organisations would have to be included as part of his narrative of its success in spreading its message, so the omission points the finger squarely at his being the author.

Other than that point, he refused to answer my questions. Instead, he became evasive, abusive and finally blocked me from emailing him. I’ve informed the university of my findings and they have acknowledged receiving them, but as they might take a long time to address while Bastani is likely to continue his high-profile punditry and publish his book, I’m presenting what I found here as a form of due diligence for the media. Even while he was accusing me of suffering from a mental disorder, Bastani repeatedly told me that he welcomed public scrutiny of his research and that he was looking forward to me publishing this article. Here it is.

*

I’ve been aware of Bastani for some time, and often been baffled that such a high-profile journalist, commentator and soon-to-be published author could so often make pronouncements that seemed to be extremely poorly researched. My Twitter feed seemed to throw a lot of these up, such as his claim in 2013 that the UK government armed Assad’s regime with sodium chloride (ie table salt).

But I knew he had a PhD. That’s no small thing, and so I recently wondered on Twitter about the discrepancy. Almost at once, a mutual friend put me in touch with Sam Taylor. A few days earlier, he had asked Royal Holloway’s library for a copy of Bastani’s thesis. They didn’t have it, for reasons that remain unclear: Bastani initially claimed this was because of outstanding library fines, then that it was unavailable because he might later publish a book drawing on some of the research in it. He eventually sent Sam a copy of it, after which he immediately took to social media to insult him, including recording an Instagram video in which he said ‘this guy has a face like a slapped arse, glasses, balding, looks like the paradigmatic example of a technocrat, a boring moderate’, adding ‘there is something very strange in politics when people like that are actually the biggest paranoiac fantasist cranks out there’.

This reaction seemed like a gigantic red flag to me: people who genuinely welcome scrutiny of their research and have nothing to hide from it don’t generally resort to bullying. I asked Sam if he could forward me a copy of the thesis, which he did. Bastani also offered to send it to me, although by then I already had it.

Titled Strike! Occupy! Re-Tweet! The Relationship Between Collective and Connective Action in Austerity Britain and written under his then-name Aaron Peters, Bastani completed it in March 2015 and passed his viva in September that year, with no corrections requested. While reading it, I asked Sam for advice and followed up various points he had spotted.

Bastani had two ‘case studies’: the UK student protest movement, including the UCL occupation, and events staged by UKUncut. He explains that he collected data for these via ‘participant observation’ and stresses that while doing so he had made clear ‘whenever necessary’ that his ‘primary reason for participating was observation.’

He observed that these two movements didn’t have leaders per se but instead a core of influential activists, or ‘networked individuals’, including the likes of Owen Jones, who had previously worked for Labour MP John McDonnell’s leadership campaign. Bastani interviewed many of these people, some of whom were by his own admission friends. Even with the acknowledgement, this seemed like a clear conflict of interest: the familiar problem of being an embedded reporter exacerbated by the natural instinct to side with those we know and like. One of his main interviewees was his friend Guy Aitchison, who he identified as a key activist and, along with journalist Laurie Penny, a prime mover in making a demonstration outside TopShop in London on 29 November 2010 happen.

Much of the thesis read less like academic research and more like the minutes of organizing demos written by a hanger-on, with excruciatingly detailed chronologies of meetings in pubs and retweets from the likes of Johann Hari. My first impression was that Bastani had conned a university into giving him a PhD for researching some demos organized by his friends, concluding from his ‘fieldwork’ (going on the demos with them) that – quelle surprise! – said friends were at the vanguard of a radical new way of organizing protest (largely coordinating online and tweeting hashtags).

But after discussing it with Sam and digging a little deeper, we realized it was a lot worse than that. Bastani had gone against his own caveats, misleading and omitting crucial information. He wasn’t simply researching his friends’ activities, and he wasn’t merely a hanger-on. In fact, he was just as much of a key player in these events as the people he was ‘researching’, and he had gone out of his way to hide it.

This wasn’t simply a hunch: there was ample proof of it. If his thesis has one key theme, it’s the connections, mediated through social media, which allowed ideas to cross-pollinate between groups like the UCL Occupation and UKUncut. But Bastani was a huge part of that connective tissue, and he systematically covered it up by leaving out anything and everything that exposed his pivotal role. He did this because he knew that an observer-participant researcher can be a member of the orchestra, but they cannot be the conductor. Even if there’s more than one conductor, as here. Bastani had frequently tweeted back and forth with Guy Aitchison, Ben Beach, UKUncut and other ‘networked individuals’ he had identified as key to the movement, and in many of these he was clearly organizing events with them. Yet although several tweets are cited in the thesis, none of these were.

BASTANI TO UKUNCUT.jpg
UNCUT TO BASTANI FOR WEB.jpg

There was a lot more he had chosen to omit. In 2011, Laurie Penny had written an article for The New Statesman about the most prominent activists in the UK student protest movement. She focussed on two: Ben Beach, who she called ‘the Justin Bieber of the new left’, and Aaron Peters, ‘a former member of David Miliband's Labour leadership campaign team with a tendency to pull an Incredible Hulk act when out on protests’. In the photo accompanying the article, Bastani posed with a mask, black bloc style. Penny wrote that ‘Peters and Beach are the sort of leader that this staunchly leaderless movement would otherwise have.’ This is an article in a mainstream left publication about the movement Bastani was studying in his thesis, but he didn’t mention or cite it once.

Bastani had also co-written an article with Guy Aitchison. This wasn’t cited in the thesis, either, but not only is it on the same topic, it even opens with an image of the phrase Bastani used for his title. The article was also collected in Fight Back: A Reader on the Winter of Protest. In its review of that book, The Islington Tribune noted that contributors included ‘Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters, key figures in the UCL occupation and tax justice pressure group UKUncut’.

And that demo at TopShop? In this Youtube clip, you can see that Bastani wasn’t just there – he actually led the demo.

BASTANI TOPSHOP 2.jpg

That video, Penny’s article and the other evidence (such as multiple press images like this) all destroy his claim in the thesis to have upheld ‘the highest standards of objectivity’, and also prove he was dishonest about his role. To top it all off, Bastani openly boasted about helping to direct UKUncut to the Daily Mail, adding ‘I am quite fortunate in that my PhD is all about this. I am almost my own case study.’ So he knew exactly what he was up to: there is no suggestion in the finished thesis at all that he is in any way one of its chief subjects.

It now seemed clear that this was someone who had conned a university into giving him a PhD for researching a protest movement and its most prominent members, while concealing that he himself was one of them. Bastani’s PhD was really a study of himself and a few mates.

I decided to email Bastani. The university wouldn’t be able to help me if he had deceived them by concealing all this, but it was possible I had got some or even all of it wrong, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to set the record straight. The emails started out cordially enough, but despite his repeated claims to welcome scrutiny of his research it soon became clear this wasn’t true. On sending him my list of concerns, he was very dismissive, proclaiming himself disappointed by my ‘bland’ and ‘silly’ questions.

As the email exchange went on Bastani became more evasive, and more aggressive. Then, in what felt like a panicked attempt to preempt anything I might write, he went after me on Twitter. He started by tweeting to suggest I was a sad sack loser, then suggested I was a ‘fruitloop’ and finally threw out the idea I was racist because he’s ‘a working class brown guy’.

As well as these insults and attempts to undermine my questions, he also tweeted that my claims about his research were ‘beyond outlandish’ and ‘completely unsupported’. In private, he’d dismissed them to me as silly and bland – now he was saying they were serious. I asked him if he could explain that discrepancy, and said he was free to quote publicly from our emails to show where I’d alleged anything outlandish or unsupported. He didn’t take me up on that, but instead blocked me via email and shortly afterwards on Twitter.

By this time I had found yet more evidence of his deceptions, most of which I’ve discussed above. I couldn’t press him any further on these, but I think his reaction to my initial set of questions has already done my work for me. As he gave me permission to make our emails public, you can read them through and see for yourself. If you want to read the thesis to check my claims against them, you’ll have to ask him for a copy. I think my points are very clear, and his resorting to insult and other tricks to avoid answering them tell their own story.

[Edit: Bastani has now made it available to download, so it seems the embargo wasn’t that important after all. The version he has now made available does contain references to Paolo Gerbaudo’s work, but the version he sent to Sam did not.]

*

Me to Aaron Bastani, December 28 2018

Dear Dr Bastani,

Sam Taylor forwarded me your PhD thesis, which I've been reading with great interest. I'm thinking of writing about it, because it appears to me it has several serious misrepresentations, omissions and ethical transgressions. On the other hand, it could be that I've misunderstood or misinterpreted these issues, and I don't want to make allegations publicly without checking with you first if I possibly can. May I call you, and if so on what number, to ask you some questions on the record, or email you them at this address? Either works for me. If you'd rather not respond to my questions, that's of course your prerogative. But I thought I'd ask.

Yours,

Jeremy Duns

Bastani replies, December 28

Hello Jeremy. Please put these in writing and I will respond fully. Regarding ‘ethical transgressions’ these tend to be addressed in the literature review. 

Best, A

Sent from my iPhone

Me to Bastani, 29 December

Dear Dr Bastani,

Thank you for your response. As I said in my previous email, it may be that I’ve misinterpreted or misunderstood some or even all of the following issues, in which case thank you for clearing them up, and my apologies for the inconvenience of doing so.

Some background: after seeing quite a few over-the-top and ill-researched tweets from you, I wondered how you had managed to get a PhD. Someone put me in touch with Sam Taylor, who by coincidence had wondered the same and was interested in reading your thesis. You know the real sequence of events, and it doesn’t reflect well on you at all. Yes, he asked Royal Holloway if you had a PhD, but accepted their answer that you had at once. While I wouldn’t like what appeared to be someone gearing up to criticise me for my research much either, as I have nothing to hide what I most certainly wouldn’t do is immediately make a false claim about them publicly (that he didn’t believe you had a PhD, something he never alleged) and then publicly abuse them several times, including attacking their physical appearance on video to my sizeable number of followers. Your response was to bully, and such shoddy behaviour immediately suggested to me you had something to hide. I think my instinct was right.

Here are my questions:

At various points in your thesis, you try to defend yourself from an obvious criticism of it: that as a participant in the protests you were writing about, your research is biased. You never claim to be entirely objective or impartial, as that would be absurd, but you repeatedly try to dismiss the issue as a problem in your case, as in this section:

‘A further purported deficiency of participant observation is that critics view the kinds of data that it collects as personally subjective, incapable of replicability and therefore unscientific. Such a criticism stems from the perceived centrality of the attitudes and perceptions of the researcher in data collection, with the claim being that different researchers in identical field settings will inevitably see and record different data, something that would not occur with the application of questionnaires or in-depth interviews (Gobo 2008). This same criticism could be levelled against almost any qualitative method however and reporting or describing what one observes in the field is not the same as interpreting it. Indeed it is reasonable to say that data collected by participant observation, or indeed any ethnographic method, is replicable so long as the researcher attempts to uphold the highest standards of objectivity and is clear as to how data is collected.’

My main concern is that I don’t think your claim to have attempted to uphold ‘the highest standards of objectivity’ holds water, mainly because you have gone to some lengths to conceal that you were a much more significant participant in this movement than you pretend. My current view is that you’ve misrepresented your role in the movement you write about, both as a participant and as a writer about it. You’ve done this by omitting several key books and articles from your thesis’s body text, endnotes and bibliography, as well as several key facts. You appear to have been deliberately, repeatedly deceptive about this, and I think it creates several serious conflicts of interest.

Most notably, you didn’t cite any of your own previous writing on this topic, which is highly unusual. There are several reasons to do so. One, of course, is connected to ego - ‘look, I do know my onions on this stuff and have published quite a bit already on it, go me!’ A more serious reason connected to that is that in showing you have already conducted research in this field you bolster your credibility, especially if previous relevant writing is in high-impact or widely read publications. Another reason for self-citation is that the examiners can see how you have developed your arguments and research. And another is transparency: that you aren’t simply cutting and pasting from previous work. This is very widely established practice, and as you will be aware most of the time it involves people citing themselves far too much, so it’s very surprising you don’t do it at all, especially as you had written a lot of articles that are very relevant to cite.

You discuss Left Foot Forward and Open Democracy as being key to the movement because, despite not having large readerships in comparison to the mainstream media, they were being read ‘by the right people: editors, producers and journalists’, and this enabled more coverage. You write that, along with Liberal Conspiracy, Left Foot Forward was ‘crucial in filtering the UCL occupation to the mainstream media and with it a wider audience’.  You cite three articles from Open Democracy, and have no citations for Left Foot Forward at all. There are a lot of articles from both these sites you should have cited – those written by you:

https://leftfootforward.org/2010/11/anti-cuts-networks-more-flexible-and-effective-than-big-organisations/

https://leftfootforward.org/2010/12/2011-open-source-political-activism-progressive-politics/

https://leftfootforward.org/2011/01/open-source-consensus/

https://leftfootforward.org/2010/11/the-student-movement-2010-the-rise-of-the-dissent-entrepreneur/

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/aaron-peters/game-is-up-unrest-policing-and-war-on-underclass

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/aaron-peters/reproduction-of-movements-without-organisation-ukuncut-ows-occupymovement

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/aaron-peters/and-so-occupy-everything

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/aaron-peters/goodbye-year-of-new-movements-bring-on-2012-and-occupy-everything

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/aaron-peters/game-is-up-unrest-policing-and-war-on-underclass

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/guy-aitchison-aaron-peters/open-sourcing-of-political-activism-how-internet-and-networks-

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/aaron-peters/uk-uncut-responsibility-and-logic-of-networked-activism

This is a significant body of work, all exploring the topics of your thesis, in publications that you yourself identify in it as being key to promoting the message of the protesters. On top of all those reasons to cite them, in many of these articles you also wrote about precisely the same events as your thesis, often providing what would be very useful contemporaneous accounts of them and the way they were received. Several also act as blueprints for points you develop further in the thesis. One of these articles even features a logo with your thesis title, while another was even tweeted by your PhD supervisor:

https://twitter.com/andrew_chadwick/status/9673922383454208

Some of your articles were even republished in a book, Fight Back: A Reader on the Winter of Protest, published in 2011. Again, there is no citation from you of this. It’s a gaping omission, and the reason for it is fairly clear, I think – you’re concealing how large a role you played in disseminating the message, and that you were a prominent writer on websites you identify as being key to the movement’s success.

Then there’s this article in The Guardian, by ‘Alex Pinkerman’:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/03/topshop-philip-green-tax-avoidance-protest

There are several reasons you should have cited this article, and this one by the same author:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/27/uk-uncut-peaceful-protests-against-cuts

That first Guardian article is a call in a national newspaper by a spokesperson for UKUncut to attend one of the key events you write about as one of your cases studies as an ‘observer first, participant second’, ie the Topshop protest on November 29th 2010. This article had a far greater reach than many others you cite, and is much more directly relevant than almost any you cite. You discuss in some detail the article in The Guardian by UKUncut coordinating committee member ‘Sam Baker’. You cannot have possibly missed the two by UKUncut spokesperson ‘Alex Pinkerman’, and yet you don’t mention them at all, or list them in your bibliography.

Isn’t this because Alex Pinkerman is you? Firstly, the initials are AP, and your name was Aaron Peters at the time (and in the thesis). Secondly, you made precisely the same points as the first few paragraphs of the first article, barely rephrased, at the protest itself, as can be seen in the following video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0Z3kBqurIY

You also link to one of your own articles under your own name:

http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/11/anti-cuts-networks-more-flexible-and-effective-than-big-organisations/

That’s an ego-driven citation, I think, and with the two other points it’s quite the tell.

Even if Pinkerman wasn’t you – and come on, it obviously was – that video has you stating the same points as the article begins with, showing you had read it. You didn’t cite it, or the video, for the same reason: they seriously damage your thesis. In the video, you are not simply attending a protest you write about as you claim in your thesis: you are the leader of that protest. Among other things, you cajole the crowd:

‘All of us are being fleeced by these oligarchs! Hundreds of them are screwing an entire nation!’

It’s you leading the protest, and you who wrote an article in the national press asking people to come to it.

You didn’t discuss or cite your articles in The Guardian, or those you wrote for other websites during the period you were researching, or that video, because all show that you weren’t simply researching friends and acquaintances, but your own activities. It’s hard to imagine a stronger conflict of interest: it’s virtually impossible to remove bias when the subject of research is oneself.

You were claiming to research a movement you were peripherally involved in, when in fact you played a leading role in it. Far from trying to address this, you concealed it. You did that because any semblance of impartiality falls apart when you read those articles or watch that utterly damning video. You write in detail about an event, without revealing your role in drumming up support for it in a national newspaper and leading it on the day. It’s also impossible to take you seriously when you discuss the aims of the black bloc and don’t reveal you were a part of it, or when you criticize a spokesperson for UKUncut for her interview on Newsnight, without saying you too were a spokesperson for UKUncut, albeit under a pseudonym, and that she was discussing behaviour you had indulged in, when you don’t reveal either of these crucial pieces of information.

More concerning is that your adviser was evidently aware of this – the tweet I link to above is to an article by you that prominently features the video of you leading the Topshop protest on November 29th.

Some of the direction of these questions will of course be familiar to you from Daniel Boffey’s 2010 article in The Mail, for which you were interviewed on the record:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1341599/Bodybuilding-fanatic-Aaron-Peters-brings-chaos-Britains-high-streets-ringleader-anti-tax-avoidance-movement.html

You don’t mention or cite this article in your thesis, either, I think for obvious reasons: it too destroys your claims to any kind of objectivity or as an ‘observer first and participant second’. The idea that you were simply going on these protests and asking some questions while there is blown out of the water by you repeatedly boasting that you were integral to organising them. You also kicked a massive hole in the ethics clauses in your thesis by admitting to the Mail you were, in effect, studying yourself.

The article states you spend ‘60 hours a week helping to direct UK Uncut.’

And quotes from you as follows:

‘UK Uncut is going to grow beyond anyone’s imagination. There will be lots of things going on [during the Christmas period]. The goal is to try and get billionaires to pay tax to the exchequer, but also to educate the average Brit.’

‘I’m a reasonably good orator and my knowledge, organising and understanding of the direction in which we are going forward is quite useful.

‘I am quite fortunate in that my PhD is all about this. I am almost my own case study.’

In addition, you boasted about organising a UKUncut action in one of your Left Foot Forward articles:

‘A UKUncut event by the name of ‘The Feeling is Mutual’ was recently organised by myself and several other participants within the network to highlight co-operative models of business as being superior to those that seek merely to extend shareholder value and little else.’

https://leftfootforward.org/2011/01/open-source-consensus/

In your thesis you say you participated in UKUncut events, but not that you organized any of them. There are also numerous tweets between you, the UKUncut account and others in the lead-up to events you write about – but while you list them all as being key players in the movement, you’re virtually the only one who isn’t. (Another is Chris Coltrane, but perhaps he was one of your anonymous informants.) You even claim in the thesis that:

‘In the case of UKUncut I was somewhat less fortunate and enjoyed less of an inside- track than I had done with the student movement, although my ability to access the field was made possible by my participation in the latter and the crossover - as I will later make clear - between these two episodes at their most connective.’

This is a misrepresentation. You didn’t just have an inside-track, but were a leading light in UKUncut: writing as a spokesperson for them in a national newspaper, legitimizing their aims and spreading their message through web publications you yourself identify as instrumental to doing just that, and being closely involved in organizing several UKUncut events.

An additional ethical concern here is that you were also influencing the course of your own research. Without your article as ‘Alex Pinkerman’ in The Guardian, it may have been that that TopShop protest would have been attended by far fewer people. By calling for people to turn up in a national newspaper, you were influencing what you were writing about. Even taking in the idea you were not Pinkerman, your actions at the protest show you whipping up the crowd and stirring them on. If you had simply been on the protest, rather than leading it, there might not have been as much to write about. This is a clear conflict of interest.

Some of your other omissions are also interesting. I find it very surprising that you make no reference anywhere to Regeneration, edited by Clare Coatman and Guy Shrubsole (Lawrence & Wishart, 2012). This has a chapter by Guy Aitchison and Jeremy Gilbert reflecting on the student movement. Gilbert discusses the black bloc problem in depth, and would have been very useful to have quoted, even if to disagree with (as your conclusions broadly do). Aitchison is a friend of yours who you discuss at length in the thesis and even interviewed for it – you can’t have not known about this contribution from him to the field, so why have you ignored it? He even cites you in the discussion!

‘We could talk here about out how networked, rhizomatic forms of organisation, encouraged by what Aaron Peters and myself have termed the ‘open-sourcing’ of political activism, are well suited to short energetic bursts, whilst bureaucratic, arborescent forms allow for long-term strategy development, learning and planning.’

Of course, this reveals that you, like he, are someone deeply involved with and leading the debate within the movement you’re pretending to be even slightly dispassionately observing for the purposes of getting around the problem that you’re really ‘researching’ you and your friends’ own ideas and activities.

Similarly, Chris Coltrane’s chapter in that book is a case study on the same topic as one of your case studies, UKUncut, and you are well aware of him as you tweeted him many times during the period in question, including asking him to come to events and sharing event information with him. Together, these both cover your two case studies in depth, by significant players. Why have you missed all this out?

You also don’t discuss or cite any of the work of Paolo Gerbaudo, most obviously Tweets on the Streets, published in 2012. That is not just a key text in this field, but is on exactly the same area as you cover in your thesis. Did you not even know about it, or is there some other reason for the omission?

In essence, your field work consists of you attending some demos, some of which you don’t reveal you were instrumental in organising, promoting and leading, and pretending that a few interviews you conducted with ‘informants’ constitutes anything other than anecdotal and highly partial evidence for your conclusion that, what a surprise, you and your mates are forging a radical and important new path ahead.

You make no mention in your thesis of your two arrests, one of which led to a conviction for a public order offence and a suspended sentence. You’ve publicly admitted that happened in at least two places, but not in your thesis. It’s highly relevant to it, though, because despite your T-shirt being grey, you were clearly a member of the black bloc, something you discuss in detail in the thesis without ever mentioning your own involvement. In accusing the police of violence but not revealing your own violence in this movement, you concealed a serious conflict of interest in your research.

Those are my chief concerns. I’d be delighted for you to prove me wrong about all this.

Yours,

Jeremy Duns

Bastani to me, December 29

These are surprisingly bland, silly questions Jeremy. If you want to publicly criticise misapplication of a methodological method please feel free to. 

Regarding ‘Alex Pinkerton’ I’m not him and have never heard of him. As you can see where I have been involved I have been perfectly happy to use my own name. 

Regarding Paolo Gerbaudo, he is mentioned in the final chapter. The literature review builds on a literature of dozens of relevant academics going back to the 1960s (Mancur Olson) and even the 19th Century (Durkheim). In terms of the ‘collective action literature’ he is marginal and that isn’t his research agenda in ‘Tweets in the Streets’ (I presume you know how a PhD works). 

In fact Paolo Gerbaudo was one of two external examiners for my viva. 

As a robust piece of research I look forward to my PhD being criticised. It was not in the RHUL library as I intend to write a book where its findings are a major part. 

I trust your no doubt excellent contribution to the literature will be in a peer-reviewed journal? Presumably you have a PhD in social science too? 

Finally, would you also like to read my excellent MSc thesis on EU trade and aid policy? I think you’d enjoy it.

Let me know if I can help you any further. I look forward to reading the piece.

Best wishes, Aaron 

Me to Bastani, 29 December

Thanks for the swift reply, Aaron. I note your denial of ever having even heard of 'Alex Pinkerton' despite him citing your work in The Guardian and you then parroting his first few paras almost word for word while leading the demo he called people to attend. It's not the most convincing of denials, let's say. 

I note you didn't answer any of my other questions, but instead chose round dismissal and an appeal to authority. I don't have a PhD in any field, just a lowly BA in English literature and language. However, I have worked as an editor for many years, including for a peer-reviewed journal, and this gave me more than enough experience to spot your massive conflicts of interest, fudges over your own role in the movement and prominent omissions to conceal it. You haven't denied any of that, I notice. It's also given me enoguh experience to spot an attempt to close down an uncomfortable set of allegations by high-handed dismissal. 

I might well publicly criticise your 'misapplication of a methodological method', but if I do I probably won't use that language.

What page do you mention Gerbaudo's work on? I can't see that anywhere. As he was one of your examiners, no discussion of Tweets and the Streets would seem to me to be even more striking - in terms of full-length books on the rise of social media and its use in emerging protest movements, I would have thought he'd disagree that his research was 'marginal' to your thesis, which covers precisely the same area. You could very easily switch the titles of his book and your thesis, in fact. You can throw in some more jargon to try to bluff me if you fancy, but I doubt it will work. Straight answers are usually a better bet.

Yours,

Jeremy

Bastani to me, December 29

Regarding Paolo it should be towards the end. I defended the PhD for 4 years Jeremy, that’s the point of the exercise. 

Publish whatever you like. In the academy, which is where this document was forged, that is done with peer review by scholars. I can only repeat I look forward to an English BA critiquing a political science PhD with little knowledge of the literature or research universe. 

Good luck. A

Sent from my iPhone

Me to Bastani, 30 December

Hi again, Aaron. I still don't see any reference to Gerbaudo's work. What page/s, please?

You seem to think citing the authority of a PhD will impress me, when you forget that I've read yours. My brother-in-law has a PhD in theoretical physics that I admit is far beyond my comprehension - but yours is just you 'researching' activities by your friends and acquaintances while concealing your own role as a leader in the movement. It's not as hard to follow or as you think, especially as I've edited dozens, if not hundreds, of peer-reviewed articles. I can spot bluffs and fudges in academic writing from a distance. Peer review by scholars can be wrong, even in hard science that involves researching concrete facts and not 'demos I've been on', but part of the process is also how authors respond to questions. You insist you look forward to any criticism of your 'robust piece of research', but have now twice refused to answer any of my questions other than the one about 'Alex Pinkerman'.

I got something wrong about that article, incidentally, though it looks to me to be even more damning than I first thought. 'Pinkerman's first article was on December 3, so was calling for attendance at the December 4 TopShop demo rather than the one a few days earlier. You were at and write about both of these demos. But 'Pinkerman' starts their article by making precisely the same points you did in person when leading the protest outside TopShop in Oxford Circus on November 29. So is it your claim that this UKUncut spokesperson drew on your claims about Green to write their article, while also citing one of your articles, while using a pseudonym with your initials, to call for people to attend a demo you went on and then wrote about... and you knew nothing about any of this and that is why you didn't cite it? It's not as if the Guardian was irrelevant here: you write in detail about 'Sam Baker's article in the paper. How did you miss 'Pinkerman'? 

If my questions were truly 'bland' and 'silly', you'd have answered them instead of trying to swerve them by suggesting my little brain can't possibly hope to understand your research - or, say, a video of you leading a demo you claim to have been an observer of first and participant second.

So, sorry, but this bluffing won't work on me. You're a self-described chancer.1 I think people will be more than able to make up their minds about whether or not my questions have misunderstood your 'methodological methods', and how rigid the peer review process was here. I will simply note you twice refused to answer my detailed questions and instead dismissively appealed to authority in this way. It's rather a telling reaction, I think. If you do fancy changing your mind and answering my questions, I will of course be all ears.

Yours,

Jeremy

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GS_yXcmbLY This promotional video by Novara Media also includes footage of you leading the November 2010 TopShop demo, and the voice-over also positions you as being a central part of the student movement rather than, as your thesis tries to suggest, some bod who just went along and interviewed some folk while you were milling in the crowd. Oops.

Bastani to me, December 30

You’ll have to forgive me Jeremy but I don’t understand the nature of the questions. You are questioning the veracity of the data collected? The appropriateness of the research method? The weaknesses of the conclusions? These are relevant questions, hopefully mitigated in anticipation in the literature review, rather than your gibbering nonsense. 

I’m afraid you are going to have to get it through your thick, conspiratorial head, that people you don’t like and disagree with can and do meet the criteria for successful doctorates. ‘Chancers’ don’t survive a robust, prolonged process - not that you would have the first idea. 

Best wishes, Aaron 

Me to Bastani, 30 December

'Glibbering nonsense' now! 'Thick' and 'conspiratorial'. It's not exactly the same as welcoming criticism, this. 'Chancers' was your description, not mine, incidentally, or do you not read footnotes either? You would not be the first chancer to have been awarded a PhD, especially as you have concealed crucial information in the thesis.

How can you not understand my questions? They're straightforward. The appropriateness of your research method, broadly, yes - but I'm asking more specifically why you failed to cite all your own previous writings on this topic, failed to cite others, including Gerbaudo (who you repeatedly state you do, but refuse to say where), why you concealed that you were instrumental in organizing and even lead events you write about, and how you square your claims to have been an 'observer first, participant second' with all of that? They aren't mitigated in the literature review. 

You've presented yourself as a student who went on some protests and are doing your best to impartially examine the movements involved, while hiding that you played a key role in them and even wrote as an observer about a demonstration you are on film as leading - weren't you?

I hope that is a clear enough question for you to understand.

Jeremy

Bastani to me, December 30

Paolo is in the final chapter. He was also, as said, the external supervisor. You are perfectly welcome to contact him. 

Secondly, I don’t quite get why one has to cite blogs one has previously authored in a PhD, do you think this is a requirement of some kind? 

Thirdly, I say in PhD - in the literature review - what my political commitments are and discuss replicability. As it is an exploratory study, not a quantitative generalisable one, there is a different emphasis - namely to generate hypothesis for later academic investigation by others (again, this is how PhDs work). This is all very clearly explained and three separate academics viewed it is sufficient to receive a pass with no corrections. 

Participant observation isn’t ‘impartial’, rather the limits of it are triangulated with interview data. Again, this is all documented. 

I’m very keen to read the ‘expose’. When will it be up? 

Me to Bastani, December 30

Where in the final chapter? I see no reference to Paolo Gerbaudo  or his work anywhere. Which article or book do you reference, and on which page? Third time of asking now.

They're not just 'blogs', Aaron - you wrote those articles on sites that you yourself identified as being instrumental to the student protest movement and UKUncut, and cited three articles from one of them written by others for that very reason. A requirement? No. But all of your articles on those sites are highly relevant, as they are about the topic of your thesis, provide contemporaneous information and were published on websites you identified as being significant to the events you write about. I explained all this before. It's very unusual not to cite your own relevant work at all, and I think the reason you didn't is because to do so would have made it clear you were a much more instrumental voice and part in these movements than you claim in the thesis. My question is: what is your reason for not citing them? 

You keep stating, in effect, that you having a PhD means that your PhD must be fine. Adding in some jargon doesn't change that academics can get things wrong, and can also be misled, which is what I think you've done, and which your response so far only seems to suggest further. Most people would have answered the questions rather than publicly attach the questioner as a 'fruitcake' and privately call them 'thick'. I explained in my initial list of questions that you pay lip service to your political commitment and do not claim to be wholly objective, which would be impossible and absurd - the point, of course, is that you concealed just how involved your role was, eg you write about a demo as an 'observer first, participant second' when anyone can see from the film of it that you were leading the demo. Use of words like triangulation don't magically make this not so.

I'm not sure when it will be up, or even if I'll write it, or where. So far you're providing quite a lot of extra material on Twitter and in this exchange, and I'm still vaguely hoping for some actual answers rather than bluffing and abuse. Can I quote from our emails? You've referred to them on Twitter just now in a dismissive way.

One last question: you claim your PhD was not in the RHUL library because you ‘intend to write a book where its findings are a major part’, ie that it was embargoed in case you want to use material in it in a book in future. Do you stand by this? Because a) you told Sam Taylor it wasn't there due to outstanding library fines and b) it should then have been listed in the catalogue marked as embargoed, which it wasn't. So what's the truth here? 

Jeremy

Bastani to me, December 30

Regarding your last question, both. There's been no impetus to do it because I plan to convert it into a book (as my supervisor will attest). 

You are free to share private communications, I can hardly stop you, but that will mean I won't be communicating further with you as generally I distrust anyone sharing verbatim details from non-public disclosure. 

Warm wishes and good luck, Aaron

Me to Bastani, December 30

Hi again.

If it's both, the library should have marked it as embargoed - any idea why they didn't? I'll ask them, I guess.

I generally don't like sharing personal communications, either, verbatim or not. The verbatim is a nice add by you, as of course without it you are contradicting yourself because you referred to our emails here in public earlier today, when you tweeted in reference to them:

'Because the nature of assertions made in private communications are beyond outlandish and completely unsupported. The idea it’s equivalent to academic inquiry is equally outlandish.'

I've replied to that tweet as follows:

'Aaron, I don't think you can show this from our emails at all. Please feel free to quote anything you think I've asked you that is either outlandish or unsupported, or admit you're misrepresenting my questions to you.'

I'll be interested to see if you can take me up on that offer. I doubt it, somehow.

I note you once again ignored all my other questions and points, and refused to indicate where you have cited Paolo Gerbaudo's work (for the fourth time, I believe).

Jeremy

Bastani to me, December 30

they aren't quoted though, are they, Jeremy - which is what you are asking. As someone with evidently obsessive-compulsive tendencies you might notice that? Nor do I mention you.

thats enough from me. I'll be blocking this email. 

best, A

Me to Bastani, December 30

No, they aren't quoted - which is why you added 'verbatim' to your email. You won't quote these emails because there's nothing outlandish or unsupported in my questions at all, and you know it. You just claimed it in public, and I've called your bluff on it. You didn't mention me by name because, as you well know, it was in a thread replying to me, and in which I had just made it clear I was the one asking you questions about your thesis.

You've so far resorted to calling me sad, thick, conspiratorial, a fruit-loop and are now going even further in suggesting I have a mental disorder. All for asking you rather straightforward questions about your thesis. As with Sam Taylor, your response to enquiry about your thesis is to pretend to welcome them while dishing out abuse and distractions. In throwing your proverbial toys out of the pram in this way, you've repeatedly avoided a series of valid questions about your research. I don't know who you think you're fooling - but it isn't me.

I'm sending this to you despite you saying you're blocking it because I suspect you'll read it anyway.

Thank you for the revealing responses,

Jeremy

 

Thanks to Sam Taylor and Guy Walters for their generous and helpful guidance on drafts of this article.

Spy Fake

Spy Fake

quillerkgb.jpg

In May 1989, WH Allen published Quiller KGB, the thirteenth in a series of spy thrillers by Adam Hall, a pseudonym for the British writer Elleston Trevor. The novel was Hall’s swan-song for the Cold War, with the bulk of it set in November 1989. British agent Quiller foils a plot by Soviet hardliners to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev on an official visit to Erich Honecker in East Berlin. They don’t plan to carry out the assassination themselves, but have farmed out the job to a Brit. Completed in 1988, the novel successfully predicted Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin the next year. There were, however, never any claims of an assassination attempt taking place during the real visit.

Until now.

In September, Hodder & Stoughton published Pilgrim Spy. This claims to be a memoir by ‘Tom Shore’, the pseudonym for a former SAS operative. ‘Shore’ relates how he undertook a series of incredible missions during the Cold War including, pivotally and most spectacularly, that he foiled a plot by Soviet hardliners in October 1989 to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited Erich Honecker in East Berlin.

Hodder have marketed Pilgrim Spy as ‘one of the great untold stories of the twentieth century’, but if anything that’s underselling it. In real life, British operatives rarely carry out solo missions, let alone get involved in gunfights with terrorists while saving world leaders from assassination. Add in that the gunfight in question apparently took place in Colditz Castle and that throughout his operation ‘Shore’ repeatedly encountered a young KGB major called Vladimir Putin, who he suspects of being involved in the assassination plot, and it becomes even more remarkable.

This extraordinary operation has never been so much as hinted at in any previously published accounts, and its daring and scale go far beyond any other operation we know about during the Cold War. Without the actions of ‘Tom Shore’, Germany would likely not have been reunited at that time, or perhaps ever. Such an operation would clearly be Western intelligence’s greatest coup of the 20th century, greater than the running of Oleg Penkovsky or Oleg Gordievsky, and ‘Shore’ deserves all our thanks, and several medals.

The book was initially treated as news by both the Sunday Times and The Guardian, perhaps unsurprisingly: Hodder is a highly respected publisher, and it’s very rare for an entirely unknown episode of Cold War history to be revealed; even rarer for it to feature British intelligence; almost unheard of for it to be involved in a spectacular, history-altering operation. It might seem bizarre that the operation has gone completely unknown of for so long, but ‘Shore’ had a ready explanation for this: the only other people who could confirm any of the events he relates are the dead members of the Red Army Faction, his dead SAS commander, and the MI6 officer, ‘Mark Scott’, who sent him on the operation unbeknown to anyone else and who then vanished without a trace.

‘Scott’ turns out to be a rogue MI6 officer chasing after a little black book that contains ‘the NOC list’. It’s complicated, but if you’ve seen the first Mission: Impossible film with Tom Cruise you’ll get the drift. ‘Shore’ ends the book absolutely furious at having been used by ‘Scott’, who along the way has also murdered two innocent people, including Kirstin, the beautiful blonde with ‘cornflower blue eyes’ who he has fallen for. ‘Shore’ notes that some readers might think this sort of skullduggery is just par for the course for spies, but that it really isn’t, you know:

‘Well, perhaps it’s because we have been brought up reading books and watching films about the likes of James Bond, George Smiley and Jason Bourne that we now expect such agencies to be duplicitous, ruthless and murderous as a matter of course. But, in my experience, the sort of duplicity and murderous intention that Scott showed towards someone on the same side – me – was a complete outrage to all the codes and standards by which these organisations live and work. I can honestly say I have never come across or heard of anything similar.’

No, me neither. Outside of spy fiction, anyway, where, as he notes, the agent discovering he’s been used as a pawn by someone on his own side is indeed a cliché. ‘Shore’ says that unless he happens to bump into ‘Scott’ again – ‘which wouldn’t end well’ – he will likely never know what the man’s true motives had been. But strangely, he doesn’t call on the security services to open an investigation into this criminal within their ranks. Forgetful, perhaps.

Of course, the publication of Pilgrim Spy presents an even more puzzling mystery: how on earth did Adam Hall know about ‘Tom Shore’s mission over a year before it happened? Like Hall’s hero Quiller, ‘Shore’ is shot at, chased down, and has a liaison with an East German woman intent on overthrowing the Soviet system, before saving the free world virtually single-handedly. ‘Shore’ doesn’t hang off a window ledge as Quiller does, but even more impressively recounts a pursuit across a rooftop which he escapes by jumping between buildings. The chapter ends in media res with him on the verge of doing so – incidentally, a trademark of the Quiller series. It’s also extremely striking that these plots to assassinate the same leader, in the same place, at the same time, masterminded by the same group of people, both happen to be foiled by British agents; on the face of it both the visit and the idea of an assassination plot during it are Soviet-East German affairs, with little ostensible reason for the UK to be involved. Both books give pretty tortuous motivations for British intelligence to insert itself into the events. This is a familiar suspension of disbelief in British spy fiction, of course: as with the Bond films, Adam Hall constantly had to figure out reasons for the UK to play the lead role in averting disasters around the globe. In the real world, though, British agents only very occasionally save the world, and when they have done it tends not to have involved rooftop chases and gunfights.

In Pilgrim Spy, we’re told that MI6 only received a hint of the assassination plot nine weeks prior to it taking place, and ‘Shore’ only figured out who the target was days in advance. So was British spy novelist Adam Hall a psychic with access to future plans for intelligence operations?

The truth is perhaps more mundane: Pilgrim Spy is not spy fact but spy fiction, and atrociously bad spy fiction at that. Every cliché in the genre pops up, and great gobbets of factual exposition are lifted from the internet, sometimes word for word. The plagiarism is insultingly clumsy, with most of the lifts taken from Wikipedia entries. Here are just a few excerpts from Pilgrim Spy - the text in bold has all been plagiarised from Wikipedia’s entry on the Stasi, while the text in italics is from the entry about Zersetzung. These are all straight lifts, with barely a word changed:

‘I knew all about the East German Stasi. It was the official state security service of the DDR, and has often been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in history...’

One of the Stasi’s main tasks was to spy on the population, mainly through a vast network of citizens turned informants.

They fought any opposition to the regime using both overt and covert measures including the process of Zersetzung.

During the Honecker era – from May 1971 to October 1989 – the Stasi used the accusation Zersetzung to silence political opponents by repression. German historian Hubertus Knabe wrote: “The goal was to destroy individuals’ self-confidence, for example by damaging their reputation, by organising failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships.” The use of Zersetzung is well documented due to numerous Stasi files published after the fall of East Germany, where it is estimated that up to 10,000 individuals had fallen victim to this barbaric process, with over 5,000 sustaining irreversible damage.

In addition, its Directorate for Reconnaissance was responsible for both espionage and for conducting covert operations in foreign countries and, under its long-time head Markus Wolf, this directorate gained a reputation as one of the most capable intelligence agencies of the Cold War.

Wikipedia’s Stasi entry also mentions Dynamo Dresden, Vladimir Putin’s time with the KGB in Dresden, and the agency’s military training with the Red Army Faction – all of which feature in Pilgrim Spy.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Red Army Faction contains the following paragraph:

‘Sometimes the group is talked about in terms of generations:

  • the “first generation”, which consisted of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and others;

  • the “second generation”, after the majority of the first generation was arrested in 1972; and

  • the “third generation” RAF, which existed in the 1980s and 1990s up to 1998, after the first generation died in Stammheim maximum security prison in 1977.’

Pilgrim Spy contains this paragraph:

‘The group is often talked about in terms of generations.

The first “generation’ consisted of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and others. The ‘second generation’ came about after the majority of the first generation was arrested in 1972. The ‘third generation’ RAF existed in the 1980s, 1990s and up to 1998.’

An enormous amount of the book’s material is lifted from Wikipedia in this way. ‘Shore’ tells us that in intelligence circles ‘agents under Non-Official Cover (NOC) are operatives who assume covert roles in organisations without any official ties to the government for which they work’. That, too, is virtually word-for-word the same as the opening of the Wikipedia entry on the topic. The hardback sells for just under £14, but Wikipedia, of course, can be read for free.

And ‘Shore’ doesn’t only plagiarise from Wikipedia. The biography of his SAS commander is taken directly from The Independent’s obituary of the man he is based on, Andy Massey, and to whom the book is brazenly dedicated. It’s almost as though this former SAS operative knows virtually nothing about espionage or the Cold War himself.

The dedication to Massey has proven the book’s undoing with veterans of the SAS, a group of whom were so outraged by what they felt was comparable to ‘stolen valour’ that they complained to Hodder, who have apparently now removed the dedication as a result. SAS and BRIXMIS veterans also pointed out several other discrepancies with the book’s claims, such as gunfights happening at Colditz with none of them ever hearing of it despite being on good relations with the staff there at the time. A former commander of the SAS also believes the book’s claims to be ‘utter rubbish’.

Pilgrim Spy isn’t the first special forces memoir to be greeted with such scepticism, and it won’t be the last. This field is open to abuse: it’s hard to disprove a tale of a top-secret operation told by an author whose name is itself withheld. When questioned by The Independent, Hodder admitted that the book contains plagiarism but downplayed this as ‘sloppy but not criminal’ and insisted that there were only three sentences taken from Wikipedia. The Independent’s article already listed several more than that, as have I above, and one passage on coffee plagiarises seven sentences in a row from Wikipedia.

COFFEE WIKIPEDIA.jpg

‘Sloppy but not criminal’ is a shocking response from a serious publisher to such an allegation – not long ago they would have investigated this properly and withdrawn the book as a result.

Adding to the mystery over the publisher’s reaction is Pilgrim Spy’s peculiar back-story. It looks to have started life as a totally different book: The Colditz Conundrum, a ‘new complete history’ of the POW camp that promised startling revelations about a ‘hidden hand’ at work behind the famous escapes from it. This had the same ISBN number and publication date as Pilgrim Spy, and the author biography read:

‘Tom Shore was educated at Woolverstone Hall school in Suffolk and Birmingham University in the 60s and 70s.’

On the Amazon page for Pilgrim Spy, we learn:

‘Tom Shore joined the British army in 1970, a few days after his eighteenth birthday.’

So… how was he at university in the 60s and 70s if he joined the army just after he turned 18 in 1970?

When I asked Pilgrim Spy’s editor about this eye-popping discrepancy, he claimed that The Colditz Counundrum ‘with accompanying biography was a dummy title substituted for the real book on the day of publication’. Strange: publishers usually trumpet their ground-breaking books well in advance to try to drum up publicity, rather than giving them detailed synopses for totally different non-existent books, complete with contradictory biographies for the author. Why the subterfuge, especially for a pseudonymous author? What would Hodder have done if a journalist had approached them wanting to write an article about the promised revelations in The Colditz Conundrum? It seems like an unusual PR strategy, let’s say.

Hodder have also been ‘sloppy’ in other ways. Despite their marketing of the book as a memoir and claims to five British newspapers that it gives an honest account of events during the Cold War, the book’s frontispiece features the disclaimer:

‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’

Quite how that applies to Putin and Gorbachev, and whether it was inserted by a sceptical Hodder employee to cover their backsides, isn’t clear – but as Hodder have stated in print that it’s fictitious, even while insisting it isn’t everywhere else, they can’t very well sue the book’s critics for stating the same.

A few years ago, Pilgrim Spy would likely have been more of a scandal: the plagiarism is so blatant, the original writing is so poor, and the supposed events are so transparently ludicrous. A Million Little Pieces, Surviving With Wolves and other fake memoirs have been the subject of enormous interest, and this is probably the most blatant case of it I’ve seen. However, Hodder’s response in the face of the obvious has simply been to double down, Trump-style, and insist they believe ‘Shore’s preposterous story, while shrugging off the kind of plagiarism that would see a student thrown out of university.

The book remains on sale, and little looks to be able change that. It feels like it was an attempt to emulate Soldier Spy, the memoir of pseudonymous ex-MI5 officer ‘Tom Marcus’, which was a bestseller in 2016 and also garnered national newspaper coverage while having its share of doubters. The consequences for failing to replicate that success with a rubbish spy novel masquerading as a sensational memoir are close to nil, both for the author and publisher. Hodder are large enough for their reputation to take this hit – they publish hundreds of books a year, and this is already water under the bridge. The book might not sell as well as they’d hoped, but they will probably still feel it was worth taking a chance on. It’s a shame: it’s a brilliant publisher with a storied history, and this isn’t worthy of going out under their banner.


As a longtime fan of Adam Hall, ‘Tom Shore’ ripping off one of my favourite spy novelists’ books has its funny side. But as someone who also studies Cold War espionage, it feels like a dispiriting defeat: fake history in a time of fake news. The lack of fuss or consequence is partly because chicanery is no longer remarkable in public discourse. Information about espionage has also become so much of a part of our culture that even the most outlandish ideas can seem plausible, because we’re used to seeing them: jumping across buildings is so familiar from spy films that we don’t stop to think how unlikely that is to happen in real life.

Recent years have also seen an inflation in conspiracy theorism, and the line between a genuine expert and someone who has watched a lot of YouTube videos or read a few Wikipedia entries has become eroded. Today, we know more – or think we know more – about the inside workings of the intelligence world thanks to the likes of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. A few years ago, both appeared to promise a brave new era in which the shadowy actions of those in power would be held more accountable. In reality, this has mostly been confined to the West.

Wikileaks has itself become a power whose actions are often obscure, while Snowden’s focus on surveillance by the United States’ spy agencies has almost totally overlooked the actions of the likes of Russia, who have ramped up their use of disinformation and meddling in US politics. Vladimir Putin’s operatives have committed murder on the streets of Britain, and when exposed claimed to be clueless tourists to troll the British authorities and public – this has received scant condemnation from Wikileaks’ and Snowden’s supporters, and in some cases outright denial.

But while the truth doesn’t matter to Russia, it should to us. In his book, ‘Tom Shore’ speculates that a young Putin was involved in a plot to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev, but one doesn’t need to invent fables about his past to understand his motives or figure out how to tackle his actions. You can’t learn from history if you lie about it, and in muddying the waters between fact and fiction publishers aren’t simply being unprofessional, but playing a dangerous game at a time when clarity and trust are increasingly valuable. It’s already hard enough to figure out what happened during this period. With propaganda, disinformation and even assassination being used to undermine democracies by numerous states, publishers backing simplistic, self-glorying falsifications risk distorting understanding of the intelligence world and the lessons we can learn from the real Cold War.


HEADER IMAGE: LYSANDER YUEN, UNSPLASH

The Dark Interrogation

The Dark Interrogation

Last year, I was asked by the slightly mysterious ‘Samuel Carver’ if I would be interested in an interview on Goodreads. Sam runs The Orion Team, a discussion group devoted to thrillers on the site, and he had written several very generous and in-depth reviews of my novels. I agreed, and the interview went ahead in January. It can still be read in full on the site, but as it’s a little buried there and the format isn’t all that easy to follow I thought I’d reproduce it here, with Sam’s permission and some very light editing. I really enjoyed this interview, and hope it will be interesting if you’ve enjoyed any of my fiction and are interested in how I work. I tried to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve never read a Dark novel this probably isn’t the best place to start.


Samuel: You write Cold War spy fiction and created a unique protagonist, that of a jaded washed-out traitor who is trying to save his own skin, and along the way happens to do some good deeds in the situations he got himself thrown in. It’s rare to find such a morally compromised protagonist in 21st-century spy fiction. How did you create Paul Dark and how did he come together when writing him?

Jeremy: Basically, I came to the conclusion after reading a lot of spy fiction that I wanted to write some. The spy fiction I most enjoyed was set during the Cold War and I thought I’d give that a crack—it occurred to me that it was becoming ‘period’ in the same way the Second World War had done for thriller-writers in the ’60s and ’70s, and there might be something new to do there. But what? I didn’t want to write a Bond clone, but I am fascinated by Bond. Ian Fleming’s wife Ann had been worried about Kingsley Amis writing a new Bond novel because of his politics, and wrote of him making a ‘Philby Bond’. John le Carré had also written in the ’60s of Bond being an ideal defector. That idea crystallised, and so I decided I wanted a protagonist who was a villain. Like Tom Ripley. Outwardly he might appear like Bond, and even have a Bond-clone kind of name that you’d expect from a ’60s spy, but then you’d soon realize he was a wrong ’un. That idea seemed to have legs to me, and I started researching Free Agent.

Paul Dark is a traitor to Queen and Country and for all intents and purposes is a disgrace to SIS. However, you humanize him in several ways, chief among which includes making the ‘good’ guys that are trying to hunt him down bad, if not worse in the first two books. Was that contrast between a traitor who seeks repentance and the lawful authorities who are unforgiving and nefarious an intentional decision on your part, or did it come together by itself?

FREEAGENTPENGUIN.jpg

Intentional. Initially, my idea was for Dark to be much more of an outright villain than he is. More like Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal: a cold-blooded killer you had no empathy for at all. But I felt that over the course of several books that wouldn’t work, and readers would find it unremitting. I wanted to give him some flickers of humanity. The situation of being a double agent had in-built suspense to it, but for that to work the character had to be afraid of getting caught and so on—I wanted the reader to be in his shoes to some extent. I thought I would try for a character who you weren’t entirely sure about. He could repulse you and scare you, but you could also find yourself, perhaps against your will, rooting for him. And I thought that one way to do that would be to make some of the characters trying to catch him a shade grey, too.

Ah, yes. Shades of the treatment by the SDCE Action Service paramilitary unit can be seen in what Italian military intelligence does in Song of Treason. It can be argued that your novels are a genre-bending hybrid mix of historical fiction and spy novel, blending real-world incidents like the Nigerian civil war and the 1975 Victoria Falls conference with fictional events. Is it easy or hard to use real-world occurrences as the backdrops for fictional plots or not at all?

I mostly find it hard, as I spend a long time finding the right events to use, and then researching them once I have. I initially decided on the assassination of Patrice Lumumba as being a key event in Free Agent, for example, before deciding that didn’t work. I worked on Spy Out The Land for months before realizing that summit had to be the major event in it. But once you have them in place there are some advantages: it’s a bit like a still life you can work around, if that makes sense.

Delving into some of the parts of the Cold War that not even John le Carré covered, have there been any ‘no way’ moments when your jaw dropped and you found a piece of information or an event that astounded you in the writing process? Your second book was full of these things due to the subject matter and how the central real-life element that the scheme hinged upon could have been easily perverted despite officially being used to preserve the liberties of democratic nations against godless totalitarianism.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but yes. Particularly in The Moscow Option, the Madman exercise and the mathematical calculations of winning a nuclear war both made my jaw drop. When I find things in research that astonish me, that’s when I start trying to figure out how to make them work in a novel.

There was a detour between the first three Paul Dark books and the fourth one. What caused that? Also, who is the new cover artist? I must say they’ve done a bang-up job on enhancing the look of the books.

The Moscow Option (Dark 3) features quite a bit of MI6’s activities in Moscow in the Sixties. When I was researching that to try to make it feel authentic, I found that the best source of most tradecraft from around that time was via the running of Oleg Penkovsky. I became fascinated by that operation and eventually pitched the idea of writing a non-fiction book on it. So I did that—it’s titled Dead Drop in the UK and Codename: HERO in the US—and it came out next. Then I went back to Dark for the next book, having taken that detour and recharged my batteries a little from writing Dark, as well.

The cover art for the new UK ebooks is done by the art team at Simon & Schuster, but I had a fair amount of input into them. It’s a long process, and I discussed it back and forth with my editor and agent via phone and email for quite a while. But I’m really happy with how they turned out: I think they look clean and minimalistic, but give a clear idea of what kind of book you can expect.

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Spybrary Podcast: Jeremy, who do you think is the most under-rated spy/thriller author either living or dead? Which author do you wish more people were aware of?

Do I have to pick just one? I’d go for three: Joseph Hone, Adam Hall and Sarah Gainham. Hone is quite similar to le Carré in some ways, but they have lots of twists and turns, and are just wonderfully written. As good as le Carré, Ambler and Greene for my money. Gainham is also in the Ambler/Greene vein and her prose is extraordinarily good. Lots of horrifying male characters. My character Rachel Gold in Spy Out The Land is partly a tribute to her—both her life and her characters, which were often intertwined.

Hall’s series about British secret agent Quiller has obviously been a huge inspiration for me. I think they’re the most exciting spy novels ever written. And the writing is amazing, albeit very different from Hone and Gainham.

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Samuel: I haven’t asked about three people I’ll call ‘the Sharks’, as they work at the only Aquarium in Moscow that the public is not allowed into. The father, the son, and the unholy ghost of a false lover. How did you create these three very smart but very terrifying and brutal Cold War antagonists? Most Cold War antagonists are a bit over the top here and there, but ‘the Sharks’ of the Aquarium most certainly couldn’t be accused of such a crime.

That’s very kind of you. I needed an emotional anchor for Dark and I wanted to connect with his past and his own family, so that is how one of them emerged. Sasha came about from researching double agents, in particular Kim Philby’s peculiar memoir My Silent War. There’s not a lot of tradecraft in that, but there is some, most notably his Kafkaesque travel routines to meet his handler. So I started thinking about who Dark’s handler would be, and what their relationship would be. How would he react once Dark started turning against the cause he had supposedly signed up for? And once the books gathered steam, I felt I wanted to see things more from his perspective, and that he would also have paternal issues, like Paul. That was also from research into Philby and others—many of the handlers of real double agents in Britain were summoned back to Moscow and purged. So I wanted to think through how Moscow would be viewing Dark, and they sprung from that.

As a writer who writes books in the ‘retro spy fiction’ sub-genre, you immediately distinguish yourself from the pack in mainstream thriller fiction which focuses on the 21st century and contemporary threats that may or may not be done to death now and then. In your view, what does ‘retro spy fiction’ set in the Cold War offer readers compared to the contemporary post-9/11 thriller? And what does it offer you as a writer in terms of benefits in terms of story and appeal?

My initial thinking behind it was in part to stand out from the pack, but also because that is just what I liked reading best, and was most familiar with. It also meant I could research it more easily, as a lot of Cold War stuff has been declassified. Of course, you can invent things if you’re writing about intelligence agencies now but, even so, I thought it would be fun to revisit the Cold War with what we now know. I’d seen the Bourne films with Matt Damon and thought they felt similar to conspiracy thrillers from the Sixties and Seventies in tone, as well as to the likes of Quiller, with chases through the Berlin U-bahn and so on.

For readers, I’d hope it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference if a book is set in 1969, 1976, 2002, 2018 or 2051 as long as the story and characters are compelling. But perhaps there’s some interesting history you’ll learn about or get interested enough in to investigate further. And I don’t think the books date quite the same way, which feels like a bit of a safety net in terms of longevity. That may be wishful thinking, though.

Ah, that last point is bang on the money. Dating has always been an issue. Out of all the real life traitors you must have looked up when writing the Paul Dark series, name one who was the most damaging of the lot. Then name another who you would say is the most audacious at his work. Then out of all of them would you say that with traitors, there is a common motivating thread among the ones you have researched?

Great question. I think I’ll have to be a bit obvious, though, and say Kim Philby was the most damaging. Some have claimed George Blake did more. Andrew Lownie makes a very persuasive case for Guy Burgess in his excellent biography of him. But damage isn’t only about the number of documents they handed over, or even agents’ lives. Philby rocked British intelligence to the core, and to some extent the whole of the British establishment. It took them decades to recover. His friendship with James Angleton was also crucial—that gave him a lot of information, but it also meant that when he was finally exposed Angleton was shattered by the revelation. That led pretty directly to Angleton’s paranoia about other moles, which ripped the CIA apart for years to come. Philby caused all of that.

Most audacious? Probably Burgess. To flaunt the fact he was gay and promiscuously so at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and on top of that to be drunk and rude to everyone, pretty much constantly… these aren’t strategies most double agents would employ, as they want to keep as low a profile as possible. Burgess went the other way.

The common motivating thread would probably be intellectual superiority or arrogance, coupled with stubbornness. Even now Blake thinks he was right and knows better than everyone else. Also, I suppose, a gift for self-delusion: to continue to believe with such certainty even when all the evidence tells you otherwise. This is why I decided to try to make Dark a little more sympathetic, incidentally. He realizes the cause is nonsense, and he regrets it. To have a Blake would change the dynamic completely, and I think it would be very hard to keep the reader along for the ride.

The first three novels in the Dark series were told in first person. The fourth novel, however, which could be considered a ‘soft reboot’ of the series after a long hiatus, was told in third person. What prompted the change in storytelling perspective? And was it easy or difficult to adapt to this change?

The BBC optioned the first three books for a TV series quite early on, and they got as far as a pilot script for Free Agent but no further. But that involved a lot of discussions, and the producer said early on the series would have to be very different from the books because you can’t really do first person on screen. He mentioned the dynamic of the Bourne films, where you switch between Bourne’s perspective and the CIA crow’s nest hunting him. That stuck with me. After three books from Dark’s perspective, I also thought it would be good to open things up—and to see what the world made of him.

With each book I have a tone in mind from the start, and the kind of thriller I want it to be. With Free Agent, I had Adam Hall and Deighton in mind, for example. With Spy Out The Land, I wanted to write a fast-paced third-person man-hunt thriller in the vein of The Day Of The Jackal, and I was also inspired by some of Ted Allbeury’s stuff. So that was the basic idea going in. I found it much harder to write than the first three, though, because I had become used to Dark’s voice. I doubted I could even write a third-person novel at all, and felt like I had been a fraud for being published with first-person narratives. A third-person novel was a Proper Book! But I got there in the end.

Ah, intriguing. I agree, the so called ‘rules’ about third person, first person and hybrid third person and first person perspectives are rather tricky.

The tactics Paul Dark utilizes in his attempts at saving his neck are the foundation of what even in the era of SVR cyber-trolls and PRC artificial intelligence is considered modern tradecraft. From your research for your novels and journalism, would you say modern espionage techniques and tradecraft hasn’t changed much despite the bells and whistles that the services pay for? Or has it evolved beyond recognition since the Cold War?

I’m probably not the best person to ask about modern tradecraft, because I don’t know nearly as much about it—I’ve spent significantly more time looking at the Cold War. But I would say that a lot of the techniques are pretty similar, and made easier or at times complicated by changing technology. But you still need dead drops and forged papers and spies on the ground and all the rest of it. The Moscow Rules that were developed after the Penkovsky operation haven’t fundamentally changed, even if the nature of threats has.

Can you name any contemporary-set mainstream published spy fiction which has gained your approval in recent years? Or are you a fanatical vintage purist who does not wish to be sullied with works set in the post-9/11 world?

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I’m not a purist in that sense, but I don’t read nearly as much spy fiction as I used to—I tend to find it distracting. An exception is Tim Stevens, who I’ve mentioned in a few places before and who I know a little: he’s a really terrific writer. Start with Ratcatcher. I also love the French TV series Le Bureau des Légendes, which is a contemporary classic, I think. Oh, and I really enjoyed Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, and am looking forward to reading the rest of that series when I find time.

Looking at the spy fiction genre today, what could be done to help improve the genre? Or if you had the power to warp reality, what would you do to improve the genre?

I’m honestly not qualified to answer that one. I just don’t know enough about what other writers to do to offer any kind of suggestions, and even if I did—well, it’s just me. There’s room for a lot of different kind of writing in the genre, I think, and that’s partly why I fell in love with it in the first place. It’s so much richer than I’d thought it was.

Paul Dark isn’t intended to be a nice man and for the first three books, his fundamental motivation is (very understandably) selfish self-preservation. He also wallows in self-pity that most people would find contemptible. On the other hand, he’s aware of his crimes and mistakes and wants to make them right and seek absolution for his big sin, despite the cruel world he’s in trying to squish him like a bug. What elements of Paul Dark’s characterization came from you? The Oxbridge education? The details-orientated professionalism that Dark maintains despite the near panic he’s in through the original three books? The vague centrism in a world where’s he’s surrounded by loonie lefties and shot at by right wing whack-jobs? Or is it something else? And what quality, if any, do you most admire about Paul Dark? Reason for this question is because when writing a character, most writers past and present make the viewpoint protagonist their fictional alter ego, like Ian Fleming or Brad Thor. And even those who try to avert this like Tom Wood with his assassin Victor still have bits and pieces of themselves end up in their creations.

I think it’s inevitable there are bits and pieces of me in the character, because they just seep in whether you want them to or not. I’m usually trying to figure out what I would do in his shoes, so of course that makes him more like me from the off. I deliberately gave him a background I shared some elements with, even if twisted, like his knowledge of Sweden and a particular archipelago nearby. He went to the same school I did, so I could use some of my knowledge there. I did all that because, fundamentally, I’m of course nothing like him: he’s a ruthless professional secret agent, and a traitor to his country.

I don’t see Dark as a fantasy version of me in any way, but occasionally he does things—I have him do things—I admire in one way or another. It would be quite nice to be able to know how to avoid the world’s intelligence agencies, even if I’m never going to need those skills. I’d quite like to be as quick-witted, fit and have his line of laconic humour sometimes. I am also probably less harsh on him than readers, because I’m in his head and he’s ‘My Guy’ in a unique way, because I created him. I want him to be very flawed, but not a complete monster. At points in writing the books I have felt like I am under his skin. Maybe he was under mine. The vague centrism hadn’t occurred to me—quite a good point. I guess that might have seeped in. I tend to be sceptical of left and right, it’s true.

What’s your preferred writing style? Outliner like Robert Ludlum, or seat of the pants like Fleming and Vince Flynn?

Some outlining, a lot of improvisation along the way (including more outlining). Too much outlining in advance and I find I’m bored and see it as pointless to write the book. But I need a tone and some central ideas or I’m totally lost and end up wasting lots of time rewriting. Did Ludlum outline? For some reason that surprises me a little.

Oh, yes. Had literal dossiers and files of the plans he made on his trademark yellow legal pad paper which he worked on. As for that vague centrism, well Ian Fleming said James Bond would probably vote for the Labour party, and I’d say it’s rather beautifully (but unintentionally) symbolic as Dark is hounded by the two political extremes in a world that was far more polarized than this century.

Now to the next question. Having written my reviews of your work listening to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March 1 (possibly the most inappropriate, ironic musical choice ever considering who Paul Dark is), do you have a reading playlist?

Didn’t know that about Ludlum—interesting. I listen to music when I read and write—always instrumental, usually a very long playlist I have on Spotify that mixes classical, jazz, electronica and so on. I listen to a lot of music when away from my desk and thinking about writing, and there’s a public playlist on Spotify with songs that inspired me when writing Spy Out The Land. Thank you very much for your excellent reviews, by the way. Much appreciated.

What is the general future direction of Paul Dark?

I have a couple of ideas. We’ll see. I like him in the ’70s—there’s a lot to explore.

Name a real world Cold War event and one country that Dark hasn’t been to yet, that you know about and would love to write a story around.

There are at least two but it’s because I want to do them that I can’t tell you, sorry. I don’t want someone else to beat me to it! But one’s in the Middle East and one’s in the Far East.

A wise decision, keep cards close to the vest. Okay, the next few questions will focus on writing matters. To any aspiring writers out there who may seek to follow your path and become a published writer, what advice would you give them on what to expect, what difficulties if any may ensue and what they should look out for to get the most out of their publisher?

Everyone’s experience is different, but I suppose my main piece of advice would be not to expect the world to fall at your feet—there are a lot of books out there—and also to keep your integrity. Some people like to take shortcuts, and the internet has made that easier, but these things have a habit of coming back and hitting you in the chops. Be enthusiastic, get stuck in, do all you can to promote your work and attract readers and so on, but try to keep your scruples intact. All publishers are different, but I think they all like their writers to be professional, to listen, to pick their battles and... to be nice. It’s a good idea, generally, I think.

Dialogue and word choice are probably the bit that aspiring writers fall down on. How do you come up with the right thing to say for the right scene without it sounding clunky or messy? And how long would you say it took to find your own prose style that was distinct as it is today?

Read a lot, write a lot, hone your voice. Read your work aloud, especially dialogue. Cut anything that sounds unnatural. Resist the temptation to show off, i.e. purple prose. I don’t want any fat in my work. ‘For me, anyway, I want there to be absolutely no fat at all in my books’ was my first draft of that sentence. Thank you for saying my style is distinct. It took me around seven years to get a draft of Free Agent I was happy with. Keep at it until you’ve written something like the book that you envisioned in your head.

Action scenes are, if not the heart of the thriller, the blood and veins. Tell us about your process in crafting an action scene.

I try to think of how I can make such a scene have these elements:

Advances the plot: everything has to do that. Don’t drop your guard just because people are using their bodies as well as their minds.

Exciting: it should have some stakes the reader thinks Dark might reasonably come out on the wrong side of. Harder to do in first person as of course we know he will survive.

Plausible: He’s not a superhero. I often use martial arts guides from the period for plausibility and authenticity’s sake.

Unusual: Is he simply being chased down a street? That’s not very interesting. What if he’s being chased down a street by one person and then realizes a completely different enemy is chasing him from the other end? It’s a fight on a rooftop, okay. What if the rooftop is the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican?

Historically relevant: I don’t always do this, but like to have it so the scene can’t have taken place today, or even can only have taken place at the time I have it. So it’s Rome in 1969, not Rome now. The topmost dome is no longer open. I want every element of the novel to be necessary for this story, and this story alone, not interchangeable.

These aren’t hard and fast rules.

The first three Dark books brought to life 1969 beautifully. Whether it being the exotic but very murky Lagos, the intimidating but dark heart of Rome (pun not intended) or a run across the snow-swept wastes towards the Russo-Finnish border, how do you go about building your setting? And what’s the key to building a fictional universe in your opinion?

That’s very kind, thank you. In my case, a lot of research on the basics. So I spent a long time looking into how one could get across that border, for instance. How long was it, how many watchtowers, dogs, what was the border guards’ routine, who had tried to do this before, etc. I look up weather, contemporary street maps, sometimes visit the place if it makes sense—I did that with Rome—watch films from the time that feature the setting. Then there’s sense memory—I grew up in Lagos—and of course imagination. I throw out a lot of research. You want to hone in on the most vivid details you can. A phrase or even a single word can bring somewhere to life if you place it properly. If there is a key, it might be that when it seems real to you it will to the reader.

What’s your editing process and what sort of things do writers need to do to edit properly?

I don’t have any real process for this. I try to get to the end of a first draft with as little editing as possible, because otherwise you can get hung up. But sometimes that happens despite my best intentions. After the first draft I just keep editing it until I’m happy. Apart from the obvious things like attention to typos and other errors, I watch for voice—the characters should sound distinct. Plot holes, of course. And that the novel feels like a coherent whole.

All writers have their own writing routines, the most famous being Fleming and Hemingway (recently there was an article in Publishers Weekly about someone trying to follow the writing routines of famous writers and he said it suckedperhaps it was the alcohol). Can you describe your own writing routine?

I don’t have one. In the research phase, I tend to read a lot in the day and search for things online late into the night. In the initial writing phase, I try to write every day, sometimes using a word-count as motivation. In the editing stage, edit every day if I can. But none of it’s in stone. Sometimes the key is to get away from the desk and go for a walk or a swim or have a coffee or just stare into space for a bit. For me, writing a book is a cross between being disciplined enough to write that many words, and undisciplined enough to have the inspiration and creativity to do that. The friction between routine and no routine is what makes it work—but it’s a lot easier said than done.


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Agent Of Influence

Agent Of Influence

He was a giant of Cold War journalism, reporting from the alleyways of Vienna, Budapest and Berlin and the jungles of Biafra and Paraguay. A war hero, a Nazi-hunter, a spy and a master manipulator, he also influenced several of the 20th century’s greatest thriller-writers. Jeremy Duns delves into the many worlds of Antony Terry


Tony Terry offers a light to Austrian Chancellor Leopold Figl, Vienna, 1948. (Getty Images. Original publication 'In Vienna Today—A Foreign Correspondents Life', Picture Post, 1948.)

1. THE LONDON STATION

For several years during the Cold War, including while he was writing the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming was also working for the Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as M.I.6.

He was part of a network that at various times also counted among its members Malcolm Muggeridge, Kim Philby, George Blake and Frederick Forsyth. At one point M.I.5 had a long-term plan for John le Carré in the network, but he backed out at the last moment. Had he joined, le Carré would have worked directly for Fleming: a tantalising what-if in espionage history.

M.I.6 ran this network using the somewhat absurd codename ‘BIN’. It was first exposed by the Soviet press in 1968, when Izvestia published M.I.6 documents that listed several of its members and their accompanying code numbers, but the story quickly blew over in Britain after a flurry of scornful denials.

BIN was informally known as ‘the London Station’, and had its headquarters at Londonderry House in Victoria. At one time employing 20 officers, it was part of a larger department within M.I.6 with the title ‘Controller of Production Research’, which arranged all operations against the Soviet Union that used resources within Britain. BIN was initially overseen by Frederick ‘Fanny’ Vanden Heuvel, the dandyish son of a papal count and a friend of Fleming. Vanden Heuvel’s code number was Z-1, an indication that the department had its roots in the Z Organisation, a network of British businessmen who gathered intelligence in parallel to M.I.6 before and during the Second World War, and in which Vanden Heuvel had been a leading figure.

In line with the Z Organisation’s old role, BIN ran the ‘frequent travellers’: Brits who regularly went behind the Iron Curtain for business purposes and agreed to report what they had seen when they returned home. One of these was Greville Wynne, who would become Oleg Penkovsky’s link-man with M.I.6 in Moscow. BIN also targeted foreign diplomats and businessmen working in Britain for recruitment, and carried out the monitoring of embassies’ communications.

Finally, it developed and controlled a network within Britain’s newspaper industry. The press section had three main roles: to arrange journalistic cover for M.I.6 officers travelling behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere; to persuade bona fide journalists to gather intelligence for them on the side; and to encourage journalists to produce articles that had a propaganda benefit for Britain.

The concept of journalists working hand in glove with intelligence agencies is a familiar one in popular consciousness, but hard evidence of it taking place in Britain was scant during the Cold War, and even now this is a relatively neglected area of research among historians of the era considering the central role journalists played in shaping perceptions through those decades. The gap is for several reasons, one of them being that the Cold War is not long dead, and has arguably been reanimated. Journalists’ involvement in espionage raises several thorny ethical dilemmas—they are supposed to be free thinkers who speak truth to power, after all, rather than deceivers in service of the secret state—but even those who weren’t engaged in the practice and disapproved had editors or proprietors who were, and who considered this their patriotic duty. Exposure of M.I.6’s work with journalists would have been breaking the Official Secrets Act, as well as risked betraying colleagues and creating a working assumption overseas that all British correspondents were spies, which might have endangered lives.

Many British journalists and former journalists wrote spy fiction during the Cold War, so one might expect the idea to have featured heavily there, especially as the genre provides ample opportunity to reveal secrets between the lines. But while characters working as correspondents for TASS or Pravda are routinely undercover KGB operatives—with the unwritten implication that this was the case in real life (as it often was)—British spy fiction of the era features very few Western intelligence operatives working under journalistic cover. Even in thrillers this topic was, if not taboo, rarely under the spotlight.

However, as the Cold War waned mentions of this activity became more common, first in vague terms, eventually in detailed accounts. There is now enough information in the public domain to piece together how this was carried out.

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One of the most significant figures recruited by M.I.6’s BIN network was Ian Fleming. Like many others, he had been involved with intelligence during the Second World War: he had been the personal assistant of Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence (D.N.I.). Years later, Fleming would take inspiration from Godfrey when creating James Bond’s boss M, and as a result many have likened Fleming’s wartime activities under Godfrey to those of Bond under M. However, Fleming’s role at Naval Intelligence was much more akin to that of the character Bill Tanner, M’s trusty chief of staff: he drafted memos on Godfrey’s behalf, navigated Whitehall’s politics, and helped arrange and oversee operations. Fleming was a desk man, expressly forbidden from taking part in the field on the grounds that, were he to be captured by the Germans, he knew far too much.

Throughout the war, Fleming was in contact with other branches of British intelligence, including the Special Operations Executive, Bletchley Park, M.I.5 and M.I.6. He also worked with the Political Warfare Executive, a group responsible for creating and disseminating propaganda. Fleming was fluent in German, and was used in P.W.E. broadcasts ‘telling the Germans that all their U-boats leak’.

At the end of the war M.I.6 were interested in taking on people who already knew the espionage ropes, who had proven themselves discreet, efficient and trustworthy, and whose skills would be useful in the coming Cold War. Fleming fitted the bill. Before the war, he had been a reporter for Reuters, most notably covering the Metropolitan-Vickers Trial in Moscow, and also briefly in the same city as a ‘special correspondent’ for The Times in 1939—the latter occasion had opened connections to the espionage world that had led to his job in Naval Intelligence. Now he was to combine journalism with work for M.I.6, as in the war not as a field operative but as a desk man. In late 1945, he accepted a job at the Kemsley newspaper group, the offer having likely been facilitated through his friendship with Fanny Vanden Heuvel.

The Kemsley group included the Sunday Times, putting Fleming right at the heart of Fleet Street. Fleming wrote articles for the Sunday Times, chiefly colour pieces as he had a gift for projecting a simultaneously worldly-wise and boyishly enthusiastic view of subjects that took his fancy. From November 1953, he also compiled the paper’s gossip and miscellany column ‘Atticus’, and reviewed books. However, his main job was as ‘foreign manager’ for the whole Kemsley group, which provided copy for over 20 British national and provincial newspapers and around 600 papers overseas. Fleming managed 88 foreign correspondents, many of whom had also worked for British intelligence in the Second World War—several of whom now continued to do so in peacetime.

The group was officially called the Kemsley Imperial and Foreign Service, but was generally known as ‘Mercury’, its cable address. While M.I.6 had similar arrangements at other newspapers, Mercury was the jewel in its Fleet Street crown, and one mark of its success is how little an operation taking place at one of Britain’s best-known newspapers is known about even today.

Once Fleming had become famous, he often discussed his intelligence work during the Second World War in interviews, but he never publicly mentioned his subsequent work for M.I.6, for the obvious reason that it was ongoing and he would have been blowing his own cover. However, in his 1995 biography of the writer, Andrew Lycett quoted a private letter in which Fleming made his M.I.6 role explicit. As a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Fleming was obliged to spend two weeks a year on a training course, but in 1951 he argued that he should be exempted from this on account of the clandestine aspect of his day job:

‘As foreign manager of the Sunday Times and Kemsley Newspapers, I am engaged throughout the year in running a world-wide intelligence organization, and there could be no better training for the duties I would have to carry out for the D.N.I. in the event of war. As you know, I also carry out a number of tasks on behalf of a department of the Foreign Office and this department would, I believe, be happy to give details of these activities to the D.N.I.’

‘A department of the Foreign Office’ was an unsubtle way of referring to M.I.6 in an attempt to trump the request. The ploy didn’t work and Fleming resigned his R.N.V.R. commission as a result, but it gives us clear evidence in his own hand that he was working for M.I.6 while at Kemsley—and that he was well aware he was fulfilling that role.

The phrase ‘world-wide intelligence organization’ is also telling: Fleming might have been exaggerating Mercury’s importance to get out of a training course, but one senses he was also hinting at his real pride in the network he now controlled, and the power he held through it. A 2012 article in the Sunday Times put this in striking terms:

‘On his office wall at Gray’s Inn Road was a canary-yellow map depicting the Mercury News Service—the huge nexus he set up to service the whole Kemsley group of newspapers. This was the nerve centre of Fleming operations—an ambitious, grandiose plan for world domination that would have done Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself proud.’

Fleming might well have viewed his role with M.I.6 along such lines, but other than the letter unearthed by Andrew Lycett he appears to have kept such thoughts to himself: there are no hints of it in his interviews, articles or novels. He was an important cog in the agency’s machine, but he appears to have carried out his role discreetly. A gentle nudge would have been easily understood in a network largely consisting of old hands in the intelligence game, and activities like this were arranged over liquid lunches at the club or between the lines of letters rather than in ciphers retrieved from dead drops.

An example of the routine, almost casual way in which journalists acted for British intelligence in this way can be seen in the diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge. He had worked for M.I.6 during the war, but by 1950 was an editor at The Daily Telegraph, where he performed the same role for the agency as Fleming at The Sunday Times. In January 1950, he recorded a visit to a very ill George Orwell, before adding:

‘Visited in the evening by M.I.6 character who wants cover to go to Indo-China.’

And it was as simple as that.

For Fleming, involvement with M.I.6 was mutually beneficial. Thanks to his pulling strings in the background, several M.I.6 operatives received the excellent cover of working for one of Britain’s best-known newspapers while they were carrying out secret assignments around the world. But Fleming also used the role for his own purposes, incorporating intelligence he learned or sought out from these operatives into his novels. In turn, more by accident than design, his books would come to serve as propaganda for M.I.6 in particular, and for Britain in general.

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Agent of Influence is out now: information on where to buy it is here


Dead Drop Optioned

Dead Drop Optioned

I said this on Facebook a while back, but just a heads up that my non-fiction book Dead Drop (Codename: HERO in the US) has been optioned for a feature film. The plan is to focus on an unusual friendship that developed in the most tense of situations, that between Soviet agent-in-place Oleg Penkovsky and British businessman Greville Wynne, who was acting as a liaison between Penkovsky and MI6 and the CIA. In the background: the growing Berlin crisis, the Wall going up, and finally the shadow of nuclear armageddon with the Cuban Missile Crisis...