Whistle-blowing, holding government to account, intelligence services over-reaching their legitimate exercise of power, democratic accountability and mass surveillance are all elements of some of the biggest news stories of recent years. But they are also features of a much earlier series of events, widely reported at the time but scarcely remembered now. Many years before the internet and WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden there was the Zircon affair.

The British state has long been obsessed with secrecy. 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of an instance of direct political censorship regarded by some as one of Britain’s biggest post-war security scandals. Most people today will know nothing about the series of events that came close to toppling the Thatcher government, led directly to the sacking of the BBC’s director-general Alasdair Milne, and marked a turning point in the BBC’s role in relation to freedom of information and the state.

The episode raised one of the most pressing issues of our time concerning the right of citizens to know and criticise policies carried out in their name: What do governments think they can do without parliament’s permission and public accountability? Looking back from 30 years on, it is possible to see the events of 1986-7 as prefiguring much that has transpired since concerning foreign policy, free speech, secrecy and openness. They also represent a watershed in British broadcasting history.

In November 1985 Scottish investigative journalist Duncan Campbell was commissioned by the BBC to present and research a six-part documentary series called 'Secret Society', directed by BBC current affairs staff director and investigative journalist, Brian Barr, who was my husband. Campbell, then a staff journalist for the New Statesman, had been a co-defendant in the so-called 'ABC trial’ of 1977-8, charged with offences against the Official Secrets Act. He had exposed the fact that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) along with the USA National Security Agency (NSA) were operating a massive global electronic surveillance network from locations around Britain without parliamentary accountability or public scrutiny.

Now, working on a tip-off, Campbell discovered that GCHQ intended to build a signals intelligence (spy) satellite codenamed Zircon. The government had somehow failed to mention this to parliament. Campbell had planned to use an episode of 'Secret Society' to reveal the existence of Zircon, but found while researching the story in the summer of 1986 that the head of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Robert Sheldon, knew nothing of the project.

The Public Accounts Committee is a cross-party select committee of the House of Commons, responsible for overseeing government expenditures. An agreement in place between parliament and the British government required expensive military projects to be scrutinised by the committee. In failing to have its projected budget for Zircon presented to the Public Accounts Committee the government was in violation of the1982 'Chevaline agreement’ to inform the PAC of any military scheme liable to cost over £200m.

The agreement was named after the 'Chevaline’ upgrade of the Polaris nuclear weapon system which was pushed through during the premierships of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan without public knowledge, until 1980 when costs hit the billion pounds mark. This resulted in a critical report from the PAC two years later. PAC chair Sheldon's ignorance of the Zircon project was evidence of the violation of this agreement. This was the main secret to be exposed by the Zircon programme. Speaking in a BBC Radio 4 interview in 2011, Brian Barr took up the story:

The Secret Society series looked into darker corners of Britain. BBC2 commissioned it in 1985. Duncan had found out from a whistleblower that a major project costing £500m had been hidden away in the defence budget without parliament being told. It was a signals intelligence (sigint) satellite of the sort nowadays used to intercept mobile phone conversations. Government had broken a promise to parliament that it had made previously.

We interviewed Prof Sir Ronald Mason who had been chief scientific adviser to the government at the time of Zircon. We knew as soon as Duncan asked him about Zircon that the cat would be out of the bag. So we had to plan the interview well. Duncan started by asking him general questions about America’s role in signals intelligence and the dependence of the UK on the US. Then at the start of the second roll of film he asked: ‘What difference will the Zircon project make to the situation between Britain and the US?’ Sir Ronald’s jaw literally dropped for what seemed 30 seconds but was really around 10 seconds. Then he said very quietly: ‘I’m so sorry I can’t talk to you about that’. It was the confirmation we needed. We packed up very quickly.

Soon the BBC said it wouldn’t be transmitting the programme, completely wrongly, ‘in the interest of national security’. These satellites are not secret. They are very large objects and anyone can instantly tell it is not a communications satellite but a signals intelligence satellite. The Soviet Union would have known immediately. It would be identical to a dozen the US had. The secrecy wasn’t about the satellite and what it could do. That was well known. It was about deception and the government deceiving parliament.

A meeting of the BBC board of governors was held on 13 November 1986, chaired by Marmaduke Hussey who had been recommended as chairman by Margaret Thatcher and her ministers. Opposition to Campbell at the meeting came especially from Daphne Park, a former MI6 operative, who called Campbell a 'destroyer’ whom the BBC should never have employed. On 5 December 1986, Alan Protheroe, assistant director-general of the BBC, wrote to director-general Alasdair Milne saying that the Zircon episode should not be transmitted.

Protheroe, responsible for supervising journalism at the BBC, also had links to the intelligence services and the military. After speaking to the Ministry of Defence he claimed that the Zircon episode would damage national security. The BBC board of governors held two further meeting before Christmas 1986, at which Milne – as his memoir discloses – was 'hounded’ over 'Secret Society'. Milne made a decision not to broadcast the Zircon episode during the Christmas holiday.

Brian Barr recalled: 'Protheroe kept coming to meetings saying he had spoken to the MoD who were saying the satellite was part of Skynet, a military communications satellite system to keep the UK in touch with its NATO allies. But it was to be positioned over the Indian Ocean! – a good location for listening in on the Soviet Union but not our allies [cold war politics, though on the wane, still prevailed]. Protheroe kept saying it was nothing to do with signals intelligence’.

On 18 January 1987 the Zircon affair was publicly revealed by the Observer with the headline 'BBC gag on £500m defence secret’. An injunction was obtained by the attorney-general on January 21 restraining Campbell from talking or writing about the contents of the episode. On 22 January Campbell published an article in the New Statesman against which the government issued an injunction. The attorney-general instructed police from Special Branch to uncover the whistleblowers’ identities, and to establish whether the Official Secrets Act had been breached. Special Branch duly raided Campbell's London home as well as the homes of his researchers and the New Statesman's offices.

MP Robin Cook managed to obtain a video of the Zircon documentary and arranged a showing to MPs in the House of Commons. That day, the speaker ruled that pending a report by the Committee of Privileges no part of the Palace of Westminster was to be used for screening the video. There was much political consternation at the ruling and it was instead screened nearby. Soon civil liberties organisations arranged public showings of the video throughout the UK.

Brian Barr took up the story:

A bootleg copy got out of the BBC and showings appeared all over the place - in town halls, trade union halls, civil liberties venues. Everything got hectic at that point and then the New Statesman was raided looking for the whistleblower. Then there was a raid on Duncan’s house. Film of the Special Branch pushing in his door went all around the world. We half expected something would happen in Glasgow. True enough on a Saturday morning as I was about to go and watch my son playing football I got a call saying Special Branch had arrived at the BBC and I spent the rest of the day watching them clearing out everything to do with the entire series, leaving only the furniture.
Duncan and I were questioned twice by the Special Branch wanting the name of the whistleblower. The police said you realise guys you are facing life imprisonment as you are being questioned under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act (which deals with espionage). Then things went quiet. We were left with no material and so went our separate ways.

Special Branch officers raided the offices of BBC Scotland on 31 January 1987. Their warrant, issued under the Official Secrets Act, had been authorised by the lord advocate, the Scottish equivalent of the attorney-general, and like him a member of the government. The raid lasted 28 hours. At an emergency debate held in the House of Commons the following Tuesday, strong protests were made about a police state and civil liberties by Tony Benn, Roy Jenkins, David Steele, and Donald Dewar.

Duncan Campbell’s most chilling memory of the events is not of the Special Branch raids themselves but of his visit to the House of Commons during the long debate on the raid. He watched from the gallery as MPs called it the work of a 'second-rate police state’ and condemned it for intimidation of the press. Lord Barnett, vice-chairman of the BBC board of governors and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons at the time of the 'Chevaline agreement’, came into the gallery. Duncan recalls that when he rose to greet Barnett, he looked scared and turned tail.

Barnett was not alone in failing to challenge the prime minister. The Guardian called opposition leader Neil Kinnock’s performance 'pitiful’; MPs should be pressing for explanations, it argued, 'not scuttling for cover as soon as the PM starts unfurling the flag’. Failing in courage and judgement, writes Duncan Campbell in 1989, 'Neil Kinnock and others opened the door to the invasion of their own rights as much as ours. The effective result of the "Secret Society" affair has been that instead of consolidating investigative journalism as an important part of television production and media specialism, it has once again been marginalised'.

Four episodes of the 'Secret Society' series eventually aired on BBC2, and Zircon was re-edited for a late-night studio discussion – by which time most people who were interested had already seen it anyway. The sixth episode was titled 'Cabinet', and focused on secret Cabinet committees. It revealed that some committees under the Thatcher government had been orchestrating secret surveillance and action against perfectly legal and legitimate organisations like CND. The broadcast of the 'Cabinet' episode was cancelled due to the imminent 1987 general election.

On 15 June 1989 in a parliamentary debate on civil liberties and Bill of Rights Labour MP Alistair Darling, then still in opposition, claimed that the true reason for the Zircon affair was to distract from the 'Cabinet' episode of 'Secret Society'. Darling said: 'We saw the Zircon tapes seized as an elaborate blind [because] the Cabinet episode concerned the election campaign of 1983 and the fact that the Government sought to undermine and spy on the citizens of this country. Their object was to prevent the programme from being shown, and the Zircon affair was a blind'.

Be that as it may, the threat of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act hung over Duncan Campbell and Brian Barr until late1987, when they learned from questions asked in Parliament by George Galloway and Tam Dalyell that the lord advocate had advised that no prosecutions would proceed in Scotland. They were not surprised. Brian recalled: ‘The last thing the government wanted to do was have all of that aired in court because the Zircon affair had nothing to do with national security and everything to do with political embarrassment’. A recent book on media history concludes in similar vein: ‘What [the programmes] revealed was certainly politically embarrassing but in no conceivable way breached the Act’ (Routledge Companion to British Media History, 2014, p. 444).

Brian loved to quote the Paisley Daily Express headline at the time: ‘Ex-Paisley choirboy in spy scandal’, and claimed that one of his and Duncan’s proudest moments was Mrs Thatcher’s reference to them as ‘rats gnawing at the roots of good government’ – a great image for a campaign if ever there was one.

Alasdair Milne’s son, former Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, believes that by the time of the Zircon affair preparations to sack his father as BBC director-general were already well underway. Whether or not this is so, his father’s ousting by Marmaduke Hussey and the BBC board of governors on 29 January 1987, just two days before the BBC Special Branch raid, is a watershed in Britain’s broadcasting history. Milne’s autobiography makes it clear that he believed the main reason he was sacked was the 'Secret Society' series. Brian Barr regretted Milne’s departure, saying: ‘Although he decided under huge pressure not to show the Zircon episode, most programme makers were sorry to see him go because he was very supportive to them. He was a great loss to the BBC’.

The consequences were soon clear enough. The BBC was required to privatise a quarter of its programming; John Birt, appointed director-general of an enfeebled BBC (after Milne’s immediate replacement by Michael Checkland, an accountant), forced through the ‘producer choice’ internal market – justified as a way of preventing an outright sell-off – and Rupert Murdoch and Sky were handed lucrative regulatory favours.

But for all its ‘creeping corporate capture’, says Seumas Milne, the BBC still remains an obstacle to the complete private takeover of communications and a 'stubborn outpost of a public service ethos’. It still hosts and promotes creative programming and journalism that would otherwise be completely marginalised. For that to survive in the digital era, the corporation’s independence has to be re-established, its governance democratised and the process of corporate dismemberment reversed.

This is one of the lessons of the Zircon affair. Political independence and bold public service broadcasting go hand in hand in any self-respecting democracy.

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