John le Carre’s 2013 novel, A Delicate Truth, includes a return of sorts, if only briefly, to the practice of an agent disguising himself as a journalist in order to make contact with a needed source. If the persona, assumed as effortlessly as ever by le Carre’s protagonist, seems somewhat archaic, it isn’t.
The tradition of mixing the crafts of spying and journalism has continued to flourish into the new century, but the pushback this time has come, not from governmental subcommittees or cries for new laws, but from the press and its reporters as well as several agents who worked inside the intelligence organizations.
During the 1990s, British Intelligence officers David Shayler of MI5 and Richard Tomlinson of MI6 revealed the truth about certain secret operations, some of which were connected to the realm of journalism. The efforts of these two whistleblowers prompted veteran journalist David Leigh to write about, in a 2000 article for the British Journalism Review, his concerns in what he saw as the manipulation of the media by British Intelligence.
It’s not surprising that Leigh cites as a worry “the continuing deliberate blurring by MI6 of the line between journalist and spy,” accomplished by attempting “to recruit journalists to spy on other people, or to go themselves under journalistic ‘cover.’ ”
Leigh notes that “Tomlinson himself, by his own account, spent six months in 1993 traveling around Croatia and Serbia trying to recruit informants, under the guise of a British journalist.” Such a practice, he exhorts, should be halted along with situations in which “intelligence officers are allowed to pose as journalists in order to write tendentious articles under false names.”
The blurring of the line between the two crafts makes the truth more difficult to discern and, in some cases, determining it is not a priority. “Farzad Bazoft,” Leigh writes, “was a colleague of mine on the Observer when he was executed by Saddam Hussein for espionage. In a sense it didn’t matter whether he was really a spy or not. Either way, he ended up dead.”
In 2003, Alicia Upano addressed a similar issue in The News Media and the Law, citing “several accounts of foreign reporters imprisoned because they were believed to be spies.” Upano also reports that “the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Washington representative, Frank Smyth, said that it is not uncommon for U.S. journalists working abroad to be mistaken for spies,” but that “there was nothing the U.S. government could do to protect journalists – as any policy aimed at journalists themselves may make things worse…”
For his third example of what he calls “malpractice,” Leigh discusses the occasions “when intelligence agency propaganda stories are planted on willing journalists, who disguise their origin from their readers,” acknowledging that the practice has a history dating back to World War II. Disinformation planted by secret services, he observes, results in a harsher reality than journalists might care to admit: “In our vanity, we imagine that we control these sources. But the truth is that they are very deliberately seeking to control us.”
“Truth will out,” Shakespeare writes in Merchant of Venice. For decades, truth has been a grail for questing reporters, sometimes elusive but never nonexistent. Leigh’s attempt to safeguard objective reporting of the news, which still has its own identity, purpose and place in the world, is a noble effort, not unlike A Delicate Truth.
In the novel’s final pages, it’s possible to infer that le Carre might intend the real hero of the book to be journalism plying its true trade in a world in which the boundaries within countries can be more threatening than those separating nations, where intelligence agents can accomplish only so much in quelling the consequences. If the delicacy of truth can never be overestimated, isn’t it worth protecting?