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Revealed: A Conservative Government, the Media and a Secret Disinformation Unit

Ivor Gaber reveals how a secretive government agency help secure criminal convictions against trade unionists for violent picketing and why their convictions have been overturned – fifty years on

Ricky Tomlinson joins protesting at the BBC’s decision to axe free TV licences pensioners in 2019. Photo: Alamy/PA Images

RevealedA Conservative Government, the Media, and aSecret Disinformation Unit

Ivor Gaber reveals how a secretive government agency helped secure criminal convictions against trade unionists for violent picketing and why their convictions have been overturned – 50 years on

Ricky Tomlinson, star of TV’s The Royle Family has called for a public inquiry into the role of the “secret state” in the prosecution of him and 24 fellow trade unionist almost 50 years ago.

Tomlinson was speaking at the end of an Appeal Court hearing which overturned the convictions and imprisonment for picketing offences that occurred in 1973 during the first national strike of building workers against unsafe working conditions. 

Announcing the decision at the Appeal Court, Lord Justice Fulford said: “By the standards of today, what occurred was unfair to the extent that the verdicts cannot be upheld.”

Tomlinson’s call for an inquiry followed revelations heard in the Court about how a secretive anti-communist propaganda department within the Foreign Office – the Information Research Department (IRD) – had collaborated with journalists to secure the men’s jailing.

It all hinged on a TV programme, less than subtlety titled ‘Reds Under the Bed, presented by a notorious right-wing Labour MP, Woodrow Wyatt, in which the IRD played a pivotal role. It was screened at the very same time that the members of the jury were considering their verdicts in Tomlinson’s case. Indeed, unsuccessful attempts were made at the time by the trade unionists’ defence team to have the case thrown out because of contempt of court by the TV company.

Tomlinson’s QC  told the Appeal Court that the programme “…unfairly influenced jurors when they decided to convict the men” and went on to claim, “It is obvious that a covert executive agency (the IRD) played a part in deliberately propagandising against the core subject matter of the proceedings… It is clear now that the higher echelons of the state bore responsibility for deliberate covert involvement in the production of the programme.”

The IRD was established by a Labour Government in 1948 as part of the West’s anti-communist propaganda effort at the start of the Cold War; it rapidly established a cosy relationship with the BBC, pumping out a steady stream of anti-communist material to news desks, writers and correspondents, initially to those based at the Corporation and then much more widely.

The material it produced was either very biased, or at times, blatantly untrue including producing fake press releases from Communist-backed organisations. It was particularly active in the Middle East where Britain had both oil and strategic interests and then,  as the Communist threat appeared to recede, it increasingly turned its attention to more local matters including events in Ireland and the activities of  left-wing organisations and trade union activists in the UK.

Paul Lashmar, who first started investigating the IRD at much the same time as Tomlinson and Warren were being jailed in a new book, Spies, Spin and the Fourth Estate, tells how, during a campaign in 2013 to clear Tomlinson and his fellow trade unionists, documentation was found in the national archive that revealed that the contentious TV programme had indeed been made in close collaboration with the IRD. They had worked hand-in-glove with Wyatt and after the broadcast, the Private Secretary to the then Prime Minister, Ted Heath, noted that the PM  wanted “as much as possible of this sort of thing”.

But just three years later, with a Labour Government again ensconced, Foreign Secretary David Owen closed down the IRD. Much of its work was continued in the Foreign Office by a new organisation called the Overseas Information Department but that was, according to the Foreign Office closed in 1980. At the time,  Mrs Thatcher wanted to reinstate the IRD,  but wiser counsels prevailed, and it never happened, or at least so we’re led to believe.

The IRD, and its role in the 1970s in subverting legitimate trade union activity, the media and even the courts, is a classic example of the failure of the Government, any government, to make the security services accountable. 

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