Monday, 30 November -0001

Radio Review: 24 April

Spooky goings on revealed in Radio 4 documentary

Written by Louis Barfe
Louis-Barfe-colour-176Room 101 in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was inspired by a dull meeting room in Broadcasting House, but what was it about Room 105 that had BBC Chairman Marmaduke Hussey ‘choking on his smoked salmon’ when MP Chris Mullin asked about it at a lunch in the 1980s?

The answer is that it was the office of the BBC’s ‘Security Liaison Advisor’, Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, whose duty was to vet BBC staff to make sure they weren’t dangerous subversives.

Outside the BBC, Communist Party of Great Britain members like historian Eric Hobsbawm were spied upon by MI 5, the subject of a highly diverting documentary by Frances Stonor Saunders. Hobsbawm knew it was going on. In those days, post arriving late was unusual, so the delay could only have been for it to be steamed open, photographed and resealed. The question was why members of a legitimate political party, albeit one with close links to Moscow, should be treated in this way, but Peter Hennessy pointed out that ‘in a nasty world, you need forewarning; we were immensely vulnerable’.

The result was that the spooks had to dredge through a lot of mundanity just in case anything significant turned up. Hobsbawm’s widow Marlene said that it became just something they dealt with, having ‘nothing to hide’.

The great sadness is that Hobsbawm tried to gain access to the file all through his life, but it was only released after his death. We heard little from Hobsbawm’s MI 5 file, presumably because the contents were so ordinary. It was good to be reminded that James Bond is not representative of most spies and that the job involves an awful lot of filing.

The Hobsbawm File, BBC Radio 4, is available on iPlayer.

Louis on Twitter: @LFBarfe or email: wireless@cheeseford.net


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