Magazine article The Spectator

Government Pressure

Magazine article The Spectator

Government Pressure

Article excerpt

We were reminded last week in The Long View on Radio Four (Tuesday) that the refusal of the BBC to name Dr David Kelly as Andrew Gilligan's source for his Today report was not the first time that journalists have held out against government pressure. It happened in 1963, of course, when two newspaper reporters refused to divulge their sources about the spy John Vassall to the Radcliffe Tribunal and were in consequence sent to prison.

It seems even more absurd, thinking about it now, that the journalists should have been jailed for not revealing who told them that Vassall, a homosexual, had a large and expensive wardrobe and that he bought and dressed in women's clothes. But the Macmillan government became as unhinged about the case as the Blair government did over Dr Kelly. As homosexuality was still illegal then, Vassall, an Admiralty filing clerk, had been blackmailed by the Russians to pass secrets to them. As the clerk responsible for locking away these secrets every evening, he was able to pass important information to Moscow, for which he was paid handsomely.

When Vassall was arrested, the press began to investigate possible links with ministers in what Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Mirror and author of a history of the postwar press, described to the presenter Jonathan Freedland as 'a feeding frenzy'. As Vassall's trial had been in secret, newspapers felt that they needed to know more. Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail and Reg Foster of the Daily Sketch dug up information about Vassall's way of life. Mulholland discovered that he possessed 19 expensive suits, 100 ties, 300 shirts and 12 pairs of shoes; that he ordered his sherry from Bond Street and dined regularly at Simpson's. He wondered why no one at the Admiralty had questioned how this could he managed on a salary of L15 a week. Foster wrote that he also bought women's clothes.

As a diversion, Macmillan set up the Radcliffe Tribunal, a judicial inquiry before which ministers and journalists appeared. Despite the triviality of the information the two reporters had been given about Vassall's high-living, Lord Radcliffe recommended that they should he prosecuted for contempt of court. …

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