The Guardian’s Prism revelations, Orwell and the spooks

The name of George Orwell, author of the dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is constantly being invoked in media coverage of the latest Prism scandal. Yet Orwell’s relationship with the spooks was somewhat complex, as Richard Lance Keeble outlines.

Amidst the saturation media coverage of the latest state surveillance scandal one name constantly appears – that of George Orwell. And on Facebook, interest in all things Orwellian has soared over recent days. It’s not surprising: Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the seminal representation of a Big Brother society in which the state’s gaze intrudes into all aspects of life. Sales have apparently rocketed by more than 7,000 per cent on of late.

Yet Orwell’s own ties with intelligence and the secret state are complicated – to say the least. On the one hand, he was followed closely by the spooks from the moment he began his journalistic career in Paris in 1929 until his death at 46 in 1950. But late in his life the evidence suggests he may well have collaborated with intelligence. All rather intriguing.

In 2008, the release of Orwell’s 39-page MI5/Scotland Yard file (file number kv2/2699) to the National Archives showed that once he started writing for left wing newspapers in Paris in the late 1920s, his every move appears to have been watched. In a report for British intelligence (code number CX/12650/1988 dated 8 February 1929) Captain Miller of Scotland Yard reported on Orwell:

He is a single man and lodges at 6, Rue du Pot de Fer, Paris, having arrived in France on 7.6. 28. BLAIR apparently states that he is the Paris correspondent for the “Daily Herald”, “Daily Express”, “G.K’s Weekly”, but he makes no mention of the “Workers’ Weekly”. BLAIR [here, the name of the source is blanked out] states, wrote three articles in the “Progress Civique” of 29.12.28., 5th and 12th January, 1929, entitled “La Grande Misère de l’Ouvrier Britannique”.

A later report, dated 11 March 1936 (coded 301/NWC/683), shows the high degree of surveillance directed at Orwell, his every career and life move being recorded. For instance, it records the publication of Burmese Days by ‘Victor Gollancz, Ltd, 14 Henrietta Street, W.C., a firm which specialises in Left Wing literature’. His time as ‘down and out’, his becoming a ‘master at a preparatory school known as “The Hawthorns”, Church Road, Hayes, Middlesex’ and then at Fray’s College, Harefield Road, Uxbridge, Middlesex until the end of 1933, his time as a patient at Uxbridge and District Cottage Hospital are all noted.

While fighting in Spain in 1936 and 1937 for the Republicans against General Franco’s Fascist troops, Orwell was spied on by the both the Communists and MI6. Orwell’s biographer Gordon Bowker revealed that David Crook, a young communist from London, spied on Orwell, his newly married wife Eileen, who visited him on the frontline, and other members of the contingent from the Independent Labour Party. Crook had been taught the techniques of surveillance by Ramon Mercader, a communist who later murdered Trotsky in Mexico with an ice-pick. And he took his orders from the Soviet espionage agency, then known as the NKVD and later renamed the KGB.

Details of Crook’s activities are held in the KGB archives, although Orwell’s KGB file is still under wraps. Among his reports was an observation that he was ‘95 per cent certain’ that Eileen was having an affair with Georges Kopp, another ILP member. Crook had been instructed by the Soviets to seek out the existence of affairs, as such information could enable the communists to blackmail vulnerable targets. He passed his reports to Hugh O’Donnell, another communist from London, whose codename was O’Brien. According to Bowker, Orwell was oblivious to this: ‘The fact that the character in Nineteen Eighty-Four who first wins the confidence of Winston Smith and then betrays him is given the name O’Brien must be one of the strangest coincidences in literature’.

When in August 1941 Orwell joined the Empire Department of the BBC, the Special Branch file indicates that he continued to be watched (the source clearly being an employee of the BBC). But then shortly afterwards he befriended David Astor, the millionaire Observer journalist whose father owned the newspaper and who was to be its celebrated editor from 1948 to 1975, and Orwell’s links to intelligence may well have begun. Astor served in the early part of the Second World War in naval intelligence alongside Ian Fleming (later author of the James Bond spy novels) and later with the covert Special Operation Executive (SOE). Thereafter, he maintained close links with intelligence.

In 1944 Astor was transferred to a unit liaising between SOE and the resistance in France, helping the French underground in London spread the word to groups throughout Europe. While in Paris in 1945 on a reporting assignment for the Observer and Manchester Evening News, Orwell, perhaps inspired by Astor, attended the first conference of the Committee for European Federation, bringing together resistance groups from around Europe. The French novelist and editor of Combat, Albert Camus, was amongst those present. Significantly most of the men Orwell met in Paris on his assignment (Malcolm Muggeridge, A. J. ‘Freddie’ Ayer, Harold Acton – and even the novelist Ernest Hemingway) all had ties to intelligence. Yet David Astor told me in an interview in 2000, a year before he died, that Orwell had no intelligence links and Peter Davison, editor of Orwell’s twenty volume collected works, commented: ‘I doubt if Orwell would be involved with intelligence – but that by no means says he wasn’t.’

Speculation about Orwell’s links with the secret services intensified after Michael Sheldon reported in his 1991 biography of Orwell that he had drawn up a ‘little list’ of 36 people, briefly (and somewhat crudely) identifying their politics, religious affiliations, sexual preferences and possible Communist sympathies. Orwell supplied the list to his friend, the sister in law of the author Arthur Koestler, Celia Kirwan (née Paget) in 1949 when she was working as Robert Conquest’s assistant for the secret state’s propaganda unit, the Information Research Department (IRD), recently established by the Labour government. Orwell’s original list contained 105 names. Intriguingly, the British government still refuses to open up the notebook to public view. The ‘known’ suspects include Labour MPs, the future Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis, authors J. P. Priestley and John Steinbeck, journalist Richard Crossman, actors Michael Redgrave, Charlie Chaplin and Paul Robeson, actor and director Orson Welles, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Isaac Deutscher.

The release of Public Record Office documents in 1995 finally threw some light on the IRD. It ‘ran’ dozens of Fleet Street journalists and a vast array of news agencies across the globe until (according to the official record) it was closed down by Foreign Secretary David Owen in 1977. It was funded, like MI6, by the ‘secret vote’ and was thus beyond parliamentary scrutiny. John Rennie, its second head between 1953 and 1958, was later appointed head of MI6. IRD distributed across the globe ‘white’ (true), ‘grey’ (partially true) and ‘black’ (false) propaganda, planting smears, lies, false rumours and forged official reports in the media.

All this, then, throws up a new perspective on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here is one of the most famous warnings about the emergence of a totalitarian state dominated by its secret service – written by a man who probably had close links with the spooks. But then Orwell was a very witty man – and a master of irony.

• See: Keeble, Richard Lance (2012) Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Spooks, Keeble, R. L. (ed.) Orwell Today, Bury St Edmunds, Abramis pp 151-164


One thought on “The Guardian’s Prism revelations, Orwell and the spooks

  1. Enjoyed your article enormously I wondered if a. Russia publishing house would be able to print the KGB to include Orwell’s missing notebook…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s