Spooks and Scoops: Astor, Orwell, the Observer and a Frisson of Risk

orwell-astor-graves-in-viewGeorge Orwell and David Astor now lie in the same churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire

by Richard Lance Keeble

The publication of a special supplement to celebrate The Observer’s 225 years (on 4 December 2016) provides a useful opportunity to explore the newspaper’s fascinating attitude towards David Astor, the great friend of George Orwell and its celebrated editor from 1948-1975. *i

Astor, after all, had close ties to the spooks. His intelligence links went back as far as 1939, when he did ‘secret service stuff’, according to his cousin, Joyce Grenfell (Macintyre 2014: 2014). He served in the early part of the Second World War in naval intelligence alongside Ian Fleming (later author of the James Bond spy novels) (Cabell 2008: 12) and then with the covert Special Operations Executive. SOE was established by PM Winston Churchill and Hugh Dalton in July 1940 ‘to facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines’ and serve as the nucleus of a resistance movement if Britain were invaded by the Axis Powers (ibid: 45). Thereafter, Astor maintained close links with intelligence.

Robert McCrum, in the anniversary supplement, describes Astor’s ties with the spooks colourfully: ‘He was fascinated by journalism and jeopardy – and highly susceptible to the romance of the secret world where the spy and journalist share an interest in covert observation mixed with a frisson of risk.’ And Andrew Rawnsley, in a piece celebrating the Observer’s politics, writes: ‘It was from the 1940s, under the editorship-ownership of David Astor, that the paper became the leading liberal voice in post-war Britain.’

Phillip Knightley (1986: 131), in his seminal history of intelligence, The Second Oldest Profession, records that when in July 1939 Colonel Count Gerhardt von Schwerin, of the German General Staff, arrived in the UK as a spokesman for the German opposition to Hitler, he was met by David Astor. Cabell (2008: 29; 49) writes that Astor and Fleming worked alongside Dennis Wheatley (specialising in deception plans), later to become the occult/adventure novelist. Cabell also reports that Fleming may well have played a central role in luring Rudolf Hess to Scotland in May 1941 (ibid: 40-52).

After he became editor of the Observer, Astor employed Terence Kilmartin (who had worked for Section D, MI6, and SOE – as did his sister – during the war and then for an MI6-backed Arab radio station) who became assistant literary editor in 1950 and literary editor in 1952. *ii In the special Observer anniversary supplement, Nick Cohen devotes a section, in his piece on ‘writers of great polemical clarity’; to Kilmartin, describing him as a ‘great literary editor’ but makes no mention of his intelligence ties.

In 1956, Astor was persuaded to offer cover for the SIS agent, Kim Philby, later revealed as a Soviet spy, as a journalist in Beirut. Intriguingly, in the special supplement, Robert McCrum, in an article highlighting ‘stories that have shaped the Observer’, asks (rather innocently) whether Astor was aware of Philby’s double life. Significantly, Sebastian Faulks comments (in parenthesis) (1997: 265): ‘Neither Astor nor the SIS then knew that Philby was also working for the KGB.’ But Ben Macintyre, in his excellent biography of Philby (2014: 205), writes astutely: ‘Astor later claimed, implausibly, that he had no idea Philby would be working for MI6 while reporting for his newspaper.’

Astor is mentioned on a list of journalists with close MI6 connections by Robin Ramsay in a review of Anthony Cavendish’s Inside intelligence (1967). Included were Lord Arran on the Daily Mail, W. I. Farr, Michael Berry (Lord Hartwell), Roy Pawley, Tom Harris, Michael Field of the Telegraph, Wing Commander Paul Richey at the Daily Express. At the Observer, there was David Astor, Mark Arnold-Foster, Wayland Young (Lord Kennet) and Edward Crankshaw; Brian Crozier at the Economist, Stuart McLean, vice-chairman of Associated Newspapers; John S. Whitlock, managing editor of Butterworth Publications; P. Morgan, editor British Plastic; G. Paulton, of Arbeiter Zeitung (Vienna), and Henry Brandon at The Sunday Times. *iii

Nick Cohen opens his article referring to Orwell. But no mention is made either of his great friendship with Astor nor of his possibly working for him on some kind of intelligence mission in 1945. *iv

Both Richard Crockett (1991: 94) and Bernard Crick (1982: 425-426) report that Astor had been determined to meet Orwell after reading his Lion and the Unicorn (1941) and finally secured an introduction to him through Cyril Connolly, an old Etonian friend of Orwell, then editing the influential journal Horizon and filling in for the Observer’s literary editor. They met in a café near the BBC off Portland Place where Orwell was working on broadcasts to India and quickly became friends. After leaving the BBC in November 1943, Orwell planned to report for the Observer from Algiers and Sicily following the Allied landings but the authorities turned him down on health grounds. Orwell then quickly acquired the post of literary editor at the leftist weekly Tribune, which he held until February 1945 when he resigned to take on the war reporting assignment. *v

Was it a cover for an intelligence mission? Dorril (2000: 457) certainly reports that 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, perhaps inspired by Astor, Orwell 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. Astor was later adamant that Orwell had no intelligence links *vi 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.’ *vii


i Astor was named as one of the 40 Greats of the British newspaper industry by the UK Press Gazette on 22 November 2005 (in a glossy special supplement titled ‘The newspaper hall of fame’)
ii See http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Terence_Kilmartin; and Dorril, Stephen, Spooks, Lobster, No. 22 p. 16
iii See http://www.8bitmode.com/rogerdog/lobster/lobster15.pdf
iv Orwell would not have been alone in working for intelligence during the war: Other intellectuals/writers included A. P. Herbert, Arthur Koestler (who had previously served the Soviet Comintern while a journalist during the Spanish civil war), David Garnett, Elizabeth Bowen, novelist Muriel Spark, Alec Waugh and his brother Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene (Bower 1995: 227)
v Tribune was later to be distributed to British missions abroad by the government’s secret propaganda outfit, the Information Research Department (Norton-Taylor and Milne 1996). ‘[It] combines the resolute exposure of communism and its methods with the consistent championship of those objectives which leftwing sympathisers normally support. … Many articles in it can be effectively turned to this department’s purposes’ (ibid)
vi In an interview with the author, London, November 1999
vii In a letter to the author dated 7 December 1999


Bower, Tom (1995) The perfect English spy: Sir Dick White and the secret war 1935-1990, London: William Heinemann

Dorril, Stephen (2000) MI6: Fifty years of special operations, London: Fourth Estate

Cabell, Craig (2008) Ian Fleming’s secret war, Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books

Crick, Bernard (1982) George Orwell: A life, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books

Crockett, Richard (1991) David Astor and the Observer, London: Deutsch

Faulks, Sebastian (1997) The fatal Englishman: Three short lives, London: Vintage

Knightley, Phillip (1986) The second oldest profession: The spy as bureaucrat, patriot, fantasist and whore, London: Andre Deutsch

Macintyre, Ben (2014) A spy among friends: Philby and the great betrayal, London: Bloomsbury

Norton-Taylor, Richard and Milne, Seamus (1996) Orwell offered writers’ blacklist to anti-Soviet propaganda unit, Guardian, 11 July

Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln and Visiting Professor at Liverpool Hope University. He has written and edited 35 books, is the joint editor of both Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics and George Orwell Studies and chair of the Orwell Society.

Photograph: L J Hurst

Last updated: 5 December 2016

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