New Statesman & Society, 24 February 1995
The Sunday Times's KGB smears against Michael Foot are as laughable as they are shoddy. A brief look at Foot's record soon refutes the Wapping lies, writes Paul Anderson
The Sunday Times has run some reprehensible journalism in the past few years – the Hitler diaries, "Kinnock: the Kremlin connection", the obsessional claims that the human immuno-deficiency virus does not cause Aids. But nothing quite matches its front page last weekend.
"KGB: Michael Foot was our agent," announced the splash headline. "Former Labour leader defends cash to Tribune," ran the tagline. Underneath was a long piece from "home affairs reporter David Leppard", trailing a two-page feature, running right across the first two inside news pages, that purported to show that Foot had taken money from the Soviet secret police in the early 1960s to subsidise the weekly newspaper he had helped to found in 1937.
And the evidence? Not much. On the front page, Leppard wrote that a Sunday Times investigation had "established" that Foot had regular meetings with Soviet agents in London during the 1960s. "During these meetings," he claimed, "they occasionally handed over small cash payments of about £150 each time to help Tribune, the influential Labour newspaper of which Foot was then managing director."
To back up this extraordinary allegation, Leppard quoted (after a fashion) "one well-informed Labour Party source" – anonymous of course – who "said yesterday it was believed that, in the 1960s, Foot had 'nodded through' KGB donations of a few hundred pounds to keep Tribune afloat, in return for low-level Labour Party gossip". And he wrote (conveniently without direct quotation on the money) that Oleg Gordievsky, the former KGB defector who has written a book due to start serialisation in – big surprise – the Sunday Times this weekend, had said that Foot had been given the code name "Boot" by the KGB and took money for Tribune until 1968.
Beyond this, there was Viktor Kubeykin, "another retired KGB agent", who said that he "was told" that Foot had received money in the early 1960s – "something to do with a newspaper", he added helpfully – and, on page two, Mikhail Lubyimov, former Soviet London embassy press attache and KGB station chief, expelled for spying in 1965, who was quoted as saying: "I'm sure I didn't give him any money," although he seemed to agree that Tribune was "targeted" by the KGB. Also on page two, Gordievsky was named as the source (although once again not directly quoted) for the statement that "money was never given directly to publications such as Tribune but always – in a series of small amounts of no more than £150 – through intermediaries who could pose as benefactors".
The utter shoddiness of the "exposé" is breathtaking. For a start, there's the credibility of Gordievsky as a witness. Even leaving that aside, his tale as related by the Sunday Times amounts to just two claims. The first, that Foot had a KGB code name and file in Moscow, is no big deal: the KGB opened a file on anyone who had talked, wittingly or unwittingly, to one of its agents. And the second, that Foot took cash as one of the "intermediaries who could pose as benefactors" who funnelled Moscow gold into Tribune, is utterly bizarre. How does the managing director count as an "intermediary" rather than a recipient of a direct payment?
The allegation is, moreover, categorically denied by Foot, who was allowed no chance to rebuff it before publication. And it is unsubstantiated by the statements of the only people named in the piece as sources apart from Gordievsky: both of the Sunday Times's other former-KGB-agent sources had explicitly disowned the story to other papers within hours of its appearance. Even the wretched editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, recognised that he didn't have a leg to stand on. The very day of publication, he was kebabbed on the radio by Sheena Mac-Donald: she almost forced him to admit that his paper's "scoop" was no more than a puff-piece for a serialisation for which it had sold what remains of its soul.
So the evidence is appallingly weak if it can be said to exist at all. The real point however, is that anyone but a political illiterate or a malicious propagandist would not have given Gordievsky's tale credibility in the first place. Once again, leave aside reputations, in this case of Foot as an incorruptible man of principle: look at the evidence. The Tribune files are available in the British Library; a near-complete set is kept at the Tribune office in Gray's Inn Road, London WC1. Even the most cursory scan shows that the paper was in no way a fellow traveller of the Soviet Union during the cold war.
Sure, the paper was set up in 1937 as a vehicle for a popular front of communists and socialists against the rise of fascism; sure, it took a pro-Soviet line until the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. Such a position, despite the Soviet Union's role in destroying the revolution in Spain, despite the show trials, is at least defensible as Realpolitik – certainly more so than the British establishment's enthusiasm for Hitler at the same time.
But the pact destroyed the Labour left's faith in the Soviet Union. Even the greenest student of British political history knows that Tribune's decisive break with the Communist Party and the Soviet Union took place in 1940, and that Foot, along with Aneurin Bevan, was on the side of those who ditched the communists. It might not suit the ideological prejudices of the Sunday Times, but the reality is that, from then on, Tribune's – and Foot's – relationship with "actually existing socialism" is as honourable as anyone's.
Of course, the relationship went through several different phases. From 1941 until 1945, Tribune was fanatically in favour of the anti-Hitler alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat fascism – Churchill's own policy. It was in the forefront of the campaign to open a second front from 1942 onwards – along with Beaverbrook, whose Evening Standard Foot edited at the time. After 1945, it backed nationalisation and planning – just like every continental European Christian Democrat party (though no self-respecting Tribunite would admit it). It called for a "third way" between capitalism and communism in the mid-1940s – and then, after the Soviet overthrow of democracy in Czechoslovakia in 1948, swung decisively behind the creation of an anti-communist democratic alliance between western Europe and the United States.
But the allegations in the Sunday Times relate to what came after. The 1950s were Tribune's decade – it was the organ of the Bevanite revolt, resolutely in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament and extension of the nationalisations ofthe 1945 government – and the paper retained its influence well into the 1960s. Throughout, however, it took a position that meshed only rarely (and always tactically when it did) with that of the domestic communists or their masters in Moscow.
The paper's enthusiasm for Nato was smashed by the nuclear brinkmanship of General Douglas MacArthur in Korea, but its anti-Stalinism was not. As the "quality" press gave "great man" obituaries to Stalin in 1953, Foot himself denounced the Soviet dictator as a monster. "The Nazi- Soviet pact and the frightened sycophancy towards Hitler which Stalin displayed in the two subsequent years," he wrote, "still stand as out as probably the most grievous and colossal blunder of the century."
Tribune condemned the Soviet suppression of the workers' revolt in East Germany in 1953; and in 1956, as the Hungarian revolution was brutally destroyed by Soviet tanks, the paper gave near-unconditional backing to the rebels. "THEIRS IS THE GLORY," screamed Tribune's centre-page spread on 2 November 1956, "the workers of Hungary have struck a blow for freedom." Tribune was the first left publication in Britain to scotch the communist excuse for the Soviet invasion that the revolution was cover for a fascist putsch, the only one to argue that the workers' councils at the core of the revolution were an inspiration to socialists everywhere. Only a handful of letters contradicted the line. Soviet stooge? Tell us another.
Through all this, of course, there were a few genuine Labour fellow travellers, and a significant minority on the Labour left harboured illusions about the nature of the Soviet regime. Many more swallowed the idea that socialism was essentially a matter of nationalisation and planning. Unsurprisingly, much of the Labour left, Tribune included, thought that the liberalisation of the Soviet Union, promised but only partially delivered by Khrushchev, really offered a way forward. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the British left hoped for the best and clutched at straws – just as it did with Gorbachev 25 years later. Tribune moved from pessimism into optimism about the future of the Soviet Union.
With the benefit of hindsight, this appears more than a little naive. But Tribune's support for Khrushchev was never uncritical – the Soviet abandonment of the superpower test-ban in 1961 drew a stinging condemnation – and, as the thaw froze over again, the paper became increasingly critical (although it was more concerned with domestic politics, the arms race and Vietnam).
When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, Foot denounced it, under the headline "A CRIME AGAINST SOCIALISM", in a bruising polemic: "A crime against freedom, a crime against socialism, a crime against history. It will be hard to express the sense of outrage and tragedy which the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia will spread throughout the world." The rest of the paper's coverage expressed precisely the same sentiment. Once again, some Soviet stooge.
Meanwhile, Tribune continued to take the odd advertisement from Soviet or Soviet-linked advertisers – a page from Aeroflot here, a quarter from Intourist there – and sometimes (even Gordievsky could count the occasions in the 1960s on his fingers) ran blatantly pro-Soviet pieces – though never by Foot. But the advertising from Soviet sources (which continued right up to 1989) was pathetic by comparison with that from the Central Electricity Generating Board, the Daily Herald or even the Times. The idea that the Kremlin bought Tribune's allegiance would be a joke if it had not been given credibility by the Sunday Times smear.
And smear it is. Sure, every journalist talks to all sorts of people, some of whom are morally reprehensible. And sure, the Labour left was a "target" for the Soviet and other eastern bloc security services – not just in the period of the Khrushchev thaw but for many years afterwards. But to talk is not to be taken in by lies, and to be targeted is not to be hit. Nothing can be said against Foot's integrity or honesty simply because he talked to certain people who wanted to influence him – and that, in the end, is the sum of the charges against him. It is difficult in such circumstances to avoid the conclusion that something vile and poisonously anti-democratic lies behind the Sunday Times story.
There is an uncanny similarity between Gordievsky's allegations about Foot and the idiocies put about by the Peter Wright wing of the security services in the 1970s. Gordievsky is living on a British intelligence pension: he cannot have acted without the approval of his post-defection bosses. The Foot allegations look suspiciously like a desperate attempt by the establishment to tar the whole libertarian, democratic left with the brush of totalitarianism. This is shabby nonsense that deserves nothing but contempt.
All those leftwingers who have taken the Murdoch shilling in the past decade should hang their heads in shame. And those still on the Wapping payroll should consider their positions carefully. No one with any decency can justify working for a company or an editor that has published a calumny as obscene as the Foot smear, however large the mortgage, however large the circulation of the guilty rag. Meanwhile, if he has the energy, Foot should sue the Sunday Times, Gordievsky, Witherow and Leppard for every penny he can get. He could even (and probably would) give the money to Tribune. The Sunday Times needs to be taught a lesson – and we all need a good gloat.