Michael Foot is not here to defend himself against bogus Soviet spy stories – so I will
CNJ assistant editor Tom Foot on how his great-uncle's name has been trashed by a front page story in The Times
20 September, 2018
THERE was an impressive library in Michael Foot’s Hampstead home, including a wall of books which doubled as an entrance to a secret room.
Inside, there were yet more shelves loaded with dusty volumes and a floor knee-deep in old parliamentary bills, many annotated with his unintelligible spider scrawl. It was a first port of call for visiting children looking to act out any spy-game fantasies.
When I lived there with him for five years, at the end of his life, it seemed to me the least interesting room in what was more of a museum than a house. But after he died in 2010 we discovered hidden under the bills a combination safe fixed firmly to the floor. We took a sledgehammer to it and, after busting it away, there was an intriguing rattle from inside.
Out in the garden, pulses racing, we smashed it up until a small crack emerged and I fished out an envelope fixed to a piece of wood.
“Finally, the elusive KGB file?”
We fell about laughing before opening the envelope containing only a note with the locked safe’s combination code. Not a single ruble.
Great-uncle Michael would have made a terrible undercover agent. You could hear the clatter of his sticks coming round the corner. Even the shrewdest Soviet would have struggled to decipher his handwriting.
The “traitor” and “paid informant” accusations – first splashed across the front of The Sunday Times in 1994 – were laughable to anyone who knew him. Particularly, as there was never any hard evidence, only claims made by a single KGB defector, Oleg Gordievsky, an actual traitor to his country and someone with a political axe to grind.
The story was widely discredited and in 1995 Michael successfully sued Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper for libel. The settlement proceeds paid for a new kitchen, which over the years became overwhelmed with tottering piles of books. In 2012, two years after Michael’s death, former Sunday Times editor John Witherow was asked about the story at the Leveson Inquiry.
He not only agreed it was “incorrect” but volunteered that he had “overcooked it and cocked it up”. He told Leveson that lessons had been learned by the fiasco, which he added came early on in his editorship. The transcript of this is easily accessible online.
Murdoch papers have mostly been banned in Foot households, but I had to buy one on Saturday as the “Agent Boot” allegations had been rehashed so prominently on the The Times front page.
A cartoon from 1995 by Martin Rowson, used with his permission, and below the front page of Saturday’s edition of The Times
We can only think that Mr Witherow – now editor of The Times – has since Leveson succumbed to a bout of amnesia.
The source of the “new” revelations? A book about the very same Gordievsky by the newspaper’s veteran writer and historian, Ben Macintyre, who lives in Hampstead. The article appeared to contain no new evidence, no paper trail – just further embellishment. I contacted Mr Macintyre yesterday (Wednesday) and he responded to say: “At no point do I suggest that Michael Foot was a spy, or even an agent in anything but the KGB understanding of that word, nor do I imply that Foot was unpatriotic, let alone treacherous, or had anything to do with Soviet intelligence after 1968. But I do conclude that, in the 1960s, he was remarkably naive, open to manipulation and prepared to accept ‘Red Gold’…”
He suggested that several MI6 agents believed Gordievsky’s story that Michael had met KGB agents, speculating that he may perhaps have enjoyed the “covert glamour associated with such meetings”. “I do hope, if you read the book, you might agree that it contains no attempt to ‘smear’ your great-uncle.”
Whether there was an attempt or not, it was interpreted in many quarters as just that. Of course, newspapers can’t libel the dead. But can a libel, already settled to be such, be repeated by the same editor and publisher? And if it can, should it be? Reputations survive death; families can be affected.
Tom Foot lived with Michael Foot in his final years
The Times asked in its leader column whether Michael was unknowingly spreading propaganda as one of Lenin’s “useful idiots”. It has trashed the reputation of a dead man in what appears to be yet another panic piece about Jeremy Corbyn. Who are the real “useful idiots” here? Many people have suggested how unfair all this is as Michael is not alive to respond – but I can help a little with this.
Among the things I salvaged from his home was an eight-page letter to the “Wriggling Witherow” a day after the 1994 story was printed. It says: “If the injury they seek to inflict on the dead hardly less than the living is allowed to stand, our politics will have become dirtier still, and journalists like John Witherow will have been responsible for the degradation.”
It recalls how the paper was “licking Hitler’s jackboots” before the war and ended with a demand for an apology for “calling me a traitor to my country and the democratic socialist principles which I have tried to uphold all my life”.
It’s a great read, much better than this piece, and should be published.