Journalists and historians have spent money thousands of hours trying to explain the actions of one of the greatest traitors in recent British history, Kim Philby.
But a three-and-a-half minute video clip, just released by the BBC, has produced a devastating and self-incriminating picture of a man who mocks his native country with a contempt that is still shocking.
The 1981 tape of Philby talking to East German intelligence agents is not just an indictment of Philby. It’s also proof that his ability to be the equal of any John Le Carre mole comfortably nestled in the higher reaches of what passed for British “intelligence” rested on Philby knowing that he was happily stationed on the bridge of a ship of fools.
He couldn’t have been more explicit: “Because I had been born into the British governing class, because I knew a lot people with intellectual standing, I knew they would never get too tough with me,” he said. “They’d never try to beat me up or knock me around, because if they had been proven wrong afterwards I could have made a tremendous scandal.”
Philby made a fool of a lot of people, but most of all he made a fool of the class he was born into but came to hate.
His story proves that the most effective betrayer of any class system is one who works to destroy it from the inside, not the outside. In the cause of Communism, Philby worked the British old boy network with consummate skill for decades.
Few ever doubted that he was “one of them”—a member of a pervasive, informal club of those went to the same schools, same colleges and into the same professions.
This kind of deeply planted social arrangement seemed to those who ran the British security services, MI5 (domestic) and MI6 (foreign) the natural place in which to nurture and recruit agents. You could always check out a prospective spook with his chums and his university tutors. Genealogy was helpful—the right father, the right uncles, ideally including a general or a bishop. (In Philby’s case it was his father, a brilliant but unhinged Arabist.)
But perhaps the most shocking thing about Philby’s progress was how far his navigation and exploitation of the social network extended beyond what Le Carre, with a conscious wit, called “The Circus” (the top echelon of British spookdom) to a sphere in which class was not supposed to matter as much—journalism.
In the early 1950s Philby was cut loose from MI6 because a couple of the agency’s investigators became convinced he was the “Third Man”—an accomplice of two British diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to Moscow in what was then the most damaging scandal to hit British intelligence in decades.
These sharp-elbowed investigators were hobbled by the reluctance of Philby’s bosses to believe that such an upstanding chum could have deceived them. These were people who, in language and habits, could be easily confused with characters from P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories.
No charges were brought against Philby but he was out of a job—or so it seemed.
There was another line of business where he could tap into some old contacts. Among editors and reporters on the London newspapers at that time were some who had worked for British intelligence in World War II.
One of the most prominent of these was Malcolm Muggeridge, a highly entertaining political commentator in print and on television, who had worked with Philby at MI6 during the war. Muggeridge advised Philby to contact the editor of The Observer, a left-leaning Sunday paper that, Muggeridge told Philby, “is that Salvation Army for the ideological drunks and bums of our time.”
Philby told the editors of the paper that he was keen to get back into journalism, “my regular profession from 1935 to 1940.”
But there was no regular job on The Observer for Philby… until the government officially cleared him of being a Soviet agent two years later. (Philby had brazenly held his own press conference to celebrate the proof of his untarnished loyalty.)
Astonishingly, not only was he accepted back into the network as a man of honor—he was re-hired by MI6 who wanted to assign him to the Middle East. He needed to be given cover, and his spymasters, using channels they had used before for this purpose, arranged for him to be hired as the Middle East stringer, based in Beirut, for both The Observer and The Economist.
As an editor at The Observer I regularly edited stories by Philby. They were always succinct and neutrally analytical—he was not one of those “ideological drunks” although, like the paper, he was a harsh critic of Britain’s disastrous attempt, with the French, to remove General Nasser from power in Egypt.
I never met Philby on his sporadic visits to the office but those who did described an almost Woosterish character who was amiable and tweedy with a pronounced stutter.
Philby’s final unmasking, when he defected to Moscow in 1963, caused a great deal of soul-searching at The Observer, and in other newspapers where, it turned out, this mutual career path between MI6 and the Press had been common practice. A new generation of journalists was wondering why the hell their editors were acquiescing to requests from MI6 to give cover to spooks—clearly a policy that compromised not only the paper but the safety and integrity of all other correspondents in the field.
The Observer’s patrician editor, David Astor, denied that when he hired Philby he knew that he was giving cover to a spook. But an MI6 officer later confirmed that the editors of The Observer and The Economist had willingly signed up to the deal. To them, apparently, it was a way of subsidizing the high cost of maintaining correspondents in far away places.
Both newspapers paid Philby a modest standard retainer as a stringer, in addition to what he was paid by MI6, and at The Observer I knew that Philby’s expenses were regarded as not only extravagant but masterpieces of invention—and this at a paper that was normally very stingy with its reporters.
In the summer of 1963 the British government was forced to make a carefully abridged statement confirming that during his 11 years of initial service at MI6 and in his second spell posing as a journalist Philby had all the while been a Soviet agent.
In the new video of his lecture to East German agents Philby boasts about how easy it had been to pass a veritable avalanche of secret British wartime plans to his Russian handlers in London.
But in that summer of 1963 the British (and much of the world) were distracted by the Profumo Affair, a romping sexual scandal that involved the British minister of war, John Profumo, a nubile young showgirl named Christine Keeler and a Soviet spy.
Although Philby had given the KGB the names of many western agents, sending them to their deaths, his story was, for a time, easily eclipsed by the Profumo scandal that eventually led to the fall of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan.
And it was while I and a team of reporters from the London Sunday Times were revealing another, steamier side of the old boy network in action in the Profumo case that I received a tip that Philby was but part of a larger nest of spies.
A young reporter, new to the paper, said he thought everything might lead back to Cambridge University in the 1930s—that Philby, along with others, had been recruited by the Soviets then, and that as well as Philby as the Third Man there was a Fourth Man still highly placed in the old boy network.
Unknown to us, MI5 already knew who this was: in 1963 an American, Michael Straight, who had been recruited by him, gave them his identity.
The Fourth Man was Sir Anthony Blunt, an eminent art historian and, as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, an intimate adviser on art to the Queen. Once again, the old boy network closed ranks. Blunt confessed, giving valuable details of his knowledge of the Soviet role in Britain, was granted immunity from prosecution. Unlike Philby, Blunt had had no appetite for defecting to Russia. He was far too much of an aesthete to relish the relative privations of life as “a hero of the Soviet Union.” For 15 years his treachery was kept secret until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed it in 1979, because exposure by a number of journalists was imminent.
While I was investigating the role played by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in tracking the fall-out from the Profumo Affair and, specifically, the dysfunctional British security services, a contact of mine at the American embassy in London said, in despair: “How is it that all your traitors are toffs?”
Kim Philby could have answered that with a lot more knowledge than I was able to muster.
Correction, 4/5/2016: A previous version of this article said Thatcher revealed Philby's spying in 1975.