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Richard Whiteley is best known for presenting the popular afternoon quiz show Countdown, and Ricky Tomlinson is best known for starring in the popular sitcom The Royle Family.  Back in the 1970s things were very different.  This week we examine Tomlinson’s recent allegation that Whiteley was a ‘member’ of the security services, due to his role presenting an 1973 documentary that influenced the trial of the Shrewsbury 24 – including Tomlinson.  This trial, and this documentary, were the British establishment’s revenge against Tomlinson and other leaders of the 1972 Building Workers Strike.  Amidst an ongoing cover-up I examine the plausibility of Tomlinson’s allegation that Whiteley was a spy, and the unconvincing denial of the allegation by Whiteley’s former partner.

(clip from Yorkshire Radio)

You may have heard or read recently of allegations that former Countdown host Richard Whiteley was a spy for British intelligence. Most of the media coverage has been like this clip – treating the allegation as whimsical and playing a nice clip of nice Richard Whiteley to show, at least implicitly, that he can’t have been a spy. After all, he was on that nice afternoon game show where you have to do letter and number puzzles that has been on TV for decades. We’ve never heard of anything like that before.

Except Chuck Barris. And the ‘ex’ spook hosts of the game shows Spy (2004) and Spies (2017), which despite being made 13 years apart are virtually identical.

The allegation against Whiteley comes from Ricky Tomlinson, a working class guy from Liverpool who was integrally involved in the 1972 national building workers strike. Tomlinson is best known for playing Jim Royle in The Royle Family – not a TV show I ever enjoyed because the tone and structure was a bit like sticking working class northerners in a glass tank at the zoo and watching them as though they were caged animals. But it was very popular – at least in this country Tomlinson is a pretty well known guy.

So what did Tomlinson actually say? He was interviewed recently by the Chester Chronicle, a local paper in and around the town of Chester. The pub where they organised the 1972 strike has been turned into a Wetherspoons and he was there for the re-opening and was interviewed by a journalist.

(clip from Chester Chronicle)

Tomlinson was quite unabashed, he hasn’t been misquoted and his words haven’t been exaggerated or taken out of context. He said that Richard Whiteley was a member of the British security services and presented a documentary that was written and paid for by British intelligence. Several people have flagged up this story for me in the last week or two and I think it should be taken seriously. I don’t think there’s anything ridiculous about this at all.

Means, Motive, Opportunity

To understand exactly what Tomlinson is saying we have to go back to a time when the British building trade was lethally unsafe. Health and safety laws were virtually non existent meaning that hundreds of people were dying every year and many thousands were injured. Combined with poor wages and crap working conditions it was inevitable that there would be a strike for better pay and better, safer working conditions. So in 1972 workers in the building trades across the UK went on strike for three months, bringing many work sites to a standstill. Their persistence paid off – they basically won most of what they were asking for, which in my opinion they completely deserved.

However, the union officials and strikers at some sites used picket lines – this is where you stand at the entrance to the work site and hold a demonstration to try to discourage any workers from refusing to strike and still turning up for work. Some time after the strike had concluded and as a result of political and corporate pressure, 24 strikers including Tomlinson were convicted of charges resulting from the picket lines.

To be clear – picketing was not and is not illegal. This was little more than politically motivated revenge on the part of the establishment. Six of the men were jailed – in Tomlinson’s case he got two years for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’. This is a charge dating back to the Conspiracy Act of 1875, which by 1973 hadn’t been used to prosecute anyone for nearly a century. The Conspiracy Act was an early version of what we now call anti-terror laws – it was never designed or intended to be used against strikers and picketers.

Tomlinson says that a TV documentary that aired during the trial influenced the jury’s verdict and helped convict him and the other men. The documentary in question – ITV’s The Red Under the Bed – was presented by former politician Woodrow Wyatt and Richard Whiteley. Wyatt started out as a Labour MP in the post-war period but over time reversed his political opinions and affiliations and ended up a friend of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, two of the most anti-working classholes in the world.

According to Tomlinson’s recent interview this documentary was a propaganda piece designed to demonise the working class, smear the strikers and help convict those on trial. He also says he has documents that show that this was orchestrated by British intelligence – MI5 and Special Branch. To be sure, the programme was an hour long film about Communist infiltration and then a 30 minute discussion in a TV studio presented by Whiteley. The very last words of the discussion came from a Conservative MP Geoffrey Stewart-Smith. Whiteley asked him, ‘Can you give me one example in 1973 of blatant communist influence?’ Stewart-Smith replied, ‘The violence in the building strike was called by a group, The Building Workers Charter, operating in defiance of the union leadership indulging in violence and flying pickets and this is an example of these people operating, opposing free trade unions.’

These days you could not get away with such blatant propaganda regarding an ongoing trial, due to contempt laws. Something so obviously designed to scare the jury into a guilty verdict would not be broadcast, or if it was would be grounds for a mistrial. However, these laws did not exist in this country back in the 1970s. The British justice system is still pretty flawed but back then it was a real horror show. This was before we even had the Crown Prosecution Service, and you basically had the police running around arresting people and beating confessions out of them then handing the file over to the Home Office – a political institution, not an independent judiciary – who would then decide whether to prosecute. This is the system that gave us the wrongful executions of people like Mahmoud Mattan, a Somali sailor who was convicted of murder in 1952, executed, and then 45 years later had his conviction overturned. This is a guy who could barely speak English, who wasn’t provided a translator and was sentenced to death largely on the basis of a single witness. Meanwhile, whoever actually committed the murder of that woman in Cardiff got away with it. That should give you an idea of what British justice looked like in the period we’re talking about, it was fucking pathetic.

Malicious Prosecution

So this was a malicious prosecution using an arcane law precisely because there was nothing in more recent laws that allowed them to prosecute. These men hadn’t done anything wrong, or certainly nothing of any great consequence. They were pursued precisely for being key figures in a major strike in a massively important industry and standing up for the rights of ordinary people. That’s what this trial was about, of that I have no doubt.

As to the question of the involvement of the security services – again, I have no doubt they had infiltrated the trade unions. From everything I’ve ever read about MI5 they are very good at human intelligence, at getting people inside or recruiting people from inside any organisation they target. That part of this story isn’t really in dispute for me, the question is whether they were involved in this documentary.

The problem is that the answer to that is hidden in hundreds or possibly thousands of government files that have been retained for national security purposes. What that means is that under the 30 year rule, which is supposed to be a 20 year rule by now, all government departments are supposed to turn over all files to the National Archives. So all these 1973 files should have handed over in 2003 and made available to the public. There are some exemptions that mean departments can retain files – national security being one of them. A file on Anthony Blunt is still being kept secret, for example, and given the enormous coverage of the Cambridge Five one wonders what the hell is in that file that means it is still not available 60 years later.

This is what Ricky Tomlinson and others associated with the Shrewsbury 24 have been campaigning for – the release of all files relating to this case. I will link you up to their website, some Guardian articles and some transcripts of the discussions in parliament. The campaign has pushed hard – getting something discussed in parliament is not easy. However, the pressure has only led to the release of one file from the office of the Prime Minister, who at that time was the Tory Ted Heath, most famous these days for being a suspected paedophile.

I have not been able to get a copy of this file in time for this podcast but I have pieced together some stuff from the parliament transcripts and other sources that build a pretty compelling argument that this was an MI5-sponsored political stitch up, not just the prosecution but the documentary too. The Attorney General wrote to the Home Secretary in 1973 saying that the trial of the Shrewsbury 24 should not go ahead. This advice was ignored. The fact that so many files are being withheld and national security is the reason they’re giving means that MI5 are somehow involved, not just in the on-going cover up but also in what happened in the 1970s. Then there’s a Guardian article based on documents in this file which says:

It is understood that a dossier of newly unearthed papers suggests that some of the most senior members of Heath’s 1972 Conservative cabinet and members of the security services commissioned and promoted an ITV documentary entitled Red Under the Bed that was screened on the day the jury went out to consider the case against the “Shrewsbury 24”. One of the previously unseen files shows that Heath, on seeing a transcript of the film ahead of the trade unionists’ conviction, informed the cabinet secretary: “We want as much as possible of this.”

So, according to this report, the documentary was commissioned by the central government and MI5, and Ted Heath encouraged this, likely knowing it would influence the trial. Naturally, when I get a copy of this file I’ll publish it and we can see if it confirms what the Guardian is saying, but if it does then this is criminal. Most of the people involved are probably now dead but we can still add it to the long list of crimes involving the British government and especially the security services.

So, was Richard Whiteley a Spy?

Tomlinson claims to have papers showing that Whiteley was a member of the security services. Obviously I don’t know if that’s true or if he’s exaggerating or reading between the lines. It’s possible someone has leaked stuff to him or to others on the campaign because I’m sure there are people in these government departments who aren’t happy about this. Basically, anyone with a conscience would not be happy about this, particularly when they learn that one of the men prisoned alongside Tomlinson died of chemically-induced Parkinsons. Back then prisons used what was known as the chemical cosh – a cocktail of drugs used to subdue inmates. In some people this was a major factor in them developing Parkinsons. So this is no joke, no triviality like the British press are mostly making it out to be.

In the absence of any documentary proof I cannot say with any certainty whether Whiteley was a spy, and nor can anyone else. Eileen Turnbull, the main researcher for the Shrewsbury 24 campaign has given interviews saying that Tomlinson has probably just misunderstood the documents he has seen and that as far as she is concerned there is no evidence against Whiteley.

Likewise, Whiteley’s former partner Kathryn Apanowicz, who now works for BBC Radio York, has given interviews recently saying that she thinks the allegations are ridiculous. But listen to this interview from the BBC:

(clip from BBC interview)

And this interview from ITV:

(clip from ITV interview)

She’s clearly following some sort of script here, saying basically the same things – he had asthma, he once did a piece in front of a falling building which is like Daniel Craig in Spectre, all she can think about is ‘Dicks’ up there in heaven laughing about this. She said almost the exact same things to both ITV and the BBC, in separate interviews.

If that isn’t bizarre enough her entire argument is based around comparing Whiteley unfavourably to James Bond – he didn’t have an Aston Martin, he wasn’t athletic, he wasn’t good at solving word or number puzzles, he was useless with gadgets and technology. Absolutely none of this is relevant to the actual allegation – that he knowingly presented a propaganda piece in some way commissioned by the security services. What car he drove isn’t relevant to that. Whether he was crap at Maths isn’t relevant to that. What might be relevant is that Whiteley went to Cambridge University, that well-known recruiting ground for British spies. On a personal note – he also went to Giggleswick school, a posh private school that is not far from where I live. When I was in the rugby team at school I played there.

Now, however Tomlinson might have phrased his allegation I don’t think he’s claiming Whiteley was a spy for his entire career. And nor am I saying that his former partner is a spook. But I am going to suggest that the fact she used the exact same absurd, irrelevant talking points in two distinct interviews smacks of someone who has been coached or told what to say. And the only people with any motive for doing that would be MI5. It turns this from a question of releasing files that have been withheld as part of a political cover-up of a miscarriage of justice into a petty human interest story about what kind of man Whiteley was. So whether she realises it or not, Kathryn Apanowicz is helping to protect the government and to continue the cover-up.

I don’t know whether Richard Whiteley was a spy, but I think the scenario Tomlinson has described is quite plausible. More importantly, I think it is pathetic that the government continues to withhold files on this trial and the role the documentary played in influencing the jury. I think this was a nasty politicised conspiracy against a group of people who were succeeding in their struggle to force employers to treat ordinary people better. Ultimately, that is the real story here.