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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Commie Express reporter who passed secrets to the Russians was more notable than Philby

SPY: Cedric Belfrage was the Express film and theatre critic

You probably haven’t heard of Cedric Belfrage and part of him would be delighted at that. He was a spy, you see, and those people like to fly below the radar.

 

But he was also the film and theatre critic of the Daily and the Sunday Express during the 1930s.

 

Belfrage became a committed Communist during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1936, according to MI5 files that can be viewed at the National Archives at Kew, in south-west London.

 

He passed secrets to the Russians about British spying methods and sensitive documents about British policy on the Middle East and Russia. The intelligence he fed them was so highly prized that Kremlin spymasters came to regard him as more important than even Kim Philby.

 

A gaunt, intense looking man, Belfrage was a doctor’s son, privately educated at Gresham’s School, Norfolk, and then at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where he began writing film criticism. He set out for Hollywood in 1927 and wrote for the New York Sun and Film Weekly before returning to London as Sam Goldwyn’s Press agent in 1930.

 

In the years that followed he worked for the Express but was already a socialist. Belfrage had witnessed the deprivations of the Great Depression in America and become a friend of the Left-wing novelist Upton Sinclair.

 

Though politics had never interested him at university, the Depression convinced him that capitalism had failed and like those other Cambridge alumni, Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, he turned to Communism.

 

Back in America, his job at the Express opened doors at all the studios and gave him access to the great stars. But he was prickly and one review in the Express was said to be so upsetting to studio bosses that “the entire film industry in protest withdrew advertising from his paper.” He stopped reviewing until the trouble blew over.

 

Belfrage’s shadowy career as a spy started when he joined a body set up by MI6 and Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, called British Security Co-ordination (BSC). Its job was to win support in the United States for the British war effort. (This was before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor jolted the Americans into fighting alongside us.)

 

BSC co-operated with the FBI and this gave Belfrage – Russian code name Benjamin – access to classified information.

 

He had a job in psychological warfare after D-Day but his downfall came when the FBI investigated his key contact, top Soviet agent Jacob Golos. Belfrage had given Golos a report from Scotland Yard on training methods for spies and notes from “prominent burglars in England” on techniques for opening safes, doors and “other protective devices”.

 

He made a partial confession to the FBI. He admitted passing files to the Russian during the war but claimed British Intelligence had ordered him to do it so that he could receive secrets in return.

 

“My thought was to tell him certain things of a really trifling nature from the point of view of British and American interest, hoping in this way to get from him some more valuable information from the Communist side,” Belfrage said, according to the account at Kew.

 

It is thought likely that Philby warned the Soviets of Belfrage’s unmasking as a spy and gave him time to concoct a cover story to excuse his treachery.

 

Belfrage was never charged as a spy in America. He had only given away British secrets. The Americans deported him for being a Communist but he was never brought before a British court as the spooks feared embarrassment over what might come out during the case.

 

Instead, he was exiled to Latin America, where he died in 1990, aged 85.

 *****

 How much longer can Reach boss Jim Mullen last? The ship is sinking below him. The inky waters are sloshing round his ankles. But still he calls “Full ahead” and holds his course towards some digital haven from the newspaper storm that only he can see.

 

His company, which owns the Mirror, Express and Star titles, reported a 13.7 per cent slump in digital revenues in the third quarter. This came after a 16 per cent drop in the first half. Online page views are down by 21 per cent for the first nine months.

 

Reach also owns regional newspapers including the Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo but has got its strategy all wrong and is a virtual basket case. On top of the digital disaster, the national newspapers are sinking faster than a tropical sunset.

 

As the Drone reported last week, the Mirror is down 15 per cent year on year and the Sunday Mirror down 16 per cent. The Daily Express and Sunday Express are down 14 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. The Star is down 17 per cent and its Sunday edition down 19 per cent.

 

But in a so-called town hall meeting recently, employees were told that newspapers make 70 per cent of Reach revenue and digital only 30 per cent. One Reach worker claimed the management strategy was “arse about face” and would destroy the company.

 

The problem is that Reach isn’t selling anything that anyone wants to buy. The great journalism once practised by the Mirror and the Express has been largely cast aside and forgotten.

 

A leading article in The Times this week reminded us: “News costs money. Any report worth reading must be evidenced, checked and verified. Journalists must be paid and news outlets need an income to support operations long seen as essential to an informed democracy.”

 

Some newspaper groups – The Times, the Telegraph – have edged towards the digital age by building a subscription base. But no one is going to fork out to read a website that offers second-hand news – mostly blagged shamelessly from other publishers with no attempt to verify it – and is bombarded by pop-up ads.

 

CEO Mullen earns £504,000 a year and was awarded a bonus of £1.5 million in 2022. But his incompetence means, says one Reach staffer, that “it’s increasingly likely that many of our major cities – Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff and many others – will soon have no local newspaper and no recognisable local news website holding local authorities and others to account.”

 

It seems that Mullen can’t even organise a piss-up. The Sunday Times this week reported that the company behind the Pub in the Park music and food festivals has collapsed, owing £3 million. Brand Events TM is a joint venture between Chris Hughes and Trinity Mirror, which is now Reach.

 

If I worked for Reach I would abandon ship before it sinks with all hands.

 *****

I have discovered a new favourite beverage and its health benefits are so enormous that you ought to be able to get it on the NHS.

 

No, not green tea, silly. Mezcal. Like tequila, only better.

 

It is alcoholic, pale amber and with a rich, smoky taste that is almost a match for my beloved Lagavulin, the peaty nectar from the island of Islay.

 

Mezcal is made, mostly in Oaxaca, Mexico, by roasting the hearts of agave plants in a fire pit before they are mashed and left to ferment in water.

 

Unlike whisky, mezcal is virtually pain-free. Which is not to say that you can bank on a good night’s sleep after imbibing (unless you raise the intake level to “dangerous”, “toxic”, or even “Compton”).

 

Nor will it take away the desperate desire for a large glass of water, followed by an entire pot of strong, black coffee when you wake up.

 

You will still feel tired and jaded. But crucially, you won’t have the massed bands of the Household Division marching through your cranium, or Comanches beating their war drums preparatory to an orgy of scalping.

 

The reason, according to the Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago, Illinois – who knew? – is that mezcal is the “purest distillate or alcohol that exists on the planet and the noblest with the human body”.

 

It also seems to have a unique chemical composition. Instead of producing monosaccharide sugars for our livers to process, it produces polysaccharide sugar, which is broken down sooner and with fewer side-effects. Magic. No hangover.

 

It really works. I have tested the theory to destruction (and vice versa). I can’t vouch for the science. I once got one per cent for my paper in a chemistry exam and when I protested, the teacher told me he was feeling generous that day.

 

But it is a delightful drink and the only reason we are not all sipping it is the price. Look it up if you want to go teetotal.

 *****

 Jon Venables, 41, who tortured and killed two-year-old James Bulger in 1993, is asking the parole board to free him. But he skipped the hearing, even though it was held in private to avoid causing him “disproportionate emotional stress”.

 

I’d say the vile Venables has answered his own question, wouldn’t you?


RICHARD DISMORE


21 November 2023