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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Philby, the very British Soviet spy who failed to
come in from the cold

NEWS AGENT: Soviet spy Kim Philby, far right, meets the Press, including  Chapman Pincher of the Daily Express, with notebook, and the TV broadcaster Alan Whicker, seated centre 

Okay, confession time. Master spy Kim Philby is a hero of mine.

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I know, I know. Double agent, traitor, blood on his hands. But, come on, what a star.

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Apart from being the Third Man in the infamous Cambridge spy ring, Philby was also a journalist. He covered the Spanish Civil War for The Times and was wounded when a shell landed near the car he was in. It killed three of his colleagues.

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Later, in Beirut, before he accepted the game was up and legged it to Moscow, he was correspondent for the Observer and the Economist. He was also a senior figure in the Secret Intelligence Service and simultaneously a Colonel in the KGB.

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In his spare time (you may well ask) he was a prodigious drinker and, with the charm and glib manner that made him such a formidable spy, he was also a shameless philanderer.

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While I don’t condone his treachery, I am in awe of his juggling skills. Any man who can keep that many balls in the air at the same time is a bit special and earns my admiration.

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I was copy-tasting on the Daily Express in 1988 when news of his death at the age of 76 came through. I remember calling out: “Whoa, here we go! Philby’s dead.”

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This triggered a frenzy of activity, led by Assistant Editor (or some such) Alan Frame. I seem to recall Foreign Editor John Ellison retiring to his office to write the definitive obituary and Geoffrey Levy being conscripted for a colour piece.

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It was a memorable night, especially for someone like me who finds spying endlessly fascinating. To my mind, it resembles journalism: A sometimes seedy occupation with a veneer of glamour, which attracts drunks and charlatans and the occasional do-gooder.

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The liars and conmen are fine. Everyone can see through them. They want money, or status, or power. But the do-gooders are dangerous.

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They’re believers, quiet fanatics focused on a goal, driven by ideology or creed, determined to convert the world to Communism, or perhaps these days, Islam.

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Philby was such a man. He ended his days at an enviably smart flat in Moscow, which he shared with his fourth wife Rufina Pukhova, a half-Russian, half-Polish woman whom he met through another spy, George Blake.

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At the time, Philby was a lost soul, existing in a fog of paranoia, whisky and regret, mistrusted by his KGB comrades, craving Oxford marmalade and reading the cricket reports in weeks-old copies of The Times.

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Pukhova saved him, persuaded him to go on the wagon, helped him to shake off the depression that weighed on him. Philby was well again by the time Phillip Knightley, an Australian-born reporter for the Sunday Times, persuaded him to give up the secrets of his double life.

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Not everyone thought it was a triumph for Knightley. Many doubted Philby was telling the truth, suggested it was the KGB version of events and mistrusted the spy’s motives.

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Thriller writer Ted Allbeury, a former MI6 officer who knew Philby personally, believed the 25 hours of interviews he gave to Knightley were in fact a plea to be allowed to return to Britain.

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Allbeury said: “Philby’s always wanted to come home. He’s a totally sad man, dreaming of a cottage in Sussex with roses around the door. He’s the epitome of Britishness – the man who bothers to ring through to the Telecom number to find out the Test match score.

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“I would think that Philby is testing the water – just seeing what the reaction to those interviews will be, what sort of controversy they arouse.

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“He’s using Phillip Knightley. It’s one of those vain hopes where, when you’re a young man, you ask your best friend to speak to the beautiful girl with blonde hair on your behalf. Knowingly or not, Knightley’s doing that, to the British Government and the British people.”

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Knightley dismissed all this: “When the opportunity to talk to Philby came I had no hesitation whatsoever in seizing it…

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“Treachery holds a peculiar fascination for the British – perhaps because they have experienced so much of it – and yet, in this case, despite the millions of words written about him, Philby has remained an enigma.”

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For his part, Philby denied that the KGB was behind his decision to talk to Knightley. “I suggested it to them,” he said.

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“They said that if I wanted to talk, why not talk with Graham Greene. He comes to the Soviet Union often these days and they felt he would be more suitable.

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“I told them that Greene is a friend and a former colleague. I wanted to talk to someone who would be objective.”

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Knightley, in his book Philby: KGB masterspy, tells how, in 1967, the Insight editor Bruce Page asked him to join a secret project, which came to have 18 journalists working on it. Their mission: to unravel Philby’s life of deception and intrigue.

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It was on the orders of Sunday Times Editor Harry Evans, who had heard that Observer journalist Patrick Seale was writing a book with Philby’s third wife, Eleanor. Evans wanted a spoiler.

‍ They were warned off by Foreign Office Minister Lord Chalfont. Then a new reporter, a former Foreign Office official and ex-SIS officer, told Evans the paper was wasting its time. The story, he said, would be stopped.

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“D Notices, the Queen. It goes to the highest in the land. Philby was a copper-bottomed bastard.”

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All this did was fire up Evans’s enthusiasm for the story. He enlisted the help of Editor-in-Chief Sir Denis Hamilton, who spoke to the Prime Minister Harold Wilson and to the Director General of MI6, Sir Dick White.

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A deal was reached: The Foreign Office would not help with the investigation, but neither would it block it. And the FO would vet the copy in case an agent’s life was unwittingly being placed at risk.

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Knightley tracked down an old spy who had fallen out with SIS and, over brandies at a swanky restaurant, learnt the true value of the story he was working on.

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While he knew that Philby had worked for SIS even as he passed British secrets to the Russians, he had no idea what Philby did there.

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The retired spook, Leslie Nicholson, told him: “The reason for the flap, old man, was that Kim was head of our anti-Soviet section.”

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“Let me get this straight,” said Knightley. “The man running our secret operations against the Russians was a Russian agent himself?”

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“Precisely,” said Nicholson.

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The Sunday Times printed the story to coincide with the Observer’s Eleanor Philby story. Philby himself got in touch with Evans to offer his memoirs for publication. Game on.

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Knightley replied, and so began a correspondence that lasted for 20 years. Each engaged in a kind of mating ritual – familiar to all reporters and spooks – designed to seduce the target. Philby wanted to leave a legacy — his memoirs in print. Knightley wanted the inside story of the greatest spy of all time.

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“You have been around long enough for a new wave of interest in your life, career and beliefs,” Knightley wrote to Philby in a classic piece of ego polishing.

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“There is a generation out there that knows little about you but is fascinated by what it does know. For evidence of this, see the enclosed Observer clipping about Julie Burchill, prophet of the younger Brits, who acknowledges only two people as her heroes, Graham Greene and you.”

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It eventually worked. On Monday, January 18, 1988, Knightley touched down in Moscow. The following day, he sat down in Philby’s book-lined study – he had a library of 12,000 – opened his notebook and began to record the scoop of the century.

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*Philby: KGB masterspy was published by Andre Deutsch in 1988.

‍ *****

I once played on the same football pitch as the legendary Stan Bowles, who has died aged 75. Sadly, not at the same time, or I might be considerably richer.

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Someone on the sports desk of the Daily Express had arranged – presumably through highly-placed contacts – for us to use Queens Park Rangers’ ground for an office footie match.

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It was Sport versus The Rest. I lined up for The Rest. The Editor Nick Lloyd was, I think, on the left wing for Sport and distinguished himself with the only goal of the match.

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It was during that brief period when QPR had a plastic pitch. It seemed like a good idea at the time and many teams, not just in football, considered following suit.

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I went in for a tackle that started out as a desperate lunge and ended up as a sliding, full-throttle Nobby Stiles attempt to take out the man. Bad mistake, as I realised mid-tackle, and too late to stop.

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When they said plastic pitch in those days, what they meant was glass-fibre carpet. It was like flaying myself with a cat-o’-nine-tails. I bore the scars for months.

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Bowles, pictured, who shockingly played only five times for England, was a charismatic character – an old school footballer who was blessed with good looks and huge talent, didn’t much care for training and counted drinking and gambling among life’s greatest pleasures.

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His obituary in The Times yesterday was full of hilarious anecdotes, including the time he was on the near post to defend a corner and spotted a man in the crowd reading Sporting Life. He snatched it to catch up on the racing news and as the ball came in, he headed it away, still clutching the paper.

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But my favourite is his exchange with manager Tommy Docherty.

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Docherty: “You can trust me, Stan.”

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Bowles: “I’d rather trust my chickens with Colonel Sanders.”

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He used to live in Brentford, just up the road from me. He had gambled away all his money and made ends meet with a job in a tile shop. I always meant to go in for a chat. Too late now.

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‍ Tradition has it that when journalists leave a newspaper, they exit through the gift shop. I don’t know how much is left in the redundo kitty at Reach, but the exodus from the Mirror has certainly not stopped for lack of funds.

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Latest to quit are the Sunday Mirror’s talented Deputy Editor Angela Wormald, whose job has been made redundant, and the experienced Chief Sub on the Daily Mirror, Tim Pedley.

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I understand they have become disillusioned at savage cutbacks of staff and resources that were making their jobs nearly impossible.

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The papers now have so few subs that meeting tight deadlines is tougher than ever. Many senior staff blame CEO Jim Mullen’s obsession with the online operation and the quest for “clicks”.

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Escape plans are being hatched as though One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, were Stalag Luft lll.



RICHARD DISMORE


27 February 2024