The Observer should not be shocked by MI5’s use of paid informers

On 20 September 2015 the Observer newspaper published a front page report expressing pained surprise at the revelation that the UK Security Service has been paying informers “to spy” on Muslims suspected of involvement in terrorism. I submitted the following letter for publication in the following week’s Observer:

The Observer’s issue of 20 September wins first prize for the most naïve newspaper heading of the decade –on the front page, too (MI5 pays UK Muslims to spy on terror suspects, 20 September). The real scandal, richly deserving a front page banner headline, would be the revelation that MI5 was not paying courageous informers in the Mosques to help to forestall terrorist outrages. Thank goodness they are!

I was disappointed, but not much surprised, that the Observer of 27 September didn’t publish my letter, either in the print edition or, as far as I can see, in the online version. Newspaper editors never like to admit to mistakes, but this one was much more serious than perhaps my rejected letter might have suggested, and the Observer should have published a retraction. The first line of defence against domestic Islamist terrorist attacks is necessarily tip-offs from public-spirited citizens, for obvious reasons likely to be fellow-Muslims, who know or suspect that a terrorist outrage is being plotted and who take a serious risk to their own standing in their communities, perhaps even to their lives, of discreetly informing the police or other authorities of what they know or suspect, which it is clearly their duty as citizens to do.

The effect of the Observer’s front-page story, with its clear inference that informing on one’s fellow-Muslims, at any rate for money, was somehow shameful and improper, can only have been to deter potential informers from doing their civic duty. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that if that deterrence were to lead to a terrorist attack that might otherwise have been detected in advance and forestalled by the security services, lives could have been lost as an indirect result of an irresponsible, misconceived and unconsidered article in Britain’s leading liberal Sunday newspaper, with a magnificent and widely respected past. It’s disturbing that such a story could have been written by the Observer’s staff writers, checked over (presumably) by a sub-editor and a duty editor, and probably approved for the front page by the editor himself, none of them apparently stopping to think of its possible consequences.

Payment to possible informers is bound to be one of several legitimate incentives to encourage people who might hear of terrorist planning to report it. Assessors of secret intelligence are experienced in judging whether an informer’s report may have been corrupted by the financial motive or by some other motivation.

We may assume that the security services will always seek independent corroboration of such reports before taking action against identified suspects. But anything that tends to discredit existing informers, or to deter others from informing in future, does no favours either to the security services on whom we rely for our protection, or to the rest of us either. It’s still not too late for the Observer to make amends by paying a prominent tribute to the secret army of brave and responsible police informers.


5 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    ‘The use of payments to gather intelligence prompted warnings that the system risked producing information “corrupted” by the money on offer.’ That is presumably why newspapers never pay for information.

  2. Rob says:

    I really can’t agree with you, Brian. The police already have wide ranging powers without digging deeper into our personal space. In the name of ‘security’ over a decade or so, the balance has swung too far towards the State – goodness know where we’re heading. In any event, paying snoopers will also encourage spurious claims and waste police time. Of course we do what we must to prevent terrorist attacks but just how much of our liberty are we prepared to surrender to an increasingly power-hungry state?

  3. Brian says:

    Brian writes:  Thank you all for these comments.

    In reply to Oliver, I would just say that of course I agree that paying informers carries a risk that they will contribute information of the kind that they think their paymasters will like, to keep up the flow of money.  But secret information always carries some risks:  unpaid informers may be trying to pay off old grudges or quarrels, informers driven by ideology may be detecting non-existent threats from ideological adversaries.  Hence the need, mentioned in my post, for independent corroboration of secretly supplied information and for assessment of its reliability (or lack of it) by experienced assessors.

    In reply to Rob, I have to agree that the need to rely, among other sources, on paid informers — he calls them ‘snoopers’ — is distasteful. In some ways all collection of information (i.e. intelligence) by clandestine means, whether by tapping telephones or bugging bedrooms — or by paying secret informers — is distasteful.  But it’s simply wrong to denounce it as a new extension of police powers into the private realm.  The security and intelligence services have always been forced to rely to a greater or lesser extent on human intelligence, which is just a neutral term for tips from secret informers.

    There’s always a tendency in left-of-centre politics to be suspicious of the security services and the police, instinctively resistant to their never-ending demands for more and more powers that risk eroding our civil liberties, tempted to make no moral distinction between receiving (and paying for) information from a responsible source in a radical Mosque on the one hand, and on the other hand operating a massively intrusive, paranoid police state like that of the Stasi in the former East Germany where the security apparatus is a fearsome tool of political and ideological repression in a totalitarian state.  But it’s equally paranoid to suspect that we’re anywhere near becoming a Stasi-like state;  our police and security services are under clear democratic control (even though their accountability to democratic authority has to be constantly renewed and reinforced) and their domestic activities are obviously targeted on genuine threats to our personal security, mainly at present from Islamic extremists planning indiscriminate killing.  To deny our security services the tool of seeking information from paid informers in Mosques where murder is likely to be plotted would be to lay all of us open to the risk, however statistically insignificant, of terrorist attack of a random and irrational kind.

    Nor does the action of informers, paid or not, cross any obvious ethical lines.  Intervening with the legal authorities to prevent a possible murder is clearly a duty, not a betrayal.  Providing such information involves no betrayal of one’s own country, as the provision of secret intelligence by an agent in a foreign country generally does.  Fortunately there’s a thorough and informative exploration of all these matters in a brilliant new book by Stephen Grey (the investigative journalist and writer who first exposed the US malpractice of rendition and extraordinary rendition).  His new book, “The New Spymasters: Inside Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror“, deserves to be read by anyone who is honourably worried about the ethics of  secret intelligence gathering generally and human intelligence in particular.   Grey is by no means uncritical of many aspects of current intelligence activities and he’s fully sensitive to the knotty ethical dilemmas that these activities often entail, but his descriptions and explorations of pros and cons, with numerous concrete examples, are very fair.  (Full disclosure: Stephen Grey is an old friend, though not an old man.)

  4. Charlie says:

    I wonder how many of those who criticise Government with regard to security issues have ever had to take life or death decisions?

    In “The Lion and the Unicorn “Orwell says , p95 . The mentality of the left -wing intelligentsia is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of constructive suggestions.  There is little  in them  except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.

    p111. Pure pacifism , which is a by-product  of naval power, can only appeal to people in very sheltered positions.

    Up to the mid 1980s most of those in senior and influential positions had served in WW2 and knew people who had taken difficult decisions. The vast majority of the senior officers had earned the right to send junior personnel into combat in WW2 because they had fought in WW1.

    In the film the “Cruel Sea ” The Captain of the RN ship decides to fire depth charge to destroy a U -Boat knowing it will kill the sailors in the waters. During the convoys, ships often could not stop to pick up survivors and at times steamed through those in the water because to alter course, would risk attack from U-boats.  Members of special forces units committed suicide rather than be captured risk revealing information under torture.   The people who took these difficult decisions did so  because it was the lesser   of evils.


    ISIS shows that there are people who enjoy committing murder, torture and rape. ISIS show the same mentality as those who ran the execution squads and extermination camps of WW2.

    What I do know is that ISIS is barbaric and some  British people support them in full knowledge of their actions.  If people criticise the government then if there is a murder which could have been prevented, then those opposed should be prepared to explain their actions to those grieving relatives and friends  and demonstrate they are prepared to die for this country.


  5. Brian,

    I’ve only previously written in when I’ve disagreed with you, ie you’ve been wrong and I’ve been right  🙂 , but this time you are perfectly correct.

    The police, and presumably the security services too, have always used paid informers when necessary to obtain intelligence. There’s no reason for any policy change due to the religious beliefs of the likely criminals.