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The closed circle: Britain's culture of secrecy

"Cruel Britannia: a Secret History of Torture" and "Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain" reviewed.

Cruel Britannia: a Secret History of Torture
Ian Cobain
Portobello Books, 368pp, £12.99

Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain
Christopher Moran
Cambridge University Press, 449pp, £25

These two books on Britain’s culture of secrecy reveal that, over the past 100 years, the preferred methods by those in officialdom for dealing with inconvenient truths have been casuistry and cover-up.

Classified, by the academic Christopher Moran, follows the maxim that history should not only educate but amuse. This deeply researched and wonderfully informative book is surprisingly entertaining as it takes the reader through the history of official secrecy in Britain from Victorian times to the present.

It was news to me, for instance, that: “Legalised secrecy was seen as offensive to British notions of good government and subversive of the public interest in a modern democratic age.” Moran explains that the Victorians believed the state had an obligation to collect, preserve and publish official records. The Public Record Office Act was passed in 1838 to do just that.

Yet the rapid development of a democratised political culture in the latter part of that century terrified the ruling classes. Reforms in education, the rise of cheap mass media and the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853 created a striving class of informed commoners. The latter report attacked Whitehall as a club for the rich and privileged. The Treasury became the first department in 1870 to select civil servants in open competition. The influx into the civil service of the “vegetables of the earth”, as these second-class bureaucrats were known, was the real impetus behind the Official Secrets Act, Moran explains. The act, passed in 1911 at rapid speed and after almost no debate, succeeded in walling off a public resource into the hands of a select few. Yet it was one law for the plebs, another for the great and the good.

David Lloyd George was so intent on marshalling the facts to vindicate his handling of the First World War that he roped in the cabinet secretary and also hired a researcher who was given carte blanche throughout Whitehall. Often the entire cabinet secretariat put on hold normal duties to assist Lloyd George in the creation of his memoirs. It paid off. Lloyd George earned £65,000 from publishing deals.

Meanwhile, Winston Churchill circumvented the law by instructing his staff to print in galley form all minutes and correspondence written under his name. He also labelled as his personal possession his communications with Stalin and Roosevelt. In May 1945, giant horse boxes were seen parked outside government buildings to haul away bundles of official papers to assist Churchill in writing his six-volume history of the Second World War. Many of these documents were never returned to the public archive.

It’s a shame that Moran doesn’t extend his examination much beyond the Thatcher era. Tony Blair, his ministers and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell all privately benefited enormously from ostensibly public information that was kept from citizens. Also, Moran makes the fallacious argument that more openness leads to officials being more dubious about keeping records.

Moran’s conclusion is that the current “openness”, encouraged by a series of catastrophic exposés made by investigative journalists such as Chapman Pincher, is in reality little more than a “public-relations approach to information control”. Recent official his - tories of MI6 and MI5 have revealed only that which serves the personal interests of those in charge.

Following in Pincher’s footsteps is Ian Cobain, an investigative reporter at the Guardian, who seeks to shed light into the darkest recesses of the secret state. Cruel Britannia makes it clear that a culture of secrecy doesn’t just serve to protect the elite but is also the soil in which the worst aspects of humanity can take root and grow. This is a shocking book that deserves a wide readership.

Documentation about the intelligence services in Britain is extremely difficult to obtain and sometimes Cobain asks us to take too much on faith. A case in point is his assertion that torture was used to turn German spies into double agents during the Second World War. We know there was an interrogation centre in Kensington Palace Gardens called “Camp 020” and a punishment cell, known as “the cage”, where Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens managed to turn German spies. “The interrogators at Camp 020 had the benefit of the intercepts of Abwehr signals from the Ultra programme at Bletchley Park,” writes Cobain, “but this cannot fully explain their success.” The strong insinuation is that torture was used.

The book comes into its own in the chapters about Britain’s more recent use of torture in Ireland and in the war on terror. His doggedness in tracking down victims around the globe, in prison or out, trawling through records and finding people who can speak about the unspeakable, is what makes Cruel Britannia so powerful. He finds Gerhard Menzel who was described as “merely a living skeleton” when he was released in March 1947 from Bad Nenndorf, a postwar British interrogation centre. He also tracks down Petros Petrides, who, as a 15-year-old schoolboy, was arrested in 1959 by British soldiers at school in Cyprus, classed as a dangerous activist and sent to be interrogated.

Petrides was taken to an interrogation room “completely spattered with blood” where members from the British special branch threatened to kill him. Then, he recalls, “They punched me in the stomach and grabbed my genitals. They . . . rubbed pepper into my lips and eyelids and my private parts. They would put a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth and drip water on it and you would feel like you were drowning.” They also put a metal bucket over his head and beat it, leaving him deaf in one ear.

Thousands of others were treated similarly or worse as Britain shed its colonies. It was during this time that the “five techniques” were finessed: isolation, sensory deprivation, seemingly self-inflicted pain, exhaustion and humiliation. Military and intelligence officials argued that these techniques were useful and necessary. This thesis cannot be tested – as Cobain shows, the state takes great care to keep its use of torture secret.

However, evidence suggests that torture is counterproductive. Cobain shows how, in Northern Ireland, internment and torture “triggered an upsurge in attacks and encouraged more young men and women to join the IRA”. Those tortured can also go on to positions of power. The prominent Libyan politician Abdel Hakim Belhaj claims that he was tortured after a tip-off from MI6 led to his rendition. He is now suing the UK government, its security forces and the senior M16 officer Sir Mark Allen for damages. Torture, therefore, also carries a huge reputational risk. It destroys the public’s trust in government, as well as the government’s ability to bring successful prosecutions.

Cruel Britannia makes for deeply depressing reading. But to ignore its findings would be to grant impunity to actions that reveal the worst of human behaviour. It’s only by facing up to the ugly truth that we’ll have any chance of ensuring our government works to uphold the best.

Heather Brooke is the author of “The Revolution Will Be Digitised” (Windmill Books, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.