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23 October 2019

BBC Radio 4’s The Secret History of GCHQ offers few insights into the organisation

Despite the title, there aren’t many secrets to be found here.

By Antonia Quirke

A documentary marking 100 years of GCHQ (21 October, 8pm) didn’t say much about the activities of GCHQ. “Welcome to Scarborough,” began presenter and BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera, with promising ominousness, the statement hanging in the seagull-punctuated air as he made his way down into the longest-running listening bunker in the world, “not far from the beach”. At the bottom he met “Bob”, “Sheila”, “Simon” and “Paul”, who showed him around and remembered with fondness the 1970s, when the dim passages were piled with sodden sawdust.

“In them days it was a right gloom,” someone sighed, suggesting a Fungus-the-Bogeyman ambience that must have settled in such places until at least 2003, if the new movie Official Secrets (reviewed opposite) is anything to go by. See Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun sitting in near-darkness in the Cheltenham branch wearing lonely headphones and nibbling miserably on a cinnamon Danish. During the Second World War, the Scarborough station was guarded by “snarling, brutish” dogs and the headsets were sticky and sweaty with use. Churchill was a “junkie” for intelligence and it was all Typex machines and settings books, locating U-boat signals. Since then, the walls in Scarborough have been painted (sniff) orange (“for the young kids”) and the job now encompasses “many different targets, many different technologies”. Such as? “Erm… Digital, radio, cyber, internet… We keep an eye on the enemy, whatever the enemy is.” Such as? Tricky to say. Official Secrets Act, etc. (The ultimate crucifix to ward people off.)

At some point Simon admitted that he has been married for 35 years and his wife has no idea what he does. (Let’s hope she doesn’t hear this programme.) It was all very vague, full of permissible taciturnity, and ultimately, deeply prosaic – which rhymed with what a British spy once told me: that (am I allowed to relay this?) when posted in Bosnia, the job mostly entailed sitting in leaking cars waiting for people who never turned up, and routinely losing phone numbers in bars. Boredom, punctuated by the odd flurry of minor humiliations. Alec Leamas, in a cagoule. 

The Secret History of GCHQ
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state