Secrets and spies

Observations - Plane-spotters

Nobody knows whether we'll ever learn the real story of the 12 British plane-spotters thrust into the cloak-and-dagger world of Greek espionage.

"What is being played out in public is just one-third of the story," says their Athenian lawyer, Yiannis Zacharias. "Nearly all my time is spent dealing with the other two-thirds of the story, the bit that nobody wants to come out. The bit that is being played backstage."

The Britons, accused of spying on military installations during their tour of Greece last year, are the first foreigners to be charged with spying in Greece since the mid-1950s.

"There is only a certain amount that we would want to discuss publicly," one senior government source confided. "And that has not helped our really very embarrassing handling of the affair."

From the start, the saga raised two delicate matters: how far foreigners should be allowed to "observe" - and record those observations in the public domain; and to what extent Europeans really want, or are trying to understand, one another as members of the same club. Greeks were clearly baffled by the northern Europeans' arcane passion for plane-spotting.

If the Greeks had been more interested in the affair - local reaction has been noticeably nonchalant - they would have seen their country being portrayed back in Britain as little better than a banana republic, with an antediluvian justice system and hell-holes for jails. Yet the likes of Donald Holder, the British consul, regarded the jails as more than "satisfactory"; and when Lesley Coppin, the only woman in the group, complained of being cold, the Greek foreign minister's top aide rushed her an assortment of woollies.

Few, including the plane-spotters' greatest champions, would deny that their actions were ill-advised. As Zacharias puts it, the aviation enthusiasts "did not help themselves" by failing to disclose all of their moves, not least a visit to one top-secret airbase where they had filled their notebooks with serial numbers.

The failure of Paul Coppin, the leader of the group, to reveal a visit to Turkey - his family claims he was invited by the Turkish government as an accredited aviation journalist - also stoked suspicions.

The Daily Mail, which campaigned for the 12 from the start, apparently knew of this. But the reporter despatched to cover the case admitted - once the group had been freed on bail - that he had "not seen the importance" of that particular fact. It would have spoiled the story - the real story of the plane-spotters that we may never know.

Helena Smith is the Guardian's Athens correspondent

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Le Pen is mightier . . .