The day Robin Cook saved the NS

Observations on the Zircon story.

The full story of how Robin Cook thwarted Margaret Thatcher and prevented the government from suppressing an important intelligence revelation has not previously been published. Robin's support was at the heart of a dramatic series of events in February 1987 which led to detectives raiding the New Statesman's offices and BBC Scotland's headquarters, searching for information about a banned BBC programme. Foreshadowing this decade's Gilligan affair over Iraq, the collision between government security obsessions and critical broadcast reporting led to the dismissal of the then BBC director general, Alasdair Milne.

At the eye of the storm was a BBC2 series called Secret Society. One of the programmes showed how Thatcher had flouted a parliamentary agreement on expenditure by secretly authorising £500m for the first-ever British spy satellite, code name "Zircon". By the start of 1987, it had become clear that the government was leaning on the BBC. The problem was how to get the story out if the BBC came under intolerable pressure and banned the programme.

As a result of events in the 1970s, Robin had became more familiar than any other parliamentarian with Britain's largest but most secret intelligence-gathering activity, "sigint" (signals intelligence). He learned, too, of "indoctrination", a process under which everyone - from Rt Hon members downwards - had first to sign an oath of secrecy, promised in perpetuity to the US-UK espionage community, before being told about communications spying. He was not in awe of canonical arguments about security. Robin and I had discussed Zircon for weeks and had drawn up a timetable of likely political events. In the event of a TV ban, the obvious answer was to publish the story in the NS. But it was also too obvious an answer. So, how to throw Thatcher's dogs off the scent, and avoid the NS also being banned?

The answers he suggested relied on the position and privileges of parliament. After the BBC ban was reported in a Sunday newspaper, Robin arranged a private showing of the series for members within the House of Commons.

To stop such an event, Thatcher would have to have parliament vote to ban itself. But the planned afternoon Commons film show, while real and sincere, was a stalking horse. By distracting the prime minister with this noisy and controversial event, we hoped that the real plan for publication in the NS would slip through, under the prime minister's nose and below the radar of her advisers.

The stratagem worked - but only just. With hours to go, the penny dropped in government offices. An injunction was obtained - but had to be served personally on me to take effect. Treasury solicitors arrived at the NS's Clerkenwell office, ban in hand. As they were escorted up in the office lift, I took to the stairs, got on my bike, and sped off to the anonymity of a London hotel overnight. Meanwhile, the NS production manager caught the first train to Southend, ready to pay alternative printers if the regular NS printers were suddenly restrained.

When the first copies of the magazine reached Whitehall the following morning, the heat from Downing Street became palpable. Insiders described Thatcher's mood as "incandescent". Very early that morning, I met Robin in his Norman Shaw Building parliamentary office. He escorted me through the Commons underground passage into "Cloisters", an office area then controlled by Tribune MPs. Like a praetorian guard, they provided a space where the Treasury solicitors' writ did not run, allowing us to prepare for the debates that followed. Meanwhile, during a critical few hours, the distribution vans were able to roll.

Within days, samizdat tapes of the banned Zircon programme were out all over the country. A year later, it was shown unedited on BBC2.

Duncan Campbell was a staff writer and assistant editor of the NS from 1978-91

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Have you heard the one about. . .