The question of whether we can really talk about our national media in democratic countries as free from State intervention at international level is of key interest in modern societies. This issue has dramatically emerged in recent times with the expansion of social networking sites during the so-called Arab Spring, where the manipulation of new digital satellite platforms by various state organisations played a central role in mass mobilization aimed at overthrowing dictatorships. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this approach and its basic methodology is anything new.  In fact it has its historical roots in the cold war.

Recently a BBC investigation brought this old methodology to light. According to the BBC Radio 4 programme Document produced by Jeremy Duns, numerous notable journalists working for some of Britain’s most prestigious publications routinely collaborated with British intelligence during the Cold War.

In 1968, Soviet newspaper Izvestia published the contents of an alleged British government memorandum entitled “Liaison Between the BBC and SIS”. SIS, which stands for Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, is Britain’s foremost external intelligence agency.

The paper, which was the official organ of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, claimed that the foreign correspondents of most leading British newspapers secretly collaborated with the British intelligence community. ??It also alleged that the BBC’s world radio service had agreed with MI6 to broadcast preselected sentences or songs at prearranged times.

These signals were used by British intelligence officers to demonstrate to foreign recruits in the Eastern Bloc that they were operating on behalf of the UK. At the time, the BBC virulently rejected the Izvestia’s claims, calling them “black propaganda” aimed at distracting world opinion from the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, which had taken place some months earlier.

But an investigation aired on BBC Radio 4’s Document programme suggests that the memo published by the Soviet newspaper was probably genuine. ??The programme says it discovered a memorandum in the BBC’s archives, which laments the embarrassment caused to MI6 by the Soviet claims. The memorandum, dated April 24, 1969, describes MI6 as “our friends”.

The BBC program, which is available to listen to here, discusses the Soviets’ claims that several notable British journalists were MI6 agents. They include Edward Crankshaw and David Astor of The Observer, Lord Hartwell and Roy Pawley of The Daily Telegraph, Lord Arran of The Daily Mail, Henry Brandon of The Sunday Times, and even Mark Arnold-Foster of the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. ??

Leading veteran security and intelligence correspondent Phillip Knightley told Document that he would not be surprised if Izvestia’s claims turned out to be true. Another expert, Stephen Dorril, who has authored extensively on the history of MI6, told the program that he believed the memorandum was probably given to the Soviets by George Blake, an MI6 officer who spied for the USSR. Blake was later convicted to 42 years in prison, but managed to escape to Moscow in 1966, where he still lives today.

This old system has been refined with the evolution of technology. Today States are capable of reaching out to the population of geopolitically competitive States by simply manipulating information and news at a global level, thus bypassing established institutional organizations like Foreign Affair Ministries or National Television broadcasters.

The combined use of Media, Justice, public-private economic tools combined with the leverage of non-State actors such as NGOs, may represent new multifaceted tools of aggressive foreign policies expressed by States with Imperial aspirations.

In many proven cases, this manipulation can even lead to tangible actions, such as the war in Libya or the new military support to rebel groups in Syria.  Manipulation of information is often mixed with political doctrines based on moral values, such as human rights, democratization and similar issues and serve as justification for State initiatives or as mobilization of masses for the establishment of domestic and/or International political alliances.

However, what we should really consider here is not the morality of the action or its coherence with the political doctrines it purports to expound (as proved by the results of these actions, from Afghanistan to Libya) but rather its efficacy and sustainability.

These State-lead actions can be extremely effective, but they undoubtedly have a counter effect: the continuous recourse to such initiatives discredits the groups involved, be they journalists, International institutions or NGOs. Soon or later, they will pay the price.