Article Review - Dramatising intelligence history on the BBC: the Camp 020 affair - Christopher J. Murphy (2019)

The Article
Dramatising intelligence history on the BBC: the Camp 020 affair. Christopher J. Murphy. Intelligence and National Security, Volume 34,  Issue 5, p. 688-702, 2019.

Intelligence & National Security
(cover from Taylor & Francis online)

A few months ago, I received a complimentary copy of this article from the author. He had earlier requested a copy of the Camp 020 Spy! television episode (1980) of which I happened to have a digital copy, and which I shared with him. It was nice to see the final product and I found the article enlightening.

The Camp 020 Spy! episode is quite notorious as it depicts, in docu-drama fashion, the re-enactment of a British intelligence officer (Stephens) hitting a German spy (TATE). Given that Stephens had professed physical violence to be taboo, the airing of the episode generated a firestorm of criticism from former Camp 020 staff. A number of individuals wrote to the BBC expressing their strenuous objection to the episode stating that Stephens had never hit a prisoner. They admitted that a visiting officer from the London Cage, Colonel A.P. Scotland, had hit TATE but that Stephens had thereafter banned the officer from Camp 020.

This much of the story is quite well known, as the letter from a group of these staff was published in Radio Times. What Murphy presents us with, however, is a glimpse into much more in-depth correspondence between Camp 020 staff and various officials at the BBC, Radio Times and the BBC Complaints Commission, none of which were ever published in a public format.

Murphy does a great job of introducing us to the back-and-forth exchange between the irate letter writers who demanded a retraction and the intractable BBC officials who repeatedly insisted that the episode was accurate and based on "exhaustive research". In the end however, the BBC would not reveal their secret sources, simply saying that the episode was based on information from TATE as well as other spies and Dr. Harold Dearden (Camp 020 physician). In an internal memo, one BBC official did admit that the episode was an amalgamation of several different accounts, and was not based solely on TATE's experience.

In fact, TATE had seen the episode and written to his former double-agent handler, Major T.A. Robertson who said:

"After the appearance of the film [TATE] rang me up in a frenzy and declared that it was the most despicable piece of nonsense he had ever seen, and said over and over that he had received fair treatment from all at 020 and that he had never once had a finger laid on him by anyone, and the part which shows him beaten up by Stephens was disgraceful." (F.G. Beith (Camp 020 veteran) to Ian Trethowan (Director General of the BBC), 6 August 1981, Written Archives Centre (WAC), R78/1233/1)

Lt. Col. Robin William George Stephens
Lt. Col. Robin William George Stephens

Murphy notes that the other spies apparently consulted for the episode may have included Chapman (ZIGZAG), Moe (MUTT) and Glad (JEFF), none of whom would appear to be good candidates for "abused prisoner" at Camp 020. At least, there is no information within the public domain that supports the contention that they were abused at the hands of Stephens or any other Camp 020 officer.

The problem that Murphy wanted to examine was the question: Did the film have that great an impact on the viewing audience? He notes that in the 1970s there was quite a bit in the news about the abuse of prisoners in Northern Ireland and argues that the depiction of wartime violence in the Camp 020 episode would have been accepted by the viewing public as the truth.

Even the BBC believed the idea that the British intelligence system used abusive interrogation measures during the war:

"In one of his letters to Beith (Camp 020 veteran) in which he defended the approach to interrogation depicted on screen, Trethowan (BBC) argued that ‘Systems of this kind are perfectly justifiable in peacetime police work; who could doubt that in the midst of the Second World War they were essential?' " (Murphy quoting Trethowan to Beith, 19 June 1980, WAC, R78/1233/1)

Ultimately, the possibility of other prisoners enduring physical abuse at the hands of Camp 020 officers cannot be ruled out, but Murpy argues that there is little material to support such claims.

Murphy concludes his article by noting that "while the efforts of the veterans to correct the impression given by the programme certainly deserve to be remembered, its depiction of a physical assault on a prisoner by the Commandant should now, perhaps, be forgotten".

This article was very informative and cast an illuminating light on the behind-the-scenes correspondence around the Camp 020 Spy! episode. I was quite intrigued to see how stubbornly the BBC officials clung to their claim that the story had been "exhaustively researched" and yet how flimsy their evidence seems to have been. Or perhaps, there is more to the story that has yet to reach the pubic domain...

I had hoped that Murphy might have been able to track down Stephens' death date and final resting place he makes no mention of it. One can presume, however, given the correspondence, and that Stephens was not quoted/consulted/interviewed,  that he was no longer alive at the time, which gives us an upper range for his passing.

Review Score
5 out of 5 - excellent piece that adds to our understanding of Camp 020.


Popular posts from this blog

Clara Bauerle is Finally Laid to Rest

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?

The Truth about Clara Bauerle