The Observer should not be shocked by MI5’s use of paid informers
On 20 September 2015 the Observer newspaper published a front page report expressing pained surprise at the revelation that the UK Security Service has been paying informers “to spy” on Muslims suspected of involvement in terrorism. I submitted the following letter for publication in the following week’s Observer:
The Observer’s issue of 20 September wins first prize for the most naïve newspaper heading of the decade –on the front page, too (MI5 pays UK Muslims to spy on terror suspects, 20 September). The real scandal, richly deserving a front page banner headline, would be the revelation that MI5 was not paying courageous informers in the Mosques to help to forestall terrorist outrages. Thank goodness they are!
I was disappointed, but not much surprised, that the Observer of 27 September didn’t publish my letter, either in the print edition or, as far as I can see, in the online version. Newspaper editors never like to admit to mistakes, but this one was much more serious than perhaps my rejected letter might have suggested, and the Observer should have published a retraction. The first line of defence against domestic Islamist terrorist attacks is necessarily tip-offs from public-spirited citizens, for obvious reasons likely to be fellow-Muslims, who know or suspect that a terrorist outrage is being plotted and who take a serious risk to their own standing in their communities, perhaps even to their lives, of discreetly informing the police or other authorities of what they know or suspect, which it is clearly their duty as citizens to do.
The effect of the Observer’s front-page story, with its clear inference that informing on one’s fellow-Muslims, at any rate for money, was somehow shameful and improper, can only have been to deter potential informers from doing their civic duty. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that if that deterrence were to lead to a terrorist attack that might otherwise have been detected in advance and forestalled by the security services, lives could have been lost as an indirect result of an irresponsible, misconceived and unconsidered article in Britain’s leading liberal Sunday newspaper, with a magnificent and widely respected past. It’s disturbing that such a story could have been written by the Observer’s staff writers, checked over (presumably) by a sub-editor and a duty editor, and probably approved for the front page by the editor himself, none of them apparently stopping to think of its possible consequences.
Payment to possible informers is bound to be one of several legitimate incentives to encourage people who might hear of terrorist planning to report it. Assessors of secret intelligence are experienced in judging whether an informer’s report may have been corrupted by the financial motive or by some other motivation.
We may assume that the security services will always seek independent corroboration of such reports before taking action against identified suspects. But anything that tends to discredit existing informers, or to deter others from informing in future, does no favours either to the security services on whom we rely for our protection, or to the rest of us either. It’s still not too late for the Observer to make amends by paying a prominent tribute to the secret army of brave and responsible police informers.