Observer reveals MI5 vetting of BBC staff

18 August 1985

On 18 August 1985 the Observer newspaper published allegations that BBC staff appointments were regularly vetted by the security service MI5. The article, by David Leigh and Paul Lashmar, caused a storm of protest in and outside the BBC, and called into question the BBC's independence. It said that in some cases the use of inaccurate information had resulted in staff being blacklisted.

The man responsible for liaising with MI5 was the Special Assistant to the Director of Personel, former army officer Brigadier Ronnie Stonham. He had an office in room 105 in Broadcasting House, a part of the building that inspired George Orwell when he was writing 1984. All current affairs appointments - and many other production jobs not in sensitive areas - were referred to Stonham and checked on an MI5 database. If MI5 judged the applicant to be unsuitable they could be barred from the job, though without being told why.

In response to the revelations the BBC admitted that vetting had been going on since 1937, but said the checks were necessary in case of a national emergency. It was agreed that the scope of the vetting had become too wide, and in October it was scaled back. Stonham retired in 1988.

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