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Orwell Was Right: MI5 spied on leading British historians for decades, secret files reveal

Published: October 24, 2014
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Source: The Guardian

Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill had phones tapped, correspondence intercepted and friends and wives monitored
MI5 amassed hundreds of records on Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, two of Britain’s leading historians who were both once members of the Communist party, secret files have revealed.

The scholars were subjected to persistent surveillance for decades as MI5 and police special branch officers tapped and recorded their telephone calls, intercepted their private correspondence and monitored their contacts, the files show. Some of the surveillance gave MI5 more details about their targets’ personal lives than any threat to national security.

The files, released at the National Archives on Friday, reveal the extent to which MI5, including its most senior officers, secretly kept tabs on the personal and professional activities of communists and suspected communists, a task it began before the cold war. The papers also show that MI5 opened personal files on the popular Oxford historian AJP Taylor, the writer Iris Murdoch, and the moral philosopher Mary Warnock after they and Hill signed a letter supporting a march against the nuclear bomb in 1959.

Christopher Hill was a celebrated historian of the English civil war. Christopher Hill was a celebrated historian of the English civil war. Photograph: Jane Bown/Guardian

Lady Warnock told the Guardian on Thursday night: “I’d love to see the file, or anybody’s file come to that, to see what was/is regarded as suspicious … I am completely taken aback and even faintly flattered.”

Hobsbawm, who was refused access to his files when he asked to see them five years ago, died in 2012, and Hill died in 2009. Many passages, sometimes whole pages, of their files remain redacted and an entire file on Hobsbawm has been “temporarily retained”. The files include long lists of names and addresses of letters written by Hobsbawm and Hill.

They make clear that MI5 frequently read – or was sent – copies of as many as 10 letters a day. At the same time, its officers, or special branch officers, or their informants – one of whom was given the codename Ratcatcher – were secretly taking notes of their phone calls and meetings.

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