BBC praises Communist spy
Which tells you a lot about their attitudes: They're Britain's Kremlin
The Courtauld Institute was once the best place in Britain to study the history of art. But its director, Anthony Blunt, had, earlier in his life, spied for the Soviet Union. He was the "Fourth Man" in the ring with Burgess, Maclean and Philby. He confessed to the British intelligence services in 1964 (having repeatedly denied all the accusations over many years). The information was kept quiet, partly because he was Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. In 1979, he was publicly exposed, stripped of his knighthood and disgraced.
The Reunion brought together five distinguished people who had studied under Blunt. They included the director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor, the novelist Anita Brookner and the critic Brian Sewell. All five agreed what a wonderful chap Blunt was – brilliant, kind, civilised, terrific work on Poussin. And all said how appalling it was that Blunt had been attacked by the press after his exposure. Sue MacGregor (no relation of Neil, I think), who presented the programme, said that Blunt had been the victim of "public vilification"; she referred to the scandal as "what had happened to him".
We were told only in the thinnest outline what Blunt himself had done to others. In the mid-Thirties, he began working for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB), and helped recruit other British agents for them. It is often alleged that people in the West at that time had no means of knowing what Stalin was up to. This was not the case. Malcolm Muggeridge, attacked on this programme for attacking Blunt, went to the Ukraine in 1933 and reported – in this paper's sister, The Morning Post – that millions were starving there as a deliberate act of Stalin's policy. There were many like him (though not nearly enough).
Much was made, particularly by Brian Sewell, of the claim that the threat of fascism was so great in the Thirties that Communism seemed the only way. This does great injustice to all those – the majority of the population – who detested both. If Sewell is right, why did Blunt, Philby, Burgess etc continue to work for Stalin after he made his pact with Hitler, which lasted from 1939 to 1941, the time of greatest danger for Britain? And why did Blunt continue to shelter Burgess, Maclean and Philby from discovery after the war, when Nazism had been defeated and the Soviet Union was the deadly enemy of the West?
As for Blunt's acts of spying, these were brushed aside by the programme on the grounds that there had been "very exaggerated estimates" of the number of people who had died as a result of his actions. His treachery, said another former pupil, Michael Jacobs, had been "a minor and ultimately irrelevant aspect of his life".
It is a good thing that people feel gratitude to their teachers. It is also true that Blunt's work on Blake, Poussin, Borromini and so on does not become bad because he turned out to have been a Communist spy. So it was difficult to blame the five for their loyalty to Blunt, even when they were talking rubbish.
What was disgraceful, though, was the structure of the programme. For many, The Reunion's version may be the first they have heard of the subject. It is the duty of the BBC to apply to history the impartiality on which its Charter insists. Yet, as with the same programme's treatment of the 30th anniversary of the Brixton riots (which this column criticised on March 28), the entire panel was on the same side. Blunt was a virtually innocent victim, we were told, and the only villain was the press.
Sue MacGregor explained that Blunt "made no secret of his Marxist beliefs". This was perfectly irrelevant. The issue in his story was not his beliefs, but his treachery, which, by definition, was secret. He pretended that he was a normal British citizen and, during the war, a loyal officer of MI5, but in fact he was working for a murderous tyranny. Almost the only censure in the entire programme came from Neil MacGregor. Blunt, he said, had been guilty of "a very serious breach of trust". This understatement was rendered powerful by its solitary splendour.
The breach of trust was made even worse by the "establishment" career which Blunt chose to pursue. At least Burgess, Maclean and Philby ended up, drink-sodden, in miserable Moscow flats supplied by the dictatorship they so admired. Blunt, however, stayed, advised the Queen about her pictures, was knighted and honoured in academe. For a quarter of a century, throughout which time he concealed what he had done, he lived in the Courtauld's grace-and-favour Georgian elegance in Portman Square. His entire (non-spying) career was constructed on principles in direct conflict with his Marxism.
And when he was finally unmasked, even his handling of the news reflected his love of the privilege which had always surrounded him. He had lunch at The Times (then the establishment paper) before the press conference, and restricted access to selected reporters.
The Reunion propagated the theory that spying for the Soviets in the Thirties and Forties was nothing worse than an excess of zeal. This is a shocking untruth. Hitler and Stalin were moral equivalents. Indeed, at the time when Blunt signed up for the Soviet Union, Stalin had actually killed far more people than Hitler because the Führer was only just getting into his stride. The BBC would (rightly) never dream of making a programme which sought to excuse traitors who worked for the Nazis.
In our generation, Blunt's equivalents are the intellectual apologists for Islamist extremism. No doubt it will turn out that some of them worked secretly for countries like Iran, and no doubt, in due time, the BBC will laud them too.