‘There are many mysteries surrounding Kim Philby’s appointment at the Observer’

The Soviet spy and Middle East correspondent for the Observer exposed the British establishment – and not only to the Russians
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The career of Harold Adrian Russell Philby – “Kim” to his friends and family – is a dark mirror to some bleak episodes in Britain’s postwar history. His editor, David Astor, was central to a liberal, metropolitan elite whose debates reverberated between Oxford and Cambridge, the BBC, the London clubs and Fleet Street. His contrarian character would lead him to make some very good decisions, and some very bad ones.

Astor grew up during the 1930s. He was fascinated by journalism, and jeopardy – and highly susceptible to the romance of the secret world where the spy and journalist shared an interest in covert observation mixed with a frisson of risk. Arthur Ransome had been both the confidant of senior Bolsheviks and an agent of M16, while simultaneously reporting on revolutionary Russia for the Manchester Guardian. Astor, a lifelong devotee of psychoanalysis, was always drawn to dangerous characters.

Philby was the son of St John Philby, a well-known writer and Orientalist, and had spent some time as a teenager with the Bedouin in Saudi Arabia before winning a scholarship to Cambridge. When he graduated in 1933, he was recruited by the USSR, along with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

Code-named “Sonny” by the Soviets, Philby became the archetype of treachery. In 1951, his two co-agents fled to the USSR. Philby’s position seemed hopelessly compromised, but Harold Macmillan told the Commons that he had “no reason to conclude that Mr Philby has betrayed the interests of his country, or to identify him with the so-called ‘third man’”. In November 1955, Philby gave a press conference at which he reiterated his innocence. Soon after, “Sonny” landed a job as the Observer’s Middle East correspondent. When Philby finally defected in 1963, the aftershocks of his treachery would send shudders through the establishment of which he had been so seamlessly a part.

There are many mysteries surrounding this appointment. Why did Philby resume his career as a spy once he had been set up in Beirut as the Observer’s correspondent? Was Astor aware of his double life? For Philby, the secret world had become an addiction, a game of Russian roulette. Like his friend Graham Greene, he could never quite wean himself from the thrill of risk. Equally, nor could David Astor.

Contributor

Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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