December 2021 – January 2022

Essays

On Her Majesty’s secret disservice

By Harry Windsor
Image of Kim Philby (left) and Phillip Knightley

Kim Philby (left) and Phillip Knightley. Photograph by Yvonne Knightley

The reporter who uncovered the truth about Kim Philby, the 20th century’s most infamous spy, and his warnings for democratic society

“Martyrs to dogma,

 You too are victims of the century”

 —Boris Pasternak

 

Bald, bearded and a dead ringer for Lenin. That’s how Phillip Knightley, one of the most respected journalists on London’s Fleet Street, would describe himself over the phone. It made him easier to spot in a crowded bar, waiting on a stranger who might become a source. Along with a group of fellow expatriates collectively known as the “Australian mafia”, Knightley was a former member of the celebrated Sunday Times Insight unit, responsible for big-ticket investigative stories on everything from historical tax evasion by Britain’s wealthiest family to the thalidomide scandal. That recognisable pate almost cost him, however, late in 1987, when he walked into the Soviet embassy on Bayswater Road, recognised some reporters from the Daily Mirror loudly complaining about visa delays, and wondered if the greatest exclusive of his already considerable career was about to slip through his fingers.

Knightley had by then spent 20 years in correspondence with Kim Philby, a man many considered the most effective spy in history, ever since the team at Insight had laid out the Englishman’s story: a Soviet spy since the 1930s had become the head of MI6’s anti-Soviet section at the dawn of the Cold War.

Philby had finally agreed to a lengthy interview in Moscow, the first he’d granted to a Westerner since his defection a quarter-century earlier. His only stipulation was secrecy, and Knightley was acutely aware that any publicity – in the Daily Mirror or elsewhere – would likely kibosh his chance to ask the world’s most famous double agent one simple question: had a lifetime of deception actually been worth it?


Knightley was rarely glimpsed without a suit and tie, but the Australian journalist’s slightly professorial air belied a hard-scrabble journey to the top of his profession that had included stints as a copra trader in Fiji and a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Sydney, his home town. His entree to Fleet Street came via the London branch of a Sydney paper, but it was not quite the triumphant arrival he’d dreamt about as a copyboy for Frank Packer. Puce-faced publicans sneered at the colonial, and a BBC game show appearance alongside his compatriot Murray Sayle ended in the discovery that they’d been excluded from the green room.

Sidelines as a yachtsman and restaurateur also went south, and he was in his mid thirties by the time freelance assignments finally made him a fixture at the labyrinthine Sunday Times office. Soon he joined a secret team of 18 journalists digging into the affairs of The Observer’s former Middle East correspondent, who had mysteriously turned up in Moscow a few years earlier. And it was Knightley who made the crucial breakthrough: Philby hadn’t just worked for MI6 while secretly reporting to the Russians – he’d been in charge of MI6 counterespionage against the Soviets.

The Sunday Times series that followed was quickly turned into a book, 1968’s Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation. And though it wasn’t the first, it was the most accurate to date – a fact even its subject acknowledged, albeit with some qualifications, after Knightley sent an inscribed copy to him in Moscow. And so began an unlikely correspondence. The letters the men exchanged over the next two decades covered everything from the spy’s travels within the Soviet bloc to his dismay about the devolution of his beloved cricket (“aluminium bats, white balls, funny clothes and Uncle Kerry Packer… it is too confusing for a gentleman of the old school like myself”).

Knightley’s disgust at the entrenched snobbery of his new homeland perhaps helps to explain the affinity he felt for Philby, the Cambridge graduate-turned-communist who betrayed England because he, too, loathed its class system. The newspaper man certainly expressed a certain nostalgia for Australia in their correspondence. In a letter dated January 1987, he recalled telephoning his sister back home. She was in the middle of a Christmas lunch consisting of “Sydney rock oysters, giant Pacific prawns, cold lobster with papaya, and mangoes and ice cream, all washed down with a chardonnay from the Lewin Valley”. The same letter ended with a studiously casual afterthought in which Knightley wondered if Philby was game for “a long and rambling chat with just me and a notebook”.

Knightley didn’t have a commission for the Moscow meeting – he’d gone freelance a few years before – but there was no doubt he’d be able to place the interview: fascination with Philby and the “Cambridge Spies” had only grown over the intervening years. John le Carré, in his introduction to Knightley’s 1968 book, had said that, like a great, albeit unfinished novel, the dimensions of the Philby scandal were difficult to fathom. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carré’s book about a Soviet mole at the heart of British intelligence, was published only a few years later, in 1974. Philby suspected that the author didn’t like him much, but he was content, he told Knightley, to have contributed to le Carré’s “vast affluence”.


The winter had been unseasonably mild in Moscow, and Knightley and his Indian-born wife, Yvonne, gazed out at slushy streets when they arrived on January 18, 1988. They were sitting in the back of a black sedan provided by the KGB, taking a circuitous route to Philby’s flat, which was located at a secret address. The old spy lived in a 1930s block not far from the Moskva River, accessible down a narrow lane beyond a locked steel gate, and its lift sounded as though it hadn’t been serviced since before the war. Accompanied by a broad-shouldered KGB man in a black leather jacket, the couple endured a slow, nerve-jangling ascent to the sixth floor, where a studded-leather door opened to reveal Philby, 76, wearing a grey cardigan and carpet slippers, slightly hunched but smiling broadly.

Apologising for the lift, he ushered them inside and introduced his Russian wife, Rufina. Beyond the hallway was a large reception room. Against the wall – adorned with antique pistols and animal skins – was a valve-powered radio on which Philby listened to the BBC. The apartment was spacious even by the standards other government officials enjoyed in Moscow, and Knightley was aware that the KGB wouldn’t have had it any other way. This was, after all, a public-relations exercise, and Philby acknowledged as much when Knightley told him he looked healthy.

“I am well,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons you’re here, one of the reasons I agreed to see you. There has been a rumour – which apparently started in Canada of all places – that I was on my uppers, ill, abandoned by the KGB and anxious to return to Britain. I wanted you to see for yourself that none of this was true.”

In fact, Philby would be dead a few short months later. And however robust he claimed to feel, he almost certainly realised that talking to Knightley was his last chance to justify the cause to which he’d devoted his life – one that many former friends and lovers would say was characterised by betrayal. Knightley, for his part, was sympathetic but determined not to be taken in by a man who, after all, had been trained to deceive and manipulate, and who had survived several interrogations in his time. Many believed that Philby had blood on his hands, and what followed, over the course of a week and many glasses of Johnnie Walker Red Label, Armenian brandy and, of course, vodka, was a cordial but deadly serious cross-examination. Less than two years before his dream of international communism would crumble along with the Berlin Wall, Philby told his story to a confessor who had long been sceptical of the spying game. Russia’s prize defector was sitting in an armchair not far from the Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters he’d visited only twice in all the time he’d been living in Moscow. It had been 25 years.


Harold Adrian Russell Philby was born in Ambala, India, in 1912. His father, St John, was a member of the Indian Civil Service, and gave the boy his lifelong nickname (after Kipling’s Kim) because he heard him chatting in Punjabi to the servants. Philby didn’t remember much of his Indian days, he said; most of his childhood was spent in England, where he lived with his grandmother before attending school at Westminster, his father’s alma mater. He later won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, and it was there, as an undergraduate in 1929, that his views on life began to cohere.

“I had a good look around me,” he told Knightley, “and I reached a simple conclusion: the rich had had it too damn good for too long, and the poor had had it too damn bad. And it was time that it all changed.” Back then, he said, “the poor really were a different people. I can remember my grandmother saying to me, ‘Don’t play with those children. They’re dirty and you’ll catch something.’ That sort of thing. And it wasn’t just a question of not having enough money. It was a question of not having enough to eat.”

Between terms Philby rode his motorcycle to the north and stayed in industrial towns, where he witnessed the ravages of the Depression. He helped feed hunger marchers when they came through Cambridge, and campaigned for Labour with a sentimental stump speech about the heart of England residing in factories and farms rather than stately homes. But the collapse of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1931 left Philby disillusioned. He wondered if the British left was uniquely weak, and he travelled around Europe to find out.

One such trip took him to Berlin in 1933, not long after the Reichstag fire, where he witnessed an anti-Jewish rally. “In Germany unemployment was rife, fascism was on the rise, and the working class fared equally badly. The democratic socialists were unimpressive. Like Labour in Britain, they seemed to fold at critical moments. But all the time there was this solid base of the Left: the Soviet Union.” Philby was sure capitalism was on its last legs, and that only communism could stem the fascist tide.

He was introduced to the university’s socialist society by a former coalminer at Cambridge on a scholarship, who became a firm friend. Members of the society also included Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who both became communists at Cambridge and would later spy for the Soviets. But in Moscow Philby was keen to dispel the myth that any of them had been recruited at university. “There was no Cambridge ring,” he told Knightley. “It’s a load of nonsense invented by journalists and spy writers.” It was, however, a Marxist don who later provided Philby with an introduction to the global communist network, and after leaving Cambridge he ended up in Vienna, where he helped smuggle communist militia men through the sewers and out of the city after the fascist putsch of 1934.

Philby returned to London with an Austrian wife in tow, an avowed communist who connected him, through another émigré friend, to the first of several Soviet handlers with whom he’d work for the next 30 years. One of his first tasks – along with supplying a list of potential recruits that included his Cambridge fellows Burgess and Maclean – was to slough off his former self. That meant ditching his communist friends and even his communist wife. He began feigning fascist sympathies on the instruction of his control, and in 1937 he began covering the Spanish Civil War from the nationalist side as a correspondent for The Times. All the while he was reporting back to the Russians on everything from troop movements to German attitudes to Franco.

In the summer of 1939 he was back in London, a 27-year-old with some serious mileage accrued in Vienna and Spain. And his adventures no doubt impressed the sweet, slightly sheltered Aileen Furse, whom he started seeing after they were introduced at the Mayfair home of the Russian heiress Flora Solomon. Philby was still presenting a fascist front, and he sometimes noticed Solomon – a family friend he’d once tried to recruit to the communist cause – adjudging him shrewdly “as if to say she knew exactly what I was up to”. It was September 3, the day war was declared on Germany – a date, Philby later told Knightley, that was to prove “disastrous for the world, and to myself”.

Philby’s subsequent entry into MI6 was greased by friends such as Burgess as well as by his father – by then a significant figure in the Middle East as long-time adviser to Ibn Saud. And his work in Spain later made Philby an obvious candidate for a job on MI6’s Iberian desk, running spies in Spain and Portugal. His deputies included Graham Greene, who described him afterwards as a born leader. Philby’s considerable personal charm helped him navigate the bureaucracy of London’s secret service with consummate skill. Towards the end of the war he deftly mined tensions between his superiors to ensure his appointment to lead a new section created to tackle the looming threat of Soviet espionage. Philby even wrote his own job description. That coup would ensure his position in the double agent hall of fame: a Soviet spy in charge of ferreting out Soviet spies. But it was followed by a very close shave indeed.

Defectors had already hinted, by now, at the existence of a young Englishman in Stalin’s employ. But none came as close to unmasking him as Konstantin Volkov, a Soviet agent working as a Russian diplomat in Turkey. Accompanied by his wife, Volkov walked nervously into the British embassy in Istanbul in 1945. He told the vice-consul that a number of Soviet agents had infiltrated British intelligence, and one of them presided over a counterespionage unit in London. Volkov was willing to name names in exchange for exfiltration – and, of course, cash.

Reading the official report in London, a horrified Philby immediately sought to be dispatched to Istanbul himself. He was assigned the task of meeting and assessing Volkov only after the first candidate for the job turned out to have a fear of flying. Storms over Malta subsequently meant Philby’s plane was diverted to Tunis, and he missed the connecting flight from Cairo to Istanbul. But Philby had alerted his handler to Volkov’s intentions before he left London, and by the time the British tried, after much delay, to re-establish contact with Volkov in Istanbul, both he and his wife had disappeared. Le Carré would later write a fictionalised version of what many believe happened next: two bandaged figures loaded onto a Soviet plane, bound for Moscow and the torture chambers of the Lubyanka.

Philby’s career didn’t so much as sputter in the aftermath of this fiasco. Bolstering his credentials as a respectable member of the establishment, he finally married Aileen Furse at the Chelsea registry office in 1946, with Flora Solomon looking on as a witness. This was despite the fact that Aileen suspected her husband – whom she believed worked at the Foreign Office – of having an affair with his secretary. Philby, for his part, described Aileen to his Soviet control as a bourgeois philistine. Socially awkward and not particularly political, Aileen was slightly out of place among her husband’s cosmopolitan, vaguely bohemian set. And her health suffered after the couple moved to Istanbul, where Philby took up a posting as MI6 station chief. Bouts of self-harm led to hospitalisation, and she slashed her own wrists during a stay in a Swiss clinic. Philby’s attitude to mental health was very much of his time: Aileen’s illness was a burden.

Despite the problems in his personal life, Philby was on the fast track, according to many, to head up Britain’s entire secret service. In 1949 he was sent to Washington, DC, to act as MI6’s liaison officer to the CIA and FBI. He there cemented a friendship with James Jesus Angleton, the ascetic future chief of United States counter-intelligence. And he presided over a series of doomed incursions into Albania, the Ukraine and elsewhere – operations he discussed with Angleton at length over regular long lunches. Hundreds of young émigrés were dropped into their homelands to galvanise resistance to communist rule. Most were never seen again.

Almost 40 years later, Knightley asked the old spy whether the deaths he caused played on his conscience. Philby was unapologetic. “Volkov was a nasty piece of work,” he said. “No regrets there. And yes, I did play a part in frustrating a Western-inspired plan for a bloodbath in the Balkans. But the men who dreamed up and planned the operation were quite as ready as I was to contemplate bloodshed in the service of a political ideal.” The young agents themselves “knew the risks they were running”, said Philby. “Don’t forget that earlier I was also directly responsible for the deaths of a considerable number of Germans, thus doing my modest bit towards winning the war.”

Philby’s posting to Washington had put him at the centre of Western intelligence. The Soviets couldn’t have dreamt of better access to classified information on both sides of the pond. But his sojourn in America also marked the beginning of the end.


Philby’s old Cambridge friend Guy Burgess arrived in Washington in 1950 – dossing, much to Aileen’s horror, in the Philby home on Nebraska Avenue. Burgess was an alcoholic and liable to get himself into spectacular scrapes, so Philby wanted to keep a custodial eye on his friend. But there was another reason for keeping him close. The two men were tracking an investigation into leaks at the British embassy in Washington – an investigation that was rapidly closing in on their fellow Soviet spy Donald Maclean.

Burgess was eventually thrown out of Washington for repeated speeding offences. Upon his return to London he acted as a messenger between the Soviets and Maclean, and they defected together in May 1951. The fallout saw Philby sidelined for the next five years, suspected of tipping off the traitors before the noose tightened. He was recalled to London, and the Americans made it clear he wouldn’t be welcome back. MI5 listed all the coincidences to which MI6’s golden boy had been connected. Philby’s recruitment to MI6 had been aided by Burgess, well known as one of his best friends; he’d presided over the disappearance of Volkov; and he was privy to the Maclean investigation.

Philby admitted to nothing, but his guilt was accepted by many. He moved outside London, unmoored. Aileen’s mother later bought the couple a large house in Sussex, but the gift only increased her daughter’s isolation. Philby began an affair with a civil servant in London and often stayed away for days. Massive rows ensued when he returned, and Aileen’s drinking escalated. At dinner parties she loudly accused her husband of being a Soviet spy, and even of wishing her harm.

The tipping point came in Australia, with the 1954 defection of Vladimir Petrov, a KGB colonel who reignited tabloid interest in the existence of a “third man” responsible for warning Burgess and Maclean. The London press corps began staking out Philby’s house whenever it wasn’t dashing between Princess Margaret and Captain Townsend. The ensuing drama saw him accused in parliament, only to be later cleared for want of evidence.

Clubbable as ever, the spy had maintained contact, throughout his years in the wilderness, with several of his friends at MI6 who believed in his innocence. And it was they who helped secure him a position in Beirut as the Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist, in which capacity his father would help open doors. St John was living in a Maronite village near Beirut at the time, and Philby stayed with him when he arrived in Lebanon in 1956. Philby’s mother, Dora, died the same year, having lived apart from her husband for decades.

Though he loved his father, the spy acknowledged – apparently without irony – that St John could be “a terribly insensitive man, particularly in his relations with my mother. She literally drank herself to death and towards the end she was drinking a bottle of gin a day.” Philby had of course left his own wife and five children behind when he decamped for Beirut, and Aileen had deteriorated rapidly. Briefly committed after her husband left, she was often drunk and virtually penniless. She cooked in friends’ kitchens for spare change. Graham Greene later described a visit to the “ugly sprawling Edwardian house” where Philby had left her. “There was no sign of any tending in the overgrown garden”, Greene wrote. “The post hadn’t been collected for a long time – the floor under the door was littered with advertising brochures. In the kitchen there were some empty milk bottles, and a single dirty cup and saucer in the sink.” The place looked, he said, “like an abandoned gypsy encampment”.

Aileen was found dead inside her home in December 1957, a victim of congestive heart failure, myocardial degeneration, a respiratory infection and pulmonary tuberculosis. She was 47. In Beirut, Philby felt briefly liberated by the news: he had begun a relationship with a woman he later married. Yet Aileen’s death would haunt him. Her earthly vessel was Flora Solomon, who was sufficiently incensed by Philby’s abandonment of her friend to strike the final blow to his career in a meeting with MI5. Not only was Philby a communist, she told them, but he’d once tried to recruit her.

Together with information supplied by a defector in Helsinki, Solomon’s testimony provided Philby’s intelligence masters with the ballast they had long needed to accuse him outright. Shortly after they did so, in 1963, the spy slipped down to the docks, boarded a Russian freighter and watched as the lights of Beirut faded into the distance. His third wife was making small talk at a dinner party at the time, and wondering why her husband hadn’t appeared. She was left behind.


Knightley’s 1988 interview with Philby stretched over six boozy evenings. After each session the Australian stayed up late back at the hotel, trying to decipher his notes. And every night he received a phone call. The voice on the line was always male, always Russian and always had the wrong number. Philby’s own flat was probably bugged, Knightley knew, though that possibility didn’t seem to unduly bother its occupant. In fact, Philby seemed to revel in the omniscience of his team. Holding court in a private room at his favourite Georgian restaurant, at a table laden with caviar, shashlik and sturgeon, he admitted to Knightley that he was rather bored by his own story, though the British papers seemed as fascinated as ever. “They’re always pressing their correspondents in Moscow for interviews with me,” he said, resignedly. Philby took a sip of his vodka, sat back and smiled. “We know because we read their messages.”

Both men were exhausted by week’s end. Philby was even becoming impatient with some of Knightley’s questions, particularly those that touched on “KGB operational matters”. They agreed to meet early the following day, to wrap things up before a farewell dinner. The sounds of schoolchildren were still echoing up from the playground below when Knightley arrived, and the men retired to Philby’s study and got down to business. On his desk was an Anglepoise lamp, a typewriter and several back issues of The Times. The bookshelf behind held the complete works of Greene, le Carré and P.G. Wodehouse. On the wall was a photograph of Philby’s father in Bedouin garb, as well as an engraving sent by Anthony Blunt, another member of the “Cambridge Five”, commemorating a Roman emperor who had done battle against the Germans.

Knightley began by asking Philby about his lack of patriotism. “Patriotism is a very complex emotion,” he replied. “Millions of people fight and die for their country, yet millions emigrate to found new nations.” The England he left behind would be a foreign country now, anyway. “I don’t believe that anything I did harmed my own Britain at all. In fact, I think my work for the KGB served the bulk of the British people.”

Philby did admit, however, to mourning the loss of friends. “I have always operated at two levels,” he said. “A personal level and a political level. When the two have come in conflict, I have had to put politics first. This conflict can be very painful. I don’t like deceiving people, especially friends, and, contrary to what some people believe, I feel very badly about it. But then decent soldiers feel badly about the necessity of killing in wartime.”

The spy had spent the first years after his defection feeling both relieved – “the pressure of all these years was lifted” – and industrious. His debriefing involved putting the “full, unexpurgated story of my life as an intelligence officer” down on paper. But once this task was completed, his duties were unclear. Ever suspicious, the KGB didn’t want to risk the possibility that Philby had been a triple agent all along, and so he floundered. “My pay still arrived regularly, but I felt that I wasn’t getting sufficient work,” he told Knightley. “It appeared that the KGB had no idea of what my real potential was. I felt frustrated and fell into a deep depression, started to drink heavily again, and, worst of all, became prone to doubt. Had I done the right thing? You see, I never swallowed everything. I never took it all in.”

Philby had always been sustained by the game and its exclusivity, by the inside track. But he was discovering what it felt like to be on the outside. Knightley noticed faded scarring on the old man’s left wrist, evidence of a suicide attempt some 20 years before. His drinking back then had sometimes led to nightmares. One trip to the Black Sea with his family, visiting from England in the summer of 1969, was a disaster. Philby’s night terrors frightened his grandchildren, and his youngest daughter found the entire experience so unpleasant she never returned.

Respite, for Philby, arrived the following year: “I met the woman I had been waiting for all my life.” As Rufina later admitted with characteristic Russian bluntness, it was hardly love at first sight. She was working as an editor in a publishing house and in her late thirties when she met the Englishman. Philby was 20 years her senior, and he seemed, to her, like an old man. Neither spoke the other’s language. But she was touched by his courtliness, and the couple married just a year later, in 1971. The KGB gave them a set of fine-bone English china as a wedding gift.

They spent the next two decades travelling together, to the outer limits of the Soviet world. Overly attentive local KGB apparatchiks usually handled the itinerary, and husband and wife frequently found themselves, as Rufina later put it, on a “deserted sea shore, where an endless grey and unwelcome beach merged into a grey and unwelcome sea”. Still, Philby told Knightley, Russia was home. “I get great pleasure from the dramatic change in seasons,” he said. “I even get pleasure in the search for scarce goods.”

Knightley pointed out that Philby was a privileged citizen, and therefore insulated from the consequences of such scarcity. The only privilege he cared about, Philby replied, was world-class medical care – he had an irregular heartbeat – though he agreed that the access he enjoyed should be universal. But then, as his critics liked to point out, Philby’s whole life had been like this: fighting for the many while enjoying the perks of the few. The spy saw no contradiction. “Of course there are aspects of the establishment which anyone would enjoy. But what about the millions outside the establishment – those millions whom the establishment manipulates with such offhanded ease?”

Accused of being a political fossil because he didn’t change course after learning about Stalin’s purges, he replied that doing so would have meant a “double-quick translation to Wormwood Scrubs”: i.e. prison. But more than that, he believed that the principles of the Revolution would outlast the aberrations of individuals, however gross.

This faith helps explain his abiding friendship with Graham Greene, who once compared Philby to Catholics who worked against Queen Elizabeth I for the victory of Spain. Greene visited his old MI6 colleague three times in the last three years of Philby’s life, and had earlier sent him the manuscript of The Human Factor – about an MI6 agent who defects to Moscow – to check it for authenticity. Greene’s own Monsignor Quixote said that “sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith”, and so it was.

Whatever solace Greene might have provided, however, Philby’s sense of doubt – was it all worth it? did I back the right side? – never quite left him. He was angered by the expulsion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and scornful when a KGB friend abjured responsibility, blaming instead the Fifth Directorate, the service’s secret police. “You are responsible,” said Philby. “And I’m responsible too.” He took the corruption of the Soviet elite personally. Philby saw everything, he told Rufina. But he was too old to start again.

Knightley noted Rufina’s vigilance about her husband’s alcohol consumption, as well as her tendency to finish his stories. Philby clearly doted on her. He would become agitated when she left the apartment to see friends or go to the cinema. Though he assured Knightley that his home was all around him – “more than eight million square miles of it” – the spy’s world had contracted by the end of his life, to his island on the sixth floor. Rufina later recalled waking up one particularly cold winter’s morning to find one of her boots missing. She eventually found it in the study, where her drunken husband had hidden it the night before, to prevent her from leaving. Philby had left three wives behind, and the sozzled spy clearly worried the fourth was about to return the favour.


Philby died, alone in a room at the KGB hospital, on May 11, 1988. Rufina had gone home for the night, thinking him in a stable condition. Knightley had been planning to return at the end of that month, for a trip to Philby’s dacha outside Moscow. He wanted to fill in certain gaps in the record; gaps that would now remain.

Addressing the National Press Club in Canberra the following year, he admitted that Philby was “perhaps the most successful spy in the whole history of espionage”. But he also wondered if the whole enterprise wasn’t all smoke and a wilderness of mirrors. Knightley’s most famous book, The First Casualty, had skewered the self-conscious glamour of war correspondents, and his instinct was to recoil from the mythmaking practised by both spies and journalists. He had long been struck, incidentally, by the uncomfortable similarities between the two. Knightley was sure, however, that intelligence gathering could be done better by journalists. To bolster this claim, he quoted a senator from Delaware who had been receiving intelligence briefings, at that point, for more than a decade. “A good journalist’s published analysis of events abroad will often prove as sound as a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate,” said Joe Biden. Therefore, said the future president, “the cult of executive expertise, which has enjoyed a long run in the first decades of the postwar period, has surely had its day.”

Knightley recalled falling out with Philby over one issue only: his insistence that politics took precedence over personal relationships. It was, the journalist said, one of the saddest things he’d ever heard, and had led him to consider the possibility that spies simply have personalities that are essentially abnormal. That years of deceit and manipulation inevitably leads to a diminishment of human values, “and they can become fantasists”. That’s a problem, he continued, because it is spies, together with their handmaidens in the media, who increasingly define our sense of reality. The information they provide is often unverifiable, of course, and paranoid – but it shapes the agenda.

Spies justify their existence, he went on, by touting their ability to warn us about a clear and present danger, and the end of the Cold War meant the absence of one. The Official Secrets Act 1989 had just been passed in Westminster, and Knightley saw the writing on the marble walls. Governments sensitive to criticism in lockstep with intelligence services eager to safeguard their budgets… well, it made for a dangerous cocktail. “It seems to me,” said Knightley, “that although we’re at a hopeful point – glasnost, the decline of communism – we’re also at a very dangerous point. That the spy, in order to survive the modern bureaucracy, will change his target. And his new target will be the ordinary citizen.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?