Annie Machon looks like a young Mary Beard. And it’s not just physical similarities she shares with the TV historian. Like Beard, Machon too studied classics at Cambridge and has a quiet, studious air about her. What she definitely doesn’t look like is a woman who went on the run for a year after going to the press to expose alleged criminality within MI5. But then in real life whistleblowers rarely live up to the Hollywood ideal.
“People have an idea of what it means to be a whistleblower. It rarely has any bearing on reality,” says Machon. “You can’t give your family and friends any advance notice that you are going to take on the establishment. The first they will know about it is when they read it in the paper or hear it on the news. All you can do is take a deep breath, step off the precipice and then wait for the consequences. In my case that meant fleeing to Europe and staying in hiding for almost a year.”
It was back in August, 1997 that Machon went rogue, but it was her fellow whistleblower David Shayler who attracted most of the headlines. Concerned about how various departments within the intelligence service were operating and frustrated those concerns weren’t being taken seriously, the pair took a number of classified documents to The Mail on Sunday. The very first story to be published alleged, amongst other things, that the phone of the then New Labour spin doctor Peter Mandelson had been bugged for three years during the early 1970s.
That was, the pair claimed, just the tip of the iceberg. An injunction prevented more revelations regarding what MI5 did or didn’t know about various IRA bomb plots from being published. However, Machon admits that legal barriers aside she and Shayler were the victims of bad timing. Very bad timing.
“The first story was published on August 24. The following weekend Princess Diana died. That was it. Our story was instantly wiped off the news agenda. No one wanted to know, but by then we had already burnt our bridges.”
The pair hid out for a while in a French farmhouse and watched from across The Channel as the life they had once known crumbled from view. Things didn’t turn out to well for Shayler. Later charged with three offences under the Official Secrets Act, he was ultimately found guilty and in 2002 he was sentenced to six months in prison.
By then, however, he had become something of a figure of fun. An appearance via satellite on Have I Got News For You didn’t help and when he later claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ it only further served to undermine his cause.
While Machon avoided criminal charges, her life post 1997 has not been easy. She says she now “scrapes a living” giving lectures and “doing a bit of media” and 20 years on she is unsure that a whistleblower today would fare any better than she did.
“The climate has changed in certain aspects,” she says. “WikiLeaks has given whistleblowers a veil of anonymity, which means it is possible to test the water with certain allegations without becoming an instant target. But if anyone looked at what happened to Edward Snowden I am not sure it would encourage them to step forward.”
It was four years ago that Snowden, a former contractor for the CIA, exposed the fact the US National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans on a daily basis. The revelations left Snowden facing espionage charges and he was forced to seek temporary asylum in Russia.
“He is the most significant whistleblower in modern history,” says Machon. “It was he, along with a few others, who really began to expose how out of control the spy agencies are and just how widespread phone and internet surveillance is, but he gets few thanks. In fact he was seen as being un-American. I don’t know what will happen next, but I do know that what he exposed was just the start of it. There will be more revelations. Of that I am certain.”
Machon says the one good thing to have come out of the Snowden case is that it put the notion of privacy into the public domain. She often talks of the Snowden effect and refers to various polls which show that the majority of British adults are now concerned about online privacy. Whether that concern has caused any of them to change their behaviour is a moot point, but Machon says there is a far more worrying consequence of the global surveillance network.
“In the digital age intelligence services can monitor everything and so they do. The result is that they are drowning under the sheer weight of information and they are not quite sure what to do with it all. In the old days targets would be identified and it was only if you could put together a really robust case that they would become a target of surveillance.
“How many times now after a terrorist attack do we here the suspects were on the radar of a particular intelligence service. My real fear is that so many people are on their radar that the sifting procedure which used to identify key targets no longer works.”
While Machon says she has no regrets about what she did, there is a sense, even after all these years, that a job she assumed would allow her to change the world a little ended so badly.
“Originally I had wanted to be a diplomat and had applied to the Foreign Office, but then I had a letter from the Ministry of Defence saying their might be other roles that I would find more interesting. It was a gruelling recruitment process and one which is designed to weed out those with aspirations to be James Bond pretty early on.
“It wasn’t just me they wanted to quiz. I had to nominate a certain number of family and friends and they were grilled about my background too. Once I got the job it was like stepping into a secret society. Because you can’t tell anyone else what you do, the office and everyone in it becomes your world
“Nobody becomes a spook for the money, because the honest truth is it doesn’t pay that well. You join MI5 because you believe that you will be able to play a part in protecting the country. Unfortunately for me it didn’t work out like that.”
Machon has remained a vocal opponent of moves to extended the reach of state surveillance and was dismayed to see the Investigatory Powers Act become law at the start of this year. Less kindly known as the “snooper’s charter” web and phone companies are now required by law to store everyone’s web browsing histories for 12 months and give the police, security services and official agencies unprecedented access to the data.
“It was questioned in Parliament, challenged in courts, and soundly condemned by former intelligence insiders and civil liberties groups. And yet it proved to be the walking dead of legislation. Nothing seemed to kill it. That Bill will kill all notion of privacy – and without privacy we cannot freely write, speak, watch, read, activate, or resist anything future governments choose to throw at us.”
And Machon, who has only just stopped looking over her shoulder, knows exactly how it feels to live a life devoid of privacy.
Annie Machon will be a guest speaker at Hull University’s Digital Dystopias event, looking at how digital technology is changing society and increasingly shaping our lives.
Running from today to February 14, the five-day festival includes installations from some of the city’s digital pioneers, films screenings as well as talks and Q&As with some of the world’s leading experts on privacy, surveillance and artificial intelligence. Full details at digitaldystopias.com