Geoffrey Seed Interview: Fact Becomes Fiction

674 Image credit - Geraint Rowland via Flickr

“‘The common currency of both our professions is information. You want information. We want information. I can get you this, but I want the following things…’ what he wanted was information about my colleagues at Granada [TV].”

It is a blistering hot day and we’re sitting in the café at the lofty Old Station House in Welshpool, sipping refreshing beverages whilst investigative journalist, turned novelist, Geoffrey Seed describes a life changing chat he had with a Special Branch officer back in the mid-1970s. Seed had been out drinking and getting close with his new Special Branch contact for a few weeks before the policeman finally asked Seed to spy on his workmates.

“I was deeply, deeply, deeply offended by this,” says Seed with some feeling. “I felt dirty at this approach. I was deeply offended that anyone would think I’d do that sort of stuff. I walked out of that meeting… and I never saw the guy again.”

Geoffrey Seed has made his career out of sensitive information.  He began work at the Daily Mail in the late-60s and spent time reporting from Northern Ireland when the troubles began. This gave him a unique insight into the manipulation of truth, and left him convinced it was something he wanted to hang onto, as a hard currency. “I saw how the truth was a moveable feast,” Seed explains. “Sometimes it was this, sometimes it was that. I also saw how a mass circulation newspaper could take events and filter them through how the newspaper wanted to be seen.”

It is this lifelong passion for truth and uncovering human motivation that has encouraged Seed to take up writing fiction. This step has allowed him to take previously unpublishable, libellous material and turn it into two perfectly legitimate novels, with a third on the way. “With [these] books, I can interrogate memory, I can recall what I felt and recall my own feebleness and my own sense of moral outrage. And I can put it into the mouths of the characters I create – that is a great liberating thing.”
Inside the Cogs of MI5

Throughout an extensive career, Seed has certainly experienced first-hand a wealth of extremely interesting material.  After the Daily Mail he began work in television investigating a raft of volatile subjects from corruption in Manchester United to the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe. But perhaps the most significant of these was one particular exposé he did for Channel 4 in 1985.

“On the principle of don’t get mad get even, I began an enquiry into what the Special Branch do. [This was] on the basis that they tried to recruit me… [so] who else were they trying to recruit? And in the course of all this I got to find a lady called Cathy Massiter who had just left the Security Services. [Gradually] the emphasis then shifted from an investigation into Special Branch into an investigation into [the people] for whom the Special Branch did their work, because Special Branch are the arms and legs of MI5.”

His work on the show had “driven a large tank through the Official Secrets Act,” and put the spotlight firmly on Seed (who was actually being investigated by the Security Services at this time) and his crew. Channel 4’s barrister was convinced they had systematically breached the Act and was warning of potential jail sentences for the producers, Seed, as co-producer, and former MI5 officer, Cathy Massiter. Everyone was on edge, and there was no shortage of suspicious goings on during the making of the show itself:

“One man on the crew, the electrician, had been a member of the Communist Party and he lived in an area of quite high crime. He had a break-in at his flat and nothing was stolen.  I had been warned by another source that I was under surveillance. Then there was another break-in near the offices where we were cutting this film. [This prompted] myself and another co-producer to remove the whole operation, at midnight, to a friend of mine’s house in the West Country. And we cut that show in somebody’s bedroom.”

Once the programme was complete and ready for broadcast, it was instantly banned by the IBA [Independent Broadcasting Authority]. Channel 4 graciously sold the rights to the show back to Seed and his team, who then sold the video rights to Richard Branson. After that… things began to snowball quickly, and with the – perhaps slightly incongruous – help of Michael Palin and Terry Jones of the Pythons, they managed to get the film shown in three cinemas around the country.

“We [even] got a copy made for the Labour Party in the area where I had cut the film,” explains Seed. The idea being to get some political momentum behind the film, and get the Opposition Party to object to the actions being taken by the Security Services. However, that didn’t happen: “There was a senior figure in this Labour Party area who was literally in tears with fear that they were going to get prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. We thought well: ‘You cowardly baskets’. Here’s a woman, Massiter, who’s risking two years in jail [for this].”

Massiter never did go to jail and Seed went on to make a wide range of other programmes around the world. However, for him it highlighted the need for hard evidence:  “The Massiter M15 show [proved] quality witnesses cannot be denied by the state, because what they have is knowledge, experience. And all the other stuff we put together made their positions unassailable. That’s why we were never prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act ourselves after the Massiter show… yet there could not have been a greater breach.”
A Spate of Unreportable Nazi Deaths

Writing novels certainly takes the pressure off. “I think writing a book, or books, fictionalising the world as I had seen or experienced it is almost a reaction to spending the last thirty years gathering evidence; whole piles of statements, photographs and documentary evidence to prove every line in every script,” says Seed. “There comes a stage in your life when you see it is easier to turn very difficult corners if you use the medium of fiction.”

He has published two books to date: ‘A Place Of Strangers’ in 2009 and this year’s ‘The Convenience of Lies’ . Both follow an investigative hack (“McCall is me in a big hat really,” says Seed) as he uncovers a series of controversial, high profile stories that span public events and his own personal life. The first book addresses a bizarre spate of deaths that took place in different parts of the world, in mysterious circumstances; involving former Nazis, unorthodox death squads and corruption in high places. Needless to say, it was all based on real life events: “I met all manner of people. And I had all kinds of material that I believed to be true. [But] you could not fly it past a lawyer.”

The second book covers a theme that is splashed all over the current headlines. “I had this information given me on 10th December 1996 by a very disaffected policeman who knew of two enquiries into child abuse by politicians that were kiboshed. Then two or three years ago I met a Fleet Street guy I used to know, and he told me quite by chance about how he had an extremely good source who had come to him with a story about a very well-known politician who had been involved in the sexual abuse of children and young people. He took it to his editor who said: ‘No, I don’t want it,’ because that newspaper supported that politician.”

The conflict between telling the truth and the external difficulties of journalism has always deeply troubled Seed, and acts as a recurring theme through his two books. In fact, hearing him talk about work that has been shelved, or stories that have been spiked due to political and editorial allegiances, it is easy to understand why mainstream journalism (even before certain recent events) has never enjoyed the best of reputations.
The Human Tale of a Zulu Fisherman

Through his fiction he relates a number of vignettes from a career spent conducting investigations around the world. “When I made films, people [who were in them] were taking big risks. [I’d have to make sure they understood]: You go on camera, your name, your face, you say these things; you do understand what is going to happen after we’ve gone?”

One episode especially, which had a big impact on Seed himself, took place in Namibia in the mid-80s. This acts as an emotional seam through his second novel. “We were sitting in this church and the sunlight was coming in through these very crude stained glass windows,” he tells us leaning forward and demonstrating with his hands. “And [this Zulu fisherman found by a priest as a source] is sitting there talking to me and he is telling me what happened [to him].”

“He was telling me how he was arrested. He was stripped of all his clothes. He was handcuffed, a metal bar was placed between his legs and he was suspended between two oil drums. They then put salt in his mouth, bound his face and set fire to him.” Even after a distance of twenty years, Seed is still incredibly moved by the man’s plight.

“Then… and I’m supposedly this tough hack, and I’m not, I found myself weeping for this man, a complete stranger.  And I don’t know if it was because I was white, but I found myself weeping, and this man took my head and stroked my hair, like I would my little boy at home [at the time], and said ‘all right… all right’ and he comforted me.  He brought comfort to me. I cannot tell you how big a moment that was in my life.”

“I’m not religious but in that place, in those circumstances, with that man, with that stranger, he brought comfort to me. And things like that may mean nothing to outsiders, but at the heart of it all we’re just human beings, and to be confronted by such wickedness and such evil, it had a profound effect on me.”

Today fiction allows Seed to blend thirty years of hard won stories with the emotion he could never publicly share in the event. “I’m writing from here,” Seed says pointing to his heart. “It’s what you feel. There has to be that emotion. [Fiction] allows me to express things which I felt in the past, things which I feel [strongly] about.”

“If some people buy [the books] and like them, I’m happy about that. And there are some points that I want to make, not in a sort of hectoring way, about the way the world is. I’m not competent to [hector]. And I’ve never been eminent enough to have anything I say or think really taken notice of, but it’s a way of putting it there if people want to read it.”

Seed wants to share his dilemma over truth. In some ways this is typified by a meeting back in the mid-1970s, when he made a decision which was set to have a lasting impact on his life and career:  “To actually have a Special Branch guy saying ‘I have access to all this information, you can have it, but you have to do this for me,’… you are supping with the devil,” says Seed.

“The carrot is, they’ve got stuff that would really blow your head off. You do this little favour and you can have it. But your own independence and integrity is irreversibly compromised if you do.” Instead Seed chose to track down his own stories… and some of them were so red hot, the only way he can tell them, even today, is through fiction.

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

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