Mysterious deaths, freedom of information, Marconi and the Ministry of Defence

Under the Freedom of Information [FOI] Act publicly-funded organisations have 20 working days to answer or notify the applicant if they need more time to answer. Some organisations with well managed records answer more quickly than others but none has been quite as slow as the Ministry of Defence. Its first response to my FOI request came more than six months later.

And there was no acknowledgment of my application, although this is a legal requirement.

I had asked about the mysterious deaths of computer programmers and scientists, some working for Marconi, some for other defence contractors, and others for the MoD and the government communications headquarters GCHQ.

The 25 deaths in the 1970s and 1980s led to countless articles in many countries around the world, including France, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Australia. Separate TV documentaries were made by crews in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. The MoD’s press officers received countless calls from journalists about the deaths; and Lord Weinstock, the then managing director of GEC, one of the government’s biggest defence contractors and at that time Marconi’s parent company, set up an inquiry.

It was carried out by Brian Worth, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard. He concluded that “on the evidence available that the suicide verdicts reached were credible on their own facts, and in the four cases where open verdicts were returned the probability is that each victim took his own life”.

One of the Marconi computer programmers, from London, had gone to Bristol where he tied his neck to a tree and apparently drove off in his car. Less than three months earlier another Marconi programmer from London had travelled by car to Bristol where he apparently jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Police stopped the cremation of his body as the service was taking place, to investigate further.

Letters to the coroner from the dead man’s friends were unanimous in their scepticism that the programmeer had committed suicide. Police found a tiny puncture mark on the man’s left buttock.

The local coroner alluded to a possible “James Bond” link. He said: “As James Bond would say, ‘this is past coincidence,’ and I will not be completing the inquest today until I know how two men with no connection with Bristol came to meet the same end here.” He did not discover why.

The two dead programmers had been working on highly sensitive projects for the government.

If the MoD had been so swamped with information that it could not answer my FOI request quickly, this would have explained its late reply. In fact the poor official who spoke to me had spent months looking for material and found nothing at all. Not one piece of paper. The official reply was that the MoD has no recorded information on any of the cases I had mentioned. So much for the ministry’s record-keeping.

It was as if the deaths had never happened.

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I'm surprised you're not recalling the controversy when the specifications of the Official Secrets Act were widened in 1980 or thereabouts right bang after Thatcher came to power: the Times actually stated: "Technically speaking you can now be killed under the Official Secrets Act, because it now specifies "anything that is considered to be in the interests of this country" so therefore if I decide I think I should kill you in the "interests of this country", and do so, the law can do nothing...."

That's going by memory, but reaction to Thatcher's change to the law is findable.

Times journalists' reactions to the death of Cornelius Cardew was interesting (1982) but only purely technically, since he was an atonal music composer, they were suspicious as he had been very left wing - "One wonders if the extreme right in Britain are going to kill many other left-wing personalities, go on a killing spree purely because Thatcher came to power." Anyway, I've got a few things to say in my 'url', put it around a few people if you can. Martin.

I lived in Cupar in Scotland in the 70s - several neighbours worked at Hawklaw which was a satellite station for GCHQ Cheltenham. I will always remember coming back from school one day (around 1976) and the kids from 3 doors down were being looked after at my house because their Hawklaw dad had 'fallen off the garage roof' - he was found dead next to the garage. It seemed strange to me at the time, even more so now that I have just checked out the garage on google maps. The neighbour three doors the other side (who also worked at Hawklaw) - who was probably early fifties - dropped dead on a golf course on holiday in the same time period. Strange - coincidence?