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"Wilson Doctrine" - Prime Minister Harold Wilson answers Oral Questions in the House of Commons 17th November 1966 - transcript

Since we admit to being slightly obsessed with the "Wilson Doctrine" and phone tapping surveillance of politicians and of the rest of us, we have tracked down a paper copy of Hansard, for 17th November 1966.

The current Prime Minister Tony Blair, like all his predecessors from both ruling parties since 1966, has vaguely re-affirmed that the "Wilson Doctrine" is still current Government policy, in a Ministerial Statement on 30th March 2006.

This still does not really answer the questions about all the new technologies like mobile phones, faxes, email, internet etc.which the word "telephone" implies today. Neither does it clarify the status of the "Wilson Doctrine" vis a vis the members of democratically elected devolved and supra national Parliaments and Assemblies which have come into existence since 1966, like the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament etc.

This 1966 Oral Answers session is not available in the online version of Hansard, so, in the interests of setting the background for the forthcoming political row which is likely to ensue in the New Year, when there could be amendments to the Regulation of investigatory Powers Act, or at least to the Code of Practice, we will try to transcribe the relevant text here, for the benefit of search engine queries, from political researchers and journalists.

It is interesting how they style of Hansard, and of Parliamentary jargon, has changed in the last 40 years, e.g. the use of "my right hon. Friend", which is not quite the way they do it now:

People mentioned in the debate who were consulted by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson in formulating his "Wilson Doctrine":

  • Home Secretary: Roy Jenkins in November 1966, previously this was Sir Frank Soskice when Harold Wilson's Labour Government first came into power in 1964.

  • Paymaster-General: George Wigg - seen as a political fixer for Harold Wilson and his liaison with the secret intelligence agencies.

  • Postmaster-General - the UK telephone system was, in 1966 run by the state monopoly the General Post Office.
    This position was held by Anthony Wedgewood Benn (Tony Benn) between 1964 and July 1966. At the time of this debate the position was held by Edward Short, who clamped down on "pirate radio stations" in 1967.

    Remember that, 40 years ago MPs were not using the internet, email, mobile phones SMS text messages, or even facsimile machines. They were mostly not even using touch tone land line phones or direct dialing for long distance or overseas calls, like they do now. There was no computerised "itemised phone bill" Communications Traffic Data available either.

Other people in the debate:

Mr. Speaker: The Speaker of the House of Commons at this time, was Dr. Horace King

The MPs who tabled the Questions which Harold Wilson was answering:

  • Russell Kerr - Labour MP for Feltham, Middlesex

  • Desmond Donnelly - Labour MP for Pembrokeshire.

  • Peter M. Jackson - Labour MP for The High Peak, Derbyshire

  • Sir Tufton Beamish - Conservative MP for Lewes in Sussex - an archetypical "Tory Knight of the Shire" - hence the form of address "the hon. and gallant Member". Private Eye magazine seem to have been inspired to call one of their satirical stereotypes "Sir Bufton Tufton".

Other significant contributions:

  • Tom Driberg - Labour MP for Barking in London - with a scandalous private life, and later allegations that he was a Soviet Spy, asked the question to which Harold Wilson responded with a promise that any change to the "Wilson Doctrine" policy would require a statement by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons.

  • Gordon Walker Labour MP for Leyton in Essex - his question brought the clarification from Harold Wilson that not just MP's "official Parliamentary business" telephone conversations but their private ones were also covered by the "Wilson Doctrine".

  • Gerry Fitt Republican Labour Party MP for Belfast West (later founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party) - asked about Northern Ireland - Harold Wilson seemed to assure him that tapping authorised by the Home Secretary against Northern Ireland Parliament MPs was also included in the "Wilson Doctrine", but not necessarily that authorised by the then local Northern Ireland Government. What about the other Parliaments and Assemblies which have been created since 1966, each with a democratically elected mandate from the UK electorate - surely the "Wilson Doctrine" should also apply to their Members as well ?

Commons Hansard

Official Report
Ffith Series
Tenth Volume of Session 1966 -67
Parliamentary Debates

National Archives reference: ZHC 2 1244

Oral Answers 17th November 1966
Telephone Tapping

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The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

Q13. Mr. RUSSEL KERR: To ask the Prime Minister on how many occasions warrants have been issued for the tapping of hon. Members' private telephones; and if he will give an assurance that no such warrants will be issued.

Q14. Mr. DONNELLY: To ask the Prime Minister whether he will state the criteria upon which he has issued his warrant for the tapping of hon. Members' telephones.

Q15. Mr. PETER M. JACKSON: To ask the Prime Minister if he will bring up to date the statistics of warrants authorising telephone-tapping given to the Committee of Privy Councillors; and whether he

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will issue an annual return, showing the number of permissions that there have been given, the number that have been withdrawn, and the number outstanding at the date of making the return.

Q16. Sir T. BEAMISH: To ask the Prime Minister whether he will give an assurance that the issue of warrants giving authority to tap telephone conversations remains under the Home Secretary's sole authority; and in what respects the criteria governing the issue of such warrants have been changed since October 1964.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson): With permission I will now answer Questions Nos. Q13, Q14, Q15 and Q16.

The House will know that, since the publication of the Report of the "Committee of Privy Councillors appointed to Inquire into the the Interception of Communications" in October, 1957, it has been the established practice not to give information on this subject.

Nevertheless, on this one occasion, because these Questions may be thought to touch upon the rights and privileges of this House, I feel it right to inform the House that there is no tapping of the telephones of hon. Members, nor has there been since this Government came into office.

The House will I know, understand that the fact that I have felt it right to answer these Questions today in no way detracts from the normal practice whereby my right hon, Friend the Home Secretary and myself are unable to answer Questions relating to these matters.

Mr. Russell Kerr : May I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply ? However, is he aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House believe, rightly or wrongly, that their telephones have been tapped ? While the whole House would acquit my right hon. Friend of any knowledge or complicity in such a perversion of the nation's security arrangements, will he consult with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Paymaster-General -- [Laughter.] --to make sure that some of our security people, are not undertaking free enterprise of a rather smelly kind on this issue?

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The Prime Minister : On the issue of the belief of certain hon. Members that their telephones are being tapped, I would point out that my postbag and that of many other right hon. and hon. Members suggest that a very high proportion of the electorate generally are under the delusion that their telephones are being tapped.This delusion spreads to hon. Members and I should say that I used to suffer from it myself at one time.

As for the general position, I hope that my statement will be an answer to some of the scurrilous comment in the Press during the last three or four days about the attitude of the Government to this question and will also answer, I hope, some questions put by some hon. Members on Monday and the usual Pavlovian titter which occurred when the name of my right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General was mentioned -- not least because the only connection that he has had with this question is when I sought his advice on reviewing the practice about tapping Members' telephones when we came into office. He therefore shares such responsibility as I can take for the present arrangements.

Mr. Donnelly : Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is an extremely serious matter and that the three questions arise? The first is the criteria on which any telephones belonging to anyone are ever tapped. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that there has been absolutely no change in the circumstances listed in the Report of the Privy Councillors ?

The second point concerns who is entitled to authorise such tappings. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that these people are known and identifiable, because it is a very important matter ?

Thirdly, when the matter goes outside national security and the whole question of detection of crime, will my right hon. Friend give instructions that any extraneous information which may be discovered as a result of tapping will not go beyond the security authorities to anyone who is not a member of the security services ?

The Prime Minister : My answer referred to the tapping of telephones of telephones of hon. Members
As regards any other person or group of persons, the position

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is exactly as stated by the then Prime Minister to the House after the publication of the Privy Councillors Report and I have nothing to add to or subtract from what was said the. Authority for tapping rest with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as the report made clear.

So far as the special case of Members of Parliament is concerned, as I have said, following the discussion I had shortly after we took office, with the then Home Secretary, the policy has been laid down in the terms which I have stated today.

Mr. Jackson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members believe that both authorised and unauthorised tapping is increasing? Is he further aware that paragraph 130 of the Report of the Privy Councillors stated that

"...there can be no certainty that the unauthorised tapping of telephones does not occur and it might even be done without the commission of a trespass on private or Crown property"?

and that paragraph 131 states ----

Mr. Speaker : Order. Questions even on telephone tapping must be concise.

The Prime Minister : The position regarding unauthorised tapping -- and this also relates to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr) -- is as follows: any tapping that, in accordance with the rules of the Report, becomes necessary by any Crown servant concerned with the things covered in the Report, can only be done with the individual authority of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary under very strict conditions.

If the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) relates to a practice which one understands has developed in other countries, and is causing concern here -- tapping by private persons to steal industrial secrets, for example -- that is a separate matter and does not come within the remit of Question and Answer in this House.

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M.Jackson) did not get his question over. Would he like to put it now?

Mr. Jackson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that paragraph 131 of the Report states that Parliament might consider

Vol. 736

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whether legislation should be passed to make unauthorised telephone tapping illegal?

The Prime Minister : That is an entirely different matter from the subject raised in the Questions on the Order Paper today. It has, however, been raised with at Question Time with the Postmaster-General on past occasions.

Sir T. Beamish : May I press the the right hon. Gentleman on this point ? Since the tapping and taping of private telephone conversations without the knowledge of the Post Office and without authority is much easier than many people imagine ---- and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not suffering from delusions and would gladly give him confidential evidence -- will the Prime Minister consider the question in paragraph 131 that unauthorised tapping of private telephone conversations might be made an offence?

The Prime Minister : I would be glad to consider any evidence the hon. and gallant Gentleman sends me. I know that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General would also want to consider it to see whether there was a case fully made out for dealing with "private enterprise" telephone tapping of the kind that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has in mind. I hop, however that the answer I have given to him and other questions will put into perspective some of the monstrous accusations made in certain newspapers over the past four days about the Government's attitude towards tapping of Members' telephones.

Mr. Lubbock : Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the reasons for the widespread delusion which he has mentioned is the grossly unsatisfactory state of the telephone system as a whole ? To give one example, when I tried to telephone someone yesterday I burst in on another private conversation between two individuals on three consecutive occasions. WIll the Prime Minister therefore ask his right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General to get a move on with improving the telephone system so that these allegations are not made?

The Prime Minister : That is a separate question, which has been raised many times with the Postmaster-General. I notice that the level of the supplementary questions is very different

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[The Prime Minister ]
from the dramatic build-up given to this subject by some of the Conservative Press over the past three days.

Mr. Driberg : Is my right hon. Friend aware that at least two of his answers have implied quite clearly that there was tapping of hon. Members' telephones before the present Government came to power in 1964? Would he say anything more about that?

The Prime Minister : I hold no responsibility for what was done in this matter before the present Government came into power, but it is fair to point out that the Privy Councillors' Report itself said that Members of Parliament should not be treated differently from members of the public. It is always a difficult problem. As Mr. Macmillan once said: there can only be complete security with a police State, and perhaps not even then, and there is always a difficult balance between the requirements of democracy in a free society and the requirements of security.

With my right hon. Friends, I reviewed the practice when we came to office and decided on balance -- and the arguments were very fine -- that the balance should be tipped the other way and that I should give this instruction that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament. That was our decision and that is our policy. But if there was any development of a kind which required a change in the general policy, I would, at such moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country, on my own initiative make a statement to the House about it. I am aware of all the considerations which I had to take into account and I felt that it was right to lay down the policy of no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament.

That is the "Wilson Doctrine" - no tapping of MPs telephones, and any change in this policy requiring a statement to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister,which has been endorsed by every Prime Minister since then.

Mr. Frederic Harris :Can the Prime Minister tell me why any Labour Members should imagine that their conversation on the telephone are interesting enough for them to be tapped ?

The Prime Minister : I do not think that this matter, which raises very deep concern about the privileges and rights of hon. Members, is in any sense a party question. My decision that hon. Mem-

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bers' telephones should not be tapped was, of course, unrelated to the tapping of telephones of hon. Members of any particular party; and I am sure that the attitude of the previous Government was also completely unrelated to the party affiliation of any hon. Members concerned.

Mr. Gordon Walker : I am very glad to hear the Prime Minister's decision that no hon. Members' telephones should be tapped, but would he agree that in principle, there is a distinction between the privilege of a Member concerned in some proceedings in Parliament, and the similarity of all Members with ordinary citizens in all other respects, and that it is important that this principle should be maintained and asserted?

The Prime Minister : I certainly agree about that and I do not myself believe that this involves a question of privilege, as we understand it in the narrow sense in this House,. My original Answer was drafted to make that clear. Someone has to take the decision one side or the other of this very, very difficult balance. With my concept of responsibilities to the House, I feel that, although the arguments are finely argued in the Report of the Privy Councillors, it has been right to alter the practice and to say that there should be no tapping whatsoever.

This is an important aspect of the "Wilson Doctrine", it does not just apply to "official Parliamentary business" telephones, but it also applies to the private conversations of any Member of Parliament, on any telephone, as well.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing : Is the Prime Minister aware that during the nine years which have elapsed since the Privy Councillors' Report was published, unauthorised tapping of telephones has become much easier and that, therefore, the recommendation of the Privy Councillors in paragraph 131 has now become urgent? As it is easy to make an unauthorised tapping of a telephone cable, will the Government five serious consideration to making it illegal?

The Prime Minister : I agree about the seriousness, particularly if tapping comes to be developed in this country on the scale which it has developed in other countries for use by one industrial company against another industrial company. This matter has been raised in the House before and it will be further considered. My answers have related not to unauthorised, but to authorised tapping, and I have stated the practice which we are following.

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Mr. Fitt : Would the Prime Minister agree to extend the assurances which he has given to the House to cover Members of Parliament in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that it is very well known that the Government of Northern Ireland indulges in tapping for party political purposes?

The Prime Minister : If my hon. Friend wants to send me any evidence which he has on that subject ----

Mr. Fitt : Will my right hon. Friend ask Captain O'Neill next time he sees him?

The Prime Minister : -- it will be studied with very great care. I can assure him that the answers which I have given this afternoon have related to all questions and practices connected with authorised tapping under the coverage of the White Paper and for which my right hon. Friend and I are responsible.

This does seem to imply that Northern Ireland MPs, who had their own Northern Ireland Parliament at that time, are also covered by the "Wilson Doctrine" ban on telephone tapping.

Surely this should mean that the current Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament , the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly and, at least the UK Members of the European Parliament, should also be covered by the "Wilson Doctrine" ?

Mr. Chichester-Clarke : Is the Prime Minister aware that the question of the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) was the gross terminological inexactitude which he knows it to be and which he has never been able to substantiate in this House and which should not have been made?

By convention, you are not allowed to claim that anybody is lying in Parliament hence the cumbersome "terminological inexactitude".

The Prime Minister : I asked for evidence but this afternoon I was dealing with areas within the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend.

So the Northern Ireland Parliament is covered by the "Wilson Doctrine" with respect to tapping authorised by the Home Secretary, but not necessarily to tapping authorised by the then local Northern Ireland Government.

Mr. Fitt : On a point of order. Is the Prime Minister aware that telephone tapping was admitted in the Northern Ireland Parliament?

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member must know that that was not a point of order.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Wilson Doctrine" - Prime Minister Harold Wilson answers Oral Questions in the House of Commons 17th November 1966 - transcript:

» Sir Swinton Thomas on the "Wilson Doctrine" from Spy Blog - SpyBlog.org.uk
Rt. Hon. Sir Swinton Thomas, the now retired Interception of Communications Commissioner has a large section in his delayed report: Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner for 2005-2006 (.pdf 19 pages), which discusses the constitutio... [Read More]


"Honourable and gallant" was the description used for MPs who were or had been an officer in the Armed Forces, in the same way that "honourable and learned" refers to an MP who is a Queens Counsel. Both of these were supposed to have been got rid of in the implementation of the Jopling Report ISTR, but the former died out much more quickly due to that there were no MPs who had been officers left. Honourable and learned is still occasionally used.

@ Alan - thanks for that clarification. Sir Tufton Beamish, was, of course also a former Army officer, and the expression still seems to be used today:


Does anybody here know how the law currently stands pertaining to MPs and membership of the intelligence services?

@ Livia - House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975
prevents civil servants or serving members of the armed forces from standing as Members of Parliament.

The Security Service Act 1989, which applies to the Security Service MI5, and the Intelligence Services Act 1994 which applies to Secret Intelligence Service MI6 and GCHQ make it a legal duty for the head of each of these UK intelligence agencies to ensure that their organisation

"does not take any action to further the interests of any United Kingdom political party."

The Military Intelligence units e.g. the Defence Intelligence Staff or the special forces units who also run agents and informers in an anti-terrorism role, are covered by the usual Military law and oath of allegiance, and by the House of Commons Disqualification Act.

Of course, Foreign intelligence agencies are not so constrained.

There is also the question of whether an MP is alleged to be an actual member of an intelligence agency, i.e. a full time officer, or just an agent, or informer, or fellow traveller, willing collaborator, or agent of influence, or is being blackmailed etc.

Do you suspect that any current MPs fall into any of these categories ?

There is also the question of whether an MP is alleged to be an actual member of an intelligence agency, i.e. a full time officer, or just an agent, or informer, or fellow traveller, willing collaborator, or agent of influence, or is being blackmailed etc.

Do you suspect that any current MPs fall into any of these categories ?

Thanks for responding so quickly; it's been troubling me for a while. The laws you quote from raise further questions: is there anywhere in the wording of the law that actually clarifies whether it pertains to full-time workers only? And if it doesn't pertain to part-time, how does it define part-time?

Do I suspect that any current MPs fall into any of these categories? Well, David Shayler insists in his book that he once saw a memo suggesting that Tony Blair once worked for MI5 as an agent within CND. I once knew someone who used to be in CND with Blair many years ago before Blair came to prominence, and it baffled me for years how he could have moved so far to the right; Shayler's allegation would certainly shed some light.

Douglas Hurd (ex-Tory MP and foreign sec under John Major) rose somewhat seamlessly through Eton and Cambridge and into the foreign service. His son Robert appeared on Richard Tomlinson's list of members of MI6; MI6 often recruits several members of a family (think Moncktons). Could Hurd have been a member of MI6? It's hard not to wonder.

In other words, if lists of MI5 and MI6 membership are such heavily guarded secrets who is qualified to check whether the rules are being broken?

How can we possibly know whether or not the higher echelons of our supposedly democratic government are fatally compromised by membership of a highly secretive (and powerful) organisation accountable in effect to no one?

Just found this:

"British agents helped Iran to make killer gas
Renegade MI6 spy Richard Tomlinson has more to tell

Antony Barnett, Yvonne Ridley and Shraga Elam

Sunday June 13, 1999

The British Government helped supply deadly chemical weapon materials to Iran in spite of its own ban on such sales, according to evidence to be put before an Israeli court.

Former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd could be most embarrassed by the revelations. It is claimed his office approved a British intelligence operation in the early 1990s which helped furnish Iran with the components and technologies for making mustard gas and other lethal nerve agents.

At the time the Department of Trade and Industry had export controls prohibiting the supply of such chemicals to non-Nato countries. In January 1993 Tory Foreign Minister Baroness Chalker went to Paris to sign the UN convention for the non-proliferation of chemical weapons.

Although the British Government's involvement in such deals would have broken the spirit of these bans, it is uncertain whether any laws were broken, as the chemicals were sourced through China.

Renegade spy Richard Tomlinson, who last week was forced into hiding after being thrown out of Switzerland, has given a videotaped statement to a Swiss lawyer detailing British involvement in these deals."

I think the above is interesting in light of what we're discussing.

@ Livia - so what do you make of the fact that the person nominally responsible for MI5 the Security Service, is Home Secretary John Reid who is a former card carrying member of the hardline Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain and a drinking partner of wanted war criminal the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić ?

As Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd was actually in political charge of MI6 the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ, and as Home Secretary, in charge of MI5.

The Observer article you quote contains a glaring error - mustard gas is not a "deadly nerve agent", and any country like Iran with a petrochemical industry already has enough expertise and facilities to make it, without needing any help from alleged British secret agents.

It also says that Richard Tomlinson (who now has a blog) , did not see any written evidence of this alleged MI6 and Mossad intelligence gathering operation.

Tony Blair and his inner circle of NuLabour appartchiki have done more to damage the reputations MI6 and MI5 and GCHQ etc. than any number of double agent spy scandals have done in the past, with their attempt to "blame the spooks" for the "dodgy intelligence dossiers" (remember there were more than one of these) on "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

The only way that this lost public trust and confidence in the British intelligence agencies can be re-established is by proper public scrutiny and transparency, obviously without compromising actual
tactical secrets or operations.

The current lip service of weak Parliamentary scrutiny and an established spin, leak and disinformation system, to an uncritical mainstream media, should no longer be tolerated in the 21st century.

A lot of lefties were in denial about the realities of Communism in the Soviet Union. Serbia was on our side (anti-Nazi) during WW2 so no doubt Reid had that in the back of his mind when he was friendly with Karadzik.

Anyway I didn't come here for an argument - I merely wanted to know whether serving MPs are allowed to be members of the intelligence services at the same time.

I agree with you that the reputations of MI5 and MI6 have been damaged by Tony Blair's passing of the buck re phony 'intel gathering' in the run-up to the war on Iraq, but MI5 and MI6 are far from squeaky clean themselves re the whole phony 'war on terror' which I'm sure you well know.

Going back to Hurd as Foreign Sec being in political charge of MI6 and as Home Sec of MI5, how accountable are they in reality to the government of the day?

@ Livia -

"how accountable are they in reality to the government of the day?"
- that is secret !

Even more secret is any accountability or transparency towards the general public.

You can try a bit of kremlinology and try to read between the lines of the (censored) annual Intelligence and Security Committee reports and the Government's official responses to them which are published by the Cabinet Office at


These reports paint a picture of inept building refurbishment and IT systems project overspends and delays, and the lack of clear, coordinated definitions of things like "the economic well being of the United Kingdom" or even agreement between the agencies about levels of security clearance vetting, Is this really some sort of an ultra-competent, clearly coordinated, behind the scenes conspiracy ?

We do not really know to what extent the "climate of fear" agenda is due to the secret agencies trying to prove that they are vitally important, so as to preserve or increase their bureaucratic empires and budgets, or to the NuLabour politicians' control freak and spin tendencies - they probably reinforce each other in a vicious circle.

With the breakdown in public trust in the Labour Government and in the secret intelligence agencies, this sort of excessive secrecy is counter-productive and should not be tolerated any longer.

N.B. although NuLabour are the current culprits, all Governments seem to have politicians who are willing to destroy our freedoms and liberties, either for "policy" reasons, or, more often to "Be Seen To Be Doing Something" about some tabloid scare or other - we have to try to make it politically unacceptable for them to get away with it.

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