FILM REVIEW: “The man who knew too much”

Michael Oswald’s extraordinary new film about former covert operative Colin Wallace highlights British intelligence and military psychological operations in Northern Ireland and begs the question: do they continue today with different political targets?

Former British army intelligence officer Colin Wallace (Photo: Michael Oswald / Independent POV)
Former British army intelligence officer Colin Wallace (Photo: Michael Oswald / Independent POV)

“Could you explain more about the kind of techniques you used to create psychological conflict?”

Colin Wallace, aged 77 years of age, suddenly pauses. He considers his next words carefully. “I have to be careful with that…,” he finally says in a thick Northern Irish accent. 

“What I don’t want to do is actually share techniques that are still having impact.” 

Wallace is one of the most intriguing and complex figures to emerge in post-war British history. A military intelligence officer in Northern Ireland during the most turbulent years of The Troubles, he became embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of British intelligence for the last 50 years — the plot to undermine Harold Wilson, the Labour Party leader and sitting prime minister. 

What happened next was described by Michael Oswald, the filmmaker who deftly chronicles his story in the recently premiered film “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, as “so outlandish it is hard to believe it is true”. 

His sentiment is understandable. Wallace’s story explodes any belief that British intelligence services abide by a sense of fair play, and its sordid details make for a thrilling, though disturbing watch. 

Wallace’s story really begins in 1971. At the time, almost 500 people were being killed annually by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. Colin Wallace, a homegrown army press officer, had quickly risen through the ranks of a military intelligence hierarchy that sought to quell the chaos and shore up British support. 

He now found himself a key member of ‘Information Policy’ — an unassuming name for the ultra-secretive ‘Psychological Operations’ unit of the army. In this role, Wallace worked alongside the Foreign Office’s infamous Information Research Department (IRD), a cold war propaganda unit.

Propaganda operations

Psychological Operations, known simply as ‘PsyOps,’ is the dark art of influencing the beliefs and actions of populations through unattributable propaganda. This was Wallace’s speciality. In Oswald’s stark interviews of his subject, Wallace recounts the details of major propaganda operations on behalf of the British. 

One story alleged that the Soviet Union was sneaking in trained KGB agents into Ireland to support the IRA. The evidence? An authentic photograph of a Soviet submarine off a UK coastline. But as Wallace recounts with a smirk, the submarine was, in reality, seen off the coast of Scotland. 

The fact that intelligence teams had cooked it all up was of course something the readers could never know

Unimpeded by such facts, PsyOps teams claimed it was seen off the coast of Ulster, and whipped up a sensational story of Soviet support for the IRA, with the submarine photos as their centrepiece. Wallace and his team sold the story to the News of the World — it went on the front page. 

The fact that intelligence teams had cooked it all up was of course something the readers could never know. 

There are numerous such accounts: one narrative spread the fiction that IRA practices increased the risk of people getting cancer. Another campaign spread deadly misinformation about how to operate rocket-propelled grenades, hoping to cause the bazookas to literally blow up in the hands of IRA operatives. 

But in perhaps the most bizarre narration of all, Wallace and his team sprayed animal blood from butchers over stone altars in remote countryside locations. Over months, stories slowly built up about ‘black magic rituals’ in Northern Ireland, which the psyops teams were able to link to the moral menace of the IRA. 

Their aim, Wallace explained, was to link republican paramilitaries with all that was impure, and thereby turn the hearts of the religious population away from violent dissidence. Wallace had seemingly endless ways and means to achieve this. 

Unattributable

He was on a first name basis with multiple journalists, providing huge amounts of official material to those eager to break a new story, whatever the veracity. “99% of the things I said were unattributable,” said Wallace. But, as he is eager to stress, not everything he said was untrue. In fact, most of it was true, or true enough to have real plausibility. 

And their work was not limited to direct propaganda through the media. They also ran youth clubs and various community engagement programmes that sought to unite the catholic and protestant populations. 

Regardless of this, the British army was directly propagandising the UK population. When pressed on the ethics of it all, Wallace still maintains that his work was essential and justified to fight terrorism. But even back then, he became uncomfortable with how far things were going, and how his unit was being asked to take part in political subterfuge. 

He tried to get ‘rules of engagement’ documents approved by his superiors, but his efforts were in vain. Things came to a head when he was implicated in a shadowy intelligence operation known only as ‘Clockwork Orange.’ This was a programme run by various members of the intelligence community that sought to discredit and undermine unfriendly politicians in both Northern Ireland and Westminster. 

Wallace’s documents detail the ‘financial’, ‘moral’ and ‘political’ vulnerabilities of key figures hostile to the aims of the conspirators. Chief among the targets was Harold Wilson, among others such as the journalist Paul Foot and prominent politician Tony Benn. 

To explain how such conspiracies work, and how intelligence services operate, Oswald brings in various intelligence historians. They explain the startling ways in which the British public has been a victim of taxpayer-funded propaganda, both past and present. 

Wallace refused to be part of the programme, and apparently moved on, quite content with the rest of his job. But unknown to him, MI5 had internally declared him a disgruntled ticking time-bomb, and wanted him gone. By now, he was the man who knew too much. 

What follows is an unbelievable tale of intrigue, of one man against the British establishment. It is a journey in which Wallace is framed for manslaughter, spends the better part of a decade languishing in prison, and somehow emerges as an even more dangerous critic of the British intelligence apparatus. 

Oswald’s superb documentary is sure to find a wide audience. The independent filmmaker is practically a YouTube sensation, with over 11 million views on his documentaries. Made on a shoestring budget, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” zips along at a brisk pace, with a marching soundtrack by Marc Van der Meulen, and striking archival footage. 

The interview subjects are beautifully lit and sensitively portrayed. The sparse use of narration means that viewers must be attentive, and the tight production assumes some level of familiarity with intelligence terminology. 

Wallace himself is of course the unassuming star of the show, an enormously complex figure who is at once a professional propagandist, a victim of the British establishment, and a sincere defender of democracy. One is left wondering if the very principles Wallace accepted as legitimate in Northern Ireland — of lying to achieve a ‘greater good’ — is what was used against him by former colleagues in the intelligence establishment. 

But apparently unconcerned by this, Wallace chooses to focus his attention on the unaccountability of the intelligence community having now launched a lawsuit against the Ministry of Defence to reveal his true role in Northern Ireland. 

Statecraft

His focus is of course warranted, for there are no signs that British intelligence gave up their efforts to propagandise the public. In fact, it is almost certain that such efforts have only expanded and become more sophisticated in the age of the internet. 

Indeed, echoes of a Clockwork Orange-like process can be discerned in the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn. For years, absurd but deeply damaging narratives were pushed out by a hostile media, with intelligence and military talking heads publicly deeming him a national security risk. 

We are then left with one essential question: Who watches the watchmen?

Like Wilson, Corbyn was accused of being a communist spy, a man of ill-repute, even being compared to notorious KGB double agent Kim Philby. It would seem naïve in the extreme to imagine that a similar programme was not being run by spooks in the background. Indeed, the Institute of Statecraft’s ‘Integrity Initiative’ is potentially one such example.   

This ‘non-partisan think tank’ and registered charity apparently seeks to counter disinformation, and yet hacks revealed that it has forged deep links in international journalism networks to boost western propaganda and undermine Russian narratives. Unsurprisingly, it was revealed to have been extensively funded by the Foreign Office, with some researchers drawing links between the Initiative and the Ministry of Defence. 

Despite being funded by the government, the Institute’s social media pages openly amplified hostile narratives about the leader of the opposition, leaving one to wonder what more it did behind the scenes. This, and many other investigations, have confirmed that the media-intelligence complex is as alive as ever. 

Will another Colin Wallace emerge in decades to come, to tell us more about the inner workings of this underground world of spooks and suits? We can only wait and see. 

For now, Oswald’s documentation of this extraordinary story is essential viewing for anyone who seeks to hold power to account, who seeks to understand the dark links between state intelligence and the media apparatus. As Wallace explains, MI5 effectively wields veto power over the selection of cabinet ministers. They would never let a hostile and critical Member of Parliament get to any position of authority over them. 

We are then left with one essential question: Who watches the watchmen? 


Michael Oswald’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is available to watch on Youtube

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