POP TV seems to have stumbled across a whooper. Earlier today they ran a story claiming that Mitja Meršol, former editor-in-chief of Delo daily and now MP for Positive Slovenia of Zoran Janković was in fact an operative for Yugoslav secret service (SDV) while being a member of the Slovene desk at the BBC. Namely, documents produced by the POP TV namely show that the SDV ran an operative code-named “Linguist” who joined the Slovenian BBC desk in 1971 to cover culture, but was also tasked to report on Yugoslav immigration and internal BBC matters. Another document shown by POP TV then identifies Meršol as joining the Slovenian desk at the BBC in September 1971. Meršol refused to comment beyond saying that “most of the report is wrong” but also said that he will not provide details of his actions during the 1971-1984 period.
Mitja Meršol during the launch of his latest book (source: The Firm™)
This is more than just embarrassing. Although SDV (still commonly referred to as UDBa, after its predecessor) went through several transformations during the socialist regime and despite the fact that “working for SDV” could mean as little as unknowingly providing a piece of information (no matter how useless), documents provided by POP TV suggest that Meršol was recruited and knew full well what he was doing. That he continued in this role even after his BBC stint, when he became the London correspondent for Delo daily, only adds to the gravity of the situation.
At this point it needs to be said that a wise decision has been made twenty-or-so years ago, not go after everyone who worked for the socialist regime. The so-called “lustration” was – although often called for by the political right – luckily avoided and for two simple reasons. First, the last thing you need is a McCharty-style witch-hunt, and second, the Communist party and the socialist regime were so all-encompassing, that at some point in their lives almost everyone ended up working for them in one form or another. Be it a journalist, teacher, manager, deputy, you name it. Hell, even Janez Janša was a member of the Communist Party, until he was kicked out for being too hard-line. But avoiding lustration didn’t and doesn’t mean that people made a clean break with their personal histories. In fact, lack of lustration ensured that people can be held at least morally accountable for their past deeds. Sure, let bygones be bygones, but the past can still catch up with you.
The spook MP
Should Meršol resign? Probably yes. According to some reports he is thinking seriously about it, despite the party saying that the whole thing is his business. But the fact that he was apparently an SDV operative is not as important as the fact that he was in the spook business in the first place. Snitching ain’t kosher, no matter how you look at it. While being an elected representative of the people requires no special certificates save being of age, a certain moral standard is expected of people who run for office. Nothing much, just not too spotty-a-record. After all, we’re all human. But if you’re running for office, you really shouldn’t have the past haunt you too much. And a former spook – no matter which side he or she worked for – is in no position to take a stand, well, on anything, really. Because each and every time he or she will take a stand for something, the snitch-jacket will fall out of the closet. An elected representative with too much luggage is of little use to anyone, least of all to the citizens, regardless of how benign he or she is – and trust me, Mitja Meršol today is as nice and as benign a person as they come.
But there’s another aspect which is also worth mentioning. The timing. Meršol, in addition to being an MP for Zoran Janković’s Positive Slovenia is aslo one of Janković’s Ljubljana city councilmen and as you very well know, Zoki is running for mayor in by-elections on March 25. With this in mind, the whole thing does get a wee bit more sinister.
Namely, the whole sifting-through-SDV-archives thing bears all the hallmarks of Janez Janša and his SDS. Just remember the Archivegate with President Danilo Türk at its centre. Only that the SDS seems to have nothing to do with it this time around. The Meršol-SDV connection was apparently discovered almost by accident by a POP TV journo, who was following another lead. Namely, some weeks ago, Veno Taufer, the new president of the Slovene Writers’ Association led one of many protests against abolishing the stand-alone ministry of culture and merging it with several other portfolios. In response, allegations were floated through media close to SDS that Taufer was an SDV operative. These allegations were false, naturally. Turns out, however, that Taufer too worked for the BBC Slovenian desk and – well, it was a relatively short walk from there.
But what if it wasn’t a coincidence? What if the POP TV journo found what he was supposed to find? Janković seems virtually unbeatable in Ljubljana, but dusting off an old spy story and selling it for more than it’s worth could be quite a coup. That and maybe chip off a couple of percentage points off his election result. As an added bonus, the whole thing could even out the fall-out from another scandal, pertaining to a DeSUS MP Ivan Simčič, who was found to have forged his high-school graduation certificate and is under heavy pressure from the media and the opposition to resign immediately (more on that in the coming days, it really is ugly). If both Simčič and Meršol resigned, two MP seats would be up for grabs in the near future, one on each side of the aisle, lessening the damage for Janša’s coalition a bit.
But pengovsky can’t shake a funny thought. Meršol was very adamant about how he will not go into details but said that most of the report (but not all of it) was wrong. You see, this was the Cold War and Yugoslavia was a founding member of the non-aligned movement, technically no-man’s land, although it was a nominally a part of the socialist camp. Back then it was common practice for journos on foreign posts to be at least vetted by the secret services of both country of origin as well as that of the recipient country. And in case of the BBC, both countries had to agree on every specific posting. This is pure speculation on my part, but what if SDV wasn’t the only service Meršol was working for? What if he was turned and worked both for SDV and – say – MI6? There’s not a shred of evidence to corroborate any of this, but it would be possible, given his relatively low-level posting and the thirteen-year-long stay in London.
Vetting process fail much?
But back to reality: until yesterday, Mitja Meršol was the Slovenian epitome of a gentleman journalist. Always wearing his trademark bow-tie, well versed in manners and protocol, of sharp and witty pen and all style, he was the definition of old-school journalism. As of yesterday, we know there’s a more sinister side to him as well. Which is not wrong in its own right. God knows what his reasons were. Patriotism? Naivete? Blackmail? Who knows. Today, it doesn’t really matter.
One would wish, however, that political parties would put take the vetting process seriously.