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17 Apr 2007
Updated: 17 Apr 2007
17 Apr 2007
Rear-Admiral Bill Higgins
Rear-Admiral Bill Higgins, who has died aged 78, defied the Thatcher government as secretary of the
D-Notice Committee, a post to which he had been appointed following 40 years of faultless service in
Shortly after taking over in 1986 as steward of this
discreet body, which exists to issue official guidance
to the media over the disclosure of sensitive
information about national security, Higgins found
himself faced with what became known as "the Zircon
affair". This was a row over a television film, made
for the BBC by the investigative journalist Duncan
Campbell, about a secret spy satellite. In the event,
the corporation decided not to show the programme, and
Campbell was reduced to writing an article about it in
the New Statesman.
Higgins found himself between the media on one side
and Margaret Thatcher on the other. The prime minister
was furious, and the Speaker refused to let the film
be shown in the Commons. Meanwhile, civil liberties
organisations showed the film all around the country,
raising the prospect of large numbers of prosecutions
which might well have failed.
The prime minister had never been enamoured of the
D-notice committee, and now she was inspired to an
even greater dislike of its voluntary and advisory
nature. The Cabinet Office was given the brief of
controlling the flood of articles and books that
followed the publication of Spycatcher by the former
MI5 officer Peter Wright.
Higgins was told that everything he did had to be run
past the Cabinet Office, and that he must follow its
instructions. He resisted, recognising that this would
destroy the voluntary system that had worked since
1912 and fearing that it would lead to more
censorship. Supported by his chairman, Sir Clive
Whitmore, Permanent Under-Secretary in the Ministry of
Defence, he got his way.
Two years later Mrs Thatcher tried again, attempting
to prevent the publication of a book about MI6 by the
Conservative MP Rupert Allason (writing as Nigel
West). While the Tory party whips applied pressure on
Allason, Higgins was told to cease talking to the
author and his publisher, to whom he had been giving
He was ordered to communicate only in writing, having
first cleared his drafts with the Attorney-General,
something which he decided was both unacceptable and
unworkable. The law officers were again pessimistic
about whether litigation would work, and Mrs Thatcher
and her press secretary conceded that the D-Notice
system, under Higgins's care, was the most effective
way to keep national secrets – as opposed to political
embarrassments – out of the public eye.
When the Government amended the Official Secrets Act
in 1989, Higgins was able to reassure the media that,
whatever else might be to their detriment, it would
not affect D-Notices. Subsequently, he negotiated hard
with officials to ensure that his promises to the
media were kept.
Throughout his six years in the job Higgins was guided
by a personal rule that under the operation of the
system no individual should ever be put at risk. He
did much to improve public understanding of the system
and dealt urbanely with editors, who rang him
frequently. They usually took his advice, even erring
on the side of caution, he recalled. Higgins found
himself advising against publication on only about a
dozen occasions a year.
Although the existence of D-Notices had been
declassified only in 1981, inquirers found him
disarmingly refreshing and open. When the political
philosopher Moyra Grant rang Whitehall, she was
immediately put through to Higgins, who began by
joking that presumably none of her students were
anarchists, and then surprised her with his openness.
A day later her post brought a list of the D-Notices
currently in force, together with an explanatory note
William Alleyne Higgins was born on May 18 1928, the
son of Commander Henry Gray Higgins, who had won a DSO
in 1917 while commanding a submarine in the Adriatic.
After Wellington, which he hated, Bill entered the
Royal Naval College on September 1 1945, while it was
still at its wartime location of Eaton Hall; he was
therefore one of the last people to qualify for a war
gratuity. In his particularly talented term of 55
Special Entry cadets were four future admirals, a
commodore, nine captains and 17 commanders.
Four months later Higgins was sent to sea for the
first time. He served as captain's secretary in the
maintenance carrier Unicorn during the Korean War and
then as secretary to the then Captain Michael le Fanu
at the boys' training establishment, HMS Ganges. Le
Fanu reported that he "envied anyone who is fortunate
enough to have Higgins as his supply officer or
Higgins held increasingly important jobs in the
Ministry of Defence. When he was deputy secretary to
the Chiefs of Staff, his immediate boss — a fiercely
intelligent and fiery senior Army officer — regarded
him as a tower of strength. He became secretary to the
First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Terry Lewin, who
appreciated the apparently effortless ease with which
Higgins discharged his heavy responsibilities and
dealt with people.
On promotion to rear-admiral, Higgins was appointed
the last Flag Officer Medway, when the Kent dockyard
was about to be closed after 300 years. His arrival at
Chatham was greeted with the headline "John Nott's
hatchet man has arrived", but he was an inspired
choice for the job. Thanks to his natural courtesy and
genuine concern, he quickly created an atmosphere of
co-operation. In particular he tried to find
alternative employment for the civilian staff and to
attract new businesses to the former naval base.
Higgins was then made Director General, Naval
Personnel Services, and Chief Naval Supply and
Secretariat Officer, the head of a branch which had
evolved from the pursers and clerks of the sailing
navy and now had to develop a new strength as the
He was appointed CBE in 1980 and CB five years later.
Bill Higgins was an accomplished handyman: painting
and decorating, repairs to furniture, plumbing,
mending antique clocks and restoring vintage cars were
all well within his compass. He was offended by the
wrongs in the world, against which he would often
speak out, and he would make door-to-door collections
for charities. Only illness prevented him from joining
the march for peace in London to try to avert the
invasion of Iraq.
With his brother Bob, a submariner, Higgins started to
climb mountains in 1946. The two made their first
ascent in the Cairngorms without proper boots or
rucksacks and taking a tent which had no fastening
door-flap. On Easter Sunday Higgins wrote in his diary
that they "breakfasted on iced porridge in a snow
squall"; they had modelled their rations on Scott's
last expedition, forgetting that the polar party had
starved to death.
Higgins was a member of the Fell and Rock Climbing
Club for 60 years and one of the founder members of
the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Mountaineering Club.
Aged 74 he climbed three Munros in a day, to bring his
total to 259, and was planning to complete all 276 when he died on January 20.
Bill Higgins married, in 1963, Wiltraud Hiebaum, who survives him with their two sons and a daughter.
Also See - England I
- England II
- Old Bailey Proceedings
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information compiled by Michael James
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