On Saturday 20 May 2023, I was handed documents marked ‘TOP SECRET – UK EYES ONLY’. This is the story of what happened next.
Part 1: The hot potato.
It started with a flurry of cryptic DMs. Izzy, an art student based in London, messaged me on Instagram indicating that she had a story that might interest me. “I’ve got a hot potato,” she wrote, adding, “it’s a bit of business.”
After some prompting, she sent a disappearing video. The screen was black, and Izzy’s low voice thrummed with urgency. She and a friend had found a document marked ‘TOP SECRET – UK EYES ONLY”. It was a letter, apparently addressed to prime minister Rishi Sunak, signed by national security advisor Sir Tim Barrow.
I arranged a face-to-face with Izzy and her friend that very same day. As I boarded the tube, it played on my mind that I was en route to a wild goose chase.
When Izzy and Benjamin (a fellow art student) turned up at the Novara Media office, they were visibly nervous, and seemed sincere.
Benjamin produced a slim brown paper folder, stamped ‘TOP SECRET – UK EYES ONLY’ across the front. Inside was the aforementioned letter from Barrow to Sunak, and papers that seemed to be a briefing from the National Security Council. I asked how the document came into their possession. Izzy said that earlier in the week, they had gone to the astroturf steps that led down from Granary Square, near King’s Cross, to the Regent’s Canal. “We were having a cigarette break,” Benjamin explained. And the documents? “I sat on them.”
‘Top secret’ is the highest level of security classification used by the UK government for cases where compromise could cause widespread loss of life or threaten the security or economic wellbeing of the country or friendly nations.
The materials were frightening. The letter addressed to the prime minister detailed stark warnings that the UK is “strikingly unprepared” for extreme weather events caused by climate change. It said that the Ministry of Defence forecasts for 2023/4 “include extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, storms and droughts.”
“Regrettably,” the letter continued, “our assessment indicates the UK is strikingly unprepared to face the consequences of these events which could have severe impacts on our people, infrastructure, economy and environment.”
“To illustrate the gravity of this situation, please consider the following: the hottest day of 2022 resulted in 638 excess deaths in England[.] This toll surpasses the 636 British Armed Forces personnel or MOD civilians who lost their lives during the entirety of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This alarming comparison underscores the pressing need for immediate and comprehensive action on climate adaption.”
The attached briefing, purportedly from the National Security Council, was even more alarming. It detailed appalling shortcomings in the government’s National Adaptation Programme, the action plan set up to help the country deal with the current and imminent risks of climate change.
According to this briefing, almost all available indicators for the ecological health of land and freshwater habitats are either stagnant, or declining. The water industry’s climate targets, to reduce leaks and reduce demand, is falling short of where it needs to be to ensure a safe supply. And though recent storms and heatwaves have shown the catastrophic effect that extreme weather can have on infrastructure, neither the government nor the industry have put together any kind of visible plan or process to manage long-term climate risks.
Despite the recent spate of empty supermarket shelves and vegetable shortages, driven in part by droughts and bad harvests in North Africa and continental Europe, the government has failed to implement mandatory reporting by large private food companies on the risks posed to supply chains by climate change. The assessment warned that “recent increases in household food insecurity will likely magnify the impact of food price spikes” – meaning that many British households, already struggling with inflation and food poverty, are acutely vulnerable to further increases in the cost of eating.
The picture in health and housing was even more alarming. Last year saw temperatures soar to over 40 degrees celsius in England. And although this meant heat-related deaths hit an all-time high, mostly of elderly and clinically vulnerable people, the UK’s health authorities have failed to draft policy or allocate funding to address climate risks in health and social care buildings. Chillingly, the briefing noted, there are no current plans to address overheating in the existing housing stock, even though both the Met Office and Ministry of Defence have forecast further extreme weather events in the coming year.
Sir Tim Barrow is not a man known for alarmism or histrionics. Dubbed the “invisible ambassador” by Politico, Barrow headed up the British embassies in Moscow and Kyiv before being appointed the UK’s ambassador to the EU in 2017. After a brief stint as second permanent secretary of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Barrow was made national security advisor to the prime minister by Liz Truss in September 2022. Barrow’s reputation is of a resilient and low-key diplomat, with a preference for blending into the background and focusing on work behind the scenes. The tone of urgency in the letter, and barely concealed exasperation, seemed in itself a sign of shocking failings in the government’s climate change preparations – and one that the public were apparently meant to be kept in the dark about.
The tone of the accompanying briefing document, meanwhile, was plausibly bureaucratic – but there were some things that were a bit puzzling too. The material contained in the briefing document, detailing failures in every aspect of government, wasn’t anything that wasn’t technically in the public domain anyway. It became apparent that its analysis was a word-for-word copy of a Climate Change Committee submission to parliament in June that had made the front page of the Guardian. Could the national security council have simply copied and pasted the work of another organisation on such an important issue?
And why was the security classification so high? There was nothing in the documents that, if made public, would realistically result in “widespread loss of life”. Perhaps, we reasoned, anything that comes from Barrow’s desk is simply slapped with a top secret classification, regardless whether it’s the nuclear codes or his Christmas list.
Making the call on whether or not to pursue a story isn’t an exact science – ultimately you look at your sources, you look at your evidence, then draw on all your accumulated knowledge and instinct to decide if something seems legit enough to spend time working on. It’s half brain, and half belly. All I knew for certain was that I’d be left absolutely kicking myself if I missed out reporting something really important, simply because it came to me through unusual circumstances.
After consulting my colleague Simon Childs and taking legal advice (quite a lot of legal advice – the maximum penalty for breaching the bit of the Official Secrets Act that we were worried about is two years in prison), I emailed the cabinet office with a number of questions. Were the cabinet office aware that they had lost some top secret documents? Why did they have such a high classification? And what did the prime minister make of the explosive contents? I gave them 24 hours to respond.
A response came back within six minutes.
The government denied that the papers had anything to do with them. The documents were fakes.
Part 2: Whodunnit.
The exact words from a cabinet office spokesperson were: “We are aware of the distribution of falsified documents and can confirm that they are not government papers.” Yes, they’d be willing to go on the record saying this. No, they didn’t need the documents back, because they weren’t theirs in the first place.
I was left with a dilemma. Do we accept the government’s word at face value? The government is not known for holding the truth in particularly high regard, or for respecting journalists. Would the cabinet office fob me off with a lie? Novara Media aren’t The Times, or the BBC – I’m sure that most people in SW1 consider us little more than glorified shitposters.
But the speed and certainty of the response gave it a ring of truth. And if these really were top secret documents, wouldn’t they be sending the police to retrieve them? It seemed possible that I had a hoax on my hands.
Normally, this is where the story would end. Journo chases a story, journo realises it’s a load of cobblers, journo moves on. But even though the documents apparently weren’t real, I was still fascinated by them. What kind of person would go to all this effort to forge a letter from a senior civil servant who, quite frankly, very few people had heard of? What were they hoping to achieve? And why were they motivated to do this in the first place?
Where to start? I circled back to the art students, in case this was their idea of a Turner Prize-winning stunt. I met up with Izzy at a cafe. But she seemed just as surprised as I was that the documents turned out not to be legit. I was back to square one. All I had to go on was that the papers were found in busy central London locations. Any hope that I could establish exactly when the documents were left, and by who, seemed extremely slim.
To narrow things down, I tried to think about what would motivate someone to copy a report from the Climate Change Committee, present it as a National Security Council briefing, attach a forged letter to the prime minister and stick it in a folder stamped ‘TOP SECRET’. It struck me as something that a climate activist might do – someone that’s pissed off that the government’s real and enduring complacency isn’t getting enough media attention, and wants to get the public interest in something that is objectively very important.
Armed with nothing more than a working theory, I started putting out feelers amongst the UK climate movement. I found out that I wasn’t the only journalist trying to work out who was behind the hoax documents. The Times was on the case, as was a reporter from climate website Carbon Brief.
After one disappointing false lead, I got an unexpected message from an American climate activist.
He’d found out the identity of the hoaxer.
Part 3: The forgetful civil servants squad.
When I phone him up, asking if knew anything about a letter purporting to be from Barrow turning up in various London locations, the hoaxer confessed his involvement immediately with a sheepish laugh.
Jamie – who spoke to Novara Media on condition that we publish only his first name – is a middle-aged advertising creative and dad of two. It’s a pure stroke of luck that I manage to identify him as the author of the fake documents – someone who I’d phoned up, asking if they’d heard anything about the wheeze, happened to be staying with Jamie’s sister.
When we meet in person on a dreary, muggy day at the Barbican, he’s candid, generous with his time and disarmingly honest about how, and why, he ended up making and distributing fake documents. While his job in advertising didn’t involve working with any of the big carbon polluters, he didn’t feel like he’d been part of a force for good either. Inspired by Extinction Rebellion’s first wave of actions, he and his partner decided it was time to step up and do something about the climate crisis. But he doesn’t consider himself activist as such – more someone that’s “restless” about the climate. In Jamie’s mind, getting together a bunch of similarly-minded people to knock up 400 copies of a fake top secret folder, and dropping them off all around the city, isn’t really political organising. It’s “PR without a budget”.
“We’re all living in these parallel worlds,” Jamie explains. In one world, the one he lives in, the climate crisis is “desperately frightening.” Twice last year, the primary school where his kids are enrolled had to close due to extreme heat – more disruptive to his life, he says, than anything Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion have done.
And yet, this sense of mounting fear and anxiety hasn’t broken through to the world of Westminster. “The government is not sprinting on climate change,” he says with palpable exasperation. “It’s not sprinting on adapting our cities.” He describes a constant sense of vertigo, feeling disoriented by how important climate change is and how dismissive and complacent politicians are.
In Jamie’s view, neither of the two major parties are anywhere close to taking the issue seriously enough. “The Tories have got a year and a half left, and they just seem to be on a wrecking mission.” But Labour aren’t much better. He’s horrified by quotes attributed to Keir Starmer, reporting that the Labour leader said he “hates tree-huggers” (Starmer denies saying this, claiming that he said that the shadow cabinet aren’t tree-huggers or glueing themselves to roads, but that they’re committed to green policies). “The Labour party seems to have a very narrow view on where the election will be won. So they’re gonna fuck off a whole load of pro-climate people, for the sake of an imagined reactionary voter in Selby.”
Westminster politics is dominated by short-termism. And those preaching the dogma of fiscal responsibility are in denial of the need to live within planetary boundaries. It’s madness, he thinks, that our politics is locked in a state of climate inertia despite having all the technology we need to stop burning fossil fuels. “When I was vaguely becoming environmentally conscious, a lot of what was being asked for was sacrifice. And you had some sympathy for politicians then – but now there’s no excuse. There’s this brilliant world that is available to us. But politicians are out of touch.”
Jamie tells me that he was motivated to act out of frustration, about “how much is lying around in plain sight about what the government should be doing” and how much “has been ignored by the government and the wider world.”
What would it look like, he thought, if the government was really committed to addressing the climate emergency? He thought about the daily press conferences during lockdown, the sense that every arm of the British establishment was united in a single overarching mission.
His first idea was to record a version of the King’s speech, laying out an imaginary legislative programme dedicated to tackling climate change. But a conversation with a friend, who works as a PR creative, put him on a different track. His friend’s idea to grab people’s attention was simple: “Leave things in the back of taxis.”
“Westminster doesn’t take things seriously,” Jamie tells me. “But it takes secrets very seriously. Whether it’s political gossip, or it’s a secret briefing from intelligence agencies, these are [seen as] intrinsically more credible than someone standing in public saying climate change is bad.”
Warnings from the Climate Change Committee, that the government was dangerously behind on its own National Adaptation Plan, had practically zero public impact. There were a few articles by dedicated reporters on the climate beat, but nothing that really held politicians’ feet to the fire. Though this information was in the public domain, it may as well have been locked in a Whitehall vault for all the attention it was getting.
But perhaps, Jamie and his friend reasoned, if it came in the guise of something people weren’t meant to see, it would generate interest. They cooked up a plan: copy the Climate Change Committee Report, make it seem like a high level intelligence document, and leave it where random members of the public could find it. Their hope was that there’d be a squall of social media activity – that these documents would prompt people to have their own moment of climate awakening – and that even if journalists quickly worked out that the papers were fake, they’d report on what people were posting online.
In short, it was a scheme to hack the media, to force it into reporting what it generally preferred to ignore.
Fabricating a document that looks realistically like a top secret government file wasn’t something Jamie could do alone. If this was a heist movie, this would be the part where the protagonist puts together a crack team of specialists, each with their set of skills. So there’s the ex-tabloid journalist, who advised Jamie on how the media might react to the documents (“If we could get regular people mentioning this document on social media, they would then call up the news desk in a deep voice and say, ‘You’ve got to check this out’”). “They’re very nice,” says Jamie. “Slightly climate-concerned. But also I think, like all tabloid journalists, totally amoral.”
There’s a working civil servant, Jamie says, whose professional life makes them familiar with national security documents, who suggested that the letter should be signed from Barrow.
There’s the retired civil servant, who gave him tips on how to make the papers look plausibly Whitehall (they drew the line at helping forge signatures, though.).
There’s the expert in top secret documents, who showed Jamie examples of real declassified government papers. His metaphorical fingerprints are on the fake document, if you know where to look – the reference codes are from a Cold War era document, his favourite, called ‘Project Canoe’.
“It’s just stupid, isn’t it?” the expert says, laughing, when I call him to confirm his involvement. “National security and human rights is a pretty minging area of study. It’s easy to dehumanise the agents involved as just faceless, nameless bureaucrats. But 65 years ago, someone turned around and said ‘Let’s call this Project Canoe’ and everyone in the office probably had a big laugh.” Though he wasn’t involved in this hoax much beyond giving Jamie some pointers on design, there was something about the disruptive and farcical nature of the project that appealed to him.
Jamie’s pleased when I talk about how the paper and ink used to forge the letter from Barrow looked reassuringly high-end. He’d been thinking about how to make the documents feel realistic in granular detail. “There’s an anecdote about the Harry Potter films, that this sort of reality comes from the sense that if you kind of open a drawer on the set, it’s going to be full of magic spells.” The letter had to be on thick, posh paper. He bought a fountain pen especially for the forging of Barrow’s signature.
After nailing down the design of the documents, there were the logistics to consider. Printing off hundreds of copies meant calling in a lot of favours. “Printing is expensive, so expensive,” he says. “I was just rinsing friends, like ‘can you print off 25 of these?’”. One friend, who made liberal use of the work printer, is an oil and gas analyst.
Jamie roped in his partner and kids in a kitchen-table production line, putting the papers in order and stamping them ‘TOP SECRET – UK EYES ONLY’. He got the parents from his children’s primary school to help scatter the documents all around London. They coordinated and narrated their activities in a specially-convened WhatsApp group chat, calling themselves the Forgetful Civil Servants Squad. The Forgetful Civil Servants Squad were animated by a certain amount of giddiness and excitement in the endeavour.
“Everyone approached it like a good escapade,” explains Jamie. The team of climate-anxious parents left folders in cafes, bookshops, buses and trains. Did any of them get caught in the act? “Quite often someone would come up saying ‘Oh, you forgot this!’” says Jamie. “And in that situation you would just go, ‘Thank you so much’ and take them back.”
I ask Jamie if it ever occurred to him, or the others, that what they were doing might be illegal. The Forgery Act of 1981 states that: “A person is guilty of forgery if he makes a false instrument, with the intention that he or another shall use it to induce somebody to accept it as genuine, and by reason of so accepting it to do or not to do some act to his own or any other person’s prejudice.”
Jamie and his friends didn’t seek formal legal advice about their plan to distribute top secret folders in public places around London. But a chance social encounter with a criminal barrister left him feeling assured that he had a defence – because there was no intention of securing gain to himself, or loss to others, he’s confident that there isn’t a criminal case to answer. “We weren’t persuading someone to transfer some bitcoin… We almost wondered whether it was closer to those parody things where people call up radio stations and pretend to be the prime minister of somewhere.” In the grand tradition of advertising, he was just using a bit of creative licence to get people’s attention.
It’s not quite true, however, that there was no loss to anybody. I know that I’m not the only journalist who’s been on the tail of this story – and I heard that another publication came closer than Novara Media did to publishing about the existence of the documents, thinking they were real. Getting legal advice on what to do with classified papers is expensive. I ask Jamie how that makes him feel, and he looks genuinely contrite. He explains that they’d hoped to shame the government about its inaction, by getting something in rightwing papers. It hadn’t crossed their mind that smaller, pro-climate outlets might end up wasting their more limited resources into chasing a fabrication. But that’s the thing with a scattergun action – you’ll end up hitting things that aren’t your target.
Is it ethical to tell a lie in the service of a greater truth? For Jamie, it’s a no brainer. “I think people should be outraged. And if we did this trick to shame the government, I think that’s just totally justifiable.” And, he points out, the report itself is a factual document. “We just put a bit of red ink at the top saying ‘top secret’”. He pauses for a moment, and adds, “I imagine there are a number of people who are a bit stressed to find these documents, and I suppose I feel for them, if that moment was uncomfortable.”
For journalists, the answer to that question is a simple and unequivocal “no.” We’re meant to have an absolute commitment to the truth, at all times. But it’s abundantly clear that’s not how the media functions in reality. Our industry is full of falsehoods, half-truths, distorted facts, and lies of omission. If a journalist’s first duty is to the truth, if our practice is to be sceptical of everything, then why did so many publish false claims about Saddam Hussein’s ability to attack the West with weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes? How did a hoax letter, alleging an Islamist plot in Birmingham primary schools, end up shaping Britain’s counter-extremism policy for a decade? And why does the climate emergency end up as background noise, when it’s the single biggest issue facing the citizens of this, and every, nation? How journalists perceive their work, and what their work actually does in the world, are sometimes miles apart.
The fact is that I didn’t cover what was in the Climate Change Committee’s report when they released it to the public. It was only when I thought it was a top secret document left behind by some hapless civil servant that I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency to get this story out there. The same incentives of novelty and secrecy, of wanting to be seen as an intrepid reporter, have been dictating the boundaries of my own work. Like everyone else, I treated what was immediately interesting as though it was the same as what was in the public interest. Maybe if journalists were doing their job more effectively, confronting politicians with the truth about climate change, people like Jamie wouldn’t need to fabricate hoax documents.
Jamie started out by wanting to imagine a world where climate change was taken seriously. His intention was to shine a light on just how much the government knows about the scale of the climate emergency, and just how little they’re doing about it. But whether he meant to or not, he held a mirror up to journalists about how we do our work – and our structural, industry-wide failures in covering the climate crisis.
Additional reporting by Simon Childs.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.