Planning the Greatest Hack of All Time

George V delivering his Christmas speech from Sandringham, 1935.

It would have been the most spectacular hack of all time. As previously recounted, my father, my father, Claud Cockburn–a radical journalist memorably described as “arch-irritant of Them on behalf of Us”–scored a major agitprop success during King George V’s Silver Jubilee parade through London in May, 1935, unfurling a giant banner across the parade route just as the King was passing which proclaimed “Twenty Five Years of Hunger and War.”  But he planned a far more devastating action: no less than hijacking the King-Emperor’s 1935 Christmas broadcast as it was beamed across the British empire, which in those days still spanned a huge swathe of the globe.

The King’s Christmas address to his subjects was at that time delivered live from Sandringham, the royal estate in Norfolk, and relayed via Post Office landline to BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House in London whence it was transmitted across Britain and, via the six short wave transmitters of the Empire broadcasting station at Daventry, to the far-flung dominions.

Included in the audience were the troops of the Indian Army, drawn up in ranks on their parade grounds across the sub-continent to hear the words of their distant ruler.

Among his other abilities, my father was an excellent mimic of the king’s sonorous tones.  Accordingly, he recorded his own version of the Christmas address on a shellac 78 rpm disc, complete with references to the miseries of war and depression endured by citizens of the empire “during the twenty five years of my reign.” One passage was addressed specifically to the Indian soldiery: “To my soldiers in India, I say: rise up! Overthrow your white masters, throw off the imperial yoke.”

The plan called for digging up the buried landline in the countryside not far from Sandringham. My father had recruited a skilled electrical engineer who promised to connect the machine with the recording at the moment the king started talking and cut into the transmission. He reckoned they had only a minute or so before the broadcast was cut off, and hardly more time before the authorities pin-pointed the source of the interruption and descended in force.

The buried cable was duly unearthed. However, the engineer quickly realized that it was going to take more time than planned to connect up their recording, during which time law enforcement would already be combing the area for the saboteurs. Abandoning the scheme, they jumped in their car and fled to safety.  Had they been caught, vengeful authority would certainly have inflicted harsh sentences of many years behind bars.

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino. His latest book is  The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine. (Verso.)