Sir Peter Marychurch, obituary: GCHQ director at the height of the Cold War

Simply put, Sir Peter Marychurch was one of Britain’s most senior and influential “spooks” during the latter years of the Cold War. From 1983-89, he was director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham, retiring with great satisfaction after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was never the classic spy in the shadows; his forte was acutely sensitive “signals intelligence”, the monitoring, interception and interpretation of military radio, radar and satellite signals, in his era mainly from the Soviet bloc.  

During his tenure as head of GCHQ, he battled three major issues. The organisation had been forced from the shadows by embarrassing media leaks; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had imposed a controversial ban on trade unions at the GCHQ; and the damage from the notorious Geoffrey Prime spying and child sexual abuse case was still haunting the corridors of Cheltenham.

Earlier in his career, on secondment from GCHQ, he also worked within the US National Security Agency (NSA), liaising between the two sides of the transatlantic “special relationship”. For the rest of his life he remained a staunch believer in US-UK intelligence sharing. He also had a spell as senior GCHQ officer in Melbourne, assisting Australian intelligence as part of the so-called Five Eyes alliance linking Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

In Scotland, Sir Peter was best-known as the catalyst for a dramatic Special Branch police raid on the BBC’s Glasgow offices in January 1987, along with raids on the homes of Scottish investigative journalist Duncan Campbell and his research team. They had been working on a six-part BBC series title Secret Society, exposing alleged irregularities in the UK government and intelligence agencies. The government cited potential “breaches of the Official Secret Act” but critics, including Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell, billed the police raids as “an illegal act”. The raids…

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