My life as a (non) spy

October 28, 2010


When I was in my final year at university, a senior member of staff asked me if I would be interested in applying for a job with Britain’s intelligence agencies. It was the kind of thing I had read about in books but never actually imagined happened in real life. But it did, and quite frequently it appears – one of my colleagues at Reuters was also approached while at a different university – and I know of several others.

At the time, I thought it was a strange call by the secret services. I had been involved in student journalism almost since day one of university and had gained something of a reputation for not being shy about reporting stories that did not reflect well on my immediate contemporaries – a front page story “‘Blazered w**kers close bar'” did not win me many friends in the rugby team.

Still, the idea of MI6 seemed impossibly glamorous and mysterious and I said I would be interested. I duly received an anonymous letter in the post that began “From time to time, jobs become available at the Foreign Office that are not advertised publicly” or words to that effect.

It was accompanied by a thick application form, which asked for details seemingly of everone I had ever met. I still have that form in a box somewhere at home. I never filled it in – partly because my then-boyfriend now-husband told me he wasn’t prepared to be a spook spouse, but mainly because I wanted to travel the world as a journalist, not a government spy.

Friends went off into the Foreign Office to do apparently lowly jobs abroad and I assumed they were spies but the service itself remained shadowy, its agents unknown and unknowable.

That is, until Thursday October 28, when after months of negotiations led by the Society of Editors, Thomson Reuters hosted the first ever speech by the serving head of MI6 or as it is now called the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

A former ambassador to the United Nations,  Sir John Sawers looks just as you might expect a spy boss to look: tall, trim, with swept hair and spectacles, with one attendee describing him as “debonair”.

I wouldn’t have been suprised if he’d driven to the office in his own Aston Martin and emerged in black tie, clutching a martini. He didn’t – he drinks camomile tea as I discovered after helping arrange breakfast. He was personable and charming and spoke easily and confidently before the invited audience of editors and security correspondents.

“Secrecy is not a dirty word,” he told us. But, in the wake of allegations about collusion in torture, nor is secrecy a romantic word. Sawers insisted his organisation had nothing whatsoever to do with torture but conceded that doing its duty to ensure other countries’ security services respected human rights was “not always straightforward”.

“The remarkable men and women who make up the staff of SIS are among the most loyal, dedicated and innovative in the entire public service,” he said. “You don’t know them, but I do. It is an honour to lead them.”

I am glad I chose journalism over spook-dom, but a small part of me always wondered what it would have been like on the other side. Sawers’ speech gave me a fresh glimpse into that world. It remains fascinating and alarming to me in equal measure – but I know I made the right decision.

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