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John le Carré, MI6 and the fact and fiction of British secret intelligence

Sir Richard Dearlove, a former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service – SIS or MI6 – recently launched a critical broadside at John le Carré, accusing the acclaimed author of award winning spy fiction of producing “corrosive” novels that “are exclusively about betrayal”.

The blurring of intelligence fiction and intelligence fact has long been a double-edged sword for the real world of British intelligence , particularly in terms of its impact upon recruitment. Sir Colin McColl, chief of SIS from 1989 to 1994, once described the most well-known fictional secret agent, James Bond, as “the best recruiting sergeant in the world”. But it’s likely that the image of the martini-drinking, fast car driving Bond was attracting the wrong type of applicant. More recently, SIS has made efforts to distance itself from the fictional secret agent. In October 2016, the current chief of SIS, Sir Alex Younger, explained that James Bond:

wouldn’t get through our recruitment process … whilst we share his qualities of patriotism, energy and tenacity, an intelligence officer in the real MI6 has a high degree of emotional intelligence, values teamwork and always has respect for the law… unlike Mr Bond.

Bond’s “severe chronic alcohol problem”, as recently diagnosed by the Medical Journal of Australia, probably wouldn’t help his case, either.

Real-life spooks

MI6’s sister agency, the Security Service (MI5) has also had reason to be somewhat ambivalent about the impact of intelligence fiction upon real-life recruitment. An unpublished draft of the official history of the D Notice system, now available at the National Archives, reveals the impact of the launch of the BBC drama Spooks.

Former intelligence agent and best-selling spy novelist John le Carré in 2008. EPA/Maurizio Gambarini

While the service was “relaxed about the series” (its officers “very much hoping that Armani suits, plush offices and fast cars as shown in the series would somehow become a feature of their considerably less glamorous work”), the hope that recruiting “would benefit” was met with mixed results. An entry in the archive tells us that “applications did temporarily increase, but those from women dropped, possibly because of the unrealistic level of violence”.

Betrayal

It is curious to hear a former chief of SIS play down the reality that the intelligence business is, ultimately, based upon betrayal. Betrayal sits at the heart of human intelligence gathering.

A far cry from the ‘Circus’: MI6 headquarters in London. I Wei Huang via Shutterstock

As the MI6 website explains: “Agents are at the heart of what MI6 does. Usually foreign nationals, they voluntarily work with us to provide secret intelligence that helps to keep the UK - and often the rest of the world – safe and secure.” Without such willingness from nationals of countries other than the UK to betray their own countries by passing information to MI6, the role to be played by such a human intelligence organisation as SIS would surely be much diminished?

Perhaps some fiction that explores the world of British intelligence does go too far. Yet the snippets of factual information that do enter the public domain, through unofficial disclosures, do not always make for comfortable reading. See, for example, revelations about the involvement of MI6 in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, to a prison in Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya, where Belhaj was interrogated and tortured. This ultimately led to an unreserved apology from then UK prime minister, Theresa May, and a pay-out of £500,000 in compensation to Boudchar.


Read more: Britain, MI6 and the Belhaj case: the outstanding questions


What is the solution to the public being misled by intelligence fiction? Nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum. Would we be so drawn to intelligence fiction if we had a little more intelligence fact to read instead, thereby allowing the public to draw its own conclusions about the distance that exists between the two?

If Sir Richard is unhappy with the representation of SIS and its work as found in fiction, then perhaps he might lobby his former organisation to consider the steps it could take to redress the balance through greater public exposure of its real history? The Authorised History of the organisation, written by the late Keith Jeffery and released almost a decade ago, was only allowed to take the story of MI6 up to 1949. Could a little more light, at least, now be shed on what happened next?

In the meantime, with le Carré’s latest novel, Agent Running in the Field about to hit the bookshops, the writer is delighted, writing in The Times: “I’m not my own publicity manager but if I were I would have paid good money to Sir Richard Dearlove to take the stage at Cliveden Literary Festival and loose off a full-frontal on me and my work less than a month before my new novel hits the stands.”