MI6 boss: George Smiley a better role model for agents than James Bond

Sir Alex Younger, known in agency circles as C, says 007’s ‘brash antics’ give a misleading portrayal of life in the service

John Le Carre’s fictional spymaster George Smiley is a far better role model for agents than James Bond, whose “brash antics” and maverick behaviour give a misleading portrayal of life in the service, according to the chief of MI6.

Sir Alex Younger, also known in agency circles as C, was responding to an article about spies in the Economist in which he said he was determined to single out the merits of what he considered to be appropriate characters in fiction.

In a letter to the publication, Younger said he had learned to live with the public perception of MI6, also known as the UK Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). “Indeed, I have determined to take advantage of it. They say that life follows art. I do not think that this is the case exactly. But I accept that there is a strong feedback loop,” he said.

“In which case, I should make it clear that, despite bridling at the implication of a moral equivalence between us and our opponents that runs through novels, I’ll take the quiet courage and integrity of George Smiley over the brash antics of 007, any day.”

Younger has long expressed ambivalence about Bond, seeing him as both a boon and a curse, lifting the service’s profile worldwide but also giving a seriously misleading portrayal of what intelligence officers do. But his endorsement of the enigmatic, calculating Smiley still represents a change of tack.

The service chief also took issue with the Economist for suggesting SIS agents are made up of mavericks and misfits who break every rule but are tolerated because they are part of the British establishment club.

“We do things in defence of national security that would not be justified in pursuit of private interest. But only when they are judged by ministers to be necessary and proportionate,” Younger wrote.

Younger has been trying to demystify the role of MI6 and its staff
Younger has been trying to demystify the role of MI6 and its staff. Photograph: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/PA

“We break the rules, certainly; we do not break the law. And if we are not maverick, we are not all establishment or male either; ask my deputy. What I will allow, is that alongside our values of courage, respect and integrity, we place a premium on creativity.”

Although still secretive, Younger has been trying to demystify the job through speeches, press conferences and interviews, saying he wanted to make the service more diverse by recruiting more black and minority ethnic officers.

On spy literature, he said: “We have attracted some great writers; some have become famous, many more have set aside their vocation and remained in the service. Some of the operational correspondence I have seen during my career would grace many an anthology were it not for its classification.

“Despite inevitable tensions between the secret and published world, the relationship has generally been of mutual benefit. Literature gains an edgy genre. We are painted in the minds of a global audience as some form of ubiquitous intelligence presence. This can be quite a force multiplier, even if it means we are blamed for an astonishing range of phenomena in which we have no involvement at all.”

He suggested intelligence services reflected the values of the countries they served. “The Stasi told you all you needed to know about the East German regime. SIS, and our sister services, GCHQ and MI5, tell you a lot about modern Britain.

“My staff are representative of the British public, firmly rooted in the values of our liberal democracy, doing some extraordinary and highly effective work in the face of a set of forbidding modern threats.”


Ewen MacAskill Defence and intelligence correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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