Magazine article The Spectator

Goodbye, Shayler

Magazine article The Spectator

Goodbye, Shayler

Article excerpt



The Spectator, 56 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LL Telephone: 020-7405 1706; Fax 020-7242 0603 Besides secret agents themselves, who face assassination should their identities become known, no man can have been more grateful for the existence of the Official Secrets Act than Ian Fleming. Had it been known back in the 1950s that M15 and M16 were inhabited not by suave womanisers but by dull paper-shufflers who go home on the Tube, his books would not have prospered.

Thanks to David Shayler, the former M15 officer jailed earlier this week for breaching the Official Secrets Act, the image of the secret services now projected on to the public mind is that of any other government department: a bungling bureaucracy staffed by a mixture of the ambitious, the bored and the devious, fighting little turf wars and gradually being consumed by paperwork. It would be extraordinary if it were any other way: the aura of exoticism which long surrounded secret-service work - the sherry parties hosted by shady dons, the clandestine meetings with agents carrying rolled-up copies of the Times - cannot be expected to exempt it from the institutional arthritis which tends to afflict all large public organisations.

This magazine has some sympathy for David Shayler's observations of life inside M15. In 1998, during his self-imposed exile on mainland Europe, Mr Shayler wrote of his experiences twice in these pages. In one article he expanded on the frustration of `spending days poring over the drafting of routine documents', and claimed that had M15's methods been sharper it could have prevented the IRA bombing of the City in 1993. In the other, he related his fears of what might happen to him after his account of his time at M15 was published in the Mail on Sunday. 'I really did feel like a dissident in the old Soviet Union,' he wrote. `Each night I lay awake unable to sleep for fear. Each night I listened out for the sinister knock or the splintering crack at the door before I was quietly and inevitably hauled off to the cells by Special Branch.'

Events have proved Mr Shayler to be over-imaginative. Apart from his allegation that Special Branch officers took his girlfriend's knickers during a raid on his flat, events have failed to sustain his portrayal of M15 as a British KGB. He has not been bumped off and dumped in a canal, but has been tried in an open court to which reporters were allowed access; the only concession to secrecy being that former M15 colleagues gave evidence with their faces obscured.

As hard as he has tried, Mr Shayler has failed to portray anything menacing about British secret services. …

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