Birmingham's black and Asian communities are being targeted in a new public recruitment campaign by the Secret Intelligence Service. Nick McCarthy meets an undercover MI6 officer to find out more.
"We don’t have a garage full of Aston Martin cars, we have to do paperwork and I can’t disappear abroad for months and ignore calls from the boss.”
John (not his real name) dispelled some of the myths about working with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in a rare interview with the Birmingham Post.
SIS met me in a city centre hotel to ‘sell the service’ to potential new spies as it looks on Birmingham as a key recruiting ground.
It is the first time SIS has publicly launched such a recruitment campaign and is specifically looking for more people from ethnic minority communities to come forward and apply. I was introduced to John, who sat sipping fruit tea in a hotel room, after giving up my phone and agreeing to a security search.
He said: “If you had told me 25 years ago that I would be sat across a table talking to a journalist I would not have believed you. We used to be firmly in the shadows, but that has changed.”
John, who also heads up recruitment of agents and has been in the service for more than 25 years, added: “People from Birmingham should look at us as a serious option. We are looking for people from across our communities who may not have thought about working for us in the past.
“We want to recruit people that are representative of our society. There are far more female operatives these days. When I joined there was just one on the course. We also want to attract more people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.”
More than 10,000 people did apply to join MI6 last year and the service took on 80 operational officers.
“This is all about attracting the best people from all backgrounds. At Oxford University it is normal to consider a career with SIS.
“We want people from universities like Aston and Birmingham to have the same opinion. It is a talent search. We still use talent spotters, which has always been the way that we recruit.
“But the tap on the shoulder is a bit of a thing of the past. We now use websites and encourage people to approach us.
“When I was thinking about joining there was no information,” he said, explaining that the Government has only officially acknowledged the department’s existence since 1994.
“There is far more openness, but, of course, we have to remain as a secretive organisation. When I joined I got a tap on my shoulder at university when I was in my third year.”
John remained tight-lipped about the logistics of the day job but gave a flavour of what it is about.
“You are entering into an obligation, you are saying that you are deployable.
“There are very intense periods of huge amounts of hours and pressure. If something happens in some part of the world then there are long hours involved. But, you will probably find that bankers work longer hours than us.
“It is exciting, and I must admit that there are times when I think ‘this is fairly unique.’
“I have had fantastic opportunities and I have worked in some amazing places. I have also learnt a couple of languages [that he would only confirm to be Middle Eastern].
“It will cause disruption to your life. The cover aspect is a difficult part of the job. I have three children and I have never told them what I do.”
John has to be secretive about his job to his own family, he said.
“I had to tell my wife when our relationship got serious. But my children think that I work at the Foreign Office.
“We are provided with a cover story but it is not wise to deploy it in every day life. Whilst the story is not out of kilter with real life, it is better not to come up with lies that may come back at you.
“But you are trained in various techniques, including deflecting questions. Having said all that, we want people to lead as normal lives as possible and to have friends and family. We have a fairly good work-life balance.”
Since joining the service 20 years ago, John has seen dramatic changes to its work and operations.
“A lot of work now focuses on terrorism and narcotics. In recent years there has been far more collaborative work with the mainland security service (MI5) and with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ),” he explains.
“There has been lots of changes around legal structure and we now work far more closely with lawyers. They are important in terms of advising us on working within legal boundaries. Technology is another big change. When I joined there was no internet. The way that people now carry out their lives is centred on technology and we need to be able to use it too.
“The last intake of 80 operatives came from 30 different universities. The intake was 35 per cent female and eight per cent black and ethnic minority.
“The great challenge we face is that more boys want to be spies than girls. We do not just employ people in the field. We also employ linguists, drivers, IT specialists and engineers.
“In terms of being an operative ,there is real variety. Some assignments can last between two and three years and there are opportunities to be posted all over the world and to learn foreign languages.
“Training is part of what we do, but there are certain core skills that we look for. Languages are a distinct advantage, particularly knowing difficult ones, and I have learnt two languages with the service.
“We do expect our new young people to go to less hospitable parts of the world to protect our national interests. But the work is varied, exciting and very enjoyable.”
He added; “James Bond is a popular entertainment brand that gets the MI6 name out there but we don’t have a garage full of Aston Martin cars, I never see Bond doing paperwork and I can’t disappear abroad for months on end and ignore calls from the boss.
“It’s not the life for everyone. And it’s not the sort of thing you can talk about over a beer. As a consequence, we have a very good bar within the organisation. And even if most of the 007 stereotypes are not true, you can probably order a good vodka martini.”