By John Fullerton
Brian, scruffy in rumpled t-shirt and jeans, sits in the front row, perfectly still, eyes closed, notebook in his lap, pen loosely held in one hand. There’s nothing to suggest he’s awake, let alone listening to the politician speaking on the platform in front of him.
Behind Brian, right at the back and against the wall, stands a woman in a dark suit, just like any office worker in any office suit: inconspicuous to the point of invisibility. Sarah too is quite still. She doesn’t have a notebook, but her eyes follow every movement of the woman making the speech and, by her alert manner, it’s clear she’s listening to everything being said. Sarah observes the reaction of the audience, and she’s especially attentive to the expressions and mannerisms of the politician’s aides clustered around the speaker.
Brian is the reporter, Sarah the intelligence operative.
They have certain things in common, but what separates them is, I would suggest, more important than that which unites them.
Despite his somnolent pose, Brian is waiting impatiently for the politician to say something quotable, for a punchy, controversial remark that will give him the news story he seeks. If she doesn’t, he will to try to prompt the response he wants by asking the politician a couple of provocative questions when she’s finished speaking.
The one thing Brian doesn’t have is time. Because he’s a news agency correspondent, he doesn’t have the luxury of deadlines – or, to put it another way, for a wire service every second, every minute, is vital in a 24-hour news cycle. So his relaxed, comatose appearance is deceptive. He’ll get his quote and then his business here is done.
But the intelligence operative is assessing the speaker’s character, her self-confidence, her ability to connect with her audience, to push the right buttons, to win them over to her particular message, and Sarah wants to know if she carries her party with her, if the people who surround her are allies or her potential rivals. Sarah has the time.
The point is that both Brian and Sarah need access to those with power, to those individuals and institutions that have a decisive influence over policy.
But their purposes and methods are very different.
Traditionally, Brian’s news stories attract readers, and readers attract advertising, and advertising revenue is profit to media owners and shareholders. Today, though, it’s corporate influence and prestige that matters, and the algorithms and metadata scooped up from subscribers that ensure corporate products and services are successful.
Brian’s work is commercial and public. His need for access to the woman on the stage is fleeting, transitory. Later today it will be someone else he’s after.
But Sarah seeks to place herself next to the politician. Positioning is more important to her and her employers than a mere speech. Getting alongside the target, making friends perhaps, is what matters, both from the point of view of recruiting and influencing her.
The politician is of long-term interest, especially if she’s successful in the upcoming elections.
Sarah’s classified report is not going to make anyone any money, at least not in the short term. Sarah is gathering ‘humint’ – and human intelligence, like it or not, is as important today as it ever has been for the simple reason it’s about the intentions of friends and foes. CIA, take note.
Spies-in-the sky cannot tell an intelligence agency what’s in the politician’s mind, how she’ll react to crisis, to blackmail, to provocation, to foreign pressure, to an invasion. We may know that China has launched a new class of nuclear ballistic missile submarines – but how does it affect Beijing’s intentions towards Taiwan, for example?
Is China moving from strategic defence to a posture of strategic offence?
It follows that Brian and Sarah bring very different skills to their respective tasks.
Brian is a newsman – he has a very well-developed sense of what is news and what isn’t. He knows his story will end up online and in newsprint and that those news pages will wrap tomorrow night’s fish-and-chips. He has no illusions on that score.
Brian isn’t going to change the world and he doesn’t seek to do so, even if his stories sometimes do send the price of stocks and gold tumbling or soaring. They’re more entertainment than anything else.
It’s not so much Brian’s training as his experience that matters. Journalism isn’t a profession. At best it’s a craft, a trade. It takes quick thinking and, as someone said, ratlike cunning.
Doing it well can be dangerous and all too often lethal.
Journalists come in many shapes and sizes. Some are no more than highly paid public relations people, spokespersons with party political connections. At least three current ‘household names’ working for the BBC come to mind; two are active members of a certain political party and the third’s political views are clearly on display when he interviews people he approves of and those he doesn’t.
Personally, I wouldn’t call them journalists, more state or party propagandists
In contrast to Brian’s academic background or lack of it, Sarah’s officer training has lasted at least six months. She will have been recruited because she already has skills – a gift for languages, perhaps, or a facility with advanced mathematics and IT. She may have been recruited direct from university or the armed forces.
Brian can be relied upon to follow his instincts, but Sarah is more cautious because she has to be. She needs authorisation for everything she does and is duty-bound to report every step she takes. She’s kept on a short leash, as is made clear in Spy Game.
Were Sarah to organise a coup in a foreign country all on her own, she would find herself very quickly without a job even if Whitehall approved of the results. At least, that’s the case in peacetime. In war, obviously, the rules have to be relaxed somewhat.
Perhaps the most important distinction is that Sarah is a creature of the state. She’s loyal. Nothing wrong with that; I don’t mean it in a disparaging sense. Sarah is not only a state functionary, but she has been trained to obey her civil service masters.
Brian, on the other hand, has to think for himself if he’s to be successful. He must be of independent mind and spirit. No god, no masters might be his creed.
That’s surely the single most important difference.
I remarked to my boss at Reuters that I was no team player. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true, John. You’re a team player when it’s your team.’ Exactly so.
Many years ago I was asked to give a talk to SIS officers about working under journalistic cover. I didn’t do a very good job because I hadn’t been properly briefed, and I’d prepared nothing in advance. But I did advise against it.
For one thing an intelligence officer posing as a journalist is almost instantly recognisable. It’s not his short back-and-sides, his polished shoes or the fact that his socks match. He’s tame. He’s collegial. He performs his tricks to command.
And a journalist working for an intelligence agency is doing something that goes against the grain in part because he’s naturally a loner, capable of making rapid decisions without recourse to authority and answerable only to his news sense and his own conscience. He can’t be entirely trusted. In my view, that can only be good.