Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Secret Service

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th October, 2020

Good investigative journalists and secret service agents have a lot in common. We follow leads, check and double check information and are careful not to compromise our sources. Yet for most of the 20th Century, Britain’s domestic secret service, MI5, was almost as hostile towards the media as it was to foreign agents. We hacks weren’t even meant to know where it was based — though any journalist worth his salt knew very well — and people working there were just said to be run-of-the-mill civil servants. Fortunately that situation has changed dramatically in recent decades, not least thanks to MI5’s Director General between 2007 and 2013, Jonathan Evans, who understood how far the demands of national security had altered in an age of open information. That was the subject of a lecture Lord Evans (as he now is) gave under the auspices of the Westminster Abbey Institute in 2016 and the text has recently been published as a short book, Secret Service (Haus Curiosities, £7.99), with a substantial introductory essay by the Institute’s founder-director, the philosopher Claire Foster-Gilbert.

Jonathan Evans

While Jonathan Evans was with MI5, the agency devised an ethical framework, to “direct our moral compass”, as he puts it. Moral philosophers were consulted and three fundamental concepts were identified as underpinning operations: legality, proportionality and accountability. One aspect of the last-mentioned is of course transparency — very much a concern of our times, and in complete contradiction to the opaqueness of the secret services of yore. GCHQ in Cheltenham has, like MI5, opened up considerably (though not completely) about what it actually does. MI6 understandably less so. All have had to adapt to changing circumstances. Even since Lord Evans’s 2016 lecture there have been significant developments (which are covered as a postscript in the book), including the rise of right-wing extremism, Islamist terror incidents in London and Manchester and Russian attacks on their nationals on British soil. Since the book went to print there have been further new developments, not least the Conservative government’s wish to give the secret service a freer hand to use extreme measures such as torture and assassination if deemed necessary. Politicians as well as agents would be well advised to read this book to sort out their own moral compass before heading too readily down that road.

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