Little do they know...
State of Play and Spooks are great entertainment, not a reliable guide to the real lives of hacks and spies
Peter Preston The Observer, Sunday 22 June 2003
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There are Spooks (as on BBC1 tomorrow night) and there are newshounds (as in the final episode of State of Play tonight). Spies and reporters, brothers under the skin. Here's fearless Tom, with his hangdog look and wandering eye, saving the world from terror. Here's chinless Cal, with his smear of a moustache and wandering hands, saving honest reporting from corrupt politicians. United they patrol the barricades of freedom. MI5 agents love their show: they think it bathes them in a steely light. And journalists certainly love State of Play: it makes them feel good about themselves (and less bad about Gerald Kaufman). But pause! For reality - grim reaper of TV corn - comes knocking at our door. Once upon a time, just after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, I travelled there with my notebook open. 'Bhutto?' said our local correspondent in Karachi, a brave and cogent fellow. 'The army is moving in. He won't last a week.' Good story. Better hurry to Islamabad and see what the Brits have to say about it. And there, in a cool, dark, high commission room, a white-haired, deepwizened super-spook held court. 'Bhutto?' he said, almost whispering. 'He won't last a week.' It was that vital break: a two-source story. 'How do you know?' I asked. 'Oh,' he said, 'we had this chap up from Karachi at the start of the week, a very good man, and he was absolutely categoric: no more than a week.' Name? Yes, of course, you've guessed it. Our own same correspondent. And the hot lines to London had plenty of time to grow cold over the years as Bhutto hung on and on (until hung by the neck). We are not different; we are often just the same, placing our trust in the same frail slivers of information. What Spooks (and State of Play) leave out is the human condition - bewitching, bothering, mostly bewildering. The famous slogan tells one story: 'MI5, not 9 to 5.' But the cases outlined on the agency's own recruitment website tell a subtly different tale. Take 'Charlotte' from the 'fast-paced environment of serious crime': 'I was concerned when I fell pregnant so soon after joining the service - I had just completed initial training and joined my first section. But I needn't have worried as my colleagues were incredibly supportive. After four months maternity leave I returned to my original job. For the time being I'm parttime - three days a week - and hope to then work full-time on compressed hours over four days when my child is a bit older.' Take 'Alison', late of the counter-terrorism section. 'Then I went on maternity leave for a year, returning part-time to a job-share in a research, assessment and report-writing section. I stayed there for two years until my next stint of maternity leave, which was nine months. On my return I went to a policy job in our personnel section as a project manager for an IT project.' Take a caring, sharing office. 'The photos on this site demonstrate the superb environment we can offer. But they can't convey the buzz, the vibrancy and the sense of urgency that comes from co-operating together on such important work. The

urgency that comes from co-operating together on such important work. The atmosphere in the building is friendly and informal - there's a first-name culture throughout... We've got a gym, a shop, restaurant/canteen and squash courts, as well as several informal areas where you can get away from it all for a while. All in our airconditioned offices on the river, just down the road from the Houses of Parliament.' Now these, admittedly, are dangerous, potentially chauvinist waters. Next stop, a crèche and Moneypenny on a three-day week. But they also tell you something unexpected about post-millennium spookery. It's (basically) a desk job. It welcomes former local authority people and social workers. It believes in equal opportunities and things like paternity leave. The planets Fleming, Deighton and Le Carré belong to a different galaxy. You can, to be sure, make too much of television tosh. Watch Matthew MacFadyen with his two facial expressions, worried and very worried - defeat white racist terrorists from Chingford, 'vicious anarchists' from Stoke Newington and mad mullahs from Birmingham (not to mention limitless supplies of berserk Serbians and Russian hitwomen). Watch Keeley Hawes (MacFadyen's current squeeze) change tight sweaters twice per episode. Clunk with dialogue that dies on the lips. 'They've either gone to ground or they're in the ground.' But the promise here is rather more portentous. It simulates a (kind of) swinging, edgy reality. These are the young tigers Stella Rimington hymned in her autobiography. This is the Orange Alert gang, due to finish series two with the dirty bomb their real leader, Eliza Manningham-Buller, was plugging at conferences last week. This is the BBC's eight-million-viewer series sold to America and watched weekly by an adoring chairman. But it is still tosh. Death threats? I had one once, from a supposed Iranian terror gang. Terminally worried Tom would have furrowed his brow. A flying police escort took me home. The back garden was stuffed with coppers. But the morning after, nobody guarded me into work. Local Knacker had got bored. Work-based Knacker, however, did escort duty three days on the trot - until I asked them if the wild Iranians wouldn't find it easier to strike as I drove into work? At which point, everybody went home. And the essential point - the point with all TV drama - is that it is drama, primped, smoothed, perfumed. When did they ever mention an actual robbery clear-up rate of 20 per cent on The Bill? (Sorry, four out of five shows cancelled for lack of a clue and a plot.) How does Jack Bauer, the resourceful one, survive another 24 hours of frenetic action, when the actual CIA sat on 224 clues about 9/11 and went to sleep? You can't divorce cardboard characters from cardboard screenplays. They get by only because they flatter to deceive. Z Cars was wonderful for cops because they liked cruising round, not beat-bashing. CSI is wonderful for crime-scene investigators like the one who came after my last burglary and spent two hours trying to find a print. 24 is wonderful for CIA agents who can't tell al-Qaeda from Al Pacino. Spooks is wonderful for Ms Manningham-Buller's finest, fighting their annual battles with the Treasury. But reality? Pass the ketchup. And we're all as easily beguiled. Paul Abbott's State of Play is a classier act by far, full of twists and good lines. Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy plays editor) is an icon already. Guardian journalists helped Abbott fill in the cracks of verisimilitude. Randy Cal takes up with an MP's wife. 'Hands up anyone who's never screwed a source,' barks Cameron. Dainty Della and dogged Dan are on the job. 'It's a big story and a big day for big hitters,' says Cameron, who probably writes his own headlines. But come on - who are these guys? The Herald is a broadsheet with a pudgy proprietor who takes orders from Number 10 and can whisk his in-house lawyer into the editor's chair. More tosh. Tosh beyond even Murdoch's imagining. Is Nighy a Rees-Mogg (the Times) figure? No, he stays at the office past 6.30. A Rusbridger (the Guardian) or a Kelner (the Independent) or Moore (the Telegraph)? No, he boozes the night away and never seems to care about other stories (even though this one, at least to begin with,

never seems to care about other stories (even though this one, at least to begin with, looked pretty tedious). He's a transplanted tabloid star playing cynical and saintly by turns in a bizarre cocoon where journalists don't gossip and other papers don't exist. Just, as the bugging and bribing mounts, like the Press Complaints Commission. Maybe none of that matters. Here are the hacks to dream of; laughing cavaliers, men and women of instant action and unlimited ingenuity, tribunes of the people. They've all been recommissioned for a second series (this time without the scheming politicians, who nobody ever thinks of flattering). But let's not get carried away. When did a fearless undercover investigation last rock Number 10's cradle? When did a foot-in-the-door squad of five (forget budgets, just count them aboard) tackle dirty dealings on select committees rather than coke-crazed pop stars bonking the night away? These are the Heralds of wish-fulfilment. They have the look, but they don't have the story, with its stops, starts and stumbles; they can't tell it like it is. Does this matter? Not a jot if you're glued to your screen. That's great entertainment. Who am I to run down the made-over journalist as hero? Who am I to tell burglars that fingerprint men come away empty-handed, if they arrive at all - or that the longest, booziest editors' lunch I ever went to was at Scotland Yard, dishing the claret to London's top cops? Dramatic truth has its subterranean uses. But Spooks? Another story. A thin line of university graduates against the marauders of malignity. A 'pathologically traumatised boy genius' can hack into a mainframe 'and MI5 will be powerless - as will be this country'. Fear and threat and stilted hyperbole come on every set menu. 'Listen to every phone call and close them down to protect the innocents... our strategy is to create chaos, to create a vacuum... we will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defence of our great nation.' Good thinking, Tom: though in fact those last quotes are verbatim George W Bush. It's catching! Frankly I prefer the first cuddly old spook I met. He told me to give him a ring if I felt like it and left his raincoat behind in an Italian restaurant. Those were the days, my friends: the days before Saudis with pen knives seized jumbo jets, the days when we knew we were muddling through. I wonder if the chap I filed under 'Smiley' is still around? Probably retired, but you never know. Maybe he's up for a job share with Alison and Charlotte. · Peter Preston was editor of the Guardian from 1975 to 1995. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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