Dominic Lawson: I was called a spy in Parliament. Maybe this is why I hate our obsession with James Bond

I was 'named' by George Galloway, who had chosen to believe ramblings by an ex-MI6 man with a book to sell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Brace yourself, Bond. You do not exist. Yes, I know the country's newspapers, even those which used to be counted as serious, have recently given you more coverage than the Queen's Speech. But they are mere pawns in the hands of the Sony Corporation's marketing department. If you were real, you would long ago have retired to spend more time with your golf clubs. To quote Mr Fleming: "Say good bye to it, Bond."

At least, I think that's how one of the Bond books ends. I haven't read any of them since I was 11. For a schoolboy they were thrilling, even though I couldn't understand 007's interest in the opposite sex, and entirely endorsed M's view that this was a disgraceful distraction from the business of eliminating the enemies of Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Nowadays what I can't understand is the obsession of grown-ups with this childish fantasy figure. Apparently a large number of adults - men and women - are boycotting the latest Bond film, Casino Royale, because they are deeply distressed that their hero is being played by a man whose looks don't correspond to their ideal of Bondness. How is it possible that so many people think that this is a serious matter? But matter it does, at least commercially: the 22 previous Bond films have grossed $3.8 bn. No wonder Sony refers to James Bond as "a franchise". It's the most profitable property in Hollywood, with the exception of Star Wars, that other obsession of infantilised adults the world over.

If you sense a slightly bitter tone, you would be right. Eight years ago I was "named" in the House of Commons as a paid employee of the Secret Intelligence Service, and although the claim was categorically denied by the Prime Minister and the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, I found the experience distinctly unpleasant. This was largely because I was then editing a national newspaper and was very worried that the lives of its foreign correspondents, particularly those working in the Arab world, could be put at risk by such an association.

Indeed, a parliamentary motion "naming" me as one who had been "paid large sums of money in foreign bank accounts for services rendered [to the Intelligence Service] under the guise of editor [of The Spectator] " went on to say that "Mr Lawson's actions constitute a danger to genuine journalists, especially those working abroad." The proposer of that motion was George Galloway, who had chosen to believe the ramblings of a somewhat disturbed ex-MI6 man with a largely fictional book to sell.

Some years later George Galloway himself became the victim of defamatory allegations that he had been in the pay of Saddam Hussein's government, but his accusers did not have the opportunity to shelter under parliamentary privilege, and so Galloway successfully sued them, winning damages of £150,000.

George and I had a little bit of history. When I was editing The Spectator, he from time to time had approached me with the idea that I should publish articles about his recent trips to various countries. But I felt the pieces proposed would have served the interests of Galloway's hosts, rather more than those of our readers. This all happened before his spectacular endorsement of the virtues of Saddam Hussein, as broadcast by a grateful Iraqi state television service. I recall also being amazed by the prominence given by other newspapers to the allegations made about me by Galloway, and one of his colleagues, Brian Sedgemore. Even allowing for the peculiar belief of modern newspaper editors that their readers are as interested as they are in the activities of journalists, it still seemed odd that papers as diverse as The Guardian and the Daily Express should have put such an obvious contrivance at the top of their front pages.

Something else was at work, however. It was that ludicrous national obsession with 007. Punch magazine had as its front cover my head superimposed on a poster for the latest James Bond film. Not surprisingly, most men said I should be flattered by such a depiction. Indeed, Tony Blair told my wife that I was crazy to complain about it, adding, somewhat wistfully, she thought: "I wish they said that about me." Perhaps the Prime Minister is another of those who identify with 007. After all, he calls himself "half-Scottish", which is the same ancestry Ian Fleming gave Bond.

The real Secret Intelligence Service has a much more ambivalent relationship with its fictional employee. It very much does not want people applying for work on the basis that they will have a "licence to kill". The SIS has not carried out targeted killings since its Malayan counter-insurgency operations in the late 1940s. On the other hand, the mystique surrounding 007 has given the Service a certain allure which is not only useful when asking starry-eyed prime ministers for budget increases, but also for the recruitment of agents overseas. The CIA needs to offer such people large sums of money to inform on their own governments. The British, thanks to the efforts of Ian Fleming, can achieve the same results much more cheaply by appealing to vanity rather than venality.

This may not last much longer, however. Thanks in part to the current administration's obsession with "inclusivity", SIS, like all other government agencies, has felt compelled to produce a website advertising its openness to one and all. Its website even contains a list of Frequently Asked Questions, one of which is "How realistic is the description of SIS in the James Bond films?" SIS's answer is that Ian Fleming "injected a level of glamour and excitement beyond reality in order to sell" his books, and that the films had "widened the gap between truth and reality". Nevertheless, claims the website: "Staff who join SIS can look forward to a career that will have moments when that gap narrows just a little."

I think that this attempt to attract graduates with a faint suggestion of Miss Pussy Galore would be rather more effective if the accompanying list of "myths about SIS" did not include the claim that "working for SIS is dangerous". Where's the excitement of a career without danger? It's no substitute to be informed by the new, open SIS that successful applicants will be eligible for a "subsidised children's holiday play scheme" and "an interest-free season ticket loan".

Faced with such a list of the dull perks of a bureaucratic life, one can almost sympathise with the willingness of much of the adult male population to continue to suspend their disbelief and to fantasise about the secret agent who never was. Better that, than to be told by "Q" that those things that look just like ordinary paperclips in your intray really are just paperclips: "Don't bend them, Bond. You might scratch your finger. But, as you know, we have a generous health scheme." It'll never catch on.