Mary Dejevsky: There's a spy story bubbling away, but we can't know anything about it

The wonder is that allegations about escaped secrets are not heard more often
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The information slid out of the news as unobtrusively as it slid in. One moment an unidentified 44-year-old man had been arrested under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act. The next, a certain Corporal Daniel James from Brighton had been charged with communicating information that might be useful to the enemy. And the moment after that the whole thing was blanketed in the silence of sub judice. The next date to watch for is the pre-trial hearing in January, but the likelihood is that proceedings will be closed to reporters for national security reasons.

It is not just national security that prevents us from knowing much more. The law - rightly, but frustratingly - forbids comment that might be prejudicial, once an individual has been charged. It does seem to me, though, that this is a case with huge implications, almost however it turns out.

Point one. The rank of the accused is a lowly one. It might be therefore construed that any information to which he was privy was relatively inconsequential. But Corporal James was an interpreter - and not just any interpreter, but interpreter for the British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan. In Britain professional linguists are grossly undervalued and consequently underpaid. This may be one reason why pupils do not try harder at languages at school. Yet interpreting for anyone in a senior position is an enormously responsible job. One word insensitively translated and months of diplomacy may be destroyed. One major slip, and governments have an international crisis. And there are times when information, like time, is money. The wonder is that allegations about escaped secrets are not heard more often.

Point two: Corporal James was born in Iran and spoke Farsi as his native language. He came to Britain at the age of 17. His languages are Farsi and English, as well as Pushtu, the main language of Afghanistan. Competence in these languages is exceptionally hard to find. Yet Britain's involvement in this part of the world means that they are suddenly in demand. No matter how much public money is ploughed into language training, no one can acquire the required expertise overnight. Mastering a language is a long-term project. People who are brought up to be bilingual and good at interpreting (not the same thing) are rare indeed.

Which brings me to point three: this level of linguistic competence is most readily to be found among first- or second-generation immigrants., and Britain could certainly make better use of its bilingual population than it does. But someone brought up bilingual is also likely to have two national and cultural identities. So long as there is no conflict between the two, there is no problem of loyalty. A war, however, presumes the taking of sides. With people as mixed up as they increasingly are, loyalty and patriotism fray at the edges. Treachery starts to sound a very old-fashioned word.

Point four: General Richards is said to be the first Briton to have command of US troops since the Second World War. This espionage case, whatever its outcome, will only confirm US misgivings about entrusting their troops to others. I wonder how soon it will be before another Briton is promoted to a Nato command.

Who are you calling an autocutie?

When the - still unsolved - mystery of Alexander Litvinenko's fatal poisoning was at its height, I was interviewed on BBC Breakfast. Seconds before, the producer whispered in my ear that the interviewer would be Kate Silverton. Images flashed through my mind. Silverton is - to put no finer point on it - a lass with a history.

She is the presenter who apologised on air after viewers complained that her vividly patterned shirt had put them off their breakfast. She is the one dubbed so "impossible" by her co-presenter, the seemingly genial national treasure, Philip Hayton, that he left the BBC rather than work with her a moment longer. And was she not one of the "autocuties" - those good-looking female newsreaders taken to task by Kate Adie and others for leaping up the BBC pay league without labouring at the coalface of daily reporting first?

Well, don't underestimate Silverton. During our brief encounter, she was excellently informed, pleasantly confident and - a real bonus this - she listened to the answers, and followed up accordingly. My experience is that TV tends to treat the interviewee either as an enemy combatant or as a proponent of one highly simplified view. The change was agreeable.

As for reporting, Silverton was to be seen over Christmas on the BBC's main evening news reporting in a flak jacket from Basra. It takes guts to do this, even if you are "embedded", as she was, with the British troops. To my TV-untrained eye, she acquitted herself splendidly. Her reports were stylish, lucid and to the point - as indeed you might expect from someone with a degree in psychology, a spell in the City, several stints of charity work in unpleasant parts of the world and some post-grad study of Arabic and the Middle East. I don't know Silverton at all, but an "autocutie" she is not.

We can still call ourselves a polite society

The start of the winter sales has been peppered with shocked tales of queue-jumping, fighting and boorishness, all taken as proof that standards of public behaviour in this country are in terminal decline. If we go on like this, it seems, every man, woman and child in Britain will soon have qualified for an Asbo.

My experience has been rather different - though I admit to steering well clear of Oxford Street and its environs these past few days.

I never cease to be amazed at the number of my fellow commuters who apologise profusely at the first unintended push or shove, however packed the train. I remain astonished that anyone stands back to let anyone else on to the bus, now that the bus queue is an extinct institution. And I marvel at the orderliness with which car drivers customarily sort out the tricky business of merging from a slip road into traffic. Give and take is the general rule, not the exception.

How different all this is from my days in Washington DC. "Merging" from a slip road was a game of high-speed "chicken"; letting someone into your lane a pitiable sign of weakness. And the pavements, where they existed, were zones of pedestrian Darwinism. If some stubborn walker bumped into you - a not infrequent occurrence - the "Excuse me!" was an accusation, not an apology. Appreciate the civility that remains.

* If there was a sudden upsurge in sales of crosses and crucifixes over Christmas, don't assume that the shoppers of this country have suddenly come over all devotional. Blame British Airways and its now rescinded ban for making cross-wearing a symbol of proud rebellion.

Visiting the shop of an English cathedral recently, I overheard this. Genteel lady of a certain age to genteel man of a certain age, as she contemplated the glass display case of silver crosses: "If you wanted to make a statement, it shouldn't be too small, should it?" Of course, it shouldn't, lady. You just go for it.