What the quiet heroism of Eric Roberts could teach Boris Johnson

Roberts was the agent who posed as an undercover Gestapo officer

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The Independent Online

Jack’s the lad, not BoJo

So Boris Johnson thinks he’s the new Churchill, does he?

That seems to be the inescapable subtext of his new book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (see review in Arts & Books, page 19). You can’t blame him for wanting to present himself as the natural heir to a maverick politician with cross-party appeal. The politician who gets my vote, however, will be the one who models himself after a different war hero altogether, a man called Eric Roberts.

If you’ve never heard of Mr Roberts then that’s just as it should be. Only this week, the National Archives released documents which revealed Roberts to be none other than “Jack King”, the agent who posed as an undercover Gestapo officer during the Second World War. By encouraging British Nazi sympathisers to divulge their secrets to him, instead of the real German intelligence services, Roberts effectively neutralised the threat they posed. Apparently none of them suspected that Jack King was not a real Gestapo officer just as, decades later, no one suspected that Jack King was, in fact, an unassuming bank clerk from Surrey.

When details of MI5‘s “Fifth Column” operation were first released this February, many assumed King was a code name for John Bingham, the dashing aristocrat and MI5 operative on whom John le Carré partly based his George Smiley character. The real King, aka Eric Roberts, had been keeping a low profile working for a London branch of Westminster Bank for 15 years before he was called upon to serve. According to the records he spoke only “slight” German and liked to pursue his hobby of jiu jitsu in his spare time.

When the call-up came, Roberts’ manager was so incredulous he wrote to MI5 to question their decision: “What we would like to know here is what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive – for some particular work of national military importance?”

In the year that “overshare” has topped the Collins and Chambers dictionaries list of new words, Roberts embodies all the virtues of humble heroism we’ve lost. Like Epsom’s answer to Clark Kent, no one suspected him of heroism because he was so humble; in fact this very humility was the essence of his heroism. Since he was already 32 in 1940, he almost certainly went to his grave without ever receiving public recognition for his work – hard to fathom in an age when most people expect public recognition just for posting a make-up-free selfie.

Even 70 years on, we still don’t know how Roberts came to the attention of MI5 agent runner Maxwell Knight or what became of him after the war. We know only that he was given a job to do and he did it well. Shouldn’t that be enough?

A lesson in privacy lost

This July, a 73-year-old drama teacher called Jaqueline Laurent-Auger was fired from her job at a private school in Canada. She had held her post for 15 years and the school admitted it could find no flaw with her teaching but she was dismissed all the same. Why? Because schoolboys searching online had found excerpts from some erotic films Laurent-Auger appeared in around 40 years earlier, when she was still a young actress working in France.

Laurent-Auger was eventually offered her old job back, but she isn’t the only teacher who has found the profession to be incompatible with a private life. Recent stories include a teacher suspended for swearing on Facebook and another sacked for posting a picture of herself holding a glass of wine.

Of course, some teachers do overstep professional boundaries and deserve to lose their jobs. This category includes the abusers and the sexters, for whom losing a job should be the least of their worries, but it also includes teachers who transgress in subtler ways. In New York City, one supply teacher thought it appropriate to ask a class of eight-year-olds to weigh in on her love life and was, quite rightly, dismissed.

It’s not the lack of a private life that distinguishes teaching professionals from these criminals and clowns, however. What distinguishes professionals is that they endeavour to keep their private life separate from the classroom. Sadly, this isn’t as simple as it was, thanks to the unfortunate coincidence of internet search engines and curious adolescent minds.

School administrators are now faced with a dilemma but the answer isn’t to make a colourful past grounds for instant dismissal. Instead, stories like that of Jaqueline Laurent-Auger might be an opportunity for young people to learn one very important aspect of proper adult behaviour: how to respect others’ privacy.

What price your dirty work?

Like cleaning the toilets, moderating the internet is a low-paid, low-status job that no one really wants to do. This and more was revealed by a feature in tech magazine Wired, which detailed the working conditions of those humans (not algorithms) whose full-time job it is to remove snuff movies, child abuse images, racist screeds and other nastiness from our favourite sites.

Unlike cleaning the toilets, moderating can be outsourced to South-east Asia, so that the people who own and use the facilities might be as far removed as possible from their own filth. Where the job is done in-house, it’s often delegated to junior members of staff or even interns.

This is a dangerous situation, as must be obvious to anyone who understands what moderation really entails. This kind of labour is not physical, or even mental, but emotional. The world’s growing community of 100,000-plus full-time moderators are routinely exposed to humanity at its most depraved but they typically receive no specialist training and no therapeutic support. The result is an occupational-health time bomb, which threatens to go off at any minute.

Chickening out

The plight of the internet moderator, the continued spread of Ebola, the Ukip Calypso; this was a week when many of us had good reason to give up on the world and embark on a week-long KFC bender but only one woman actually did it. Respect to 26-year-old Tan Shen from Sichuan province, China, who took up residence in her local chicken shop after a bad break-up. She showed that heartache needn’t be a hidden source of shame, because everybody hurts. Instead, turn your comfort eating into an elaborate piece of performance art.

Twitter: @MsEllenEJones