Monday, 30 August 2010

The spy who came out in the cold

If your feet are feeling a little chilly, don't worry - it's not diabetes taking its toll on your circulation. It's just that hell appears to have suddenly frozen over.

So what bizarre circumstance could possibly have initiated such shocking subterranean climate change? Well, I'm sorry to report that I find myself in agreement with a column written by the usually detestable Melanie Phillips in today's Daily Mail.

Like many people, she's aghast at the way GCHQ code-breaker Gareth Williams' death has been spun by MI6. Salacious suggestions about rent boys, cross-dressing and sex games lent a suitably seedy frisson to the investigation, despite the fact that the police renounced all these claims over the weekend.

With the Bond series mothballed due to the financial crisis faced by MGM, and no sign of a new Bourne movie on the horizon, the press rubbed their hands in glee at the prospect of a real-life espionage thriller unfolding before their beady eyes. A dead spy, code-breaking, £18k disappearing from a secret bank account - who needs the movies when shit like this is happening in real life?

So without a thought for veracity or fact-checking, the media thoughtlessly revelled in every speculative claim and distasteful detail. But the real mystery at the heart of this unfortunate story is why MI6 thought it was acceptable to misdirect the public, by sullying William's name with a bunch of sleazy and (it seems) entirely misleading claims about his "very, very private" life. Surely, the whole point of being a spy is that you live your life under the radar?

Melanie is rightfully indignant about the way this whole story has been handled, arguing "...shadowy unnamed sources started putting it about that 'bondage equipment and gay paraphernalia' were found in his flat.The implication was that his death was caused by some seedy sadomasochistic practice that went wrong. At a stroke, Mr Williams's reputation was trashed - transforming him from an unsung hero of his nation into the sordid author of his own terminal misfortune."

Of course, the Daily Mail loves nothing more than idly speculating about gays who succumb to terminal misfortune, but not when they dedicate their lives to defeating the Taliban. Or at least, that's the way Melanie sees it.

The problem is, although MI6 thought that it was perfectly acceptable to invent a gay scandal to throw the press off the scent of a story with implications on national security, the papers were more than willing to take the bait. And the Daily Mail was one of the first to go to print with its own tawdry rumour-mongering.

Melanie can wring her hands and bemoan MI6's insensitivity in causing "further and needless distress to the dead man's bereaved parents". But she has to acknowledge her own employers' complicity in the cover-up.

So even though I might agree with Melanie's disgust at the way GCHQ has attempted to smear the reputation of one of its most promising agents (with a lifestyle that, in itself, is nothing to be ashamed of) I can't help but recognise the age-old hypocrisy that lies at the heart of so much of the Mail's editorial position.

So the Daily Mail got it wrong again after all. Maybe that means that all is right with the world? Well, except for the fact that someone's out there murdering spies.

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