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The secret state and the people

Dr Jago Morrison - Reader in English – will lead a collaborative research project with colleagues at King’s College London (Dr Huw Dylan, Senior Lecturer in Intelligence and International Security) to explore the interaction between the secret state and the people. The 36-month project aims to engage both academic and non-academic audiences, encouraging further enquiry into the role of writers in intelligence.

Intelligence work is supposed to be secret and is often assumed to be detached from the public sphere, operating outside the law, exempt from public oversight.  In fact, this is far from being the case. Despite the cloak of official secrecy, British intelligence has always had to be mindful of political opinion, and writers have often found themselves acting as intermediaries between the secret state and the people. The aim of this project is to explore this unique role.

In the run-up to WW1 spy writer William Le Queux worked with the Daily Mail to build a mass campaign of ‘citizen spies’ to counter the ‘German Menace.’ In the 1900s the idea of having a state ‘secret police’ was widely regarded as un-British by government. His campaign is credited with having played a key role in changing this, forcing a reassessment of Britain’s intelligence needs.  In this way, his campaign of ‘fake news’ ended up playing a pivotal role in the establishment of Britain’s modern intelligence services.

In WW2, Dennis Wheatley and John Masterman were employed by Churchill’s government for their exceptional skills in fiction.  Wheatley was used to ‘game’ adverse scenarios, such as civil unrest in London, while Masterman coordinated a small army of double agents – many of them fictional – successfully selling misinformation to German intelligence.

In 1963, a serving MI6 officer emerged from nowhere to become the most successful spy writer in history. His scathing account of the intelligence ‘circus’ would scar the popular image of the agencies for a generation. The early 1960s were an intensely turbulent period for the politics of intelligence in Britain: for the first time, Dr Morrison will assess the impact of John Le Carré’s ‘New Realism’ within this febrile media climate. As arguably the most influential intervention made by any spy writer, Dr Morrison will ask what it reveals about the changing relationship between British intelligence and the public sphere in this era of exposure. 

Finally, the project team will be the first to examine the writings of Stella Rimington, the first publicly acknowledged Director of MI5. All of her writing, both fictional and non-fictional, is concerned with negotiating a fresh, democratic image for the agencies post-Cold War.  They will show, however, that during her tenure Rimington oversaw a major revolution in intelligence gathering methods, in many ways threatening the democratic rights and freedoms she claimed to defend:  on this, her writing is almost completely silent. As such, they will ask whether Rimington’s project is ultimately more about concealment than openness, obscuring the real evolution of intelligence work in the 90s and beyond.

Alongside academic outputs, the public engagement strategy includes a major author event to be held at Brunel, as well as an innovative online exhibition on the Google Arts & Culture Platform. A blog WritersinIntelligence.org welcomes submissions from staff and students who share an interest in spies-turned-writers.


Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project


Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.


Project last modified 14/01/2022