Spies have been in the news recently which got me thinking about my brief dalliance with the half-life of espionage.
I was asked to go undercover by the Sunday Times in the mid-90s. and this assignment opened my eyes as to how journalism really works, for good and ill.
I was 19 and working on the sports desk as a dogsbody, tea-maker, fact-checker and column-writer. The call went up from the sweaty suits in the newsroom – they needed volunteers who were under 25 and hadn’t been to university. My sports editor put me forward, so for the first time since the Lesbian Avengers broke into the building and chained themselves to the desks, I trundled into the office where the serious journalists worked.
The story went thus: the ST editor had been having dinner with an old friend, who told him that some universities – mostly former polys – made it far too easy for students to get their degrees. Some of the tutors practically wrote the essays and answered all the questions in exams. They did this, so I was told, to increase the pass rate, which meant the universities got more funding.
The editor thought it would be a whizzbang idea if he sent a couple of journalists undercover, to enrol as students at former polys and reveal this nefarious business to our readers. And on this flimsy basis, I was to be given a large weekly stipend, leave of absence from the sports desk and an unlimited supply of pink chits – the blank taxi receipts that were the most highly valued currency in the building.
So I did it. I went to the University of North London on Holloway Road and enrolled in the only course they had left: Irish Studies. I was comfortable with this. I had recently left a Catholic school, so I’d been surrounded by plastic paddies for the best part of a decade, drank Guinness and could name the Republic of Ireland first XI without flinching. I came up with a cover story about my dad being from Ballymena but never talking about his Irish heritage, and winged it from there. They probably smelled a rat straight away – nobody was shy of talking about their Irish background in the mid-90s, when the craic and Big Jack were all the rage.
My brief was to get close to the students and ask them leading questions about the nature of the tutoring they received, so I went to lectures and then hung out with my fellow students in pubs, drinking on expenses and getting free cabs home. It was quite the thing. Who wouldn’t relish the chance to get to play at spies?
I quickly discovered three things.
- I wasn’t a very good spy. I kept forgetting to record conversations or got drunk and couldn’t remember what had been discussed. I couldn’t think of any leading questions and regularly forgot my cover story.
- I wasn’t a very good student. Studying bored me senseless and I couldn’t write the sort of essays required by universities.
- This wasn’t a very good story, and even if it had been I didn’t want to write it. My fellow students were all older than me and from a far more disadvantaged background. They were genuinely enthused about this opportunity to receive further education and many of them had left secure jobs so they could do so. I had absolutely no desire to stitch them up at the bequest of the public scho0l and Oxbridge educated bigwigs back in Wapping, not for all the pink chits in London.
Like a double agent, I strung both groups along for a few weeks – the students, cos I it was fun; the journalists, because my access to taxi receipts had made me a minor legend among the peewees in the corridors of Wapping. But the whole thing was making me increasingly uncomfortable – having to lie to everybody – and I was really very bored of studying, so I wrote a heroically non-committal wrap-up memo to the news editor and then got the sports editor to insist I was recalled.
Another journalist had enrolled at a different University and he stuck it out. After he’d done a full year, he ended up writing a SENSATIONAL two page expose that amounted to a whole lot of nothing, as he freely admitted.
And what did I learn from all this? A few things, all chastening. One was that newspapers made decisions about stories based on whims or chance encounters, and would follow these through to the bitter end even when it was clear there was nothing to write about, and that I wasn’t very good at doing this. Even if it had been a good story, I wasn’t tenacious enough to exploit it.
The other was that I would never be a successful spy.
Another childhood dream, dashed.