Beyond Bond: MI6 chief is on a mission to kill posh image, as he seeks black and Asian officers
MI6 is to return to the old-school method of “tapping up” recruits as part of a concerted effort to draw in a new cadre of black and Asian officers and finally dispel the image of British spies as “James Bond” types whose ranks are the preserve of a posh elite.
The initiative has come directly from the agency’s chief, Alex Younger, who said MI6, known officially as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), needed to reach out to communities that were “selecting themselves out” of a potential career in the world of secret intelligence gathering.
In his first interview with a national newspaper, Younger told the Guardian the current expansion of SIS was needed because “the demands on our services, our capabilities are on the up”, with more threats than ever before coming from terrorist groups and hostile states.
But he said the service would be better for having a more diverse workforce and that old recruitment techniques, such as “the tap on the shoulder”, were required to bring in a full spectrum of talent.
The agency says it still gets too many applications from people who think a familiarity with James Bond and the ability to shoot will help secure them a job.
Younger, who is known as C, also conceded that during his career MI6 had “suffered from groupthink”, which needed to be challenged, and he wanted people to have the confidence to stand up to him if they did not agree.
“I’m quite passionate about this. We have to go out and ask these people to join us. Before we were avowed as a service, that was the only way of recruiting people, a tap on the shoulder. That was the way I was recruited. We have to go to people that would not have thought of being recruited to MI6. We have to make a conscious effort. We need to reflect the society we live in.
“Simply, we have to attract the best of modern Britain. Every community from every part of Britain should feel they have what it takes, no matter what their background or status. We have to stop people selecting themselves out.”
He added: “We have suffered from groupthink in the past. We have to get the maximum [number of] differentiated points of view in the room and for people to have the confidence to say what they think. Even if it’s not the popular thing to say, even with people like me.”
The current head of recruitment at SIS told the Guardian that the enduring legacy of James Bond - whose fictionally posh pedigree includes a stint at Eton school - meant the agency still received applications from people who thought being a good shot was an advantage.
“They may well be able to use a revolver,” she said. “But that is not really what we are looking for. We don’t want to be the SAS. The brand has attracted a lot of good people. But it has also put off equally fantastic people.
“There is a perception out there that we want Daniel Craig, or Daniel Craig on steroids. He would not get into MI6. We need to get that message across because it is so embedded, and we have to get around that. We are between a rock and a hard place – between trying to be innovative, while protecting the secret stuff that keeps this country safe.
“We get thousands of people applying. But we need people from a wider range of backgrounds in order to be able to select the best talent this country has to offer.”
MI6 is poised to launch a new recruitment campaign next week as it continues an unprecedented expansion that will see it grow by up to a third over the coming years.
With money allocated from the 2015 strategic defence and security review, SIS hopes to recruit many hundreds of people, bringing its overall size to around 3,500 – the biggest it has ever been in its history.
Related:MI6 to recruit hundreds more staff in response to digital technology
Younger said MI6 needed to spread its network of officers and agents more widely when there were equally worrying threats coming from terrorists and states.
Russia is a key concern for all Britain’s intelligence agencies, which is potentially awkward. Theresa May’s government is seeking to build a strong relationship with the US president, Donald Trump, who has been beset by claims over links to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Younger would not be drawn on specifics, but he said: “The terrorist threat has grown but that has not resulted in a diminution of threats posed by hostile states. They have ways of posing a threat to us that they did not have before.”