Page last updated at 09:57 GMT, Wednesday, 24 September 2008 10:57 UK

Could you be a spy like us?

The nation's spies rely on more than the old boy network to recruit spooks, as The One Show's Justin Rowlatt discovered.

MI6 headquarters
The workings of MI6 are normally shrouded in secrecy

Do you think you have what it takes to be a spy?

Judging by my experience with MI6 the qualities you will need are very different from what you might expect from watching James Bond films.

I'll be honest, I have always secretly fancied myself as a secret agent. It does not take much to picture myself on an exotic foreign mission decked out in a Saville Row suit, a Walther PPK tucked into my waistband and a beautiful woman on my arm.

The problem is that everyone seems to have the same fantasy.

So, when the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6 to you, offered to put One Show reporters through the assessment process for agents all my colleagues were clamouring for the chance to see if they could secure the famous "Double O" status.

Of course, not so long ago the idea that any of us could have put ourselves forward for SIS would have been laughable.

Recruitment was based on getting a "tap on the shoulder".

Old boy network

Someone, usually a don at an Oxbridge college, would approach suitable candidates and ask if they would be interested in joining the service. No tap, no job.

How things have changed. Now MI6 runs an open recruitment process, anyone can apply to be a spy.

Justin Rowlatt interviews "John" from MI6
On your first day at work you won't find a fleet of Aston Martins parked in the garage
"John" MI6

The Secret Intelligence Service has a website and you can register online. The service even advertises for candidates in the press.

The new approach reflects some dramatic changes in the organisation. Just as the fictional 007 has moved from the espionage of the cold war to fighting new threats to national security like terrorism, so real life secret agents have had to face up to the new and different challenges of the modern world.

And that means throwing the recruitment net much wider than the cloisters of Oxbridge.

Cover story

To find out how this works, we were invited into the very heart of the British establishment, the Map Room at the Foreign Office.

The first stage of the assessment process was an online test involving the kind of scenario an intelligence office in the field might face.

We were given a cover story and then had to answer a series of questions to see if we could operate without our cover being broken.

Putting us through our paces was "John", the MI6 head of recruitment.

The agent admitted John was not his real name. I was told he would be in disguise and we had to agree to ensure that his identity would not be revealed.

Spy test
Potential agents must be able to relate to others

But John talked very frankly about what it takes to work for the SIS.

First off he told me that I might have to revise some of my ideas about what life as a secret agent would be like.

James Bond

"On your first day at work you won't find a fleet of Aston Martins parked in the garage," he told me, "and you'll find considerably more paperwork to be done than ever happens in a Bond film but its an exciting job, it gives the opportunity sometimes to have privileged access to events that are happening overseas, a window on history sometimes."

Of course, budding spies still have to undergo a series of intense interviews where officers forensically explore their background and character.

The content of my interview is classified information. I can, however, reveal the sort of qualities that "John" looks for in candidates.

It seems the key to successful spying is understanding other people, working out what makes them tick.

"What makes a really good spy stand out from his peers," John said, "is the ability to relate to people, the ability to understand other people."

That is because, as John explained, spies do not tend to gather information by seducing the president's daughter or breaking into safes in country houses. Spying is about finding people who have access to the information you need and then persuading them to give it to you.

"The individual must be motivated to work for the SIS and to work for the British Government.

"We're looking for people who are prepared to dedicate a good proportion of their lives to doing things behind the scenes. We're not looking for people who are attracted to the limelight."

Spies like us
26 Nov 07 |  Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific