Another packed house and a slightly queasy start with host Sean Plunket promising the audience to get the goods from Stella Rimington but all without resorting to waterboarding. Boom, boom Mr Plunket.
Dame Stella – who celebrated her 77th birthday yesterday – affirmed first off that writing “spook” fiction was significantly more fun and less responsibility than living a life in espionage. The realities of the spy game bear very little resemblance to fictional representations and while her heroine Liz Carlyle has been shot at, nearly blown up and kidnapped, Rimington’s role as Director General of MI5 involved the infinitely lesser threat of death by boredom with an endless round of budget meetings and ministerial briefings.
Alternating between writing and intelligence questions, Sean Plunket asked about MI5’s relationship with the media under Stella Rimington’s stewardship. There was, she felt, no relationship between the secret service and the media prior to the 1980s, and the most frequent headline used in conjunction with intelligence news was “MI5 blunders”. To address this she developed an “openness strategy” and while still keeping operational information under wraps, MI5 presented a more visible profile and point of contact to the press and public. Her reveal as Director General was part of this transition but overall she feels the service could still achieve greater transparency and as a result gain the public’s trust.
Dame Stella is still obliged to submit all her manuscripts for scrutiny and this is now her only connection to the “Ring of Secrecy”. After being owned almost body and soul by the service she is now on the outside. This adjustment from being at the “centre of things” was both a “relief and grief”, and the process of re-establishing control of the shape and direction of her life was at the time challenging.
Two of her novels have been optioned for TV, asked who she’d like to see in the role of Liz Carlyle she confessed that she watched insufficient television to match faces to names. She was however scathing about the series “Spooks” which she finds overly violent and too neatly episodic.
She has recently agreed to write two more Carlyle thrillers but feels age may be against her. Her mortality was raised again in the context of the West’s war on terror. Rimington isn’t sure she’ll live to see the end of this cycle of terrorism but while she laments the “unjustified” war in Iraq, and the US’s heavy-handed, militaristic response to the terrorist threat, she also believe terrorism in some form will remain a constant and ever-changing danger.
A calm, measured and informative hour delivered by a calm, measured and inspiring woman.