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John le Carré's Guide to Reuters

From enjoyable recent contributions to The Baron’s pages, I see John le Carré struck a chord with many Reuters people over the years. I suspect he appealed to so many of us partly because his “Circus,” the secret service he described, seemed uncannily like the Reuters we knew - and we saw something of ourselves or our colleagues in Le Carré’s characters.


The Circus was, after all, a London-based information-gathering organisation with people reporting back from around the world. It was staffed by a range of colourful characters but largely run by former English public schoolboys whose ways of communicating - or not communicating - through silence or terse written messages could be hard for outsiders to fathom.


The Circus also experienced great revamps with accompanying buzzwords - reminiscent of Reuters rejigs seen as great leaps forward if you forgot they had already been tried not long ago.


“In your day the Circus ran itself by regions,” Peter Guillam tells George Smiley early in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. “Well today everything operational is under one hat. It’s called London station. Regions are out, lateralism is in.”


Tinker Tailor is, of course, a great espionage novel and an exploration of Britain’s place in the postwar world. But it is also a book about internal intrigue - about bureaucratic battles and personal power struggles, fought in meetings with jargon and obscure verbal codes. I suspect this played a part in making a complex book so popular. Whether you worked for Reuters, the BBC, the NHS or any other organisation, it will have a familiar ring about it.


And then there is Smiley - outwardly unremarkable, not much good at networking or power plays, but fundamentally decent and secretly brilliant. Which Reuters correspondent, feeling themselves the victim of some bigger fight or other, could not identify with him?


“I’m surprised they didn’t throw you out with the rest of us,” Smiley tells Guillam. “You had all the qualifications: good at your work, loyal, discreet.”


This aspect of Le Carré’s work reminds me of another George - George Short - and his advice to Reuters graduate trainees in the mid-1990s. (Just as George Smiley imparted wisdom to fledgling spies at Sarratt, George Short did much the same to cub reporters just off Fleet Street.)


As I remember it, George told us there was something important to bear in mind in our Reuters careers. He wrote the initials OFP on the whiteboard. After we failed to guess what this meant, George said it stood for Office Politics. But what about the “F”, asked the bright new recruits?


George was as good a mentor as Smiley but an earthier character, happy to acquaint us with the rougher side of his trade.


“What do you think it stands for?” he replied. ■