One of the growing markets in spy fiction is pop culture aimed at teenagers or ‘young adults’. The CHERUB series by Robert Muchamore depicts a junior wing of MI6, with the first novel in the series – The Recruit – depicting the recruitment, training and first mission of our protagonist, James Adams. This week I examine this novel for its cultural and propagandistic value, and the question of whether it is recruitment propaganda. I also discuss other, more obvious examples of MI5 recruitment propaganda aimed at young people.
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I read this book after Pearse gave me a copy while we were in Dublin – he acquired it some time ago and had been meaning to post it to me, and in fact when he gave it to me I handed it back to him because he had a bag and I didn’t have a free pocket. So I almost left this with him in Dublin, it has been quite a struggle to actually get this book free and clear in my own hands.
So I breezed through it in a couple of sittings – it’s extremely easy to read, being written for adolescents. It tells the story of James and his half-sister Lauren, two youngsters who are recruited by CHERUB, a specialist unit of MI6 for kids and adolescents. This supposedly goes back to WW2, when the French resistance used young people as spies, because they were less likely to be detected.
Herein lies the first moral problem of the book – one of the preconditions for selection for this unit is that you have no family ties. It tries to make this seem like a good thing – James’s mother dies early on in the book, his step-father and Lauren’s father is a drunken drug dealing bully. They don’t have much money or many prospects, so joining the youth wing of MI6 is very attractive to them. Thus, the book neatly sidesteps the notion that this is a cynical government department exploiting orphans.
There’s lots of material benefits to joining the unit – the training is depicted as being very harsh – think Full Metal Jacket but with 12 year olds – but the HQ where they live has all the mod cons, video games, you name it. In particular, James cannot swim so they teach him how to in brutal fashion – throwing him in the pool and forcing him, time after time, to swim for 50 metres. He also gets beaten up, especially by two Asian stereotypes (one a boy, one a girl) during martial arts training.
One night, he and one of the various girls in the novel are punished for fighting. They are left outside in the cold, all night, with only their underwear and no food or heating or shelter. They improvise and survive, and it helps bond the two characters after their fight, but it is essentially child abuse.
This is what The Recruit does time after time – it brushes off serious immorality on the part of this CHERUB unit through romantic diversion and adventurism. It’s fine that for the final part of their 100 days of basic training to qualify as agents that they are dropped into hugely dangerous territory in the jungles of Indonesia. After all, they had fun, no one died, and they all qualified and became agents. The fact that James and his training partner Kerry get blown up at one point, in a highly unrealistic scenario that should have killed them, is swept away with another stroke of fast-paced narrative.
This bothers me, for several reasons. The first is that British intelligence do recruit kids – possibly not 8 year olds, but certainly young teenagers. I don’t think this is right, I don’t think that people of that age have the maturity to make those sorts of decisions. I also think that whatever the real security threats there are in the world, none of them necessitate sending a 13-year-old into danger to try to get information.
So this book does normalise the idea, for anyone aside from the intended target audience. For them, it glamourises the life of a British spy in much the same way as the Kingsman and James Bond films. Indeed, just as Bond and Eggsy are irresistible to women, James in the CHERUB novels finds that every girl he meets seems to fall in love with him. Just in this first book there is Amy, the older girl who teaches him to swim, there is Kerry, the martial arts expert who he partners with through basic training, and there is Joanna, a girl he meets during his first mission who has no idea he’s a spy. There may be another I’m forgetting, it’s somewhat repetitive in this element and obviously aimed at teenage boys who fancy most of the girls they meet.
As a literary device I have no problem with this, except that I found it boring and predictable, but it is quite sexist. It does encourage the boys reading it to think that all girls fancy them, all the time. Or that they would, if they were a spy. Not the best message to be giving to teenage boys, who frankly do not need any encouragement when it comes to this sort of thing.
How to Recruit Young Spies
There are a number of reservations I have about this book, this series of books and other products like it. There were two spin-off versions of Spooks – Spooks Code 9 which was aimed at older teenagers and predicted the nuclear bombing of the Olympics that never happened, and MI-High, which was aimed at younger teenagers. I’ll also point out that the first TV show to be allowed to film inside MI5 headquarters was Blue Peter, the long-running kids programme. There was even a competition – in the style of Spy and Spies, the reality shows I reviewed a few episodes back – where a bunch of kids were put through a spy school and the winners got to visit the MI5 building.
This is truly bizarre – normally, the first time a government department opens itself up in a new way, it is done in a mature, adult fashion. The first major military-supported film Wings, the first major FBI-sponsored TV series The F.B.I., the first movie to film at CIA headquarters, the first TV series to have full co-operation from the British Ministry of Defence – all adult culture. So for MI5, one of the most secretive of all government departments, to open themselves up in this way, on a children’s TV programme, is unusual.
Of course, this is a kind of recruitment propaganda, and in some ways the culmination of a post-9/11 trend in entertainment aimed at really young people. There are a number of series of novels aimed at under-18s, including one by Anthony Horowitz, who is one of the authors who have written books for the James Bond continuation series. Charlie Higson has written the Young Bond series of books – there’s a lot of this here in the UK. I don’t know if the same is true elsewhere.
Inasmuch as these works are sponsored or supported in any way by British intelligence, they serve as long-term propaganda not just for recruitment, but also for the public image of the secret services. Most spy fiction is quite raw and violent, and isn’t suitable for under-15s, either the books or the films. While films like Spy Kids surely help in this effort, books are read by the sorts of kids who are smart enough to become spies, or civil servants, journalists, academics and so on. Influencing their opinions at a young age has a force-multiplying effect later on as they are more likely to become opinion-formers in later life. Propaganda squared.
The (Im)morality of The Recruit
Getting back to the book, I have no idea if Robert Muchamore got any witting or unwitting help in writing or promoting this book. He has spent much of his life working for a private detective agency so he’s probably bumped into a few spooks in his time, but there is a Chase Brandon-style immorality to the book that makes me wonder. Brandon, of course, was one of the writers behind the film of the same name that came out a year or so before this book.
Our protagonist, James, succeeds in basic training, passes not with flying colours but enough to qualify as an agent. He is sent into the field on his first mission, posing as Amy’s younger brother to infiltrate a hippy commune in rural Wales. The commune had been there for decades, and had a history of struggles with the police, and in the meantime someone built a luxury hotel and conference centre nearby. Many of the hippy commune’s citizens work at the hotel, which is due to host a big meeting of major government officials and oil executives. It is suspected that a radical environmental group are going to attack the meeting somehow, so they send in the kids who will be less suspected than adult agents.
That this book was being written while Mark Stone/Mark Kennedy was infiltrating eco-anarchists for no obvious reasons is probably not a coincidence. Particularly since the same storyline appears in an episode of Spooks around this time.
So James and Amy go in, posing as the niece and nephew of a long-time resident of the commune who is a part-time police informant. They find out that there is a terrorist cell amongst the hippies who are planning an anthrax attack on the meeting. It emerges that they had been secretly pumping a milder strain of anthrax into the hotel for weeks, to inoculate the staff against the real stuff when they staged their attack. The cell is broken up, the entire commune is dismantled by the police and it’s a job very well done.
However, James is not so sure. He understands that most of the hippies are well-meaning environmentalists, and that the oil companies are evil bastards. He has conversations with some of the cell members who tell him stories of environmental destruction and human rights brutalities committed by oil companies. He also recognises that the police are mostly thugs, who enjoyed smashing up the commune a little too much.
He wonders if he has actually helped the bad guys destroy the good guys, in the name of preventing some other bad guys from killing some other bad guys. This is pretty much how it is written in the book, it’s quite blunt. He goes to see his supervisor, who agrees with him that the oil companies are bastards but explains that oil is vital to keeping the world running. He says he agrees that they need to be stopped, but that killing people isn’t the way to do it.
The supervisor goes on to throw out the usual ‘what if the anthrax had got into the hands of another terrorist group who used it on civilians?’ canard. This is a tacit admission that oil company executives do deserve to be murdered, which is somewhat strange, but the explicit message is that there are bad terrorists and worse terrorists so they take out the bad terrorists to stop the worse terrorists doing anything.
He even says that it’s better to have a few people lose their homes than thousands of people killed. This is probably true, at least in most instances, but it isn’t what was at stake in the mission. He’s taking advantage of James’ naivety, and the naivety of the audience reading this book, to sell him a lie. And it’s the same lie we hear in countless films, TV shows, news items, interviews and so on. The reality is that the consequences of a CBRN terrorist attack – correctly deployed – would be enormous. But the likelihood of such an attack is extremely small. All attempts so far have been laughable failures, or failed to produce mass casualties.
I’m not denying that I quite enjoyed this silly kids book, it is well-written and barrels along at a good speed but the underlying morality is so deceitful that it consistently bothered me. At a couple of points in the story and in the appendix, which is a brief history of the CHERUB organisation, they refer to an ethics committee. This is a group of three people who have to decide whether an operation involving a young spy is ethical or not, basically they have to give the go-ahead or the op doesn’t happen. Their criteria are never explained.
It’s also made clear that a qualified agent can refuse a mission, but that they probably won’t get picked for many missions in the future if they do so. My problem with this is that the kids don’t know what they are letting themselves in for – either when they first join the organisation or when they go out on a mission. How they can they refuse a mission that is unethical if they don’t know what it will require them to do? So the obvious conclusion is to accept doing anything deemed necessary for the mission, and to never refuse to take part in an operation on moral grounds.
If the book had no ethical consideration whatsoever then I’d chalk that down to simply ignoring those questions for the sake of the narrative. But to build in a deceitful pretence at morality seems insidious to me, and smacks of a covert agenda. That’s the element of the book that really makes me wonder: what is the true origin and purpose of this series of novels?
Spooks – ‘Clean Skin’
Which brings me to an episode of Spooks that aired in July 2003 – episode 7 of season 2, titled ‘Clean Skin’. In this story the head of the MI5 section, Harry Pierce, has his house broken into and a briefcase containing classified documents is stolen. They trace the burglary to a young criminal gang which includes a 14 year old boy – Jason James Franks, known as JJ.
The documents are about a French scientist who has stolen the software for an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) weapon, and intends to sell it to the Chinese government with the help of a London financier. MI5 are tasked with stealing the software for themselves, from inside the ultra-secure headquarters of the financier’s company. One of the spies calls this ‘if not illegal then very, very naughty’.
It turns out that JJ is a boy genius, capable of hacking into security systems at will. He is unofficially recruited by MI5 as a ‘clean skin’ – a deniable agent. It’s curious that they use this phrase because in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings there were a lot of government officials providing off-the-record briefings that the four alleged bombers were ‘clean skins’. However, they were using this to mean terrorists who were not previously known to the security services, rather than off-the-book agents.
JJ is only 14, but he is extremely intelligent and has a photographic memory – what he and his other gang members refer to as ‘the magic’. His older brother, who is the bully-boy head of the gang, even calls it ‘that Uri Gellar shit’. So we have a very similar setup to the CHERUB novels – the central character is a boy called James, with genius-level skills (in the book James is a human calculator), both are from rough backgrounds without much to look forward to, both have been in trouble with the police.
Again, this is duel propaganda – both an attempt to help recruitment of youngsters from those sorts of backgrounds with those sorts of skills, and a way of promoting the idea of British intelligence offering an opportunity to an inner-city kid with poor prospects in life. The former is aimed at the primary audience, the youngsters themselves, the latter is aimed at everyone else.
Despite this rather obvious ploy, the Spooks episode does contain a scene where they argue about the ethics of recruiting someone so young. The logic is eerily similar to the discussions in the novel The Recruit.
Again, it’s a ‘the ends justify the means’ argument and a ‘if the enemy stoops low then so must we’ appeal. The potential dangers mean that all options are on the table, including blackmailing a 14 year old into a highly risky operation to steal the software for a hi-tech weapon.
As I say, there has been a noticeable growth in this sub-genre of spy fiction since the turn of the century. There are industrial reasons for this – the Harry Potter books showed how successful a series aimed at children and young teens could be. Children’s books often outsell their adult equivalents, it is perhaps the best market for an aspiring author to try to break into. Also, if you can get them hooked on something when they’re 10, or even younger, then you can keep selling it to them for years, and hopefully their younger siblings too. The possibility of TV or movie spin-offs and adaptations is fairly high.
Nonetheless I do think that one of the factors in this expansion of young spy fiction is MI5 and MI6 trying to aid recruitment and promote and normalise the idea of minors working for the secret state. I cannot point you to any strategic document saying this, but there have been news stories, for example in The Telegraph early last year a story titled ‘The new ‘Jane Bond’: Social-media savvy teenage girls targeted for recruitment by security services’.
Thus, we know this is going on, we know this is a target market not just for authors and TV producers, but also for the real-life intelligence agencies. It is highly plausible that some of these books and TV series were covertly sponsored and possibly even vetted by British intelligence, in much the same way as it seems the TV series Spy and Spies were. The only take-away from this that I can offer you is that if you are a parent and your kid reads or watches this stuff, then engage them in the moral discussion beyond the strict limitations imposed by the pop culture overlords. Because that’s what really matters – by all means explain to them that a mobile phone that shoots bullet is a way for a TV show to sell the idea of lethal gadgets being cool. It’s important for people to be able to identify how they’re being manipulated. But it’s more important that they have a moral core to help guide them through every aspect of their life.