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20th October 2006 Lorna Shaddick

From Exeter With Love: Dame Stella leaves Exonians stirred but not shaken

On Wednesday 18th October, Exeter College was visited by the former Director General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, whose status as the service’s first female Director General earned her, upon appointment, such tabloid headlines as ‘Housewife Super Spy’. Dame Stella certainly put paid to any such perceptions among the audience of undergraduate and graduate students present, speaking about both the demands of her position and how this could affect the life of a single mother, as well as the male-dominated culture of the service (‘men in cardigans with leather elbow patches, smoking pipes’!) when she first entered it at the end of the 1960s.

After an informative opening talk, outlining the structure of the intelligence services, their relationship with the government and how their officers are recruited, Dame Stella went on to take questions ranging from her opinion on the controversial 1987 ‘Spycatcher’ book by Peter Wright (she made it clear that this was, in the main, full of factual error, in particular concerning the intelligence services’ relationship with the Wilson government) to the inaccuracy of the popular BBC series ‘Spooks’! There were also questions about her opinion on how far intelligence gathering can encroach upon civil liberties, the changing nature of anti-terror work and the relationship between the police and MI5. Rector Frances Cairncross described the talk as a ‘fascinating, if slightly chilling’ insight into the new challenges facing our intelligence services, and it certainly gave all Exonians present a glimpse into an important and much misunderstood profession.

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