The life of a journalist is not so different to that of a spy – but with one fundamental difference, writes Anthony Tan from the Tour de France Grand Départ in Liège.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

I was seeking an alternative arrangement for my life. I had little idea what journalism was, but I desired the legitimacy to probe and the authority to question. Still caught in my existential crisis, I wanted my questions to have meaning.

When Johnson, an award-winning foreign correspondent for Newsweek, knocked on the doors of the magazine's Paris offices in 1998, aged 25, he was in much the same mindset as I was when I knocked on the doors of Cyclingnews in the spring of 2001, aged 28.

Blithely asking then publisher Gerard Knapp for a job, although unsure of what the job actually entailed, the only thing I really knew was that I wanted to do something other than what I was presently doing; something where I could go home and sleep at night, rather than continue to battle the incessant moral crisis I faced each day in the world of advertising. And I wanted it to be an adventure.

The catalyst for Johnson's change of vocation, however, was a little different. Twelve years earlier his father pulled him aside to tell him he was a spy. "My father had given me licence to lie and deceive," he wrote. For me, working in advertising presented a similarly dubious benefit.

"I wanted sanction to do just the opposite and those Paris offices had what I wanted. There were stories – exposed truths – all over the walls," Johnson observed.

When his interviewer asked what his father did and after some prodding, Johnson reluctantly told him, the interviewer, a fellow journalist, replied: "Journalism isn't so different from spying. You're not so different from your father. Journalism," he said, "is all about gaining people's trust. It's all about gaining their trust because one day you'll betray them, and yourself."

In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted a study to discover which jobs in the civilian world most closely resembled the work of a spy; the role of investigative journalist came closest. Now that I think about it, during the early-to-mid 2000s when doping stories were de rigueur and by consequence I became the go-to guy, there were the odd occasions where some asked if I was a spy, based on the information I sought, or perhaps more accurately, the way I went about it.

But as Johnson's interviewer rightly pointed out, there's one vital difference between the role of spy and journalist. "Spies gather secrets and keep them to themselves and their governments. We gather secrets and tell them to the whole world."

Just as I have done now for just over a decade, I don't imagine this Tour de France to be any different.

And so, over the next three and a half weeks, in the name of proper journalism, I will continue to gather secrets, discover truths, and, if necessary, expose lies. It may not make me popular, but when I entered this profession it was never my intention to be well-liked; it was always my intention to be well-respected.

At the entrance to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, inscribed on the lobby walls is this message from the Apostle John: "Ye shall seek the truth, for the truth shall set you free."

The legitimacy to probe and the authority to question are privileges that should be not be taken frivolously or remain unused. Watch this space.