Monday, 11 November 2013

James Bond at the Intelligence and Security Committee

Intelligence chiefs at the ISC ('C' in the centre). Photo: The Guardian
When UK’s spy chiefs appeared before the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee last week, it was inevitable that James Bond would be referenced in the extensive media coverage of the event. James Bond is a standard cultural touchstone for any espionage-related story, but allusions to Bond were especially relevant on this occasion, as Judy Dench’s M faces the same committee in Skyfall (2012). In the film, the committee was chaired by Gareth Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes. His role in reality was taken by Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP.

A trawl through the coverage in British media brought up various James Bond references. The headline for a comment piece by Julian Huppert in The Guardian read, “Spy chiefs can give evidence without the sky falling in – so let's reform oversight,” an obvious reference to Skyfall. An editorial in same paper contrasted popular perceptions of spy work with reality by alluding to Bond villains, white cats, and steel-rimmed bowler hats. In a parliamentary sketch in The Daily Mail, Quentin Letts wrote of “a petite Miss Moneypenny, taking notes” behind Sir John Sawers, chief ('C') of MI6. A piece by Alex Stevenson in the online edition of Metro had the headline, “Spy chiefs grilled: James Bond’s bosses hit back hard,” and suggested that C's performance at the committee hearing was not as exciting as the portrayal we're used to in the Bond films. In the print edition of Metro, a cartoon by Robert Thompson showed a Blofeld-like character (of Donald Pleasence type) in a chair stroking a white cat. He says to an image of Bond on a TV screen, “Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you.” “Yes, sorry there's a two minute time delay,” Bond replies, referring to the small transmission delay in the broadcast of the proceedings.

On BBC Radio 4, Eddie Mair, presenter of the PM programme began his broadcast with the words, “On Her Majesty's Not So Secret Service,” and the BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner introduced his report by saying, “It wasn't Skyfall.” Even before the committee met, the BBC was reaching for references to Skyfall in its reporting on the upcoming event. On Radio 4's Today programme, a segment by correspondent Gordon Corera used clips of M's scenes in front of the committee.

As for the appearance of the spy chiefs themselves, fact mirrored fiction as some of what the committee heard was not too dissimilar from what M tells the committee in Skyfall. In his opening remarks, Sir John Sawers said, “It is not like it was in the Cold War. There are not states out there, trying to destroy our Government and our way of life, but there are a very wide range of diverse threats that we face.” This could have been one of M’s lines. She tells the committee, “I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They're not nations, they're individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque. It's in the shadows.”

I was also reminded of M’s speech when Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, told the committee, “The task that we are all paid to do is to keep the country safe. That is challenging and difficult work to do; and where the techniques we have are compromised, that makes our work even harder.” This echoes the appeal about operational matters that M makes: “So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves, how safe do you feel?”

James Bond has long been something of a recruiting sergeant for the intelligence services (at least unofficially), but it was still remarkable to hear Sir John Sawers mention him: “I think the idea of sending an agent off into the field like James Bond and then he comes back two months later and reports... That does not work that way. Our people in the field will have constant communication with us through our stations or direct to head office. And they can communicate very rapidly.”

Ironically, far from being unrealistic, MI6 as portrayed in recent James Bond films has increasingly been working in a manner that Sir John Sawers would recognise. James Bond, particularly in the Daniel Craig era, is less a lone wolf sent out by M and relying on his wits and judgement (and some gadgets) to complete the mission, and is more part of a team which provides backup and feeds information and resources to Bond while in the field. M has also played a more active role, staying in regular contact with Bond and even going out into the field.

As I suggested in an earlier post, this in part reflects the fact that communication is much easier today than it was in the early days of the Bond films. As technology has evolved, the Bond films have naturally kept pace with it; Bond without a mobile phone is now unthinkable, and there is now no reason for Bond to stay incommunicado (except perhaps when held prisoner or in a situation where to attempting to communicate would be dangerous). A more active M also reflects the reality of accountability and oversight that Government (and society) demands of our intelligence services. The Bond films have moved, again probably without too much deliberation, with this trend. Besides, given his experience on the Intelligence and Security Committee, I expect the new M, Gareth Mallory, will be no different to his predecessor and will continue to direct, or be regularly updated on, Bond's next mission.

Returning to the media references to Bond, memes that emerged in the Sean Connery era – the Blofeld of You Only Live Twice, the white cat, Oddjob's hat – continue to endure. It is no surprise, too, that given its huge success, Skyfall has also provided elements that, a year after the film's release, have retained their cultural currency. M's appearance at the Intelligence and Security Committee is one element that is likely to be as enduring in cultural space.

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