The world of high-octane espionage exploded back onto our screens on 16 October 2007 as Spooks returned for its sixth series. Pulsating with action and knife-edge tension, equal parts glamour and grit make the series a sexy cut above the rest. As usual, the script is ice-cold, slick in the interchange, stripped down to the core. Moral boundaries are blurred: the bottom line is to get the job done. Heroes die or defect. This is shock reality and there are no happy endings, only awkward compromises. The world has changed, it seems, and we have all lost our innocence.
It was the attack on the World Trade Centre that heralded the dawn of the new world scenario, while the first series of Spooks was being written. Countering terrorism, the primary purpose of elite MI-5 spy team ‘D Section’, has sparked the imagination of viewers across the globe. Drawing as many as nine million viewers since the first series in 2002, the show has also been an unprecedented hit in the States under the less imaginative title MI-5. The show even has a following in Iran, somewhat ironically given the main storyline of the current series (season six).
Terrorism is an asymmetric warfare, the real battle for control of the planet. Armies and missiles are next to useless against a faceless enemy; it takes a ghost to fight a ghost. So the D Section, working on the Grid (as the officers refer to MI5), live an ethereal existence, dropping in and out of the ‘real world’. Somehow less than human, somehow more than human, fighting on the front line of Western civilisation and fighting for us. We can sleep easier in the knowledge that we’re in safe hands. Or can we?
In choosing to portray the work of a team rather than a lone operative, Spooks takes on a souped-up soap opera dynamic in which the viewer forms attachments to the characters and rides with them through the drama. Looking into the secrets of anyone’s life is fascinating; doubly so, then, when we look into a spook’s messy existence. We ask ourselves the question: ‘How do they sleep at night?’ On camera 24/7, we are drawn into their worlds as they inevitably fall apart. We see what spying destroys in the spy as their earthly existence becomes ever more ghostly. One example of this is the spook’s duty to be a professional liar. Truth is a luxury item that the spy can’t afford to trade in, despite the driving need to discover the truth about others. Indeed, a government secret is worth more than the life of one of its officers, as we have seen on more than one occasion. The trouble is, the lies get found out and contaminate all aspects of life and relationships. Small wonder, then, that any sexual liaisons between spooks and those ‘off the Grid’ are destructive and short-lived.
The lack of real relationship with the outside world has the effect of magnifying the strength of the small bubble of truth and intimacy that is D Section. The brutality of the honesty within the team leaves little room for sentiment. Hearing that your partner will leave you for dead if necessary to achieve the mission, and retorting that you’d do the same for them is Spooks’ answer to pillow talk. Morality and heroism take a back seat to ‘national interest’ – the phrase that trumps all nobler intentions.
The faceless nature of the spook is symbolic. In Ian Fleming’s work, the intelligence personnel have codenames such as ‘M’ or ‘Q’, referring back to the practice of MI6 heads referring to themselves as ‘C’. Becoming a spook is about surrendering one’s sense of identity in order to fit into any context. Identities, histories, emotional baggage – these are all problematic for the spy who needs no such ties. So who would make that sacrifice – one’s whole life, public and private, for a modest wage and good chance of winding up dead before time?
I find myself gripped by some kind of narcissistic incredulity. I don’t see myself as a particularly selfish person; nevertheless the scale of the commitment that officers make when they join the service is breathtaking. Whereas some will be motivated for the wrong reasons, I find myself in some awe of those prepared to make such a sacrifice of their potential earnings, relationships and recognition.
The greater good is worthy of a few sacrificed lives and, in the words of the old utilitarian mantra, ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one.’ The idea of surrendering yourself for the greater good is alien to society at large. Yet ironically it lies at the heart of Christianity, reflecting Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross. The similarities between Jesus’ death and the death of a spook end there. Jesus’ life of teaching and healing were very much in the public sphere. As the apostle Paul pointed out at his own trial regarding the life of Jesus, ‘it was not done in a corner’ (Acts 26:26, NIV). Jesus’ methods were transparent and his morality unimpeachable, even when the malevolent religious leaders of the day did their utmost to find a charge against him.
So are spooks the new saviours? Do we entrust ourselves now to ruthless decision makers, operating under the cloak of official secrecy? Do we endorse them to achieve their goal, our security, at any cost and by any means? If so, is this not an erosion of the very principle of a democratic state – the bulwark of the freedom that we are seeking to protect?
The contradiction is plain enough. To protect our society against false ideologies and violence we will employ dissimulation and ‘necessary force’. We’ll break every law of the land and invade every person’s privacy in order to preserve the peace. We’ll fight for women’s right to sexual liberty by using female agents as state harlots to elicit information. We’ll employ torture to keep the nation safe – the same nation that signed up to the Geneva convention.
The politicization of intelligence material has already caused some to despair over the future of our democracy. Spooks executive producer Simon Crawford Collins put it this way:
I think that we’re all wondering to what extent democratic government as we’ve known it can continue to function in the face of these huge problems – terrorism, fuel crises, immigration, the environmental issues. Is the nice, cosy method of government that’s worked so well over the last hundred years – is that going to continue?
In 2003, the Joint Intelligence Committee produced what came to be known as the ‘dodgy dossier’, containing misleading reports that erased many of the ‘ifs and buts’ of an earlier draft to deliver a stronger case for war. In the same week, as MPs defended the content of the report in the commons, two million protesters took to the streets of London. It still wasn’t enough to stop the war machine. In the furore that surrounded the invasion and the subsequent non-discovery of WMD, the end of ‘removing Saddam’ was frequently used to justify the means of massaging the intelligence to instigate the war. With hindsight, the decision to go in was utilitarianism at its worst: arrogant, short-sighted, based on wishful thinking and deeply patronising to the electorate.
Mirroring reality, it seems that the stakes are getting higher and higher with each new series of Spooks. Decisions are handed down by the political masters that are dubious to say the least. In the opening episode of the current series, a train in Iran is deliberately bombed in order to head off a supposedly greater threat. Hundreds die – unnecessarily as it turns out. In fact, the bomb is only the beginning of the death toll as a plague is unleashed in its wake. The plotline seems to underscore the half-baked utilitarianism of 2003. It’s getting harder to see the spooks as the good guys anymore.
In my view, the means by which we are seen to operate matters a great deal, not for the sake of some abstract morality, but because trust is essential for all diplomacy. The incident of the ‘dodgy dossier’ not only damages the electorate’s faith in democracy, it acts as a recruiting sergeant for the next generation of terrorists. Government must do the right thing and be seen to do the right thing, and one can and must apply this to the underworld of espionage.
Whether Spooks is an accurate reflection of how Machiavellian MI5 is prepared to get is a moot point. In their defence, the service have been quick to play down associations:
The BBC’s spooks is a slickly produced and entertaining drama, but ... it glamorises the world of intelligence. The nature of our work can certainly be stimulating and rewarding ... but the programme does not portray the routine, but vitally important, aspects of our operations which would not make such exciting viewing. Particularly unrealistic is the way in which characters ... act outside the law in pursuit of their investigations.
Well, they would say that wouldn’t they? Even if MI5 doesn’t behave as a law unto itself, the show doesn’t do anything to demonstrate the contrary. Surely part of the appeal of Spooks is that it dives below the respectable cover of Westminster PR into the murky depths of international, geopolitical manipulation – into the way the world ‘really is’. However, once Pandora’s box is open and we suggest that at the heart of government is a seedy, immoral chaos, the illusion of a free and fair society disappears with it.
If we believe that Spooks is true in any way, there’s nothing at all glamorous or heroic about it – all we have is confirmation that we have reached the base of cynicism – it’s all about survival. We have become ruthless masters of the world who will stop at nothing to maintain our supremacy. A scary thought indeed. I don’t want to delegate my nation’s security to a set of faceless agents, operating at the whim of government, behind smokescreens of secrecy. I don’t want to trust my freedoms to ghosts acting outside of the law. I want integrity, transparency and leadership – the very things that politicians promise so often and yet repeatedly fail to deliver. I still find the greatest example of this in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was the opposite of ghostly, he was made out of flesh and blood. What he did was not hidden ‘in a corner’, and it exposed the hypocrisy of the ruling powers. He spurned violence, lies, abuse, manipulation and expedient solutions. As a result he suffered all of the above and worse. Jesus’ life and death speak through centuries of history, through the voices of all that follow in his path of suffering for a greater good. Jesus’ invitation is to leave the decaying life of cynicism, so rife in our culture, and to believe that one person given over to good can and must prevail.
Give the BBC its credit, Spooks is a deserved success. Riding the zeitgeist, with a slickly produced and compelling drama, few could argue that the programme is one of the best things to hit the box in recent years. However, looking into the cultural statements that the series makes, I have come to some uncomfortable conclusions. Although I enjoy Spooks as fiction, there is nothing here that resonates with the story of my life. My story is tied to that of Jesus and his followers and I choose to live in the light of that rather than hang around in the shadows.
Programme title: Spooks (MI-5 in USA)
Keywords: Terrorism, security, intelligence, spy, utilitarianism, lies, politics, saviour, sacrifice
Writer: David Wolstencroft, Ben Richards, Neil Cross and others
Devised by: David Wolstencroft
Director: Omar Mahda, Julian Simpson and others
Starring: Rupert Penry-Jones, Hermione Norris, Peter Firth, Raza Jaffrey, Miranda Raison, Hugh Simon
Production company: BBC, Kudos
Broadcaster: BBC One
First broadcast: Series 1: 13 May 2002 (UK); 22 July 2003 (USA) / Series 6: 16 October 2007 (UK)
DVD Distributor: Contender Entertainment (UK); BBC Warner (USA)
DVD classification: 15
© 2007 Roland Sokolowski