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Forget James Bond? Public Perceptions of UK Intelligence

Despite efforts by the UK intelligence agencies to lift their long-held culture of secrecy through greater public engagement, popular perceptions of their work are still dominated by the fictional spy’s influence.

The latest instalment in the James Bond franchise, No Time to Die, has led to an inevitable stream of opinion. Comment on Daniel Craig’s final outing as the fictional Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) officer has included pieces on Bond’s fashion, lifestyle and – inevitably – whether Bond’s world reflected reality. For one review, 007’s latest outing came ‘closer than ever before to real spying’. Bond had become a ‘real, credible modern man. He has also become a much more believable spy’. But Bond is fantasy, no more real than the angst-ridden world of John le Carré’s Circus of Tinker Tailor fame.

Ian Fleming’s creation is both a blessing and a curse. As former SIS Chief (‘C’) Sir Colin McColl once said, Bond is the ‘best recruiting sergeant in the world’. Admittedly, 007 has made SIS a global brand. Yet others have tried to distance themselves. ‘I’m conflicted about Bond’, then-Chief Alex Younger told journalists at SIS’s Vauxhall Cross headquarters in December 2016. ‘For too long – often because of the fictional stereotypes I have mentioned – people have felt that there is a single quality that defines an MI6 officer, be it an Oxbridge education or a proficiency in hand-to-hand combat’, he acknowledged. ‘This is, of course, patently untrue. There is no standard MI6 officer’.

Nonetheless, Younger reportedly visited the Pinewood set and presented Ralph Fiennes, his fictional counterpart (‘M’), with a green ink-pen used by successive Chiefs. Younger’s successor, Richard Moore, has also shown ambivalence about Bond. ‘#ForgetJamesBond’, he tweeted in January 2021, although he has welcomed Bond’s recent return to the silver screen.

Indeed, Bond’s image – and the hold it has on wider public opinion – is dangerous. Few would deny that Bond’s patriotism reflects the passion that many in the intelligence community have for protecting the UK. And there are truths at the heart of Bond: the UK has a foreign intelligence agency, and there is a ‘Q’ branch.

But the reality ends there. Bond is no more a reflection of SIS than Coronation Street is of Greater Manchester. Neither is Bond representative of UK intelligence generally. SIS once had a reputation for derring-do in the age of the so-called ‘Robber Barons’, emanating from the activities of the wartime Special Operations Executive. But the period of gung-ho special operations quickly died. ‘Intelligence is information and information gathering, not doing things to people’, the late GCHQ official Michael Herman once said. Even today, little has changed. Few moments in Bond reflect the painstaking cultivation of human sources or the collection of intelligence. Analysis also never features, yet the image of Bond dominates popular perception.

Bond is no more a reflection of MI6 than Coronation Street is of Greater Manchester

007’s hold is troubling because the UK’s agencies have less of a ‘licence to kill’ and more of a necessary ‘licence to operate’. As a 2015 report noted, while it was universally accepted that the UK’s agencies had to keep operational details secret, the public needed to ‘support in principle what the agencies do’. The former GCHQ Director and first Security and Intelligence Coordinator Sir David Omand has also written about the need for maintaining public trust and understanding about what the agencies do. Certainly, the UK’s agencies have not been idle. Media engagement, public speeches and an increased online presence have now taken centre-stage, replacing the long-held culture of secrecy – a factor that cultivated reliance on fiction. But whether this has improved public understanding of intelligence, or the characteristics of an ideal intelligence officer, remains to be seen.

Trust but Less Knowledge

Polling by organisations such as YouGov suggests not. Although the results show high levels of trust, levels of understanding remain low. Recently, in its latest polling on the intelligence services, YouGov found that 58% of Britons overall trusted the UK’s agencies, as opposed to just 16% who had ‘not much’ trust and 7% who had no trust at all. Conservative voters were more likely than their Labour counterparts to greatly trust the agencies (25% to just 11%). Given Labour’s historical hang-ups about intelligence, this comes as little surprise. A poll in August 2016 found that 55% of Jeremy Corbyn supporters believed that the UK’s Security Service (MI5) was working to undermine him. The latest polling also revealed that one in five Britons believed they were being spied on. Nonetheless, wider polling on attitudes is limited; surveys on ‘pride’ in the UK’s agencies are almost meaningless due to the granularity of the data.

When it came to identifying the ideal characteristics of an intelligence officer, Britons singled out high intelligence (59%), analytical skills (57%), strong human skills (45%) and knowledge (41%). Bond-like attributes of physical strength, military training, being well-spoken, and good looks were relatively low. Nonetheless, and despite agency efforts to improve diversity, men (53%) were more likely than women (41%) to want to work for the UK’s agencies, with 45% of women polled (as opposed to 30% of men) saying that they would not work for the UK’s agencies.

Women have been consistently less likely to want a career in intelligence: an April 2019 poll revealed that 43% of women (as opposed to 28% of men) said they would not work for the security services. A follow-up poll showed that while 33% of men and women would work for MI5, just 24% of women (as opposed to 30% of men) wanted to work for SIS. The danger, as ‘Mark’, the head of SIS’s recruitment, told the Evening Standard in 2012, is that false perceptions of what SIS does – and who does intelligence – turn up ‘quite a lot of thrill-seekers and fantasists and we're really not interested in them’.

Just as troubling in the latest YouGov survey was who Britons thought the agencies should be spying on. 85% of those polled said Russia and China should be top priorities. Yet, surprisingly, 48% said that the US – the UK’s closest intelligence ally and an integral member of the ‘Five Eyes’ SIGINT alliance – should be watched. Conservative voters (48%) were more likely to identify EU countries as a target, while just over a quarter suggested NATO allies should also be watched.

Polling suggests a sizable number of UK citizens believe the intelligence agencies have the ability to kill with no questions asked

Polling on intelligence issues admittedly reveals some interesting results, but a sizable number of respondents said they simply did not know – a pattern reflected across the questions being asked. A third of respondents were unsure whether they were being spied on by the UK’s agencies. Asked if the UK should spy on other countries, 29% of Britons said they simply did not know.

Fiction and Facts

Earlier polling suggests that fictional depictions matter. Although Bond’s ‘licence to kill’ is myth, 27% of respondents to an autumn 2013 YouGov survey believed that UK intelligence agencies killed people in foreign countries, while 20% believed that they could kill in the UK. While a larger number (41% and 53%, respectively) believed these to be false, the polling suggested a sizable number of UK citizens believed the agencies had the ability to kill with no questions asked. An earlier September 2013 poll revealed that a quarter of Britons believed that SIS was in some way involved in the death of Princess Diana. 16% thought that UK special forces were involved. 38% believed Diana’s death was not an accident (as opposed to 41% who said it was), even though such conspiracies are plainly untrue.

Public understanding is even more complicated on issues of privacy, surveillance and technology. Days after The Guardian and other newspapers reported on the Snowden leaks in 2013, a poll for The Sunday Times showed that 56% of respondents believed that Edward Snowden was right to divulge secrets, even if – as it was argued at the time – the leaks undermined US and UK security. Only 27% said Snowden was wrong. A poll in November 2013 found that 48% of respondents still sided with the whistle-blower.

Asked whether the powers available to the UK’s intelligence agencies were justified, Britons gave a contradictory response. Polling in October 2013 showed that just 19% believed that the powers given to the UK’s agencies were excessive. The largest group, 42%, believed the powers were about right, while 22% believed intelligence agencies needed more. A majority (43%) believed Snowden’s leaks damaged security, whereas 35% agreed that the Snowden revelations were useful, serving to hold the intelligence agencies to account.

So, what does this tell us? We knew that fictional depictions of spies have often filled the vacuum of information on the UK’s intelligence agencies. Nonetheless, despite increasing public engagement, attitudes on important issues continue to be shaped by Bond-like mythology. Additionally, the polling suggests that a sizable number of those polled have little, if any, opinion on security- and intelligence- related issues, while earlier responses on issues regarding surveillance and privacy show contradictory positions. Naturally, as others have pointed out, Bond has been useful in developing SIS as one of the world’s most recognised intelligence agencies. Yet public perceptions of ‘spies’, as polling shows, tell us very little about the real world of UK intelligence. Polling of public opinion tells us that the UK’s agencies have a long way to go if they are to educate Britons on what they do and who does intelligence.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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