Today it was announced that there is to be a new James Bond film, this time called “Spectre“. Well, fine. I like a James Bond film as much as anyone else, although to be honest I haven’t seen one for quite a few years. I tend to be more of Jason Bourne fan these days – it being easier to suspend disbelief about a service you have never worked for. By coincidence, today I took part in a Radio 4 programme about the potential for a Scottish intelligence service (should independence ever become a reality). One question was about James Bond and whether I thought that his image was a help or a hindrance in real-life espionage.
Colin McColl, a former Chief of SIS, once remarked that James Bond was “the best recruiting sergeant the Service ever had” and it is true that his image does get feet over the threshold when recruitment talks are held at universities – if only because he’s about the only public image the Service has and people are curious. But does that outweigh the seriously misleading elements of the Bond image? There are almost too many to count, but here are three of the most important ones:
- Bond gives the impression that the job is dangerous. And yet no SIS officer has been killed on an operation during the 105 years of the Service’s existence.
- Bond’s role confuses that of officers and agents, which are two completely different things. Officers run agents, agents are people with access. It is the agents that run the risks. Hundreds of agents have lost their lives – but that would never be James Bond. The key skill of an officer is to befriend, build trust and to recruit people. It is not to break into top secret bases. The reason for this is that a well-selected agent can simply walk in – because he or she works there.
- Bond gives the impression that the British services (and possibly intelligence services as a whole) are far more effective than they really are. During my lectures and book promotions I often come across people who claim “we have the best intelligence service in the world!”. But when you ask them what evidence they base that idea on, the answer often comes down to little more than memories of James Bond. They never seem to consider the real-life cases of Philby, Blake, Venlo, SOE, the Falklands, the dodgy dossier, etc. If we had a better idea of just how poor our services are, we might be more able to oversee their perfomance and make them truly effective.
I suppose the truth is, if you really want to get an idea of what the intelligence services are like, you should read the works of David Cornwell (John Le Carre). He worked there, he knows the services inside out and almost all informed observers agree that he tells like it is. I thought his latest, A Delicate Truth, was one of his most accurate ever.
And that is very troubling.