Lifting the lid on MI5

Spooks - BBC1, Mondays, 9pm

Long before even a single frame of this mind-bendingly absurd series was broadcast, it was obvious that it was going to be crap. After three episodes, our worst expectations have been exceeded. All the warning signs were there. The stentorian trailers on the Beeb itself, solemnly declaring that Spooks would take the lid off the workings of MI5. Some chance. The last person to try and do that was David Shayler. His case comes up at the Old Bailey in a few months time. Then there were the billboards that mushroomed all over London. And of course there were those PR agency puff articles that are an answer to any broadsheet feature editor's dream: a few paragraphs of overblown prose, a big picture, and there's another page filled. Staring at us from the newspapers and the front cover of Radio Times, our gallant trio of spies from the counter-terrorism section have that deeply serious, concentrated look that seems to herald the imminent end of a painful period of chronic constipation. The real reason for their discomfort, however, is that unlike us they have read the script. In fairness to the writer, Simon Mirren, the challenge facing him was formidable. Given that, contrary to popular preconception, intelligence work is essentially a bureaucratic task involving the analysis and collation of an endless stream of information on paper, its dramatic potentialities are rather limited. Who would want to watch a film about Audrey and Margaret sitting in a pokey office in Thames House clucking over a pile of mail and telephone intercepts? It took a literary talent of the first order, in the shape of John le Carré (David Cornwell), to make real dramatic art out of the world of espionage - and he had the advantage of having worked as an intelligence officer in both the security service (MI5) and the secret intelligence service (MI6). Cornwell's depiction of the labyrinthine hall of mirrors that comprised intelligence and counter-intelligence in the Soviet era will never be surpassed because it was rooted in the contemporary political reality of the cold war and in a question that obsessed his generation: what could possibly motivate men of high intelligence and education from a privileged background in the bourgeoisie to become communists and betray their country by serving Stalin's Russia? By the 1970s, many of those who had been Oxbridge undergraduate contemporaries - not to say good friends - of Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, Cairncross et al were effectively running the country, and a whole section of MI5 was working flat out investigating them. As we now know, MI5 was itself permeated by an atmosphere of intense suspicion verging on paranoia, in which the likes of former director general Sir Roger Hollis, along with other senior officers, were investigated and ultimately interrogated as possible Soviet 'moles'. Cornwell's greatest strength was that of conveying all the personal and political tensions, the complexities and profound ambiguities of this period in such works as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). If I praise Cornwell, it is certainly not on account of his politics, which are decidedly anti-communist - the denouement of Tinker, Tailor, for example is a disappointingly stock piece of anti-Soviet denigration. Can Bill Haydon really have been just a narcissistic, inverted snob with a loathing for Americans? Confronted by the bipolar ideological realities of the cold war, Haydon found himself fighting on what he saw as the wrong side. He had to make a choice and he did so. He chose the USSR, warts and all, rather than US imperialism. Third campism was not a realistic option. Not when you are in the secret service. For all its political faults, here was a new genre of spy fiction that actually grappled (even if, in the end, one-sidedly) with a complex political reality. The character of George Smiley - old, portly, bespectacled, heavily burdened by the anxiety and self-doubt arising from personal and professional betrayal - is a masterpiece: the very antithesis of anything we find in Spooks. That is the point. What this programme lacks, among many other things, is any rootedness in real politics, let alone the reality of intelligence-gathering. To begin with, the BBC claimed that the series had been devised with the help of "advisers" from the security service. On this basis, its supposed 'authenticity' rested. The so-called "advisers" turned out to be one Nick Day (a former member of the Special Boat Squadron - the Royal Navy's equivalent of the SAS). Depending on what reports you believe, Mr Day served between six months and two years in the security service. Not a veteran then. Exactly why he and the security service parted company is a matter for speculation. But he seems to be making a reasonable living by posing for press photographs and giving anodyne interviews, when not engaged in his current full-time employment as a founder member of Diligence, a company involved in "industrial intelligence-gathering" and "risk assessment", a rather more lucrative assignment than taking home a civil servant's pay. Was it perhaps on the strength of Day's 'expert' advice that MI5 officers apparently have powers of arrest? That they carry out murders? As regards the former, the answer is definitely no, and Mr Day, however short his service, cannot but know it. Although in many respects the security service fills the objective function of a secret police, when the time comes to nick somebody, that job has to be done by the genuine article: ie, the special branch, whose main job is to extract a confession that can be used in court, thus avoiding the necessity of compromising the demands of 'source protection', especially where the source is a human agent. The legal admissibility of mail or telephone intercepts remains a disputed area, so the necessity of getting a 'cough' from the suspect remains paramount. As regards the latter, from everything one hears, even the most footling operations such as routine mail and telephone taps have to vetted by the deputy director general of MI5 and then receive the approval of the permanent secretary at the home office. Construct a reasonably plausible case and you're in. But even when it comes to bread and butter 'tech ops', like bugging someone's house or car, such cases have to be given the nod by the service's legal adviser, and it is hard to imagine him or her sanctioning anything remotely 'criminal', let alone head jobs, even when the target is a particularly vile specimen of the racist ultra-right, as was the case in episode two of Spooks. Depending on your point of view, that is either the strength or the weakness of the bureaucratic intelligence establishment. It has rules and it sticks by them. Of course, one can easily work out that the possibility of exploiting grey areas is considerable. Tapping the telephones of MPs is not on. Sir Humphrey would never put his signature to such a warrant. But if you can make a case against a few of the MP's regular contacts and get a warrant, the effect is much the same. Similarly, in the bad old days of the cold war, from what we hear, almost anyone could fit into the 'recording category' of a communist sympathiser: Jack Straw, Patricia Hewitt, Harriet Harman and more besides - a good number of the impeccably rightwing and patriotic cabinet ministers who now sit round Tony Blair's table each Thursday morning have bulky files tucked away somewhere in Thames House. Warrants, red tape, bureaucracy - here is where Spooks, given its parameters, chooses to part company with reality and in the process become a 21st century equivalent of The Avengers, The Protectors or Jason King. Apologies to younger readers for referring to programmes of which they have probably never heard. Take the latest episode, an obvious rip-off of the 1980 siege of the Iranian embassy. This time it is Kurdish 'terrorists' who occupy the Turkish diplomatic premises, and it so happens that one of our Spooks triumvirate of heroes is in there at the time. Having acquired a decidedly dodgy Turkish travel agent (who even bursts into tears when the 'terrorists' merely ask him his name) as cover for her penetration, 'our' Zoà« begins by doing a spot of lock-picking and planting what looks like a listening device. Faced with the incriminating contents of her handbag, and the prospect that a good old diplomatic protection force policeman might be shot, our heroine confesses that she is a member of "her majesty's secret service". Someone reportedly did that at a royal garden party once, when introduced to the queen, and her majesty was not amused. That was in the days when MI6 did not officially exist. Inevitably, all ends well, but in the meantime, in a subplot of truly bathetic absurdity, a renegade intelligence officer, Johnny Marks - maybe just an agent, the distinction is not made clear - has kidnapped the daughter of a suburban banker, who, poor man, just happens to be able to access the direct debit payment records of every single agent employed by both MI5 and MI6. In the brave new world of 21st century Spooks nothing so crude as used £20 notes ever change hands; everything is done electronically, so the prospects of a worrying security breach are considerable. As department head Harry Pearce puts it, rather understatingly in fact, "this could be the biggest security threat this country has faced in years". Indeed, Harry. Wouldn't we all like to know the names of those who are serving 'our' country in this capacity? If only the secret services were quite as stupid and inept as Spooks inadvertently makes them look, we would all be a lot happier. With its Batman dialogue and plot lines, and its chief characters who can only manage two facial expressions - morose, and really morose - Spooks ought to carry more than the warning that it "contains strong language". Maybe the Radio Times should consider adding the phrase "it is also a total crock of unadulterated shite"? The response from viewers has been mixed. On the one hand, some took exception to the vivid and totally gratuitous violence. Was it really necessary for MI5's admittedly clueless Helen to be immersed in an industrial deep-fat fryer before the BNP clones shot her last week? On the other hand, according to other reports, MI5's website (htttp://www.mi5.gov.uk) - you really ought to take a look at it - has been besieged by hundreds of would-be recruits. Quite whether the security service would be interested in acquiring the skills of these sad and lonely one-handed typists is another question. Rightly embarrassed by its claims of 'authenticity' for the series, the Beeb last weekend got round to admitting that "while clearly intended to be set in MI5, [Spooks] was meant to be fictional, in the same way that Inspector Morse, while set in Oxford, was not intended to be a completely accurate portrayal of the Thames Valley police force" (The Sunday Telegraph May 26). Quite so. But if you want to understand what MI5 stands for today, then study its "statement of purpose and values". In the wake of the self-destruction of the USSR and the collapse of official communism, MI5 lost much of its raison d'être. Whole swathes of what used to be called the K (counter-espionage) and F (counter-subversion) branches became effectively redundant. The then head of the service, Dame Stella Rimington, sought to shore up her dwindling empire by telling us that a full 25% of the security service's resources were devoted to countering the threat from the Provisional IRA. That too has disappeared. So what now? "National security", as defined by Clem Attlee's post-war charter for the security service, focused on counter-espionage (a perennial target) and 'counter-subversion': ie, thwarting the efforts of communists in particular, the trade unions and the working class in general in their struggles against capital. Counter-terrorism, especially in the wake of September 11, now constitutes the bedrock of MI5's claim to relevance, and with it all the money, resources and political clout that this covert organ of the state can draw upon. However, just in case, the service's statement of values includes a reference not just to "national security", but to the "economic well-being" of the country. That category includes just about everything, and neatly gives MI5 carte blanche for spying on every form of organised working class activity - a much broader scope than it enjoyed under its previous charter. In the current period of reaction, the service probably devotes little effort to the investigation of people like us, but that is no excuse for complacency or weak security. As communists and revolutionaries, we take a keen interest in all the activities of the security and intelligence services - for the obvious reason that they constitute not just an undemocratic, but an anti-democratic bulwark of the bourgeois state, working in secret and notionally 'accountable' to a tame committee of parliamentary stooges. In this sense, we confront one another as enemies, because while we dedicate ourselves to the revolutionary overthrow of the existing conditions of capitalist enslavement, with everything that means for the plight of the vast majority of our people, their only object is to protect and secure the interests of the ruling class. Forget Spooks with its ultimately anodyne message that we are all on the same side against a common enemy. The enemy of the working class is capitalism - yesterday, today and tomorrow and for as long as this rotten system lasts; and it staunchest proponents will always be found in the ranks of the 'defenders of the realm'. Michael Malkin