Is there a tear in the spy fiction continuum? On Monday, the new James Bond movie Spectre premiered to the sort of five-star reviews normally reserved for subtitled documentaries about extraordinary rendition. On Wednesday the Times was given unprecedented access to GCHQ, which it ran, tie-in style, beneath the splash headline “For your eyes only”. And in a further coup for state-of-the-art news planning technology, next week sees the publication of the draft investigatory powers bill, with senior police officers demanding the right to view the web-browsing history of every internet user in the country.
I don’t know who’s running this mutually masturbatorial PR campaign – my guess is a slightly disappointing nuclear publicist in the mould of Jonathan Pryce’s media baron in Tomorrow Never Dies. But I will of course withdraw that remark if they can produce a fourth nipple or a properly shaggable concubine with a sledgehammer single entendre name. Something like Snowden Asfaka.
Snowden Asfaka is a brilliant but amoral cyber intelligence operative, probably played by Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, who will target anyone who so much as Googles “this is all a bit of a lame coincidence, isn’t it?”, before remotely taking over their computer and making the screen dance with the words “that thing when u realise u are the prisoner exchange for Shaker Aamer”.
It is, of course, a matter for the agency’s self-respect that GCHQ should have chosen the week of the endlessly hyped Bond launch to lie back on its sheepskin rug and finally succumb to the wanton attentions of journalists. For the intelligence arm of a country that still clings to its seat on the UN security council, nothing says Licence to Shill like the impression you need to ride in on the coat tails of a hot movie opening.
In fact, it is difficult to work out which is the more awkward for the parties concerned: the idea that GCHQ is doing publicity favours for a Bond movie, or that the Bond movie is throwing some of its stardust on a desperately grateful GCHQ. I can’t imagine that Sam Mendes, the director, and his star Daniel Craig like to be perceived as helping out GCHQ, however inadvertently – both already come off as people who regard themselves as slightly too grand for the franchise, and my sense is that government-abetting is widely regarded as “not cool” in their industry, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Spectre takes pains to place itself on the other side of the argument, denigrating the senior spook character who wishes to replace the 00 programme with a vast computer surveillance operation instead.
That detail appears to have been studiously ignored by the intelligence agencies. But the powerful hold that Bond is axiomatically deemed to have on the British imagination can hardly have escaped the all-seeing attentions of GCHQ. It has become unavoidably clear over its recent outings that this movie franchise is one of those things whose health is regarded as symbiotically linked with that of the nation. Like Marks & Spencer bra sales or the strength of Manchester United’s back four, you’re supposed to give an absolutely massive toss about it all for reasons that are never fully explained. If it fails, we all fail. Or something. Giving it a notional five stars is your part in the war effort.
By extension, acting in it is the equivalent of winning Olympic glory for one’s country. To hear current Bond Daniel Craig declare that he’d rather “slash my wrists” than take the role again was to be reminded of the oarsman Steve Redgrave announcing that “anyone who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me”, shortly after he took gold in Atlanta in 1996. He was back on board four years later – because he’s literally a ruddy hero – and we must hope that Craig will be too. This stuff is simply too important to turn down for an ill-advised Educating Rita remake in which he plays opposite Emilia Clarke, Idris Elba having passed on the role.
As for the wider message of spytastic synchronicity, we must proceed with caution from here on in. The suggestion that GCHQ is opening beneficently up is easily as convincing as Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough. Still, you get the feeling that Denise could run intellectual rings round the copper charged with explaining why this latest demand to revive the snoopers’ charter is done with all our best interests at heart.
According to Richard Berry, the spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the police know when to stop. Look, they just want access to everyone’s entire internet history – but they are not monsters. As Richard points out, the police chiefs agree that it would be “far too intrusive” to access the content of those internet searches. In which case our first question ought to be: have you ever been online? Can you haz internet?
It’s remarkable how frequently those who seek draconian powers in this area appear to be those for whom even the most basic web concepts are confusing. In their world, you can view someone’s internet entire search history while still affording absolute privacy to the content of those searches. A “browser” is just a shoplifter who hasn’t struck yet. “Traffic” is what you get put on when your senior officer is sick of defending your screwball antics to the commissioner.
Almost more terrifyingly amusing than these sorts of misunderstandings are the self-dramatisations of senior GCHQ figures. I very much enjoyed the practice of the head of tradecraft at Cheltenham of referring to the agency as “little GCHQ”. Let’s see that in action. “If the internet is being used to sell you things,” he or she inquired rhetorically of the Times, “why is it wrong for little GCHQ to use a tiny bit of the data to stop you being blown up on holiday?”
What a finely drawn argument that is. My own hope is that it will get its most thoughtful exploration in the next Bond movie (working title: Logical Fallacy). That movie release itself will then be used as a handy news grid peg, on which a consortium of police and intelligence agencies can hang their next demands for even greater powers of surveillance – and which will ideally be driven through the Lords by the newly ennobled Baroness Broccoli.