A year after the 9/11 atrocities, I made a documentary for Channel 4 which involved trying to discover what had happened to terrorist suspects the prison service was holding without charge. The director filmed me putting questions to a low-level functionary at the Home Office press office. We hoped he would stonewall and thus unwittingly illustrate a sequence about Whitehall secrecy. Fortunately for us, he obfuscated like a true PR. Channel 4 wanted a witty line in the commentary to emphasise how hard it was to extract information that should be freely available. The best I could manage was “It’s easier to have a beer with Osama bin Laden than get this government to answer a question.” I accept that I was never going to get the viewers rolling off their sofas and clutching their aching sides, but the commissioning editor’s response took me aback. Absolutely not. Cut it out. It’s offensive.
But we were at war with al-Qaeda, I protested. Osama bin Laden is the enemy of this country and its best values. Why should I worry about offending him? He was equally taken aback by my insubordination. Like the Home Office press office, he did not think he had to answer presumptuous questions from journalists. After spending years watching the London media class at work and play, I guessed that three emotions were whirring round in his mind:
1) Fear. Ever since the Rushdie affair, British editors have feared that criticism of radical Islamists will lead to attacks on their staff and, more pertinently, on themselves. Suppressed panic explains why British newspapers did not follow European and indeed Middle Eastern newspapers in running the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Although it is absurd to believe that a weak joke about bin Laden would provoke jihadis into bombing Channel 4’s glass and steel headquarters in Westminster, cowards die many times before their deaths and once cowed editors have killed one story, they will kill hundreds more.
2) Racism. Although few television executives say so explicitly, most believe that the bulk of British Muslims support al-Qaeda in an inchoate way. Offending the enemy therefore means offending multiculturalism. If the accusation of “Islamophobia” carries any meaning, it must condemn the assumption that all Muslims are terrorist sympathisers. Although they say they don’t accept the calumny in theory, most in television behave as if they do in practice.
3) Conformism. Once small bands of people have established a prohibition, it is ferociously difficult to shake them out of it. British TV managers are indistinguishable in class, beliefs and tastes. They socialise with each other and swap information and jobs. As any anthropologist will tell you, taboo-breakers in a closed society risk the censure of the tribe.
All three have combined to produce one of the strangest features of mass culture in the Noughties. We have been at war since the autumn of 2001. Our intelligence services spend virtually all their time countering Islamist plots. Yet Islamist violence barely features in thrillers. Whether the public gets what the public wants or the public wants what the public gets is always an open question, but the spy dramas that have won the largest audiences and greatest critical praise all daintily step around the jihadist in the room.
The Bourne trilogy set the pattern. His intelligence service’s enemies do not menace the hero. Rather, his intelligence service first turns Matt Damon into a killing machine, and then tries vainly to kill him when he threatens to find out too much about its plots. The real enemy of Damon and Western society is within. The producers of the clearly ailing Bond series took note of Bourne’s success. They revived the franchise by finding a new adversary in the vast “Quantum” conspiracy that operates across continents. Not the Jihadist International, strangely, but a group of powerful men operating at the highest levels of Western government, who rig the world to suit the interests of the corrupt Western corporations they serve. As Mr White crows to Bond and M when they confront him, “You really don’t know anything about us…You don’t even know we exist. The first thing you should know about us is we have people
For connoisseurs of the issue-avoiding thriller, however, nothing beats Spooks. The real MI5 deals with radical Islam almost to the exclusion of all other threats. The BBC’s fictional MI5 deals with every threat except radical Islam. I appreciate there are better ways to spend my time, but every week I am transfixed by the effort the corporation puts into steering clear of al-Qaeda. In 2005, when real Islamists were bombing London, Spooks seemed to be a truly contemporary drama. Alas, the terrorists it had plotting to destroy London weren’t the followers of Sayyid Qutb but anti-technology Greens, who, say what you will about them, are on the whole a peaceful lot. In 2006, an Islamist cell was once again threatening to commit a crime against humanity. Inevitably, the writers could not confront the existence of actual terrorists and the Islamists turned out to be Mossad agents in disguise. For the BBC, as for the European and Arab far-Right, all Islamist atrocities were the work of the international Jewish conspiracy, that manipulates its dupes like a puppet-master jerking his strings. In the opening episode of the current series, the Sacred Army of Righteous Vengeance staged a mock execution of Harry Pearce, the head of MI5’s Counter-Terrorism Department. But, initiates wondered, why would they want to kill him when the BBC has already made it clear that there are no Islamist terrorists for MI5 to counter? True to form, the Sacred Army of Righteous Vengeance turned out to be yet another front organisation attempting to besmirch the good name of al-Qaeda, this time run by Hindu extremists.
First the Greens, then the Jews, then the Hindus-baffled viewers will be expecting the English Quakers and Burmese Buddhists next. Maybe the BBC will get round to them, but as the eighth series of Spooks draws to its conclusion, we know that for the time being at least, the scriptwriters have identified the real enemy. Episode by episode, Harry and his team have learned about a conspiracy of awesome power. As with Bourne and Bond, it is a cabal that has established itself at the highest levels of Western intelligence services. Once again, the good guys must fight the real menace that comes from the enemy within.
We have been at war since 9/11. To judge from popular drama, we have been at war with ourselves.