Home Secretaries certainly do have a packed agenda, don’t they?
But, if Julia Montague’s time in office is anything to go by, it’s easy to see why so many of them are out of the door within a few months of arriving.
Bodyguard, the edge-of-your-seat BBC drama that depicts the relationship between the Home Secretary and her protection officer, is in many ways brilliant. It accurately reflects the sense of chaos and panic that follows a terrorist attack.
It captures the daily mix for ministers facing such a crisis: the scripted appearances in front of the television cameras to calm public fears, trips to Parliament to address MPs and answer their questions, briefings from key figures from the counterterrorism communities, meetings of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee. The sense of crisis behind the scenes combined with the need to show control in public.
“The programme’s atmosphere is more than a little familiar,” one former official told me shortly after watching the first two episodes. “It’s a seven-out-of-ten portrayal,” said another.
Of course, Bodyguard will do more to shape people’s opinions about terrorism than, say, my reports for News at Ten. So it would be wise for the viewers to remember that it’s just a drama, not a documentary.
For example, one of the biggest changes in British counter-terrorism over recent years has been how closely the heads of MI5 and the police work together. They have been forced to – and their leaders can be sensitive to suggestions that they might put organisational rivalry before public safety.
But if these disagreements sometimes happen in real life, it’s unlikely that they would be played out in the form of a passive-aggressive argument in front of the Home Secretary: it’s good drama but bad counterterrorism.
Also, on screen the Home Secretary, the head of police counter-terrorism and the chief superintendent are all women. There’s a police markswoman and the heroic bomb disposal expert is also female. But this represents an imagined world rather than a real one.
Counter-terrorism is largely a man’s world – for example, in 2016-17, just 31 per cent of senior civil servants in MI5 were female. Although Britain’s most senior police officer is a women, many of the specialist areas shown in this programme are still dominated by men.
But more worrying was the decision to make the would-be suicide bomber a woman. “You’ve been brainwashed,” Sergeant David Budd tells her as her finger hovers over the button that could detonate her suicide belt. Without asking a single question, police officers conclude that she has acted on the demands of her husband – that she is without agency, without power, with out a mind of her own. A victim. The bodyguard assumes it, so the audience will too.
This is one of the great clichés in depictions of modern Islamist terrorism. The simplistic trope of the passive “jihadi bride” responding to her rational jihadi husband is often inaccurate. The reasons behind what entices women towards this form of extremism tend to be far more complex than fear of an oppressive husband.
These aren’t simply pedantic observations about an otherwise excellent series. If we fail to understand extremism, we have no chance of beating it.
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