SAYS the BBC (here) of Spying in the 21st Century: How Safe are You?, airing this afternoon: “In 2007, the attack on Glasgow Airport revealed that Scotland could be a weak link in the security armour of the UK.
“We’ll be examining what Scotland’s role is within the wider UK spying regime; what its challenges and aims are; what a modern spy in these times does and what their priorities are.
“Today, MI5 recruits openly, placing adverts in the press. What is the job spec for today’s recruits? And as Scotland continues to argue for additional powers from Westminster, is there a tension between Scotland and the rest of the UK in the world of surveillance?”
The programme airs today at 13.32 on BBC Radio Scotland, and again tomorrow (at 05.02) and Sunday (at 10.31).
Here, Eamonn O’Neill, who presents and researched the documentary, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the programme?
Jeff Zycinski, head of BBC Radio Scotland, commissioned it back in early summer last year. He was already thinking about a season with spying being the overall theme. When I mentioned that I had been independently researching this, he immediately put a marker down for it and then really pushed it forward.
When I started sketching out the content in more detail, he really started seeing it as both current and timeless.
Without his support, this wouldn’t have happened.
Tracking down spies and persuading them to talk is ridiculously hard and Jeff was patient and understanding, from start to finish.
Explain the thinking behind the programme’s ‘look and feel’?
The producer who worked on this was Kate Bissell, who is based in the BBC’s Edinburgh office. She had a very significant role in shaping the feel of the programme, from the very beginning of our discussions.
The influence of popular TV dramas, like ‘Spooks’, and films, like ‘The Bourne Identity’, are clearly apparent in the music themes that are used through it.
Technical themes are also used as links to indicate the constant nature of modern spying via technology. The secrets of modern intelligence are literally in the ether, and Kate was keen to convey that spooky, invidious reality.
She also wanted to get me out and about, so we recorded some links whilst I was visiting Edinburgh University, to interview an academic who had run a series of behind-closed-doors seminars.
Kate was also wonderful in letting me challenge and interrupt the interviewees at times and let these frank exchanges play out in the finished programme. She didn’t try to keep me ‘in a box’.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
I am lucky enough to have worked both with Kate and Jeff before. They both know me and my work too, so we came at this from an experienced starting point.
Jeff is great at spotting an idea when it’s still in rough form and staying with it until it meets his high standards. He is single-minded in the best of ways.
Kate is enormously experienced and has worked on BBC productions across the world. She has had some hairy experiences and was really up for the challenge of making this one work.
Executive producers, Lynsey Moyes and Jane Fowler, were also very good at managing this production – especially guiding it through the really complex legal process of compliance. They were reassuring and patient.
What kit and software?
It was standard BBC Nagra kit and their own in-house editing software, Highlander, that was used.
Recording was done mostly in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a few secret side trips to track down the ‘spooks’.
The weather was terrible at times, so the mic had to have its foul weather furry cover on!
What were the main challenges?
There were four main challenges.
First, the background research was enormous and, as both an academic and a journalist, I tend to take the long route, at times. A rash of very obscure and security-sensitive government position papers, academic studies and so forth, had to be accessed and digested. Asking the right questions was paramount. No-one will help you in the intelligence world if you aren’t well-briefed. Knowing the terminology was really just the starting point, knowing the current and future areas was the really tough part. I met some very, er, ‘interesting’ people, shall we say. So that took months and lots of ‘midnight oil’ was burned.
Second, tracking down the best ex-spies who are willing to talk was very hard. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. I have my own sources who have been on the ‘inside’ and some who still have some ‘shelf life’, but they never go on-the-record, for the right reasons. Also throwing the ‘Scottish Question’, for want of a better term, into the mix, was hard. Both really gave me long and very, very surprising interviews though, so it was worth all the effort.
Third, the programme faced legal challenges from beginning to end. Anything involving interviewees, who have signed the Official Secrets Act, is always a bit sporting, to say the least. Add to that the tricky issue of how an independent Scotland might organise its domestic and foreign spying initiatives – and how that might play out economically and so on – just months after the tense referendum result, and you can imagine how stimulating some of the meetings behind closed doors were at times.
Finally, the programme was recorded in the run-up to Christmas. Pinning people down was really tough and edit suites were booked, etc. We got there in the end, although editing a programme about national security on the very morning the Paris attacks happened was both terribly poignant and a raw reminder of how timely the whole theme is.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
It was great working with the guys from BBC Scotland. They managed the whole project to ensure it was both legal and, hopefully, great listening too. Not easy. And I often tend to be ultra-focussed, to the point of obsession, on projects like this; something which they gently but firmly kept an eye on. Again, not easy.
It was a joy to watch producer, Kate, at work. She’s very creative in the edit suite and even her first rough cut of the programme was a revelation. Listen out for the final tech-sound end note of the programme – she’s enormously chuffed with that.
The world of spies is endlessly interesting to journalists and I’m fortunate that I’ve done a lot of investigations down the years on intelligence-related subjects, both in the UK and abroad. But revisiting the topic in relation to Scotland was a real chance to look hard at what’s been happening here and also to assess our place in the wider national and international espionage game.
There’s a lot going on in our midst that the ordinary citizen doesn’t realise. There are rather anonymous buildings and significant technological resources on our doorstep that are part of the bigger intelligence puzzle and our closest friends and neighbours might work in those places as spies without us even knowing it.
Being able to immerse myself in that world in 2015, get a snapshot of precisely where things stand on all fronts – technological, political, resources and defence – was fascinating and deeply instructive. It’s a very, very complex world and I can honestly say we’ve done our best to distill it down to this half hour.
That said, I enjoyed and relished the whole subject so much that I definitely feel further espionage-related broadcast projects and a new book coming on, so watch this space…