For your PRs only: UK spy agencies court media spotlight

GCHQ and MI6 have both given rare access to national media outlets this week, ahead of the UK Parliament assessing a draft bill on the operation and regulation of the investigatory powers given to police and intelligence agencies.

Dr No Comment: The press team at GCHQ kept quiet when approached by PRWeek
Dr No Comment: The press team at GCHQ kept quiet when approached by PRWeek

In the first of a three-day series, the front page of The Times on Wednesday was given to Ben Macintyre’s report from Government Communications Headquarters, having been given "unprecedented access" to what he describes as "Britain’s most secretive organisation".

Just days after the high-profile cyber attack on telecoms firm TalkTalk, Macintyre reported that GCHQ was seeing an ever increasing number of attacks of this kind, and said that the revelations leaked by Edward Snowden about the extent of global surveillance had forced GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 to "challenge their own deeply ingrained culture of secrecy".

GCHQ's press office did not respond when asked to comment on its decision to allow that access and describe the process of working with The Times.

Separately, on Monday the BBC website ran video interviews with two serving officers at MI6 – which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service – by security correspondent Frank Gardner.

The same week that new Bond film Spectre hit the big screen, the interviewees sought to debunk the James Bond myth of MI6's operations, with one of the interviewees telling Gardner that "everything we do must adhere to UK law".

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office handles all media enquiries for MI6. PRWeek put similar questions to it as had been sent to GCHQ, and a spokeswoman responded with the statement: "The intelligence agencies are always keen, where possible, to ensure the public better understand their role in protecting the UK from a range of threats."

PRWeek also spoke to the Home Office, which handles PR for the Security Service – popularly known as MI5 – but was told the service had not made any special, proactive media push alongside its partner agencies.

Ewen MacAskill, UK defence and security correspondent at The Guardian, wrote in the paper earlier this week: "Why is GCHQ doing this? It is partly that the agency acknowledges it is better to engage with the media rather than try to ignore it, as it did initially in the first few months of the Snowden revelations. But mainly it is about winning public trust."

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