Spy chiefs going public in the media risk ‘trivialising’ their work, MPs warn

A ‘step-change’ by MI5, MI6, and GCHQ in their approach to media should not become a distraction from their work, Parliament’s Intelligence and security committee has warned.

(L-R) Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ; Richard Moore, chief of MI6; and Ken McCallum, director-general of MI5

The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees the UK’s intelligence agencies, cites an issue of “increased media presence” where the “heads of the intelligence agencies are increasingly making appearances in the media, with a far higher profile than their predecessors”.

 

In its annual report for 2021-2022, the committee referred to an interview “about his career” by Ken McCallum, director-general of MI5, in the Daily Mail, as well as an interview and podcast features with Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, in The Times, and the Twitter account of MI6 chief Richard Moore.

The committee added that “there have also been anonymised interviews with more junior staff.”

It stated: “This is a clear step-change for the agencies, who have traditionally shied away from such exposure – particularly of junior staff.”

Although public outreach can help attract new talent by “opening up about the culture and working practices in such secret organisations, it must be undertaken in a strategic and considered manner”, the report said.

“The Committee is concerned that, if media engagement strategies go too far, they risk trivialising the important work of the agencies and diverting their focus from national security priorities.”

It added: “Social media is also known to be a battleground for covert hostile state action, so any enhanced media engagement should not undermine the agencies’ ability to act covertly and keep the UK safe.

Reaction

In a social media post responding to the warning, Ciaran Martin, ex-chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of GCHQ, said: “Don’t think I’m alone in struggling to see the connection the ISC appears to be making here. I can’t see any real-world, practical way in which activity like ‘C’ having a Twitter account, or the other heads giving interviews, affects the intel agencies’ ability to act covertly.”

MI5 and GCHQ declined to comment, while MI6 did not respond to a request by PRWeek for a comment.

However, McCallum defended MI5’s decision to step out of the shadows in an article for The Times last month.

“To protect national security we have to tell people about the threats we are countering and why it matters to them. This is why I have continued the tradition of giving an annual public account of the often hidden threats facing our country and what MI5 is doing about them. This is no vanity project.”

He added: “In lots of areas, we need the public’s direct support. Speaking to the public we serve is also part of our accountability.”

McCallum justified MI5’s Instagram account as being “where we share what we can about the reality of working for MI5. This is crucial if we are to attract the best candidates”.


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