BBC’s ‘Spooks:’ Stranger than non-fiction

At first we thought we hadn’t heard correctly.

Surfing late night TV cable offerings this past week, my wife and I had landed upon a rerun of a highly popular BBC Entertainment production “Spooks,” series 5, episode 7, circa 2006. We tuned in during the middle of a tense and dramatic hostage scene. Inside a large, ornate room, sitting on their knees, hands tied behind their backs, were some 10 fearful-looking civilian hostages. Within minutes we were witness to a swarthy, Arabic-speaking terrorist shooting one of the hostages point blank in the head and dragging his dead body across the floor into the next room for display in front of a television camera.

My incredulousness was elicited by the dialogue in the next scene, a discussion at MI5 headquarters. Two British agents had just identified among their colleagues a mole who was secretly feeding classified information to a foreign country. It was this country’s agents who had stormed the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London and were holding hostage Saudi staff members along with British citizens; they were threatening to continue murdering their captives in front of the TV camera, one per hour, if 400 al-Qaeda prisoners in Saudi Arabia were not released. The release of these prisoners would create political chaos in the Kingdom and put an end to a deal between Great Britain and the Saudis — energy in exchange for nuclear secrets.

And which Middle-Eastern country hatched this nefarious plot for its own political ends? Might it be Syria? Was it Yemen? Perhaps Pakistan? No, this evil escapade was the work of none other than Israel. And the mole working for the Her Majesty’s government whose last name suggests that he is a Jew, reference Jonathan Pollard, without giving up any information, stoically downs a capsule and commits suicide rather than be taken into custody.

As if to make it clear that no anti-Semitism was intended by the producers of this two-part fictional drama, one of the key hostages is a government minister who is identified as being Jewish. He becomes trapped in the siege at the embassy while helping to broker the agreement between his government and Saudi Arabia. Just as the leader of the terrorists is about to dispatch yet another hostage in front of the TV camera, this Jewish servant of the Queen beseeches him “in the name of humanity” not to kill again. Alas, even his plea, as a Jew, to his hard-hearted terrorist Israeli “cousin” is to no avail.

MI5 concocts a risky but brave counter-plan to foil the Israelis. Its special anti-terror team successfully storms the embassy after blowing a hole in a basement wall. In the ensuing firefight all the terrorists but one, the leader, are killed  Following the all clear, we learn that in the interest of international diplomacy this horrific event is to remain a secret.

But the story is not yet over. In the final scene the urbane MI5 section head, for the second time in the episode, has a shadowy rendezvous with his Israeli counterpart, an coarse, overweight, and — based on his dialogue — crafty agent of the Mossad. During an earlier exchange, the Israeli hints that MI5 has guessed correctly and that his government, using an “ends justifies the means” philosophy, indeed sent dark-complected, Arabic-speaking Mizrahi (Eastern) Israelis to portray Muslim Arab terrorists. Not having admitted anything, the Israeli has the upper hand and departs with a cynical “Shalom.”

In a second clandestine encounter, the two colleagues, as it were, reverse positions. Having uncovered and foiled the Israeli plan, the senior British agent now has the upper hand. But the Mossad representative expresses no remorse, neither over the civilians killed by his men during the failed operation, nor for his own dead agents. In fact, he is relieved that with all his agents dead and their bodies lacking any traceable identification, the British, even if they choose to do so, can never prove that Israel was responsible for this embarrassing debacle. Or so he at first believes. At that point the MI5 chief informs him that, in fact, one Israeli agent was captured alive and unharmed and will be held indefinitely as a sort of ransom for some future need. “Shalom,” the British agent sarcastically says to the Israeli. End of episode.

What are viewers to make of this story? Israeli secret agents callously murdering innocent civilians on foreign soil as part of a ruse to realize the Government of Israel’s perceived security needs. Why and how was such a plot conceived and why did the BBC agree to produce and broadcast the production? As an Israeli Jew, I found the storyline to be both implausible and shocking, a veritable case of man bites dog. But most of the show’s over five million viewers are surely not Jewish — Israeli or otherwise. Did the BBC assume that the storyline would be accepted as unremarkable by the majority of viewers because the image of Israel in the world today, or at least in Great Britain, is that of a country known to engage in government-sponsored terrorism, or is this an image of Israel that certain decision makers at the BBC wished to promote?

For many years the news division of the BBC has faced accusations by such media monitors as Honest Reporting and CAMERA for a bias against Israel, particularly in its coverage of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. May similar allegations also apply to BBC Entertainment?

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote:

Why have anti-Israel libels once consigned to hate groups become media mainstays? How can we explain the assertion that an insidious “Israel Lobby” purchases votes in Congress, or that Israel oppresses Christians? Why is Israel’s record on gay rights dismissed as camouflage for discrimination against others?


The answer lies in the systematic delegitimization of the Jewish state. Having failed to destroy Israel by conventional arms and terrorism, Israel’s enemies alit on a subtler and more sinister tactic that hampers Israel’s ability to defend itself, even to justify its existence.

Do such subtler tactics also include vilifying the state of Israel through fictionalized entertainment? Is it unfair, perhaps paranoid, to suggest that there are some people at the BBC with an animus toward Israel who also have the authority to influence the content of the channel’s Entertainment division? Or, if “animus” is too strong a word, are there BBC Entertainment directors who feel that, at the very least, the portrayal of Israel as a modern-day noble David against an evil Goliath of surrounding hostile Arab countries has come to an end? Israel has ceased to be a sacred cow, and there is no reason not to assume that in the course of espionage its special forces, especially the Mossad, engage in all the dirty tricks and immoral behavior associated with the security services of other countries.

But from what sources did the chief writer of these two episodes of “Spooks” draw inspiration for this plot? Is the story based on evidence of Israeli Mossad agents wantonly killing civilians? Or is it sufficient to say that credible source material is not necessary since the genre is fiction; there is no need for accountability — just plausibility. Did the episodes’ writer, Raymond Khoury, a Christian Arab, introduce his own prejudices into the storyline?

Might the management of BBC Entertainment be guilty of excessive political correctness in an effort to counter “Islamophobia,” and also, perhaps, to please Great Britain’s large and growing population of Muslim viewers? Interestingly, in the following episode of “Spooks,” MI5 uncovers a Christian extremist group planning to take retribution on a Muslim community.

Nearly six years after they originally appeared on British television, reruns of these two episodes of “Spooks” continue to sow controversy for their portrayal of Israeli government-sponsored terrorism. Possibly even more than the way hard news is reported, political messages embedded within forms of popular entertainment have a way of subliminally penetrating the mind, where they remain fixed. The negative fictional portrayal of Israel in popular film, television and novels is yet another means of promoting the delegitimization of the Jewish state. Particularly because there is no obligation for portraying the truth, television shows like “Spooks” can cause an individual to think that there is something wrong with his hearing.

About the Author
Ardie Geldman is a fundraiser and philanthropic consultant who also writes about Israel and diaspora Jewish issues. He lives in Efrat.