Public Perceptions of UK Intelligence: Still in the Dark?

The public struggles to understand how intelligence agencies operate. The MI6 building in London, 2021. Courtesy of Cultura Creative Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

While the UK's intelligence community has distanced itself from the James Bond cliché, the public continues to have a poor understanding of how the agencies operate.

Opinion polling of public attitudes on the UK’s intelligence agencies reveals that Britons are often still ambivalent around issues of agency activity and powers despite increasing engagement and outreach activity. Drawing parallels with similar polling in North America and Europe, this article suggests that while public support for national agencies remains relatively strong, with high levels of ‘trust’, views on what intelligence agencies do – and who ‘does intelligence’ – remain deeply wedded to James Bond-like clichés. Daniel W B Lomas and Stephen Ward argue that, while popular perceptions of intelligence have traditionally offered cover and even increased awareness of agencies such as the Secret Intelligence Service, the lack of public awareness is dangerous as agencies build a ‘licence to operate’ in the 21st century.

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