The Foreigner stars Jackie Chan and former James Bond Pierce Brosnan, and is directed by two-time Bond director Martin Campbell. In February the film-makers blew up a bus in central London in a sequence that was spookily reminiscent of the 7/7 London bombings of 2005. To see if this similarity was a concern for the government agencies who approved and assisted The Foreigner filming in London, I filed a series of FOIA requests. In this episode we explore the responses, including evidence that the FOIA laws are applied with a criminal level of inconsistency. We round off by asking whether the producers of this film and the government officials who assisted them are guilty of glorifying terrorism via simulations like this.
As most of you will no doubt be aware, I have a running curiosity about this film. It is not just that it stars Jackie Chan, one of the greatest action comedy stars of all time. It is not that it is called The Foreigner, which is a dubious title in these days of rising racial and national paranoia. It is not that it also stars ex-James Bond Pierce Brosnan, who now makes a career playing ageing spies. Nor is it that it is directed by Martin Campbell, who relaunched the James Bond character twice with Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye in 1995 and with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale in 2006.
The thing that most draws my attention to The Foreigner is that for the production they blew up a bus in central London on a bridge headed towards the MI5 building. I filed a series of Freedom of Information requests to find out more about this, and the responses to those requests are what we’re going to explore in this episode. Naturally, all of these documents are available for you to read for yourselves.
The 7/7 Connection
The main reason this is interesting to me is that the bus explosion is so closely reminiscent of the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. The fourth explosion that morning was on an iconic red London bus in almost the exact same manner as in this film a decade later. I was curious to see if the authorities who allowed and helped this event to go ahead were at all concerned about the parallels, about reminding people of that horrible event that was milked so cynically by the media and government alike.
This is the first conclusion we can draw from the documents – no, they didn’t give a fuck. No one seems to have expressed any concern about this at all. A lot of this will be people just being forgetful rather than being heartless bastards, but I don’t believe they all forgot, especially the Met Police. However, the Met refused my request for records on this film, and sent to me a response that they had copy-pasted from their response to my request about Kingsman. They even forgot to replace ‘Kingsman‘ with ‘The Foreigner‘ in a couple of places. Not only are they dishonest, they are also incompetent.
The only concern expressed about the public reaction was by Lambeth Council, Lambeth being the London borough where this explosion took place. A copy of the warning sent out to households in the area is in the released documents, though clearly plenty of people heard or saw the explosion without receiving any advance warning. As far as I can tell the only person to have used social media to alert people to what was going to happen was a local MP who attended the event. The callous nature of this, not just them reconstructing a real terrorist attack but also not really caring to warn people in the area beforehand speaks volumes.
However, before we move on I do want to point out that this is not the most callous reconstruction of the 7/7 bombings. That award has to go to the government of Singapore. Six months after the London bombings, in January 2006 they ran a counter-terrorism training exercise called Northstar V. As I detail in my book Secrets, Spies and 7/7 this involved around 2000 emergency service personnel, 500 mock victims and around 3400 ordinary commuters.
The attack scenario for the exercise was drawn directly from the London bombings, with multiple simultaneous bombings on the underground train network in the morning rush hour, followed by an explosion on a double decker bus. There was even a mock arrest of a ‘suicide bomber’ at a train station. The footage of the bombed out bus is strikingly similar to that of the real bus on 7/7 and the one blown up for The Foreigner.
This exercise is particularly important because many of the commuters caught up in what happened were only told of the exercise minutes before it started, so they were there whether they liked it or not. Some commuters even thought what was happening was real, and one of the observers of this exercise was Chief Constable Ian Johnston of the Metropolitan Police. He said, ‘What is interesting about yours is that you have actually involved the commuters on the line. It is a really interesting initiative and that is something we did not use and will give you some insights into how people actually feel during these events.’
This idea, that we’re just guinea pigs being subjected to workshop-style experiments in theatrical terror, being scared by this and that to see how we respond, seems to be the philosophy behind these exercises. In the run up to 7/7 we had a series of these drills, some very public and some quite secret, which tested not just the public’s responses to these scenarios but also those inside the emergency and security agencies.
Some of the exercises quite explicitly sought to do this, with one document published by the Home Office interviewing staff who helped produced fake news broadcasts that were fed to participants in Atlantic Blue, a simulation run just 3 months before the bombings. Describing the ‘pseudo media effect’ they quote one media producer saying:
In terms of the exercise, the online tool was also very helpful in reflecting the perceived media and public response to how the incidents were being handled, and in consultation with Exercise Control we were able to drive player action accordingly.
In other words, they were using media to see how people responded and to see if they could produce a desired response in the exercise participants. Rats in a maze.
Forewarned is Forearmed
One media report on the bus explosion for The Foreigner said that MI5 and the Ministry of Defence were warned before they blew up the bus. Unlike the CIA, MI5 are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act so short of trying to break in or hack in there’s not much we can do about liberating their secrets. The MOD are a different matter, so I asked them for whatever they had on this event.
This is where things start to get interesting. They provided to me two documents from the Ministry of Defence Police, which is a separate agency from the normal police. One is a copy of extracts from a Ministry of Defence Police log from February 5th. It includes a message from the MPS Film Unit – i.e. from the Met Police to the MOD. This is the warning sent out before the explosion. It says:
MPS Filming unit – There will be filming on Sunday 7th February 2016 on Lambeth Bridge, SW1 between 0700-1700 hours. This will involve blowing up a London Bus at some point between 0830-1200 hours. Part of the filming will include a low level Helicopter flight during this period. They have permission to fly below 300m.
Please circ to Whitehall and TOPCAP callsigns Re: explosion and low level flying.
So this warning was sent from the Met Police to the MOD and from there to other high level Whitehall departments. What TOPCAP refers to I am not sure – the only thing that comes up when you google the term is this response to my FOIA request, which the government has now published on their own site.
The other document poses an interesting question. It is a copy of an incident report produced by the Met Police and sent to the MOD police. Remember, the Met Police refused to release any documents to me, but this Met Police document was released to me via the MOD. Did they not check with the original department before releasing it? It would appear they did not. Likewise, when they published it on a government website for anyone in the world to see, they clearly did not check with the Met Police first. This is the first of several signs of how the FOIA rules are not applied in anything like a consistent manner, and that the Met Police is unreasonably resistant to requests for information. After all, if the MOD can release a Met Police document then why couldn’t the Met release it?
It appears that the Home Office were not among those agencies that were warned about this explosion ahead of time. The only records they sent in response to my request are some emails about the film makers seeking permission to film at a security checkpoint on the Eurostar. They directed the producers to the French authorities. So we have a hierarchy with the MOD and MI5 being told, the MOD being able to release police documents that the police refused to release, and no one caring enough about the Home Office to bother telling them anything. Good to know.
The filming of The Foreigner
Because the filming involved a London bus the primary agency working on The Foreigner was TFL, Transport for London, who manage all the public transport in London. They provided me with a whole load of stuff, much of which is duplicated in the release from Lambeth Council. However, there are some differences.
In all of the documents from all agencies most of the names are redacted, including that of the director Martin Campbell. Even though every time his name is mentioned there’s a little reminder that he did Goldeneye and Casino Royale, his name itself is redacted. This is a standard thing with FOIA, that personal information such as names, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and so on will not be released.
However, this is not applied consistently in these documents and elsewhere. In the emails released by Lambeth Council the names are blacked out. In the same emails released by TFL most of the names are visible. So we know who in the government was responsible for this, though of course I am not going to read out their names. We also know that that the point man for The Foreigner was the unfortunately-named Michael Harm, the supervising location manager. This information should not, legally speaking, be available to us, but like the police report, it is. Again, FOIA is not a law that is applied with any consistency.
From the TFL documents we can establish that they filmed two sequences on the bus explosion. It appears the bus was provided free of charge and it is shown drawing up to a bus stop and people getting on, and then crossing the bridge and blowing up part way across. This necessitated closing the bus stop and the bridge, which TFL were more than happy to do. Framing the sequence in this way also draws the viewing audience’s attention to the fact that the bus is full of ordinary people when it is subject to this terrorist attack. Still, no one was worried about this.
As part of the application the production company had to provide proof of public liability insurance and other things, including a report on the SFX methods used to blow up the bus. A document from the Special Effects company is included, though the actual method used to explode the vehicle is redacted. The visible part says:
The lower deck is not expected to sustain much, if any, damage other than the windows breaking. Stunt performers will be within this area. Likewise the drivers cab will sustain no damage, and may be further protected with some reinforcement if felt necessary. Dummies may be located in a few seats on the upper deck.
The intention is to minimise the noise, which will be added as required in post-production. The bus will be drivable afterwards, and once wrapped to contain any debris and ratchet strapped together will be driven away for disposal.
Again, the parallels between this and the London bombings is eerie. In some respects, this document could almost describing the bus on 7/7. Which begs a question – why did they redact this document? It is likely for commercial reasons, to prevent the leaking of private SFX methods that are worth money. But what if it was for security reasons? They will let a film company blow up a bus in central London, which is inevitably going to be on every evening news broadcast and in every newspaper, but they don’t release information on how this was accomplished? Which is more likely to inspire terrorism? I’d argue it’s the decision to let them do this in the first place.
Furthermore, given that this exact sort of attack has happened before, very much in living memory, you could say the film makers and all the government agencies involved in this are guilty of glorifying terrorism. Thanks to Tony Blair’s government, the 2006 Terrorism Act passed in the wake of the London bombings make this a criminal offence. The relevant section reads that a person has committed an offence if they make a statement about terrorism that:
(a) glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts or offences; and
(b) is a statement from which those members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances.
Now, this was always the dumbest law in the history of dumb anti-terror laws in this country so I’m not being serious and I’m not really accusing these people of a crime. However, imagine if a Irish company called Republic Productions hired a Muslim film crew from Bradford to do the same thing, to blow up a bus in central London. Do you think their application would have been treated with the same enthusiasm? Do you think no one would have made the connection to 7/7?
In fact, that would make a good undercover TV investigation. Channel 4 could hire a bunch of brown skinned men, doesn’t even matter if they’re Muslims or not, and get them to file an application to do something like this – car bombing, bus bombing, whatever – near a major government building. And then file FOIA requests to get the paperwork on how their request is dealt with – it’d make for some fun TV if nothing else.
So what does all this add up to?
This is another example of what I called in my book ‘simulated terror’, i.e. the simulation of a terrorist attack that serves as a mental rehearsal for the real thing. For the public it reminds them that there are big scary terrorists out there who could strike at any moment without hesitation or remorse. And there are. It’s just that the number is far less than they would have you believe. And that half of them are spies for the security services.
In a world where there is very little terrorism, at least here in the UK, and where people forget very quickly even attacks like those in Paris 6 months ago, this is a problem for the war on terror. It’d be like having a war on drugs with very little drugs or drug smuggling. One of the ways to plug that gap is training exercises that you promote through the media, another is story lines or events in entertainment. Sometimes this can be accomplished by promoting certain ideas to writers and producers, other times it’s like this, when they come to the government asking for help.
In this instance, given the exact scenario, I am truly amazed that this wasn’t a concern. One can argue about how major a concern it is, but I’m damn sure if their scenario involved beheading a British soldier that they wouldn’t have shut down several streets to help them film it. That said, there is a storyline in Spooks from several years before the Lee Rigby murder where a British soldier is kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in London who threaten to behead him. The relationship between fiction and reality gets very complex when it comes to war on terror propaganda.
The final point worth making is that I’m looking forward to the movie. I’m very curious to see how this scene plays into the rest of the film, how significant it is to the story. Plus, for all I might like to criticise Martin Campbell I think he’s a very good director, Goldeneye is the best Pierce Brosnan Bond film and Casino Royale is the best Daniel Craig Bond film. He also directed a series on Sidney Reilly which I haven’t been able to find a copy of but which is probably very interesting. All of this promises that The Foreigner will be worth watching.
I will encourage you to download these documents and have a look for yourself, if only to see what’s possible. This is a film that hasn’t even been released yet and we have access to government records about its production. This has been an interesting experiment in FOIA investigation and while there are perhaps no headlines here it is still an interesting case study in what you can find out if only you ask for it. Part of my interest in all this is just an interest in the film industry, aside from the question of culture as propaganda and the government involvement in that. So while the political dimensions to this are perhaps not revelatory, this is still a good one to look at, I think.