John Ip, “Bodyguard” and Zeitgeist of Counterterrorism

  1. Introduction


Bodyguard is a six-part BBC television series written by Jed Mercurio. Broadcast in 2018, the show marries tensely plotted and compellingly shot action sequences with bureaucratic turf wars and political intrigue taking place against a backdrop of ongoing terrorist attacks. Bodyguard has its share of twists and surprises, and features convincing performances from its leads and well-stocked supporting cast. It achieved a degree of critical success, garnering two Golden Globe nominations and one win.[1]


The show is told primarily from the point of view of its protagonist, Police Sergeant David Budd (Richard Madden), the titular bodyguard. Much of Bodyguard is accordingly shot from Budd’s point of view, with frequent camera close ups creating an intense, almost paranoid aesthetic. Further elevating the sense of urgency, and lending a sense of verisimilitude, are the mock news reports about the depicted terrorist incidents that are periodically interspersed between the dramatic action. In both these reports and the show’s dialogue, the argot of British counterterrorism —  SO15,[2] JTAC,[3] ARVs,[4] SCO19,[5] critical shots,[6] and so on — features strongly. Like similar shows — such as 24, Homeland, and Spooks (or MI-5)[7] — much of the action in Bodyguard revolves around the heroic efforts of those working around the clock to prevent the next terrorist attack. This reflects the anxieties of the post-9/11 age, particularly after 2017, a year in which the United Kingdom suffered its worst spate of terrorist attacks in more than a decade and the terrorist threat level was twice raised to critical, signifying the expectation of imminent attack.[8]


My interest is not just in how Bodyguard captures the vernacular and zeitgeist of counterterrorism. My intention here is to interrogate how the show depicts counterterrorism, and, by association, terrorism. It is worth giving scholarly attention to what Bodyguard, an artifact of popular culture, has to say about these subjects for two reasons. First, televisual popular culture, particularly in an era of box sets and binge-watching, has a broad reach. More people have already watched Bodyguard, the most successful British television drama in a decade,[9] than will ever read a scholarly article on the British security state or a report of the United Kingdom’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.[10] Second, what popular culture says matters: television shows are a surrogate means of gaining knowledge about the world, and have the potential to influence how their audiences think about the subject matter depicted. This is true in relation to counterterrorism, as well as more generally.[11] As Podlas explains, “the stories that television tells and the way it tells them communicate norms and ideologies, focus us on issues, influence how we think about those issues, and cultivate beliefs”.[12] So how does Bodyguard depict terrorism and counterterrorism, and how might the show frame its audience’s understanding of these topics?[13] After providing an outline of the plot of Bodyguard, I focus on two issues: the show’s portrayal of what terrorists look like and its account of the surveillance state.



  1. Plot Summary (*Major Spoilers Follow*)


Bodyguard begins with an attempted suicide bombing on a London-bound train, which Budd averts by persuading the terrified female suicide bomber, Nadia (Anjli Mohindra), to surrender. Budd is subsequently assigned as the personal protection officer for Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), the hawkish champion behind a proposed piece of controversial surveillance legislation, known as RIPA ’18 (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2018). Montague’s political ambitions include the top job, and she receives a dossier of compromising material on the Prime Minister from the security services to achieve this end. As she makes her move for Downing Street, her political rivals hatch a plan to thwart her plans for higher office.


Meanwhile, following the attempted train bombing, the police and security sevices scramble to deal with a series of further attacks — an attempted attack with a truck bomb on the school Budd’s children attend, a sniper attack on Julia Montague’s car, and a bombing that kills Montague as she is delivering a speech about RIPA ’18. Budd, who is haunted a combination of grief, his failure to protect Montague (with whom he had an affair), and his PTSD from his time serving in Afghanistan, must avoid becoming the fall-guy for her murder by finding those responsible for her death. He eventually discovers that the conspiracy involves Luke Aikens (an organized crime figure), Chief Superintendent Lorraine Craddock (Budd’s superior and Aikens’ inside source, who disclosed Montague’s itineraries and security protocols), and Nadia, who turns out to be the bomb-making mastermind behind all of the explosive devices used in the various attacks.



  1. Terrorist demography


A problematic aspect of Bodyguard is that it to some extent traffics in stereotypes about Muslims as terrorists. There are two named characters in the show who are identifiable as Muslim from visual cues or dialogue. The first is Tahir Mahmood, introduced as Julia Montague’s public relations advisor. As Montague is giving her final, fateful speech, Mahmood appears offstage, close to where Montague is standing, bearing a briefcase. Shortly thereafter, a bomb detonates, killing them and others present. Mahmood is initially the prime suspect, with the theory being that he was carrying the bomb in the briefcase. With Mahmood’s photo prominently displayed on a computer monitor, the head of SO15 identifies him as “a presumptive suicide bomber”,[14] and observes that police are in the process of investigating his communications and that several members of his family are in custody.


Mahmood turns out to be wholly innocent — he has the misfortune of being both a stooge in the plan by Montague’s political opponents to discredit her, and the inadvertent trigger for the pressure sensor of the bomb planted in the stage. So it could be said that Mahmood’s brief storyline involves a subversion of the stereotype of a Muslim terrorist. But it fairly obvious that Mahmood is a red herring given the point in the series when he is the focus of the police investigation.


In any case, Mahmood is a much less significant character than Nadia, the show’s other named Muslim character. Nadia, as well as all the other identifiable terrorists in Bodyguard (her husband, and the school attackers driving the bomb-laden truck), fit the stereotypical appearance of a Muslim terrorist. By turning out to be the calculating schemer and bomb-maker who has been leading the police investigation astray all along, Nadia subverts the trope of an oppressed, timid Muslim woman under the thrall of a male figure — the person she appears to be when we see her in the show’s opening sequence and in subsequent scenes of her being interviewed. Nonetheless, her portrayal has been criticized as substituting one stereotype for another. This criticism, that the show perpetuates stereotypes about Muslims as terrorists,[15] has been a not uncommon refrain, as there has been a consistent pattern of depicting Muslims as terrorists in similar shows, such as 24 and Homeland, as well as film more generally.[16]


Writer Jed Mercurio defended Bodyguard against accusations of Islamophobia by alluding to the show’s variety of villainous conspirators, as well as noting that the show was merely reflecting the reality of the current terrorist threat to the United Kingdom.[17] Regarding Mercurio’s first point, while it is true that there prove to be several different villains, is it quite clear that Nadia, rather than Aikens or Craddock, is Bodyguard’s Big Bad — indeed this is probably the major revelation in the finale. The motivations of the conspirators are also quite different. Aiken’s interest was in being able to continue running his criminal enterprises unmolested, which the show implies Montague’s plans with RIPA ’18 would have upset by transferring more policing to the security services. Craddock’s motives are venal. Only Nadia, who proudly proclaims that she is the bomb-maker and a jihadi, is depicted as an ideological threat to the state. And, in the end, despite being the most developed of the show’s terrorist characters, Nadia remains a one-note cipher.[18] We know that she wants to “put a sword through the heart of the British Government”,[19] but we have no sense of what drives her hostility towards the British state.


Regarding the second point, while Bodyguard’s depiction of what terrorists look like may merely reflect reality, the perception of that reality is itself mediated — political violence committed by Muslims tends to be framed differently from political violence committed by white non-Muslims. The former is labelled terrorism and is framed in terms of the clash of civilizations; the latter is often not labelled terrorism and is framed as isolated acts of disturbed individuals.[20] However, there are some signs of an increasing awareness of the threat of non-Islamic terrorism. The British government has acknowleged that the threat of extreme right wing terrorism is increasing.[21] Similarly, several studies of recent terrorist attacks in the United States suggest that terrorism perpetrated by right wing extremists poses at least as great a threat as Islamic extremists.[22] But this slice of reality is largely absent from popular cultural depictions of terrorism.[23]


Moreover, in addition to reflecting (a mediated) reality, popular depictions of terrorism serve to further reinforce already existing stereotypes,[24] especially in the absence of real-life experiences to act as a counterweight.[25] The genre trope of dangerous-Muslims-living-among-us feeds into stereotypes about what terrorism and terrorists look like, and these stereotypes filter into social and public (mis)understandings.[26] This in turn exerts a real toll on those who happen to fit the stereotype in the form of racial profiling and discrimination,[27] particularly in an age of lateral surveillance, whereby the populace at large is exhorted to remain vigilant and report suspicious objects and people.[28]


  1. The Surveillance State and its Legislative Foundations


Like other shows of this genre,[29] Bodyguard prominently features the jargon and aesthetics of surveillance — characters refer to communications being encrypted and discuss metadata analysis while scrutinizing CCTV footage on computer screens. But Bodyguard’s central surveillance storyline concerns the enactment of a piece of legislation, RIPA ’18. In this respect, Bodyguard does something different from shows such as 24 and Homeland. Those shows do depict law and legal institutions. For example, congressional oversight committees feature in both — although these are sites for political grandstanding and armchair second-guessing of our hero’s courageous choices,[30] or unwitting accomplices in the enemy’s plan to undermine the state.[31] As for law, whether it be the law regulating domestic national security surveillance or prohibiting torture, it is for the most part something to be overcome or circumvented by the protagonist.[32] In including a storyline regarding the enactment of a piece of legislation, Bodyguard has the opportunity to depict something different, namely the political dynamics surrounding the enactment of  law concerning national security and terrorism.


In the show, RIPA ’18 is a prospective law that would significantly enhance the powers of the security services to engage in surveillance. More specifically, it would allow the state to monitor individuals’ internet search history, phone/email communications and social media without judicial review, and permit evidence information obtained under the Act to be admissible in court. RIPA ’18, referred to by its critics as a snoopers’ charter, is shown to generate political opposition and popular protest (“RIPA one eight, no police state”) on account of its erosion of individual privacy.[33]


The RIPA ’18 storyline is very much a case of art imitating life.[34] Controversies about surveillance and security have been prominent in the United Kingdom over the past few years. For instance, Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly campaigned against encryption technology on account of its exploitation by terrorist groups,[35] while in 2016 it emerged that British security services had been unlawfully collecting personal data in bulk for more than a decade.[36] But the closest parallel and probable inspiration for RIPA ’18 storyline is the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA), the real-life “snoopers’ charter”.[37]


The IPA grants several significant surveillance powers to the state. Among them are powers to intercept communications and to acquire data in bulk, although these are counterbalanced by provision for greater oversight, including a requirement to obtain judicially-approved warrants.[38] The IPA also controversially includes a provision whereby internet service providers can be required to retain internet connection records (ICRs), which include individuals’ internet histories, for 12 months.[39] All in all, the IPA sets up “what is probably the world’s most comprehensive regime for controlling state access to telephony and internet data”.[40] But contrary to its fictional counterpart, the IPA does not change the longstanding bar on the use of intercept evidence — that is, “material acquired via the interception of communications”[41] — in court proceedings.[42]  So, all in all, the fictional RIPA ’18 has some basis in fact, even though some dramatic license has been taken to make its powers even more intrusive than those in the IPA.


The political discourse in Bodyguard surrounding the enactment of RIPA ’18 also has a familiar ring to it. Montague dismisses privacy concerns by emphasizing the imperative of national security and asserting that the innocent have nothing to fear.[43] Referencing the real-life Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, she further argues that existing legal powers are inadequate and that further powers are needed. To bolster her position during a legislative debate, she invokes the attempted train bombing and the specter of failing to prevent the next attack.


Montague’s conduct reflects the common phenomenon of politicians responding to terrorist attacks by calling for new counterterrorism legislation. After a terrorist attack, the imperative of assuaging public concern demands that something swiftly be done in response.[44] This something tends to take the form of legislation providing for new security measures, rather than, say, inquiring into whether an attack was the result of any kind of deficiency in the existing law. That this should be so is explicable as a function of electoral incentives and political risk. Politicians’ incentives are skewed towards erring on the side of security. First, the logic of enacting more security measures is effectively non-falsifiable. If there are no further attacks, then this shows the new measures are effective; if there are further attacks, then this shows the need for more security measures.[45] Second, those affected by new security measures are likely to be relatively few in number, and may be politically marginalized. By contrast, the effects of a terrorist attack are likely to be more widespread through society, and the political cost of even being perceived to be responsible for failing to prevent a terrorist attack is overwhelming.[46]


Predictably, then, instances of counterterrorism legislation being swiftly rushed through a legislature at the behest of the executive in the wake of a terrorist attack are legion. Perhaps the most famous example is the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974, which was enacted just days after the Birmingham pub bombings. More recent examples include the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 and the USA Patriot Act, both of which were enacted following the 9/11 terrorist attacks after exceptionally expedited legislative processes.[47] It is therefore unsurprising that Prime Minister Theresa May’s response to the terrorist attacks that took place in the United Kingdom in 2017 was to call for the creation of further counterterrorism powers.[48]


Ultimately, in Bodyguard, RIPA ’18, which has passed its third reading in the House of Commons, dies along with Montague, having been shelved by her successor. The notion that legislation conferring surveillance powers on the state’s security apparatus would be abandoned after a series of terrorist attacks on home soil is, however, unlikely in the extreme. If anything, the demonstrated pathologies of the political process in responding to terrorist attacks suggest the opposite outcome is more likely — that is, RIPA ’18, perhaps with further bolstered powers, swiftly becoming law, with any political opposition dampened by self-censorship or derided as naïve civil libertarian extremism. Perhaps the fate of RIPA ’18 can be explained within the logic of the plot by the head of the security services, which stood to benefit from the new legislation, being publicly implicated in the plot to undermine the Prime Minister. But here too, reality is different. The revelation during the legislative process of wrongdoing by the British security services in the form of  long-term unlawful surveillance did not derail the enactment of the IPA.[49] And despite ongoing legal challenges to certain provisions,[50] the IPA — and the security surveillance state it further enables — looks here to stay.



John Ip is Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, the University of Auckland. 

Copyright © 2019 John Ip

[1] For the categories of Best Television Series – Drama, and Best Actor – Television Series Drama. It won in the latter category.

[2] The Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command.

[3] The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which is responsible for setting the terrorism threat level: see Paul F. Scott, The National Security Constitution 12  (2018).

[4] Armed response vehicles.

[5] The Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Firearms Command.

[6] A head shot intended to instantly incapacitate a threat to the public such a suicide bomber: see Peter Squires & Peter Kennison, Shooting to Kill? 32–35 (2010).

[7] See Christian William Erickson, Thematics of counterterrorism: comparing 24 and MI-5/Spooks, 1 Crit. Stud. Terrorism 343 (2008).

[8] Max Hill, The Terrorism Acts in 2017, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (Oct. 2018), paras. 3.8­–3.9,

[9] Jim Waterson, Catch-up viewers make BBC’s Bodyguard ‘drama of decade’, Guardian (Sept. 4 2018),

[10] The latter can be found at

[11] Lee Jarvis & Michael Lister, ‘I read it in the FT’: ‘Everyday’ knowledge of counter-terrorism and its articulation, in Critical Perspectives on Counter-Terrorism 109, 112 (Lee Jarvis & Michael Lister eds., 2015).

[12] Kimberlianne Podlas, Testing Television: Studying and Understanding the Impact of Television’s Depictions of Law and Justice, in Law and Justice on the Small Screen 87, 88 (Peter Robson & Jessica Silbey eds., 2012).

[13] The most examined show in relation to these issues is Fox’s 24. See, e.g., Tung Yin, Jack Bauer Syndrome: Hollywood’s Depiction of National Security Law, 17 S. Cal. Interdis. L.J. 279 (2008); Steven Keslowitz, The Trial of Jack Bauer: The Televised Trial of America’s Favorite Fictional Hero and Its Influence on the Current Debate on Torture, 31 Cardozo L. Rev. 1125 (2010); Desmond Manderson, Trust US Justice: ‘24’, Popular Culture and the Law, in Imagining Legality: Where Law meets Popular Culture 22 (Austin Sarat ed. 2011).

[14] Bodyguard: episode 4 (BBC 2018).

[15] See Tasnim Nazeer, Memo to Bodyguard writers: Muslim women are more than victims or terrorists, Guardian (Sept. 24, 2018); Shelina Janmohamed,  Bodyguard’s worst offence? Its desperate stereotypes about Muslim women, Telegraph (Sept. 24, 2018); Shehab Khan, BBC’s Bodyguard ‘swapped one stereotype of Muslim women for another’, Islamic feminist scholar says,  Independent (Oct. 7, 2018);

Stuart Jeffries, Beyond Bodyguard: can the BBC’s Informer finally subvert the Muslim stereotype on TV?, Guardian (Oct. 16, 2018)

[16] Melena Ryzik, Can Television Be Fair to Muslims?, N.Y. Times (Nov. 30, 2016); Juliet Kleber, Homeland’s Guilt Trip, New Republic (Mar. 31, 2017),; James Poniewozik, ‘24: Legacy,’ a One-Hour Super Bowl Ad for Islamophobia, N.Y. Times (Feb. 6, 2017); Jack G. Shaheen, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 (2008); Tung Yin, Through a Screen Darkly: Hollywood as a Measure of Discrimination Against Arabs and Muslims, 2 Duke F. L. & Soc. Change 103 (2010).

[17] Jack Shepherd, Bodyguard writer Jed Mercurio rejects Islamophobia accusations, Independent (Sept. 11, 2018)

[18] I borrow this terminology from Yin, supra n 13, at 295.

[19] Bodyguard: episode 6 (BBC 2018).

[20] Caroline Mala Corbin, ‘Terrorists are Always Muslim But Never White’: At the Intersection of Critical Race Theory and Propaganda, 86 Fordham L. Rev. 101, 113–119 (2017). See also Tung Yin, Were Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber the Only White Terrorists?: Race, Religion, and the Perception of Terrorism, 4 Ala. C.R. & C.L. L. Rev. 33 (2013).

[21] Hill, supra n 8, at  paras 3.27–3.28.

[22] Corbin,  supra n 20, at 129–130 (summarizing studies).

[23] Though not entirely so. One interesting example is 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, in which the villain was changed to a neo-Nazi rather than a Muslim terrorist: see Yin, supra n 13, at 295.

[24] John Tehranian, The Last Minstrel Show? Racial Profiling, the War on Terrorism and the Mass Media, 41 Conn. L. Rev. 781, 798 (2009).

[25] See Kleber, supra n 16 (“most Americans rarely or never encounter a Muslim person in their actual lives, they are routinely subject to television’s views of them”). See also Amber Phillips, Americans are increasingly skeptical of Muslims. But most Americans don’t talk to Muslims, Wash. Post (July 15, 2016)

[26] Yin, supra n 16, at 118. See also Vanessa Thorpe, BBC under fire for ‘false reality’, Guardian (Oct. 17 2004)

[27] Tehranian, supra n 24, at 816–817. In the United Kingdom, the power under Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000, c. 11 to stop and examine travellers at ports and airports without resonable suspicion has long been considered by the Muslim community to single its members out for unfair scrutiny: see Tufyal Choudhury & Helen Fenwick, The impact of counter-terrorism measures on Muslim communities, 25 Int’l Rev. L. Comp. & Tech. 151, 160–167 (2011); Hill, supra n 8, at para 1.14. The government’s Prevent strategy, aimed at preventing radicalization, is also viewed skeptically: see Hill, supra n 8, at para 1.14; Jamie Grierson, ‘My son was terrified’: how Prevent alienates UK Muslims, Guardian (Jan. 27 2019); Jamie Grierson and Vikram Dodd, Prevent strategy on radicalisation faces independent review, Guardian (Jan. 22 2019)

[28] Yin, supra n 16, at 118. See generally Janet Chan, The new lateral surveillance and a culture of suspicion, in Surveillance and Governance: Crime Control and Beyond 223 (Mathieu Deflem & Jeffrey T. Ulmer eds., 2008).

[29] See Erickson, supra n 7, at 347.

[30] 24, season 7 (Fox 2009). The hearing is chaired by one Senator Blaine Mayer, a barely veiled reference to New Yorker reporter, Jane Mayer, who had earlier written an article criticizing the show: see Jeffrey Goldberg, Jane Mayer on Being Immortalized by the Pro-Torture “24”, Atlantic (Jan. 15, 2009)

[31] Homeland, season 7 (Showtime 2018).

[32] One exception is the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, specifically U.S. Const. amend. XXV, § 4. The operation of this provision, which specifies a procedure for replacing a President unable to discharge the powers and duties of their office, has been depicted in both 24 (seasons 2 and 6) and Homeland (season 7).

[33] Bodyguard: episode 3 (BBC 2018).

[34] Ruth Campbell, BBC’s Bodyguard is Closer to Reality Than You Think, Rights Info (Sept. 24 2018),

[35] Alex Hern, May calls again for tech firms to act on encrypted messaging, Guardian (Jan. 25, 2018),

[36] Privacy International v. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs [2016] UKIP 15_110 CH (U.K.); Alan Travis, UK security agencies unlawfully collected data for 17 years, court rules, Guardian (Oct. 17, 2016),

[37] Zoe Kleinman, ‘Snoopers’ charter’ petition hits signatures target, BBC News (Nov. 28, 2016), Much of the Act did not come into force until 2018.

[38] Daniella Lock, The Investigatory Powers Act: The Official Entrenchment of Far-Reaching Surveillance Powers, Just Security (Nov. 30, 2016),

[39] Investigatory Powers Act 2016, c. 25 (U.K.), §§ 87­–98.

[40] Tom Hickman, Regulating internet surveillance, Counsel Magazine (May 2018), See also Ewen MacAskill, ‘Extreme surveillance’ becomes UK law with barely a whimper, Guardian (Nov. 19, 2016),

[41] Scott, supra n 3, at 14.

[42] Investigatory Powers Act 2016, c. 25 (U.K.), § 56. See also Lydia Morgan & Fiona de Londras, Is there a ‘Conservative’ Counter-Terrorism?, 29 King’s L.J. 187, 194 (2018).

[43] See generally Daniel J. Solove, Nothing to Hide (Yale University Press 2011).

[44] Conor Gearty, Political Violence and Civil Liberties, in Individual Rights and the Law in Britain 145, 164 (Christopher McCrudden & Gerald Chambers eds., 1994); Philip A. Thomas, Emergency and Anti-Terrorist Powers, 26 Fordham Int’l L.J. 1193, 1196 (2003).

[45] Gearty, supra n 44, at 166.

[46] See Aziz Z. Huq, Structural Constitutionalism as Counterterrorism, 100 Cal. L. Rev. 887, 921 (2012); Laura K. Donohue, The Cost of Counterterrorism 12 (2008).

[47] In the UK and US respectively. See John Ip, Sunset Clauses and Counterterrorism Legislation, [2013] Pub. Law 74, 84–85.

[48] Helen Fenwick, Probing Theresa May’s response to the recent terror attacks, [2017] Eur. H.R. L. Rev. 341, 341 (2017).

[49] Travis, supra n 36.

[50] See Ian Cobain, UK has six months to rewrite snooper’s charter, high court rules, Guardian (Apr. 27, 2018),