“Tainting the Al-Qaida brand”
Chatting with a friend about a government which seems intent upon destroying the thin barrier between the arms of the state and the sphere of democratic debate, I remarked that all too often, modern governments seem intent upon using Orwell’s novel, 1984, as a guide-book rather than as a cautionary tale. For anyone aware of Nick Davies’ book “Flat Earth News,” the cautionary tale came another step closer to reality with yesterday’s stories about the activities of Home Office department RICU, set up by Bruiser Reid, and their American counterparts.
The Research, Information and Communications Unit is apparently embroiled in a plot to “taint the Al-Qaida brand” by targeting the BBC and media-oriented web forums using “volunteers” to disseminate carefully chosen themes, in the hope that they will be picked up by the media. This is part of a two-stage plan, the other half of which involved trying to reach “decision makers and other stakeholders” by having anyone likely to be interviewed briefed via crib-sheets that target the same themes: Al-Qaida on the wane, Al-Qaida having no answers etc.
Few people will argue that Al-Qaida can contribute anything of worth to a genuine debate surrounding the future of our country, but that doesn’t make the fact that the government is trying to covertly interfere with that debate any less worrying. There exist vast problems in how the media chooses what stories to cover: more so now than ever before, editorial judgment at some of the most responsible newspapers and broadcasting organisations seem irreparably impaired, to the benefit of government and private capital.
One need only consider Roger Alton and the pro-war pronouncements of the Observer, despite evidence that their journalists had in their possession that much of the anti-war claims were in fact totally correct. This is interference high above the level of that which Rupert Murdoch frequently resorts to, such as when preventing his own newspapers from running the same scurrilous stories about his Chinese wife as all the other tabloids ran when first those stories broke. It is much more dangerous too.
We may not have reached the level of the Cold War just yet – but for those seeking another cautionary tale, I recommend Frances Stonor Saunders’ book “Who Paid the Piper?” Saunders documents the war waged by the Western governments and their cultural elites against the spread of communist ideas, often via innocuous-sounding or even left-wing think-tanks and cultural groups, much funded by the CIA. The current level of ‘information management’ is not so all-pervasive but is much more adapted to the current institutional configurations of the press – and thereby may carry its own dangers.
For those who think that it’s safe because it’s directed at Al-Qaida, I can only suggest that they look into the history of what seems to be RICU’s closest predecessor in terms of job description: Edward Heath’s Information Research Department and its involvement with the campaign to join the common market. Or, closer still to home, the campaigns of the British security services against those groups surrounding the 1984 NUM strike. Just because the information management is directed against groups both left and right can’t abide is no excuse.
Most worrying of all is that this sort of thing is happening under the auspices of a Labour government. Heath’s IRD was shut down by David Owen, under Wilson’s term of government. Where now is the Labour bulwark against the expansion of the propagandist powers of the state? Actively co-operating by the looks of things, for all of Gordon Brown’s remarks on fighting the culture of secrecy – and then openly considering the reduction in scope of freedom of information laws. Should a resurgent labour movement spring up, rest assured powers of information management are unlikely to go unused.
It’s easy, at this point, to come off with a quote from Jefferson about how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but in truth it would be trite because our vigilance has failed. It will not be restored merely because we can get together under the banner of a few NGOs and protest in parliament square (though one wonders for how much longer even that luxury will be afforded to us). If our freedom is circumscribed by the power of the state to regulate, by default, editorial decisions which affect what information we get in the first place, we really have no freedom at all.
This is precisely the scenario we’re now facing, where senior commanders in the military, senior civil servants and senior politicos can go to conferences where they all learn how to control the media coverage of whatever event or policy they’ve been charged with managing. Telling among the “line” to be taken on Al-Qaida is the various ways the state is trying to discredit the personalities whipping up support, and place on pedestals those religious figures who oppose Al-Qaida. How far is it from this to simply making up scurrilous stories about foreign political opponents? We tread a very dangerous path indeed.