The challenge of 9/11
The Foreign Office has undergone a major review of it all its propaganda work 'using' as an internal report puts it 'the events of 11 September as a peg'. Following the US example the Foreign Office 're-branded' its propaganda work as 'public diplomacy in the late 1990s. The review of public diplomacy has brought together all Foreign Office activity in this area including the BBC World Service and the Cultural propaganda outfit the British Council. The review concluded that the government needed an 'overarching public diplomacy strategy' which would shape the 'core messages that we wish to put across to our target audiences.' To oversee this propaganda effort a strategy board was appointed.
Mark Leonard of the Foreign Policy Centre, a think tank set up by Tony Blair and then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has written extensively on public diplomacy. His view on honesty and openness in communication is that neither should be an obstacle to government propaganda: 'If a message will engender distrust simply because it is coming from a foreign government then the government should hide that fact as much as possible'. One can guess how much this reflects official thinking by the fact that Leonard is now one of the members of the Public Diplomacy Strategy Board which oversees FCO propaganda.
The Foreign Office has a long history of covert and semi covert propaganda operations via the secret Information Research Department, closed down in 1978 and its successor the Information Department which continued the tradition of 'grey' propaganda in the production of briefings, news stories, radio and tv items which were planted in news outlets around the world. The Foreign Office was historically rather coy about the fact that these were produced by the British government. Today the tradition continues. Four 'grey' propaganda operations run by the FCO are the London Press Service, the London Radio Service, the London Television Service and the relatively new British Satellite News. These provide pro-British news and information free of charge and copyright to news organisations across the world there is little indication on the material itself that it is produced by the British government and it is then published in international media as if it was genuine news. The response to September 11 has been to step up such material and reshape the entire information apparatus with renewed emphasis on managing perceptions overseas.
A favoured tactic is to conduct trips for journalists. The Foreign Office departmental report brags about the success of one to Afghanistan in 2002. According to FCO propaganda official David Dearnley the journalists, from Islamic media were shown 'what Britain and the British-led forces were doing to help rebuild Afghanistan.' The journalists were also taken 'through some of the most devastated parts of the city to a recently refurbished school where many girls and young women were eagerly taking the opportunity to catch up on their education.' Little is shown of the truth of the situation in Afghanistan which by July 2003 was described as follows: 'More than 18 months after the collapse of the Taliban regime, there is a remarkable consensus among aid workers, NGOs and UN officials that the situation is deteriorating. There is a further point of consensus: that the deterioration is a direct consequence of "coalition" policy.' Instead, as the Foreign Office blushingly tells us: 'The journalists subsequently published many articles giving positive coverage of Britain’s work in Afghanistan'
The attack on Afghanistan in 2001 also occasioned the creation of a unit within the Foreign Office tasked specifically with dealing with the Islamic media such as Al Jazera and Abu Dhabi TV. It was made permanent in 2002. As the attack on Iraq loomed the rare UK media mentions of the unit painted it as a traditional example of plucky yet genteel British propaganda. The Head of the unit Gerard Russell is described as 'Britain's lone crusader' or as 'almost single-handedly responsible' for putting the British case in the Arab world. This picture fails to take account of the fact that the Islamic Media Unit which Russell heads, has eight staff and is tapped into the rest of the extensive apparatus of public diplomacy including work with the London Correspondents Unit which brings arranges visits to Britain for journalists from the Arab world and British Satellite News which beams slanted news coverage into the Middle East with both English and Arabic scripts. Russell says 'a lot of my job is demolishing myths' and countering the 'emotive enunciations of extreme views on Arab television'. Among the myths are the notion that US and UK imperialism are alive and well today. According to Russell: 'I have to be very careful when I talk about democracy that they understand this means power of the people, and not imposing western ways of life or undermining Arab identity'.
The strategy of the FCO is to fundamentally misrepresent the British role as consisting of benevolence and a respect for human rights. UK 'public diplomacy' campaigns are not propaganda but the truth. The Public Diplomacy Strategy of the government is available on the web, but has caused no major headlines in the media. The 'core narrative' of the strategy includes maintaining that the UK is
- principled and professional as shown in our:…
- -reliability, straight dealing and trustworthiness in business and international affairs.
- -Commitment to justice, human rights, the rule of law and international security.
This statement was written and posted on the Internet in May 2003 just after the attack on Iraq - in breach of international law and after the systematic deception about the threat from Iraq had started to unravel in the media. A clear illustration of the parallel universe inhabited by the UK government's propagandists.
The department of the Foreign Office engaged in propaganda and information control have gone through a number of iterations. The News Department was created in 1916 and is the longest surviving department, only abolished in 2002. It focused on dealing with the media directly. Also important have been a series of departments dealing with background briefing, BBC World Service, the British Council and covert propaganda operations. These have included the following: The Information Research Department created in 1947 and tasked as an anti-communist propaganda outfit. It was joined in the post war period by the Information Policy Department focused on 'supervising the work of UK Information Officers in posts around the world'. Working alongside from the late 1950s was the Information Executive Department (previously known as the Information Services Department) with responsibility for 'the complex practical problems of putting the agreed propaganda line across to foreign audiences'. In addition there was the Cultural Relations Department which performed the role of supervising the British Council.
The organisation of propaganda changed with the closing of the IRD in 1978. Its replacement was called the Overseas Information Department which within a few years in the early 1980s became the Information Department.
The shift to 'Public Diplomacy'
It was not until after the election of the Tony Blair government that significant changes occurred in the organisation of British propaganda. These were in train as part of the 'cool Britannia' hype of the late 1990s in concert with the Foreign Policy Centre's corporate funders. On 1 April 1998, the Blair government created Panel 2000, which was to examine British propaganda activities. It reccommended the creation of the Britain Abroad Task Force which was duly created by 2001. This was followed by the Wilton Review of March 2002 and then by Lord Carter of Coles Review of Public Diplomacy in 2004. Organisationally the Information Department ceased to be in 2001 with the creation of the Public Diplomacy Department by August of that year, which was then renamed the Public Diplomacy Policy Department by January 2003. The Public Diplomacy Strategy Board was also set up to direct public diplomacy activities following the Wilton Review. Following Lord Carter of Coles' Review of Public Diplomacy, which was delivered to the Foreign Secretary on 13 December 2005 the Public Diplomacy Board was set up in April 2006 along with the Public Diplomacy Partners Group. They are supported by the Public Diplomacy Group within the Foreign Office, which replaces the Public Diplomacy Policy Department.
The FCO has £400 million budget for 2008-2010 in relation to counter-terrorism. The Department for International Development and British Council (under the control of the Foreign Office) are also involved in delivering projects overseas regarding the prevention of "terrorism" and prevention of violent extremism. On a domestic front, counter-terrorism funding is being used “to counter extremists' false characterisation of the UK as being a place where Muslims are oppressed...[employing] language specialists…to explain British policies and the role of Muslims in British society, in print, visual and electronic media.”
The FCO provided £520,000 for an organisation called Deen International, which is currently using the money in a project called ‘I am the West’. The aim of this project is to ensure that target audiences in Pakistan have “constructive debate[s] on the compatibility of liberal and Muslim values and understand that “the West is not ‘anti-Islamic, British society is not ‘anti-Islam’ and Muslims are integrated” into British society fully.
Ed Husain, co-Director of the Quilliam Foundation participated in the 'Projecting British Islam' project being run by the FCO from 7-11 July 2008. Ed Husain visited Cairo and Alexandria to counter the "extremist ideology and narrative" and promote "modern Islam".
- Wilton Review
- Panel 2000
- Britain Abroad Task Force
- Coalition Information Center
- Engaging with the Islamic World
- Strategic Programme Fund formerly Global Opportunities Fund
- SPF Counter Terrorism Programme
- "It’s official: the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has launched #FCDO"
- "Sir Philip Barton appointed as Permanent Under-Secretary of new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office"
- "Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Departmental Report 2003 Chapter 8, Influence worldwide, p. 83"
- Mark Leonard 'Diplomacy by other means' Foreign Policy, Sept/Oct 2002, <http://www.foreignpolicy.com>, cited in Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage 2003.
- On IRD see Lashmar, P. and Oliver, J. (1998) Britain's Secret Propaganda War 1948-1977, Sutton Publishing; On the Information Department see David Miller (1994) Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, Pluto Press.
- <http://www.lrs.co.uk/user/default.cfm>; <http://www.londontv.com/>; <http://www.bsn.org.uk/>
- Isabel Hilton 'Now we pay the warlords to tyrannise the Afghan people' The Guardian Thursday July 31, 2003 <http://politics.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,9115,1009505,00.html>
- FCO, Departmental Report 2003, p. 84.
- Julia Day 'FO goes on offensive in media war' The Guardian, June 17, 2002 <http://media.guardian.co.uk/attack/story/0,1301,739032,00.html>; Christina Lamb 'Our man in the land of Zam Zam Cola', New Statesman, Dec 16-Dec 30, 2002 p. 32. <http://www.newstatesman.co.uk/iraqdossier/clamb.htm>; Anton La Guardia 'British spokesman assumes star status in Middle East' Daily Telegraph 1 April 2003 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/04/01/nmed101.xml>
- Tom Baldwin, The Times, 16 January 2002, <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,129-178198,00.html>
- Lamb, Our man
- Lamb, Our man
- Public Diplomacy Strategy Board, Public Diplomacy Strategy, London: FCO, <http://www.fco.gov.uk/Files/KFile/PUBLICDIPLOMACYSTRATEGY_May2003.pdf>
- IPO Directories, September 2002; January 2003
- Black, J, (1975) Organising the Propaganda Instrument: the British Experience, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff., p.15
- Black, Ibid. p 19
- Black Ibid. p. 20
- IPO directories, January 2001, August 2001
- IPO directory, January 2003
- Arun Kundnani,Spooked: How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism October 2009, accessed 17/11/09
- PM Gordon Brown National Security Statement, 14 November 2007, Number10.gov.uk - accessed 19/11/09
- Countering International Terrorism: The Battle of Ideas, date unknown, MI5 Security Service accessed 19/11/09
- Arun Kundnani,Spooked: How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism October 2009, p. 12, accessed 17/11/09
- Project Synopsis: I am the West Deen International, p. 3, accessed 19/11/09
- Freedom of Information Request No. 1121-09, 22 January 2010
- Freedom of Information Request No. 1121-09, 22 January 2010