Monthly Archives: January 2019

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2019

Last month Ritula Shah presented a BBC World Service discussion programme titled Is ‘Fake News’ A Threat To Democracy? Predictably the debate focused on Russian attempts to influence Western populations and political systems.

Asked whether the US has been involved in similar activities, Dr Kathleen Bailey, a senior figure in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1980s, was dismissive: “We [the US] certainly do not have a budget, bureaucracy or intellectual commitment to doing that kind of thing.”

Carl Miller, the Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, also played down the West’s activities: “I think Western countries do do less of this as a kind of tool of foreign policy than autocracies”.

“Read real journalism” – presumably BBC journalism – was one of the guest’s suggestions for countering Fake News.

Putting this self-serving and self-congratulatory narrative to one side, it is worth considering the BBC’s, and particularly the BBC World Service’s, own relationship to the British government’s own propaganda.

“Directly funded by government [the Foreign Office], rather than the licence fee” the World Service is “deeply embedded in the foreign policy, security and intelligence apparatus of the British state”, Dr Tom Mills notes in his must-read 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

In particular, the BBC had a very close relationship to the Information Research Department [IRD] – “a Foreign Office propaganda outfit which sought especially to foster anti-communist sentiments on the left”, explains Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University.

Set up in 1948, the IRD “was one of the largest and best-funded sections of the Foreign Office until it was discreetly shut down in 1977 on the orders of [then Foreign Secretary] David Owen”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain reported in the Guardian in July 2018. A 1963 Foreign Office review of IRD sets out the work of the covert unit: “The primary aim is unattributable propaganda through IRD outlets – eg in the press, the political parties… and a number of societies”.

Focusing on the Soviet Union and its supposed influence around the world, “IRD material poured into the BBC and was directed to news desks, talks writers and different specialist correspondents”, according to Paul Lashmar and James Oliver in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, their 1998 history of the clandestine organisation. The programming of the BBC’s Overseas Service [which would change its name to the World Service in 1965] “was developed in close consultation with the Foreign Office and its information departments”, they highlight.

The BBC “were seemingly quite content to be directed by the FO [Foreign Office] as to how to deal with Middle Eastern personalities, and enquired whether it was desirable for them ‘to deal in a more or less bare-fisted manner with any of the leading statesmen (or their principle spokesmen)’”, notes Simon Collier in his 2013 PhD thesis on IRD and UK foreign policy. Infamously, the BBC played a key role in the US-UK assisted overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, with the signal for the coup to begin arranged with the BBC. That day the corporation begun its Persian language news broadcast not with the usual “it is now midnight in London”, but instead with “it is now exactly midnight”, reveals historian Mark Curtis in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

When it came to nuclear war, the BBC was similarly careful about what was broadcast, effectively banning the dramatised documentary film War Game in 1965 (even though they had originally commissioned it). Discussing the film’s depiction of a nuclear attack on the UK, the Chairman of the BBC wrote to the Cabinet Secretary arguing that the “showing of the film on television might well have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”

Though formally concerned with foreign influence, IRD also took a close interest in UK domestic politics, including in the Northern Ireland conflict, aswell as carrying out campaigns against people they suspected were Communists and trade unionists. For example, writing in the Guardian last year Cobain reported “senior figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour government plotted to use a secret Foreign Office propaganda unit [IRD] to smear a number of leftwing trade union leaders”, including Jack Jones, the General-Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In the same report Cobain highlights a letter the BBC Director General wrote to IRD in 1974 asking for a briefing on “subversives” working in broadcasting. This, it seems likely, was a complement to the wider political vetting the BBC undertook, with the help of MI5, between the 1930s and 1985. Communists and members of the Socialist Worker’s Party and Militant Tendency were barred from key positions at the BBC, or denied promotion if they were already working for the corporation, according to a memo from 1984, with an image reassembling a Christmas tree added to the personnel files of individuals under suspicion.

It is important to understand the relationship between the BBC and IRD and the wider British state was kept deliberately vague, a quintessential British fudge of formal and informal connections and influence. “Many of the executives of the BBC had gone to the same public schools, and inevitably Oxbridge, with their Foreign Office colleagues”, note Lashmar and Oliver. “Both were part of the establishment, attending the same gentleman’s clubs and having an implicit understanding of what constituted the national interest.”

Cutting through this fog, Mills provides a concise summary: “During the Cold War period the BBC was… distributing propaganda material in close cooperation with the British state”. However, he is keen to highlight that though “there is a temptation to view all this as merely a feature of the Cold War… there is no good reason to think that there is not still significant collusion”.

He quotes Dr Emma Briant, who notes in her 2015 book Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism the BBC Director General receives direct briefings from the UK intelligence services “on the right line to take on whether something is in the national and operational interest to broadcast.”

Indeed, out of all the UK broadcasters’ coverage of the Iraq War, the BBC was revealed to by the most sympathetic to the government, according to a 2003 study led by Professor Justin Lewis from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. Defending the BBC’s reporting in a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, then BBC Director General Greg Dyke noted he had “set up a committee… which insisted that we had to find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on.” The same committee “when faced with a massive bias against the war among phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through and getting onto the programmes”, Dyke explained. This “was done in an attempt to ensure our coverage was balanced”, Dyke wrote, apparently with a straight face.

Moreover, academic studies on issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the financial crisis shows the BBC has tended to reflect “the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives”, to quote Mills on the BBC’s overall journalistic output.

Turning to contemporary politics, in 2016 Sir Michael Lyons, the former Chair of the BBC Trust, raised concerns about the corporation’s coverage of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this”, he noted.

As is often the case, a careful reading of establishment sources can provide illumination about what is really going on. Concerned about the government proposed cuts to the World Service, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted the propaganda role of the BBC in 2014: “We believe that it would not be in the interests of the UK for the BBC to lose sight of the priorities of the FCO, which relies upon the World Service as an instrument of ‘soft power’.”

Fake News indeed.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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How three courageous individuals saved humanity

How three courageous individuals saved humanity
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 December 2018

What difference can one person make when it comes to influencing global politics?

Very little, you might think. However, a careful reading of several crisis points in modern history throws up inspiring examples of individuals acting courageously under intense pressure to save humanity from itself.

One such person is Vasili Arkipov, a Soviet naval officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, whose story activist Milan Rai rivetingly tells in a 2014 article for Telesur (and which the account that follows is based on). With the US and Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war, on 27 October a US taskforce of surface ships and aircraft was harassing, in international waters, a Soviet submarine, B-59, on which Arkipov was second in command. In an attempt to force the submarine to the surface and drive it away from Cuba, the US ships conducted extreme sonar sound attacks on the B-59, and dropped five practice depth charges. The number is important. A few days earlier the US had sent a document to the Soviet forces explaining their signalling system for a ship to surface was five practice depth charges. The commanders on B-59, who were used to three warning practice depth charges as the signal to surface, never received this information.

With the submarine crew enduring temperatures of around 45oC and dangerous levels of CO2, the captain of B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch, concluded that a war between the US and the Soviet Union had started and ordered the firing of a nuclear torpedo at the US taskfore. The firing of the “special weapon” required the consent of the captain, the Political Officer and the second in command, Arkipov. The Political Officer consented. Arkipov refused to give his consent. “He halted the firing of a nuclear weapon that would almost certainly have triggered US retaliation against Cuba and the Soviet Union that would have led to a devastating global nuclear war”, Rai notes.

Fast forward to 1983 and another Soviet commander single-handedly stopped another catastrophic nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union.

It was a time of high tensions in the Cold War. US president Ronald Reagan had recently called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”, and was modernising the US’s nuclear weapons, with medium-range missiles about to be moved into Western Europe.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet air defence forces, on 26 September Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, a secret command centre near Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites orbiting over the US.

“Early in the morning alarms went off and computers sent signals that a US Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched from an American base”, the Guardian noted in its obituary of Petrov, who died last year, aged 77. “A few seconds later they seemed to detect that four more missiles had been launched.”

Petrov’s job was to tell his superior officers, who would report to the Soviet military’s general staff, who would then consult the Soviet leader at the time, Yuri Andropov, about launching a counterattack. “Petrov’s computer systems said the reliability of the satellites’ information was at the ‘highest’ level’”, explained the Guardian. “Only 25 minutes would pass between the missiles’ launch and their detonation.”

Luckily, Petrov decided to report the alert as a system malfunction. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he explained to the Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” He was right. The alarm was apparently caused by a Soviet satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds for a US missile launch.

More recently, an American intelligence analyst played a key role in stopping US military action against Iran, supposedly because of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.

In October 2007 US President George Bush had given a press conference with hostilities rising between the US and Iran. “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three it seem like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon”, he said. Discussing this period of US-Iranian relations in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, Bush noted “military action would always be on the table”. However, the interventionist Bush Administration didn’t contend with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”, were the report’s first words, which represented the consensus of the 16 US intelligence agencies. The principal author of the report was Thomas Fingar, an intelligence analyst who became Chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 2005, following the intelligence catastrophe of the Iraq War. According to former CIA officer Ray McGovern, Fingar was “a practitioner of the old-time ethos of objective, non-politicized intelligence.”

Bush described the NIE as “an eye-popping declaration” in his book. It “tied my hands on the military side… after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program”, he wrote.

“Almost single-handedly he [Fingar] has stopped or, at the very least, postponed any US military action against Iran”, the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill noted a few weeks after the NIE was made public.

Comprised of senior people in the military or intelligence services acting in extraordinary situations to prevent mass killing, we should remember and celebrate all three of them. Rai suggests 27 October should be Arkhipov Day, a world holiday, for example.

But what can normal people like you or I do to make the world a better place?

Speaking in the essential 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, US dissident Noam Chomsky maintains critical thinking and resistance is extremely difficult on your own: “You can’t fight the world alone. Some people can, but it’s pretty rare.”

“The way to do it is through organisation”, he says. Individuals can maximise their influence and power by joining together with others, providing the opportunity for the pooling of resources and knowledge which may, with lots of work, eventually create the conditions in which elites can be challenged and possibly defeated.

From Extinction Rebellion to political parties such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Green Party and grassroots media outlets like Peace News and Novara Media, there is no shortage of organisations working for substantial change who would welcome any support they can get.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2018

A common response to those protesting is to dismiss it is a waste of time – “the government doesn’t listen”, “things never change” opine the naysayers. Frustratingly, this argument is sometimes even made by those doing the protesting themselves. On the 10th anniversary of the huge 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park that day – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.

Leftists and activists working for progressive social change would be wise to steer clear of this kind of negativity, and instead remember that actions and protests often have unexpected, positive effects on other people and the wider world.

This rule very much applies to protests that seem like a failure at the time.

For example, in the early 1960s, Lisa Peattie, a young American widow, took two of her children to a vigil in front of the White House to protest nuclear testing.

“The vigil was small, a hundred women at most”, Paul Loeb, a friend of Peattie’s, writes in his bestselling 1999 book The Soul Of A Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. “Rain poured down. Lisa’s children were restless. Frustrated and soaked, the women joked about how President Kennedy was no doubt sitting inside drinking hot chocolate, warm, comfortable, and not even looking at their signs.”

A few years later, Peattie attended another march in Washington D.C. about nuclear testing, this one significantly larger. One of the speakers that day was the famous paediatrician Benjamin Spock. “Spock described how he’d come to take a stand on the nuclear issue”, Loeb notes. “Because of his stature, his decision was immensely consequential, and would pave the way for his equally important opposition to the Vietnam War.” And here is the kicker: “Spock mentioned being in D.C. a few years earlier, and seeing a small group of women marching with their kids in the pouring rain.”

“I thought that if those women were out there,” Spock said, “their cause must be really important.”

According to the author Tom Wells, “few activists” in the anti-war movement Spock went on to play such an important part in “fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed.” Despite this ignorance the movement “played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, Wells concludes in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam. This analysis was confirmed by Admiral Moorer, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon Administration, who told Wells, “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.”

The Vietnam War provides another case of the unexpected impact of activism. In the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg worked as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation where he helped to compile a top-secret study of the history of the war that had been commissioned by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “He was very hawkish”, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett said about Ellsberg, having met him in Vietnam in 1966 when he was leading a patrol to locate an enemy sniper.

Growing increasingly disillusioned by the war, around 1969 Ellsberg began going along to anti-war movement events and protests, encouraged by his then girlfriend, and now wife. While attending a War Resister’s League conference and listening to draft resister Randy Kehler talk about his fellow activists going to prison, Ellsberg experienced a kind of epiphany. “It was as if an axe had split my head”, Ellsberg recounts in the 2009 documentary about his life, The Most Dangerous Man in America. “But what had really happened is that my life had split into two. It was my life after those words that I have lived ever since.” This life famously included deciding to leak, in 1971, the top secret history – now known as The Pentagon Papers – which exposed the lies the US government had been telling the American people for decades. “If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy those papers”, Ellsberg later said.

With the release of the Pentagon Papers failing to rouse the American public to rise up and stop the destruction of Vietnam, the documentary describes how Ellsberg felt he had failed. But while his actions may have failed to stop the war – an impossible feat for one individual, of course – he had a huge influence on another whistleblower more than four decades later: US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

“While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not – and this was an agonising process because it was certainly life-changing – I watched that documentary [The Most Dangerous Man in America]”, Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents in 2013, told the Guardian in January. “Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this, it helps prepare someone to make that jump themselves.”

This process of apparent defeat turning out to be the start of something hugely influential and powerful can be seen in UK protest too.

In the early 1990s a group of concerned young people set up camp at Twyford Down in 1992 to try to stop the building of the M3 motorway extension through beautiful chalk downland. This construction was part of “the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”, the Tory government had boasted in 1989. After living in tents in terrible conditions for several months, in December 1992 the protesters were violently evicted in what became known as Yellow Wednesday. Defeated and physically exhausted the group left the camp, and while there were many other protests, the road went ahead.

However, though the road was built, the Twyford Down protests lit the fuse for a growing movement against road building across the UK, with camps and nonviolent direct action sprouting up against the M11 Link Road in east London, at Solsbury Hill, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle, the Newbury Bypass and many other places, causing the government and road builders huge problems. With the Tories on their last legs and public opinion shifting, the road building programme was effectively scrapped. The 600 proposed new road schemes dropped to 150 by 1997, with Labour putting the whole programme on hold after that year’s general election. The activists at Twyford Down and the other anti-roads protests had lost nearly every individual battle, but in the end they won the war. Moreover, the anti-roads activists influenced the next ‘war’ by inspiring the founders of Plane Stupid direct action group, who played a key role in the halting of Heathrow expansion in the 2000s.

In a perfect world, every protest would produce clear, direct and quick results. In (messy) reality the exact impact of a protest or movement is often difficult to discern, with its full effects sometimes not felt for years, decades even. The 2003 anti-Iraq war march and movement that Tariq Ali disparages has had a whole host of long-term influences, from helping to shift public opinion against UK military interventions and shortening Tony Blair’s political career, to being a key factor in the historic 2013 parliamentary vote that stopped British military action in Syria. In 2016 Alistair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, argued “We cannot overlook the fact that widespread opposition to the [Iraq] war… played a big part in [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s rise.”

Indeed, as Snowden shows above, it’s possible the people who will be inspired by a protest are not even born when it takes place.

More broadly, it’s always good to keep a positive attitude about the possibility of making a difference. As Bertolt Brecht is said to have argued, “Those who struggle may fail. But those who do not struggle have already failed”.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral history of the 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.