The Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), laid before Parliament last Thursday, confirms that a Government propaganda unit set up to tackle terrorism intervened to influence British public opinion during the Israeli attack on Gaza last year. The report also outlines a number of other steps taken by the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), including the creation of a network of community organisations. RICU is linked to the UK Government’s Prevent programme for preventing “violent extremism.”
Activities of this sort distort democracy in the UK. They aim to mobilise public and voluntary sector workers and ordinary people as propagandists for controversial Government policies. They poison public debate by linking opposition to the Government’s foreign policy to support for “extremism.” And they do all this within a framework of Government initiatives already notorious for the massive intelligence-gathering that they involve.
The extent of RICU’s influence in Scotland is unclear. However, the circulation of propaganda from RICU appears to be one of the purposes of a new initiative, called “Common Ground,” supported by the Scottish Government.
RICU and the wider Prevent programme promote views that are at odds with the views of most Scots and with the views of the SNP. Prevent encourages support for the war in Afghanistan — most Scots want the troops to come home. RICU acted as an apologist for the UK Government when the Government failed to take a firm position against Israel’s attack on Gaza – leading SNP figures have been outspoken in their criticism of Israeli actions.
Civil liberties group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) is calling on the Scottish Government to halt its support for the UK Government’s controversial Prevent programme and for initiatives linked to RICU. SACC also says that groups and individuals should refuse Prevent funding.
In a report published last year, SACC said:
“Prevent will not prevent terrorism, and may encourage it. If that happens, everyone who colludes with Prevent will have blood on their hands.”
Propaganda operations in the name of counter-terrorism
In its Annual Report, the Intelligence and Security Committee says — quoting in a strikingly incomplete way from an unpublished letter from the Home Secretary — that it was told:
“During the Gaza conflict RICU ensured that the Government’s position was communicated… a major counter-narrative campaign has been initiated… a network of community organisations established… local partners in priority areas have been briefed and provided with communications advice… relationships have been built with key media channels… research into audience segmentation… has been completed… [and] guidance on communicating with Somali and Pakistani [communities] in the UK has been circulated.”
RICU operates under the Government’s Prevent programme which aims, according to the Government, to “stop people becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremists.” It also has a role in other aspects of the Government’s over-arching counter-terrorism programme, called Contest, of which Prevent is a part.
A report published by SACC last November was highly critical of Contest , saying that:
“Contest isn’t simply a crime-prevention strategy. It’s an instrument for fighting the so-called global war on terror – a war for power and control of resources.”
A report issued by the Institute of Race Relations in October 2009 said:
“There is evidence that the Prevent programme has been used to establish one of the most elaborate system of surveillance ever seen in Britain.”
One of the ways that RICU works is by producing news updates that set out the Government’s view on matters that are considered to be linked to the prevention of “violent extremism.” The novel element in RICU’s strategy is that, instead of communicating its news updates only through press releases, it seeks to channel them through networks created as part of the Prevent programme. These networks target Muslim communities. They include public and voluntary sector workers and ordinary people. In many areas south of the border they have the backing of local government.
People within these networks are sometimes critical of Government policy, but nevertheless seem to see themselves as having a role in promoting it.
One effect of RICU’s strategy is that it is able to bypass the media and so avoid the media’s waning, but still potentially embarrassing capacity for criticism and objectivity. Another effect is that people critical of Government policy are encouraged to vent their feelings within Government-run organisations that are most unlikely to generate serious pressure for change.
RICU faces serious difficulties in extending its reach north of the border. The Unit is jointly funded by the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Communities and Local Government. But the Department of Communities and Local Government has no responsibility in Scotland.
However, the new Common Ground website (www.cgscotland.org.uk), part of an initiative supported by the Scottish Government, says on one of its pages that it will provide updates from RICU. This is particularly odd, since RICU updates often cover foreign policy matters on which the SNP’s view is at odds with the view of the Westminster Government. The Common Ground website appears to still be under development and no RICU updates have yet appeared on it.
The website appears to be intended to complement the Voices Scotland website ( http://voicesscotland.org ), “an all new network for Scottish organisations, groups religious and social, institutions and individuals to go beyond the media message, challenge extremist views and connect on their own terms for a safer more respectful and equal Scotland.” Both websites were developed by a Glasgow-based company called Digital Media Cast – part of the Jabbar group. Jabbar is a holding company headquartered in Glasgow with offices in Morocco, Tanzania, Dubai and Pakistan.
The Prevent programme – to which both these websites are linked – is coordinated in Scotland by the Scottish Preventing Violent Extremism Unit (SPVEU). Almost 64% of SPVEU’s expenditure up to December 2009 on the delivery of Prevent in Scotland was on activities that the Scottish Government refuses to disclose. Total expenditure by SPVEU on the delivery of Prevent in Scotland up to end of December 2009 was £166,297.28, out of a budget of £228,000 for the period August 2008 to March 2011. The remaining (unspent) sum of £61,702 was said by the Scottish Government on 26 January 2010 to be “temporarily on hold.”
Of the expenditure that is not considered to be secret, the biggest single beneficiary was the Youth Community Support Agency (YCSA) – “a charitable organisation founded in 1995 by young people from diverse communities.” YCSA was paid £18,000 for Voices Scotland events under the Scottish Communities Against Violent Extremism Network (SCAVEN) Project. The second biggest beneficiary of disclosed SPVEU spending was the Edinburgh and Lothians Racial Equality Council (ELREC). ELREC was paid £10,500 for Voices Scotland events under the SCAVEN Project, and an additional £1,000 for a contribution to a “Schools Conference” and for piloting young persons preventing extremism workshop materials.
It is completely inappropriate for anti-racist organisations like YCSA and ELREC to accept funding from Prevent. Prevent is an intrinsically racist initiative set up to target the Muslim community.
Notes for Editors
- The latest Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is atwww.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/346792/isc-annualreport-0809.pdf
- For more background about Prevent in Scotland, see the SACC briefing Preventing What? (November 2009) at www.sacc.org.uk/sacc/docs/preventingwhat.pdf. A substantially expanded and updated version of the briefing is in preparation.
- The report by the Institute of Relations, entitled “Spooked – how not to prevent violent extremism is atwww.irr.org.uk/pdf2/spooked.pdf
- Figures for SPVEU expenditure were supplied by the Scottish Government in a response dated 26 January 2010 to a Freedom of Information request