RICU remains in the news…
The Foreign Office’s Information & Research Department (IRD) played a significant role in Western news and cultural media management from 1948-1977. It financed a publishing house ‘Ampersand’ and at one time employed a staff of 300. A secret Foreign Office memo in February 1948 described its establishment as a response to the “developing communist threat to the whole fabric of Western civilization”.
By the late-1960s the IRD was cut back by the Labour Government, and Intelligence writer Stephen Dorril states that it found additional work in Northern Ireland: “its Information Policy section was engaged in the 1970s in running propaganda campaigns against mainland politicians”. IRD was closed down in 1977 because its cover was blown by a persistent researcher Richard Fletcher. The Foreign Secretary at the time, David (now Lord) Owen was reported in The Guardian (18 August 1995) as stating that the IRD had become involved in the grey area of manipulating journalism and that clandestine operations were MI6’s job, not that of a “civil department”.
The post-cold war, post 9/11 era saw the establishment of a cross-government research, information and communication unit (RICU) to tackle “the spread of radical Islamist ideas” (The Guardian, 30th March 2007). By October 2007 RICU had a staff of 30 to “counter al-Qaida propaganda and win hearts and minds”, headed by Jonathan Allen. It is “part of the Home Office, but will work closely with the Foreign Office and Department of Communities and Local Government. Whitehall officials are being asked to draw up ‘counter-narratives’ to the anti-western messages on websites designed to influence vulnerable and impressionable audiences here. They will set out to explain what one official called the government’s ‘foreign policy in its totality’, counter the accusations made by al-Qaida sympathisers and extremist groups and pinpoint the weaknesses in their arguments. … The unit will also support ‘alternative voices’ in the Muslim community.” (The Guardian, 20th November 2007).
In their book on the Cold War period’s IRD, Lashmar and Oliver note that “the vast IRD enterprise had one sole aim: To spread its ceaseless propaganda output (i.e. a mixture of outright lies and distorted facts) among top-ranking journalists who worked for major agencies, papers and magazines, including Reuters and the BBC, as well as every other available channel. It worked abroad to discredit communist parties in Western Europe which might gain a share of power by entirely democratic means, and at home to discredit the British Left”. IRD fed information and propaganda on ‘communists’ within the Labour movement through confidential recipients of its briefings one of whom is now known to be the late Vic Feather into the media, and into the Labour Party’s policing units, the National Agent’s Department and the Organisation Subcommittee.
Will there be parliamentary accountability, budgetary scrutiny to assess value-for-money and civil society oversight of RICU’s work? Or is the IRD precedent to hold sway?
RICU remains in the news (in reverse chronological order):
Paul Mott, the deputy head of the research, information and communications unit in the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, said it was the most potent footage of its kind he had viewed (commenting on the British marines facing court martial for murdering an injured prisoner in Afghanistan). “I’ve seen nothing that surpasses it in terms of radicalisation potential. It’s exceptionally worrying,” said Mott. “There’s nothing I have seen that … matches its emotional power. It is a gift in propaganda terms.”
From the Archives
“…The Home and Foreign Offices also set up the secretive Research, Information and Communications Unit, which actively produces and distributes propaganda against extremist groups.”
“A BBC News executive has admitted that security correspondent Frank Gardner met officials from a Whitehall counter-terrorism unit accused of pushing propaganda to the media while preparing a recent Radio 4 Analysis documentary – but did not use the material they provided in the programme.
Nicola Meyrick, the executive editor of BBC Radio current affairs, posted on the BBC editors’ blog late yesterday saying that Gardner and Innes Bowen, a BBC expert on political Islam, had been in contact with the research, information and communications unit…..”
Alan Travis in The Guardian – August 2008
“…Whitehall counter-terrorism experts intend to exploit new media websites and outlets with a proposal to ‘channel messages through volunteers in internet forums’ as part of their campaign. The strategy is being conducted by the research, information and communication unit, [RICU] which was set up last year by the then home secretary, John Reid, to counter al-Qaida propaganda at home and overseas. It is staffed by officials from several government departments. The report, headed, Challenging violent extremist ideology through communications, says: ‘We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters. And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media’.
The disclosure that a Whitehall counter-terrorism propaganda operation is promoting material to the BBC and other media will raise fresh concerns about official news management in a highly sensitive area….The RICU guidance, dated July 21 2008, says that the material is primarily aimed at ‘overseas communicators’ in embassies and consulates around the world, confirming the global scale of the Whitehall counter-terrorist propaganda effort now underway.”
Vernon Coaker MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office): “Are we countering al-Qaeda’s single narrative? Yes. The research, information and communications unit was established last year to do exactly that: to tarnish the al-Qaeda brand and ensure that we challenge its distorted world view and distortions of Islam.”
“Actions during 2007-08 include…establishing the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), a unit managed trilaterally by the Home Office, CLG [Communities & Local Government] and the FCO, which works to counteract the messages put out by violent extremists and to strengthen the Government’s communication with communities and organisations that are our key partners in tackling terrorism…”