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RICU - the new IRD?
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 now sees 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).
This Salaam Dossier keeps track on the information on RICU entering the public domain.
20th April 2009
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?
For a unit committed to "communication with communities" RICU remains remarkably below the radar.
First posted November 2007
Sources: Britain's Secret Propaganda War By Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, Sutton Publishing, 1998; MI6: Fifty Years of Legal Thuggery By Stephen Dorril, Fourth Estate, 1996