Archive for the ‘PR industry’ Category
Racepoint Group were retained to promote Gaddafi as “an intellectual and philosopher”
More on the PR firm Racepoint Group from the US government’s public register of “Foreign Agents”.
Today’s find is from that not-so-long-ago moment when publicly associating with Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi was less toxic than today – and it makes an interesting compare-and-contrast with yesterday’s entry.
In 2007 Racepoint were assigned by a company named Monitor Group – whose activities on behalf of the Gadaffi regime are somewhat better known – to promote Gaddafi’s “democratic” government in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of his seizing power.
According to the project proposal, which was only submitted to the Department of Justice last month, Racepoint planned to use this anniversary “to drive global awareness and recognition for Libya’s accomplishments with the People’s Authority of Libya and related democratic initiatives.”
Racepoint would “leverage” a planned public debate between Gaddafi (“hereafter The ‘Leader'”), British sociologist Anthony Giddens, and political theorist Benjamin Barber “to draw world attention to several important positioning points”. Key among these were that “Libya is an Arab Muslim country engaging in its own form of democracy”, “The Leader is an intellectual and philosopher”, “The Jamahiriya system is a radical social experiment based on an alternative direct democracy governance model…”, and “The importance of the 30th Anniversary of the Declaration of the People’s Authority as a democratic milestone”.
“Effective execution” would “work to influence perceptions of Libya and the Leader with international media, and ultimately, the international community; enhance the international image and prestige of the Leader by establishing his willingness to engage in serious intellectual debate before a world audience; and broaden universal understanding of governmental and economic reforms being undertaken in Libya.”
The company would also work to secure a “media partner” for the event, with the BBC “the preferred partner for a number of reasons: the ongoing relationship with Sir David Frost, its global prestige, audience and reach, and its online, radio and television properties”.
“Preferred” print media would be the International Herald Tribune, New York Times, Guardian, Reuters and the Economist.
In the weeks before the debate, Racepoint would engage in “strategic ‘leaking’ of certain debate topics” and arrange “Briefings by representatives of the Leader or Mr. Giddens or Barber with a small handful of global political bloggers”.
The “project fee” for this 60-day campaign would be $75,000 – plus expenses.
There’s not a huge amount of other information publicly available about Racepoint’s work for Gaddafi, but a quick Google search turned up this:
Groundbreaking Website Reveals Libya’s Commitment to Democracy
Following a first-of-its kind event in which Muammar al-Gaddafi engaged in a free-form debate on democracy, the World Center for Green Book Studies today launched a groundbreaking Website as part of Libya’s efforts to openly engage the international community on democracy and economic development in Libya. The Website address is: http://www.LibyaInTheGlobalAge.com…
The two-hour debate focused on three distinct themes:
– Democracy in Libya – the Jamahiriya System: An exploration of the vision that led to the founding of the People’s Authority in Libya thirty years ago, Gaddafi’s aspirations for the Libyan people and the way that they engage with government.
– Globalization since the founding of the People’s Authority: A broad conversation about how the world has changed in the last thirty years – how people think and feel about the globalization of government, democracy, ideas, money, culture and politics, in an age of security threats and the implications of this change for Libya.
– What the next 30 years of the People’s Authority in Libya will bring: A discussion of the role of the Libyan state and democracy in a modern context, charting the practical progress of Libya and the increasingly important role that the civil and economic sectors will play in the country and the region.
Please visit http://www.LibyaInTheGlobalAge.com for more information.
CONTACT: Racepoint Group George Snell 781-487-4608 firstname.lastname@example.org
Reuters, meanwhile, tells the story slightly differently:
Gaddafi debate shows limits to change in Libya
Muammar Gaddafi, ever the political showman, has chosen the talk show as a new way of sending a message to the West: Economic reform will help Libya, but political change is not needed.
Sitting around a table in front of the international media, he said in an unprecedented debate with two Western thinkers and a celebrated British journalist that the ballot box was not for his oil-exporting nation…
The tape of Friday’s debate will be distributed to international television channels and may be placed on a Libyan government Web site, said George Snell, an official of a U.S. public relations firm involved in organizing Friday’s event…
“Direct people’s democracy in coming years will be a model for other countries,” the leader told U.S. political scientist Benjamin Barber and sociologist Anthony Giddens in a discussion moderated by journalist David Frost…
If the debate is broadcast in Libya, the images of give and take of the discussion could strike a blow for free expression in a country with a state-controlled media.
Gaddafi was challenged and sometimes contradicted by the Western experts on his opposition to the ballot box.
“I have a basic source of disagreement with Mr. Gaddafi,” sociologist Giddens told the gathering, using language never publicly heard in Libya.
But Saturday’s Libyan newspapers splashed reports of a meeting with political associates Gaddafi held later on Friday in which he denounced Western domination of the world and urged Libyans to train militarily to prepare to fight off invaders.
There was no word of the debate.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the ongoing efforts by the asbestos industry to deny the harm done by its products. The Daily Mirror has just published an in-depth article on the history of one such company’s efforts, and its continuing legacy.
From The Mirror
It was one of the UK’s 100 biggest firms with 60 per cent of the asbestos market.
Annual profits rose from £2million at the start of the 50s to nearly £10million in the 60s.
But a confidential letter to T&N’s directors from solicitors James Chapman & Co, in 1964, revealed their deepest fears. It said: “We have over the years been able to talk our way out of claims or compromise for comparatively small amounts, but we have always recognised that at some stage solicitors of experience would, with the advance in medical knowledge and the development of the law, recognise there is no real defence to these claims and take us to trial.”
The first confirmed T&N mesothelioma death – Frank Brooks – happened that same year. But his widow was never told and was left to discover the truth 18 years later.
A report in 1965 revealed a spate of mesothelioma cases among residents living near the Cape factory in Barking, East London. It closed three years later.
But rather than admit defeat, T&N was determined to fight back.
The board met in 1967 to grapple with “damaging and alarmist statements about the dangers of using asbestos products”.
Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm that had spent the previous 14 years helping the US tobacco industry deny links between cigarettes and cancer, was brought in.
The board’s minutes noted: “Their job will be to combat and, if possible, to forestall adverse publicity.”
Asbestos regulations were tightened again in 1968 but on T&N’s factory floor standards remained slack. Pictures of workers in 1970 showed them wearing no head gear or masks.
Asbestos shipments continued. Imports hit a peak in the early 70s of 190,000 tonnes a year. Meanwhile T&N paid paltry sums to keep the families of dead workers on side.
But in 1982, T&N’s asbestos rollercoaster came off the tracks. The company made a £30million loss, with the costs of compensation payouts topping £6million.
The agonising fight of 47-year-old mum Alice Jefferson against mesothelioma was screened on TV in Alice: A Fight for Life.
Within a week the government announced tighter regulations on asbestos dust. Three years later the two most dangerous types of asbestos were banned outright.
T&N’s compensation payouts rose to tens of millions of pounds a year and then to hundreds of millions. In 1997 it was sold off to a US company, which four years later moved to protect itself against bankruptcy.
More than £90million has since been found to pay sick and dying T&N employees and their families for the next 40 years.
But there is no money for the workers who were exposed before 1965.
Today the site of the heavily-contaminated Rochdale site is derelict, although the new owners plan to build 600 homes there.
Researcher Jason Addy, whose grandfather died after handling T&N’s asbestos, says he wants the site to “rest in peace – like far too many people who worked there”.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the exposure of columnist Roger Scruton, who was revealed to have taken money from Japan Tobacco in exchange for placing pro-smoking articles in several major newspapers – and the attempts by another columnist, Terence Blacker, to mitigate his actions.
Now it’s been revealed that Japan Tobacco, the world’s third largest tobacco company, may again have been seeking to exert hidden influence, by offering entertainment perks to UK Parliamentary aides in the run-up to a debate on health in which a clampdown on cigarette sales will be considered.
From The Guardian:
The world’s third largest tobacco company is offering entertainment perks to parliamentary researchers as legislation that will ban the display of cigarettes is before peers and MPs.
Japan Tobacco, the firm behind brands such as Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut, Camel and Winston, offered a “fun evening” watching the Strictly Come Dancing tour at the 02 Arena at the Millennium Dome in London.
The company invited at least two MPs’ aides, including the researcher for Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman…
Andrew Forth, Lamb’s researcher, and James Tobin, the researcher for Greg Mulholland, the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, turned down the offer.
“They told us there were lots of researchers going,” Forth said. “It strikes me as pretty dubious for a tobacco company to be inviting research staff out to such an event which serves no real work purpose in advance of what is pretty controversial legislation which will have a big impact on them. Good working relationships between researchers and issue groups are both vital and useful. This seems to go too far.”…
Lord Liverpool, Lord Stoddart, Lady Knight, Lady Golding and Lady Goudie have objected to the ban on the display of cigarettes. Earl Howe, the Tory health spokesman, plans to vote against a number of the measures and has tabled an alternative policy calling for adults who purchase cigarettes for children to be prosecuted.
I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.
UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities
From Human Rights Watch
The United Nations and a number of bilateral donors invested significant financial and political capital in the  Congolese elections, one of the largest electoral support programs in the UN’s history. But with the polls finished, they have failed to invest comparable resources and attention in assuring that the new government implements its international human rights obligations. For donor governments, concern about winning a favored position with the new government took priority over halting abuses and assuring accountability…
Donor governments said they would devote considerable financial and technical resources to security sector reform programs, but have yet to insist that such programs include adequate vetting to rid the military and law enforcement services of individuals in senior positions who have been implicated in serious human rights violations…
Following the killings in Bas Congo in February 2007, MONUC [the UN peacekeeping force in Congo] sent a multi-disciplinary team to investigate. Its report was not published for five months as it was deemed “too sensitive.” UN officials did not want to criticize the new government before securing its agreement on the role of MONUC in the post-electoral period. Similarly MONUC delayed publication of its report on the March 2007 events for fear of upsetting relations with Kabila.
Both reports were blocked by the head of MONUC, Ambassador William Swing, who deflected repeated requests from the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York and from the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, for the reports to be made public.
If the reports had been promptly published, they could have contributed to wider awareness of the serious violations committed and might have led to additional diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government to halt the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable. The March 2007 investigation report was eventually published in French on January 4, 2008, after a copy was leaked to the press; no English version has been made public.
In an email he sent on Saturday, Alexis reported that:
…there is more and more pressure against MSD from the government so that is a sign that we are a movement that is being taken seriously and a threat to the current power structure. In Kirundo and Ngozi they have been trying to arrest our colleagues out in the collines doing good work.
According to today’s message from the MSD, 30 party members, including Alexis himself, have now been arrested following increasing threats and harrassment by the authorities:
Today the police arrived at the permance de MSD with a search warrant. They then took 30+ of the MSD members that were there to the Jabe police station. Alexis remained in office and then was later taken in as well. He has not been allowed to see his lawyer and no reason for his detention. They claim they are under investigation for holding a meeting. Alexis has asked that the MSD members be realeased and only he be detained as he is the sole responsable.
Like Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the campaigning journalist arrested in September, Alexis Sinduhije has been a huge help in raising the profile of the Titanic Express case over the years, and the book would have been considerably diminished without the input he gave to the campaign.
This latest move by the Burundian authorities to suppress the political opposition makes a further mockery of the PR efforts of international religious groups bent on presenting Burundi’s corrupt and authoritarian Christian evangelical President as the model of the “forgiving” African leader.
More information about Alexis Sinduhije’s work can be found at the MSD’s Facebook page.
04/11 Update from MSD:
Alexis spent his first night in police detention. He had a small cell to himself. He had a mattress but did not sleep. He has not been beaten or tortured.
His friends and supports around the world are organising support. The American, Dutch, British, French, Belgian , German, South African and Norwegian embassies are all informed.
International press has been informed as well. However given the fact that today is election day in the US we do not expect much attention.
He has not been allowed to see his lawyer yet.
From A Common Reader
Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.
Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.
Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.
Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.
A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.
Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.
The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:
- Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
- Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
- Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
- Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
- Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
- Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
- The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.
I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.
Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.
In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.
I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.
Catholic aid charity Caritas claims to have stopped supporting LRA rebels, demands thanks from the Ugandan government
From the Caritas website
Caritas had provided food aid to rebel groups while the peace process that began in 2006 was in place at the request of the Ugandan government and international mediators in line with its humanitarian mission. Caritas ended all food aid distributions once negotiations collapsed and has supplied no food aid since April 2008. The Ugandan government is aware of all these steps.
Government Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Professor Tarsis Kabwegyere said on 30 September, “Caritas should stop giving food to the rebels so that they get under pressure to sign the peace agreement. But as long as they continue to get supplies, they will see no reason of ending the rebellion. There is a moral question on why (rebel leader) Kony continues to receive food. Whoever is sending food to the jungles is committing a mortal sin especially if they are Christians”.
Caritas Uganda National Director Msgr. Dr. Francis Ndamira said, “We would like to clarify this statement which is likely to mislead the public and the world which is already too anxious and waiting for that day of signing the peace agreement. Caritas Uganda is not currently supplying food and medicine to the rebels. When the (peace agreement) signing flopped, Caritas also ended its mandate.
“It is therefore surprising for Hon. Prof. Kabwegyere to make such misleading and irresponsible statements of that kind. On the contrary, he should thank Caritas Uganda and the entire Catholic Church leadership for the peaceful contribution we have made in the peace process and also the spiritual and material help which the respective Churches have given to the suffering people in Northern Uganda.”
From BBC producer Jonathan Renouf on Comment is Free
In his Telegraph article, Christopher Booker suggests that when we discussed the satellite temperature records we allowed contributor Dr Roy Spencer to admit that there had been an error, but didn’t allow him to go on and say that once he corrected for this the results were the same. But in the film, Dr Spencer makes clear that his corrections did change the results. Here, for the avoidance of doubt, is the exact quote:
I think when we made that correction I – if I’m remembering correctly – I think we went from a, a cooling trend to a slight warming trend and then ever since then it’s been a warming trend, actually by sort of ever increasing amounts.
In addition, Mr Booker says that we truncated a graph to reinforce a point attacking the Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle. Actually we went back to the scientists whose work formed the basis of the original graph in the Channel 4 programme, and asked them for their latest published data. Which we then faithfully reproduced…
Today, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists would, I think, agree with three propositions. First, the climate is in a warming trend. Second, that most of this warming trend is down to human emissions of greenhouse gases. And third, that if emissions continue to rise then the result will be continued warming which will become damaging to human society. It’s also true to say that – here in Britain – all the main political parties accept that global warming is real, and that it’s a threat to society. In America, both candidates for the presidency take the same view. Most major corporations are also in the same camp.
Given the above, it would have required a major rewriting of history to conclude the series by saying – as some of our critics would have liked – that global warming is a con (or even a plot), whipped up by wussy liberal scientists with a vested interest in perpetuating the “myth” of warming…
From George Monbiot’s latest column in The Guardian:
So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker?
This week Richard Wilson’s book Don’t Get Fooled Again is published. It contains a fascinating chapter on Booker’s claims about white asbestos. Since 2002, he has published 38 articles on this topic, and every one of them is wrong. He champions the work of John Bridle, who has described himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. Bridle has claimed to possess an honorary professorship from the Russian Academy of Sciences, to be a consultant to an institute at the University of Glamorgan, the chief asbestos consultant for an asbestos centre in Lisbon, and a consultant to Vale of Glamorgan trading standards department. None of these claims is true. Neither the institute at the University of Glamorgan nor the centre in Lisbon have ever existed. His only relationship with the Glamorgan trading standards department is to have been successfully prosecuted by it for claiming a qualification he does not possess.
None of this deters Mr Booker. Armed with Bridle’s claims, for the past six years he has waged a campaign against asbestos science. White asbestos cement, he maintains “poses no measurable risk to health”. He contends that “not a single case” of mesothelioma – the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos – “has ever been scientifically linked with asbestos cement”. A paper commissioned by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, he says, “concluded that the risk from white asbestos is ‘virtually zero'”.
Booker tells me he has read this paper. Oh yes? The term he quotes – “virtually zero” – does not appear in it. It does show that white asbestos (chrysotile) is less dangerous than brown or blue asbestos. But, while there is uncertainty about the numbers, it still presents a risk of mesothelioma, which depends on the level of exposure. People exposed to a high dose (between 10 and 100 fibres per millilitre per year (f/ml.yr)) have a risk (around two deaths per 100,000 for each f/ml.yr) of contracting this cancer. Only when the dose falls to less than 0.1 f/ml.yr does it become “probably insignficant”. But Booker’s columns contain no such caveat. He creates the impression that white asbestos is safe at all doses. The paper he misquotes also cites five scientific studies of exposure to asbestos cement, which record “high levels of mesothelioma mortality”.
Two years ago, John Bridle’s misleading CV and dodgy record were exposed by the BBC’s You and Yours programme. So the BBC immediately became part of the conspiracy: in Booker’s words “a concerted move by the powerful ‘anti-asbestos lobby’ to silence Bridle”. He suggested that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom would clear Bridle’s name. In June this year it threw out Bridle’s complaint and published evidence even more damning than that contained in the programme. So has Booker changed the way he sees “Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert”? Far from it. He tells me that “my view of Ofcom has plummeted”: it too has joined the conspiracy.
We are not talking about trivia here. This is a matter of life and death. How many people might have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos dust as a result of reading and believing Booker’s columns?
I’ve had an interesting few days doing radio interviews about “Don’t Get Fooled Again” – starting on Thursday with BBC Radio Oxford, Ireland’s RTE, and Talk 107 in Edinburgh, looking at some of the 911 conspiracy theories. The same day I did a pre-record interview for BBC Shropshire, due to be broadcast in a couple of weeks, and spoke to Radio Europe Mediterraneo, who had also featured Titanic Express when it came out on 2006. Then on Friday morning I had a chat with the very affable Tom Dunne on Newstalk Ireland.
But the highlight so far was Saturday’s interview on Talksport with George Galloway, who said some very nice things about the book, and who talked about the headaches he’s had with conspiracy theorists who accuse him of being a Zionist stooge, and of making secret Masonic signals during his TV appearances. We also discussed Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, the ease with which corporate-funded pseudo-scientists can get their bogus ideas into the media, and the general problem of ‘pseudo-news’.
The full interview can be heard roughly one hour into the show via this link.
My all-time favourite quote from GWB…
“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.”
It’s difficult not to wonder at times about the provenance of some anonymous comments left on internet discussion sites such as the BBC’s “Have Your Say” and the Guardian’s “Comment is Free”. ‘Astro-turfing’ seems almost impossible to prevent in such circumstances, and for anyone with a vested interest in promoting a particular point of view, the temptation must be difficult to resist.
Now the Guardian reports that a UK government counter-terrorism unit is targeting media organisations “as part of a new global propaganda push designed to ‘taint the al-Qaida brand'”. A strategy document recommends that the authorities “channel messages through volunteers in internet forums”.
“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters”, says the leaked document. “And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”
While it isn’t hard to understand the rationale for tackling Al Qaeda in this way (and it’s surely preferable to torturing people), the most obvious fear is that those who begin disseminating misinformation for the ‘greater good’ may soon find themselves on a slippery slope. If ‘astroturfing’ to discredit a hostile terror group is acceptable, why not a hostile foreign government? And if spreading misinformation in defence of UK security interests is acceptable, why not our economic interests, which are, arguably, ultimately tied up with our security? Or in defence of an unpopular government policy which ministers feel is essential for the good of the country?
A cultural history of the cigarette might not seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling read. But Harvard medical historian Allan M Brandt’s extraordinary work, ‘The Cigarette Century’ is a book that that strays a long way from the obvious. Brandt is both a meticulous historian and an eloquent writer – the book is reportedly the product of 20 years of research. In charting the rise and fall of the cigarette – from its humble and disreputable origins in the 19th century to its pre-eminence in the 1950s, and its gradual decline, in the face of growing evidence of its deadly effects – Brandt also recounts the evolution of modern American society; the growth of mass-production, the growing sophistication of industry lobbyists in Congress and – crucially – the birth of the advertising and public relations industries.
Drawing on confidential industry documents – many of them released under legal duress following a series of law-suits in the 1980s and 1990s – Brandt shows how tobacco companies deliberately sought to suppress evidence of the cigarette’s harmful effects, and deployed cutting-edge PR techniques to manipulate public opinion, creating the impression that the science around smoking and cancer was ‘unproven’ long after a clear consensus had emerged among experts.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I show how the techniques developed by the tobacco industry have become the standard tactic for an industry fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of its products.
Robert Maxwell, UK libel law’s most famous beneficiary
If I had to choose my all-time favourite bill ever passed by the New York State Legislature (a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon if ever there was one), it would have to be the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act”. The specific purpose of this bill is to stop Britain’s ‘rogue state’ libel laws from being used to undermine the constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech in the state of New York.
Ironically, while the UK government allows our courts no jurisdiction over a murder committed overseas – even when the victim is a British citizen – it’s a different story when a book is published in a foreign country, which happens to offend someone with the time, inclination and (most importantly) cash to pursue their grievance in the UK courts.
The practice of ‘libel tourism’ relies on the fact that, with the internet, any book published anywhere in the world can be deemed to have effectively been published in the UK (and thereby fall under the jurisdiction of the UK libel courts) if it can be bought online and shipped to Britain. UK libel law famously places the burden of proof on the author/publisher of a work rather than on the plaintiff. A UK libel defendant is effectively guilty until proven innocent.
It’s also, I’m told, possible to defend a UK libel case successfully, yet still be left with massive legal costs to cover. Bringing a libel case can be very expensive, and is thus largely beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. So what we effectively have is a legal mechanism for allowing rich people and organisations to inflict crippling costs on anyone who says bad things about them, regardless of whether or not those things are actually true. During the 1970s and 1980s this mechanism was famously – and skillfully – exploited by the fraudster Robert Maxwell to suppress the many questions raised about his business deals. It was only after his somewhat mysterious death that the truth emerged. Perhaps the one saving grace of the law is that, at least in the UK, dead men can’t bring libel cases.
But with the advent of the internet, the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’ gives the UK’s rapacious libel laws a global reach, and now pose such a threat to freedom of expression worldwide that foreign states are having to create legislation to protect their citizens.
The threat posed by ‘libel tourists’ is just one among a number of issues raised by a recent UN report on the state of human rights in the UK. Equally dangerous – if not more so, as we’ve been familiar with the libel problem for long enough to have at least some ways around it – is the Brown regime’s attempt to make it illegal for any former civil servant to say anything at all about their time in government, ever, without official permission from the state.
According to Craig Murray (ex UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan):
“The idea, of course, is that only the ministers’ version of truth will enter history. You can be confident that Jack Straw’s memoirs will not tell you that he instructed Richard Dearlove that we would use intelligence from torture, or that we colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. You needed my memoirs for that. If Jack Straw had his way, I would not have been able to publish my book telling you the truth; in fact the new regulations were born directly out of Straw’s fury at Murder in Samarkand.”
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I explore the ease with which deception and delusion can start to creep in – and go unchecked – once freedom of expression has been compromised. An effectively functioning society depends on the free flow of information. The quicker that serious systemic problems can be identified, and analysed, the quicker solutions can be found. Attacks on freedom of expression seriously hinder this process, with the result that, at the extreme (as in the Soviet Union and Communist China), a wholesale national disaster can unfold without those in power ever facing up to the reality of what’s going on – less still being held accountable.
One of the great things about the net is being able to track down classic books that have long gone out of print – if they ever were available in the UK in the first place. I came across Susan B Trenton’s “The Power House” whilst following the trail of the infamous “Nurse Nayirah” – whose (now) widely-discredited testimony before the US Congress played a crucial role in swinging world opinion in favour of military action in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Published the following year, in 1992, Trenton’s book follows the intriguing career of Robert Keith Gray, who headed up the global PR phenomenon Hill and Knowlton during the 1980s.
“The Power House” is these days quite hard to track down, but a flavour of it can be found in this article, which originally appeared in Washington Monthly. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a look at the PR firm’s Hill and Knowlton’s extraordinary track record, both before and after Gray, from the manufactured ‘controversy’ over scientific evidence linking smoking and cancer to its more recent activities representing a dizzying range of dictatorial governments from around the world.
“It allows the Government to have more air time and get its message across to people” – Telegraph exposes covert UK government funding of TV documentaries on controversial political issues
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the case of Armstrong Williams, the US columnist, who was reportedly paid $240,000 by the Bush administration to promote its education policies, with thousands also being channeled to journalists Michael Macmanus and Maggie Gallaher.
Now the Telegraph has revealed that the UK government has so far paid nearly £2 million for a series of TV documentaries – at least eight in the last five years, several covering controversial government policies – without viewers being made aware that the government itself had paid for the coverage.
The Telegraph reports that:
Beat: Life on the Street, which was supported with £800,000 of funding by the Home Office for its first two series, portrayed PCSOs as dedicated, helpful and an effective adjunct to the police — despite the controversy about their role.
One Whitehall source admitted of the documentary: “It allows the Government to have more air time and get its message across to people.”
Ministers are so pleased with the way the series, which drew in audiences of three million people on ITV and changed the public’s perception of the officers, that they commissioned a third series, to be broadcast next year.
*UPDATE – Interestingly, today’s revelation by the Telegraph isn’t entirely new – back in 2006, the Times ran a story about “Beat”, reporting that the show was being funded through the Home Office’s only-slightly-chillingly-named ‘Central Office for Information’… According to the COI’s website, it is actually responsible for the whole government, and is managed not through the Home Office but through the ministerial Cabinet Office. More on the COI shortly…*
Ben H Bagdikian’s 1993 foreword to John R MacArthur’s classic PR industry exposé, “Second Front”, nowadays reads somewhat poignantly.
“A lesson we should have learned in the 1960s and 1970s is that when governments… become desperate over a failing policy, they are tempted into that historic folly of nations, self-delusion… Bad news is filtered out before it reaches the top. In the end, as always, the propagandistic government becomes the victim of its own propaganda… In democracies, the self-destructive process of governmental delusion and deception is supposed to have a remedy in independent news… The basic premise is that democracy succeeds to the degree that government has an outside source of information about its own weaknesses and the public has sufficient valid information to judge government performance and reports…
For years the main body of our democratic balancing forces in Vietnam failed… The price of that national tragedy has been painfully high. For the news media, it was supposed to be The Great Lesson. Never again would journalists look the other way or accept at face value official civil and military claims without careful examination.
But the lesson failed. Something went terribly wrong. The military learned its own lesson from Vietnam: keep wars short and keep the news media completely controlled in the opening days of the engagement… By severely limiting reporting by journalists, the government can prolong that controlled public image of a military action until the media move to something else and lose interest in the event…
John MacArthur in this book has laid out in enormous detail how all this happened in the Gulf War… One hopes that, as a result, our major media, four times burned, will be four times shy in accepting future official releases and briefings at face value…”