Tuesday, 3 May 2016

UK, Ricu, and counter-propaganda against extremism

'We are in an information war and we are losing that war' (US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 2011).

A few initial thoughts on stories published today about the UK's covert counter-propaganda strategy. This is a story that is sure to continue grabbing headlines. I am sure this will not be my only post on this subject. 

Are we meant to be surprised by revelations published today that the UK government is involved in propaganda as part of its counter-radicalisation programme (see UK covert propaganda against lure of IS)? Given that violent extremism is promoted in the media environment, and that we face an urgent need to combat – at home and abroad - such groups as Islamic State in the information sphere, it would be more shocking if such a propaganda unit as the Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu) did not exist. Counter-narratives to both the repellent forms of extremist propaganda and the more utopian themes projected by IS about life in the so-called Caliphate must be co-ordinated, consistent and use every platform available. 

Three issues present themselves: 

First, the distinction between propaganda and strategic communication is blurred and almost non-existent. We should acknowledge openly that we are in a propaganda war with IS and that counter-propaganda is necessary. In such a situation, labels are less important than the message and the objective. 

Second, Ricu’s case is not helped by flippant comments such as ‘All we’re trying to do is stop people becoming suicide bombers’. This alienates further the audience for such propaganda by conflating Islam and terrorism, and is therefore a potential own goal. If the objective of propaganda is to build communities to expose and manage extremism among themselves, such comments will not help. There is far more to counter-radicalisation than stopping people become suicide bombers, such as engaging with Muslim communities and making sure that they do not feel threatened, estranged or disaffected. The best propaganda works when audiences can see a government is committed to helping them overcome very real social and economic problems. 

This leads to the third issue, one that is highlighted in the Guardian’s reports on Ricu. The propagandist must weigh very carefully the advantages and disadvantages of acting covertly, especially the consequences for trusting the source if the audience feels deceived in any way. More openness and honesty about the necessity of propaganda would be welcome and would strengthen, rather than undermine, the information war against extremism.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What's in a name? Or why the BBC should stop referring to the 'so-called' Islamic State

In my last blog, The medium is not the message, I took issue with an argument in Jared Cohen's piece for Foreign Affairs (November/December 2015):

'... governments should consider working with the news media to aggressively publicize arrests that result from covert infiltration of the Islamic State's online network'.

The medium is not the message. In counterinsurgency the message - its design, its credibility and its reception - depends on the language used and the way the language conveys the themes decided by the source. It is possible to argue that before we begin to understand how to defeat modern terrorism, we need to appreciate the importance of discourses, narratives and language in determining how modern terrorism works, how terrorist groups define themselves and are defined by others; and therefore attention to discourses and language  must be central in any strategy designed to confront terrorism. This is particularly crucial when religion and ideology are invoked as justifications for terrorist activity. Success or failure can often depend on the use of a particular word or phrase.      

My response to Cohen was far from ambiguous: 'The day that governments in liberal-democracies work with the news media', I argued, 'is the day the terrorists have won, for it is a clear violation of the objective and independent journalism that should govern how news media work. It is the media's job to scrutinise governments, to hold them to account for their actions, not to "work with them", aggressively or otherwise'.

BBC journalists are routinely violating the very principles they, in other circumstances, justifiably cherish and have defended certainly since the General Strike of 1926, if not since the very foundation of the organisation in 1922. 

A disturbing trend has crept into BBC journalism over the past several months, and that is a predilection for calling the terrorist group the 'so-called Islamic State'. The use of the qualifier 'so-called' is mistaken, counter-productive, and politically very questionable. 

Like it or loathe it, the Islamic State calls itself Islamic State; that's its name. It is proper to question whether this terrorist organisation represents Islam, and we should confer upon Muslim communities across the world the power to decide whether or not IS’s claim to represent their religion is right and justified. Similarly, it is correct to judge whether IS really is a 'state' at all. It certainly does not demonstrate any of the attributes that we normally associate with states, and IS is not recognised by any sovereign state or the United Nations, so its claim to the term is indeed questionable. But these are discussions that should and must occur without journalists announcing in news bulletins their own verdicts.   

The most crucial reason why BBC journalists should refrain from employing the pronoun 'so-called' in their stories about IS is that its use entails a value judgement; and BBC journalists are not in the business of value judgements. 

In June 2015, a cross-Party group of MPs, backed by the Prime Minister, accused the BBC of legitimising IS by using its name in its reporting. The BBC resisted any change: The Director-General, Tony Hall, said that the broadcaster must remain 'impartial'. But the BBC decided that a qualifier was legitimate, and a spokesman said 'We ... use additional descriptions to help make it clear we are referring to the group as they refer to themselves, such as "so-called" Islamic State.'   

According to Webster’s dictionary, the first definition of 'so called' is 'popularly known or called by this term'. But its second meaning is more relevant in this case, namely 'inaccurately or questionably designated as such' which may give the impression that the speaker has formed a judgement about the veracity of the words that follow.  

By using the pronoun 'so-called', the BBC tacitly accepts the government's agenda and can be accused of engaging in anti-IS propaganda on the government’s behalf. The term undermines the credibility of a world-class news organisation, when maintaining the credibility of the BBC is absolutely essential to counter the narratives of terrorist organisations, as well as authoritarian states. It challenges the very operational values of the BBC and thereby the principles of journalism in a democratic society. ‘So-called’ may suggest to its critics that they are right to question the BBC’s independence, while damaging efforts by journalists throughout the authoritarian world to expand the distance between the news media and government.

Yes, the organisation's claim to be an, or even the, Islamic State should be contested and defied at every opportunity. This challenge should form part of the counter-narrative that will form a credible assault against IS's commanding propaganda strength. But BBC news bulletins are not the appropriate location from which to launch this assault. If a pronoun must be used, the BBC may try using 'the group known as the Islamic State,' or 'self-proclaimed/self-styled Islamic State'. These are more reasonable qualifiers that draw attention to doubts about the organisation's claim, highlight very clearly from where the name comes from (the organisation itself), and still challenge its legitimacy to that name without undermining the BBC’s journalistic integrity.   

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The medium is not the message: Digital Counterinsurgency

The November-December 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs includes an article by Jared Cohen titled 'Digital Counterinsurgency: How to Marginalize the Islamic State Online'.

Too many essays that claim to provide a blueprint on how to confront IS online do so through a detailed examination of the technology and a renewed emphasis on policing the internet. Cohen's essay is no different. From 'suspending the specific accounts responsible for setting strategy and giving orders to the rest of its online army' to 'banning users who break the rules and distribute terrorist content', we are asked to consider a range of techniques that might lead to IS being marginalised in cyberspace and force the group to the so-called Dark Web.

The article is flawed in two important respects:

First, it claims that there is a direct correlation between the number of 'foreign recruits' (c.20,000, 'nearly 4,000 of whom hail from Western countries') and IS propaganda: 'Many of these recruits made initial contact with the Islamic State and its ideology via the Internet. Other followers, meanwhile, are inspired by the group's online propaganda to carry our terrorist attacks without traveling to the Middle East'. Cohen continues: 'Every day the group's message reaches millions of people, some of whom become proponents of the Islamic State or even fighters for its cause'. If this was a student essay, I would ask the author: Where is your evidence for such claims? Can you substantiate the idea that 'many' (a far too vague and meaningless word) IS fighters from abroad are seduced by propaganda? How many are the 'some' to which you refer out of the 'millions' the propaganda reaches?

Understanding how propaganda works and, perhaps most importantly in this case, its limitations is the key to analysing its impact; and any serious analyst of of propaganda would answer that it cannot change minds or alter behaviour, but rather latches on to, and exaggerates, existing or latent emotions, beliefs and ideas. There is more to understanding the IS terrorist than the seductive power of propaganda, and most helpful will be understanding the context in which the propaganda is both produced and received.

Second, the article raises, but fails to address in sufficient detail the ethical and legal consequences of its recommendations. Who decides what is a terrorist, and even an IS social media account? Who decides, and by what criteria, which messages are considered 'extremist', inflammatory or dangerous?  Cohen treads on even more dangerous ground when he suggests 'governments should consider working with the news media to aggressively publicize arrests that result from covert infiltration of the Islamic State's online network'. The day that governments in liberal-democracies work with the news media is the day the terrorists have won, for it is a clear violation of the objective and independent professionalism that should govern how news media work. It is the media's job to scrutinise governments, to hold them to account for their actions, not to 'work with them', aggressively or otherwise.

Finally, the article fails to discuss in any meaningful detail not only the message that may help to marginalise IS - on and offline - but also the political action that may help to isolate the terrorists and understand why young Muslims choose to join such terrorist organisations in the first place. Some of the issues we need to consider include:

(a) White middle class men explaining what Islam is and is not; what the Koran says and does not say; and what the Koran means. The condemnation of Islamic terrorism must begin in Islamic communities themselves. This means avoiding mass messaging in favour of community-based dialogue and discussion, and giving Muslim communities the tools to combat radicalisation themselves.

(b) Not listening to the Muslim voice. Governments must do more to engage with Muslim communities, and actually hear what they are saying. What inspires young Muslims to travel to Syria and join ISIS? Is it simply for the thrill? The promise of glory and status? A sense of brotherhood? To punish the west for their crimes against Islam? To escape deprivation at home? Or because they truly believe in an Islamic Caliphate?  Only when we truly understand why IS is able to recruit in such numbers - and there will be many explanations - can western governments begin to tackle the problem. We know some young Muslims are being radicalised: the important question is not how, but Why? This may mean governments having to rethink policy, at home and abroad, because states are judged by the credibility and legitimacy of their actions, not their words.

Focusing on policing social media and dreaming up ever more innovative methods of controlling the internet is one solution, but it is not necessarily the only nor perhaps the best solution. In combating the evil of IS terrorism, governments need to pay far more attention to their own propaganda message, how it is delivered, by whom and to whom; and actively engage in a more intimate way Muslim communities who may hold in their hand both an explanation for, and an answer to, the crisis we face.  

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Shortwave broadcasting and QSL cards.

Few people are fortunate to be able to turn a hobby into a career. When I started listening to shortwave radio in the early 1980s, I never knew that I would one day be writing books and articles about international broadcasting. I progressed from listening on my father's wonderful 1950s Bakelite with glowing green valves and a wonderful bass hum that grew louder as the set warmed up (this radio now has pride of place in my office) to a Russian Vega Selena 215.

By the end of the 1980s I upgraded again. This time, I wanted a digital set so I could key in the frequencies of stations that were printed in the wonderful World Radio and TV Handbook. My parents bought me a Saisho SW5000.

As I started to travel on fieldwork for my PhD, I bought a small portable shortwave receiver. I continued to listen when I went to Caversham Park where I used the wonderful BBC Written Archives Centre; to Kew when I spent time at the Public Records Office; to Taiwan; and then to Washington DC. I always enjoyed listening overseas in anticipation of all the new stations I would access.
During the Gulf War of 1991 I hooked up my Saisho to a tape recorder and recorded hours of broadcasts (from the Voice of America, Kol Israel, and the BBC World Service)  for Phil Taylor who was writing his book, War and the Media. I had seen my name in print before: I had articles published in Shortwave Magazine and in various newspapers, but nothing matched the thrill of seeing my name in Phil's book, thanking me for undertaking this work for him. 

I recently corresponded with David Jackson, former Director of the Voice of America. I told him of my excitement when, during PhD fieldwork in Washington DC in 1993, I took the VoA tour. Like the classic class nerd I threw my hand up at every opportunity to ask and answer questions. David made reference the VoA QSL cards, and this reminded me of the hours I spent listening through the crackle of faint transmissions at all hours of the night and writing reception reports for the stations. I sent these in the post, and weeks, sometimes months later, the station would acknowledge my report with a QSL card and other souvenirs (stickers, magazines, books). I found my collection for the late 1980s and though I would share my QSLs in this blog. 

QSL is international radio language for "Please verify". 

This part of my collection represents the closing of an era. With the rise of the internet and the ability to listen to radio stations from all over the world on a computer or tablet, the age of shortwave has largely passed. Yet there is still something romantic about turning a dial at 3am and listening eagerly through the crackle to hear which station one is listening to (oh no, not Radio Moscow again!). Those were the days ... The collection also a reminder of another era in international politics, with the Soviet Union represented by Radio Moscow World Service, sending me pictures and stamps of Lenin; with Radio Prague Czechoslovakia responding to an essay I wrote them about Marxism by sending me books about Czech foreign policy. While still at school in the  mid-1980s I wrote an article for Shortwave Magazine called 'What is the role of the shortwave radio in international politics?'  In 1994 I completed my PhD, supervised by Phil Taylor, entitled 'Nation Unto Nation: The BBC and VoA in International Politics, 1956-64'. This was subsequently published as Radio Diplomacy and Propaganda (Macmillan, 1996).   

Radio Austria International, June and July 1988 

Radio HCJB The Voice of the Andes, Ecuador, June and July 1988: "Thank you for your letter  to Salados Amigos"

Top: Radio Prague, Czechoslovakia, July 1987.
Bottom: Radio RSA, The Voice of South Africa: 'The Bokmakierie. Here the bokmakierie is feeding its young. A species easily identified by its familiar call and beautiful plumage'
Top: Radio RSA, The Voice of South Africa, July 1988 'Johannesburg - a dynamic city founded on gold, soars into the future'
Bottom: Radio Kuwait, July and August 1987 'Agriculture in Kuwait'
Radio Australia, August 1987. 'The Koala, a familiar symbol of Australia,is found in the south-east and north of the country.' 

Top: All India Radio External Services, October 1987. 'Gate Keeper to India, Sabha Ellora'
Bottom: The Voice of Vietnam (Socialist Republic of Vietnam), July 1988
The Voice of America, February 1987: Top: 'The White House on a wintry evening in Washington DC. US Presidents and their families have lived here since 1800.'
Bottom: 'The VOA newsroom in Washington DC where news from all over the world is compiled and prepared'

Top: Voice of America, March 1987: 'One of the new VoA studios in Washington DC where broadcasts in 42 languages originate'
Bottom: Radio Polonia, Poland, March 1989. 'The station you listened to is Warsaw' 

The Voice of Vietnam, Xmas 1988; Season's Greetings

Radio Prague, Xmas 1988: 'With best wishes for a happy, prosperous and peaceful new year'
Radio Moscow World Service,June 1989: 'Dear Mr Rawnsley. Thank you for writing to us and taking part in the listeners' forum dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the International Service of Radio Moscow. Please accept our small souvenir - a set of post cards and Soviet stamps. We hope you will like them. We are glad to hear more from our listeners, so if you have any suggestions, questions and requests, you are welcome.'

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Unfortunately, only the envelope is in the collection. I wonder what was included?

Kol Israel, Israel Radio International: 'You have a friend at Kol Israel'.

Friday, 14 August 2015

International Communications in the Cuban Missile Crisis (2)

Both the Soviet Union and the US used radio to communicate directly with each other, complementing the more traditional diplomatic channels. To seek a resolution to the crisis, the Soviet leader, Nikolai Khrushchev, used Radio Moscow knowing that his words would be monitored and reported long before the official communiques reached the Oval Office, and in the circumstances time was certainly of the essence. Khrushchev's first letter to President Kennedy on 26 October 1962 had been subject to a long delay in its transmission to Washington from the US embassy in Moscow. This was a gamble the Soviet leaders were no longer prepared to take, hence radio was considered the fastest method of communicating with the American President. On 27 October the US issued a statement welcoming Khrushchev's communication to remove the missiles in Cuba in response for a promise that there would be no US invasion of the island. This statement ignored a second message, broadcast twice on Radio Moscow, demanding the US remove its missiles from Turkey in return for a climbdown in Cuba.

At 1405 GMT (0900 Washington time) on 28 October 1962, Radio Moscow announced that it would transmit an important government statement, the broadcast beginning even before its textual editing had been completed. No clearer warning could be issued to the BBC's monitors at Caversham Park that they should prepare to receive, transcribe and report what followed.

As in previous broadcasts, Khrushchev addressed Kennedy personally as 'esteemed Mr President', informing him that 'the Soviet government, in addition to orders previously issued for the cessation of further work on the [Cuban] building sites for the weapons,' had 'issued a new order; for the weapons which you describe as "offensive" to be dismantled, packed up and returned to the Soviet Union.'

The significance of this broadcast, and the importance attached to it by the Soviet leadership's insistence that it be monitored and reported, can be adduced by the fact that it was repeated four times in the home service and no less than thirteen times in the North American service, in addition to several repeats in Spanish for listeners in Cuba.

Kennedy decided to accept the terms of the message in the same way that he had received it - over the radio. James A. Nathan has described this as a 'considerable departure from diplomacy'. [1] But there was nothing diplomatic about this particular communication. It was not an act of negotiation or the basis for further discussion, but was rather a public announcement of intention which, by its very nature, lacked flexibility and the capacity for compromise.

Kennedy's welcome of Khrushchev's decision was duly reported by TASS and in Moscow Radio's home service on 28 October, though it was not published in Russian newspapers until 30 October, a delay designed to strengthen Khrushchev's image as a hero who had taken a firm stand to avert war. Radio Moscow told its listeners in North America that the Soviet government's decision to end the crisis should not be regarded as a sign of weakness. On the contrary, the country had 'displayed forbearance ... in an effort to keep world peace. It did a service to all of humanity with a courageous restraint and refusal to be provoked, for it saved the world from thermonuclear disaster. ... Only a country confident of its strength could take the stand the USSR has taken'. [2]

Kennedy said he felt 'like a new man. Do you realise,' he asked his friend, Dave Powers, 'that we had an airstrike [against Cuba] all arranged for Tuesday [just two days later]? Thank God it's all over'. [3]


[1]  Nathan, James A. (1988), 'Cold War Model' in Robert A. Divine (ed.) The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Markus Wiener) p.342

[2]  BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Part I, 31 October 1962.

[3] Quoted in Beschloss, Michael R. (1991), Kennedy v. Khrushchev: The Crisis Years, 1960-1963 (London: Faber & Faber), pp.541-2


How Special is Special? The Anglo-American Alliance During the Cuban Missile Crisis

As I worked my way through the files at the Public Records Office that were most relevant to my PhD, the so-called Thirty Years Rule meant that the British government records for 1962 were opened in 1993 as I was completing my research. I decided to take a little time away from my topic to  examine the files for the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was interested in seeing the role, if any, that the UK played in the crisis, and how Anglo-American relations - what is too often referred to as The Special Relationship - played out. This was a landmark for me: Not only was the resulting article, 'How Special is Special? The Anglo-American Alliance During the Cuban Missile Crisis', my first published academic paper, but I was also the first author to publish on this subject using the declassified documents. The paper was published in Contemporary Record, 9 (3), 1995: 668-601.  I recall receiving the referee's report while I was undertaking archival research in Washington DC in the summer of 1993 and living at the wonderful International Student House at the Dupont Circle. I discovered I needed a copy of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's memoirs and so bought a copy at one of the many second hand bookshops that surround the Dupont Circle. It is a huge book, one of three volumes, and having already bought far too many books I knew I could not carry it back with me to the UK. I sold it back to the same bookshop within a few days of my buying it.

I thought of this paper again today in light of the restoration of US-Cuban ties.

'How Special is Special?' is still available via Taylor & Francis Online, but it is expensive or requires an institutional log-in. This is the abstract.    

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 affords an excellent opportunity to scrutinise alliance relationships during the most critical phase of international history. The recently declassified documents at the Public Records Office suggest that although Britain's role in the crisis was limited to consultation with the United States and did not actively participate in the resolution of the crisis, the government was not prepared to passively support those American decisions with which it did not agree. In addition this case study allows scholars to derive a greater sense of the importance of a detached and specialised Foreign Office in a political system which places greater power in the hands of an elected and transient government with narrow interests.

International Communications in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Today, 14 August 2015, John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to visit Cuba in 70 years. He reopened the American embassy, and watched the US flag rise in the presence of the same marines who lowered it in 1961.

Cuba played an important part in my life over twenty years ago. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a case-study in my PhD thesis on international radio broadcasting in the Cold War, and you can read the chapter in my first book, Radio Diplomacy and Propaganda (Macmillan, 1996). The chapter studied how international radio broadcasting, specifically Radio Moscow and the Voice of America, played an important role in not only projecting propaganda, but also in resolving the crisis. At the  core of what I called 'media diplomacy' was the ever wonderful BBC Monitoring Service, located at Caversham Park near Reading in the UK, which has helped to gather open intelligence from the world's broadcast media since before World War Two. Below are my abridged conclusions. I cringe a little now when I read them, but please remember I wrote this at some point between the age of 21 and 23.

In the context of the Cold War, the defusing of the Cuban missile crisis represented a step of progress in the conduct of international relations: it had been the first real crisis of nuclear proportions; it provided the pretext for further negotiations between the Superpowers that paved the way to an eventual, but short-lived, detente; and it facilitated their relationship in that the need for a direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin - the so-called 'Hot Line' - was recognised and accepted. More importantly for the purposes of this study, while Kennedy and Khrushchev conversed with each other through traditional channels, radio had been explicitly used as an integral part of the diplomatic procedure, marking watershed in global broadcasting on a series of levels. The Soviet Union was forced by circumstances to recognise that the value of radio was no longer rooted merely in propaganda, the importance of the monitoring service was acknowledged, and public opinion was accorded a position as a contributory factor in the formulation of political foreign policy. At the start of the crisis, the British Ambassador in Havana, Sir Herbert Marchant, had advocated the launch of a 'really serious propaganda exercise' by the US. 'I mean, really serious and probably expensive, but still cheaper than a war.' (1) Such an observation implies recognition that propaganda can often be a substitute for military conflict, as the missile crisis vividly illustrated.
                 Together the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis had confirmed the importance of harmonising government action with propaganda and broadcasting policy. It had not been easy; the gravity of the crisis had forced the USIA into supervising VoA broadcasts to a degree that had so far been avoided. The crisis also opened up deep wounds between the VoA and its parent agency, USIA. The Director of the VoA, Henry Loomis, told Ed Murrow [Director of USIA] that the station 'failed to sound convincing because of our monolithic tone. ... During the ... crisis,' he said, 'we were required to distort and concentrate our programme at the expense of credibility and relevance to our audience.' Loomis believed that by broadcasting Presidential and State Department announcements, the Voice suffered from a markedly dull output and at the same time revealed itself to be a propaganda station. [2]  However, given the scope and nature of the crisis, this comment is unjustified. At a time when the political risks were incredibly high, when the future of the whole world was at stake, audiences for foreign broadcasts (which inevitably increase at times of major crises) were more interested in government pronouncements of intentions rather than often wild speculation. As America's role in the Vietnam war continued to escalate, this dichotomy posed by VoA's dual purpose was exacerbated, and the relationship which the government enjoyed with its propaganda agencies was to prove crucial.


1.  FO371/162347/AK1051/11, 22 October 1962 (Public Record Office, Kew Gardens)
2.  Sorenson, Thomas (1968), The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda (New York: Harper & Row), p. 238