A succession of scandals in the US has revealed widespread government funding of PR agencies to produce "fake news." Actors take the place of journalists and the "news" is broadcast as if it were genuine. The same practice has been adopted in Iraq, where newspapers have been paid to insert copy. These stories have raised the usual eyebrows in the UK about the pitiful quality of US democracy. Things are better here, we imply. We have a prime minister who claimed in 2004 that "the values that drive our actions abroad are the same values of progress and justice that drive us at home." Yet in 2002 the government launched a little-known television propaganda service that seems to mimic the US government's deceptive approach to fake news.
The British Satellite News website says it is "a free television news and features service." It looks like an ordinary news website, though its lack of copyright protection might raise some questions in alert journalists. Broadcasters can put BSN material "directly into daily news programs." In fact, BSN is provided by World Television, a company that also makes corporate videos and fake news clips for corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, BP, and Nestlé. It also produced "Towards Freedom" Television on behalf of the UK government. This was a propaganda program broadcast in Iraq by US army psychological-operations teams from a specially adapted aircraft in 2003-04.
World Television produces the fake news, but its efforts are entirely funded by the Foreign Office, which spent £340m on propaganda activities in the UK alone in 2001. A comprehensive post- 9/11 overhaul means that this figure has probably markedly increased since then.
According to World Television, by November 2003 BSN "news" was being "used regularly by 14 of the 17 Middle East countries." "Over 400 stations around the world receive BSN stories," it claims. "185 are regular users of the stories, including broadcasters in Russia, Germany, Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Australia."
The diet of "news" received by viewers of the service includes an endless pageant of government ministers and other official spokespeople. Recent headlines on Iraq refer to happy news such as "Prime minister in surprise visit to Iraq" (December 22 2005) or "Iraqi ambassador upbeat on elections" (December 14 2005). Often Chatham House provides the venue for policy discussions, as in: "The psychology of terror - experts meet" (December 23 2005).
Questioning the occupation is out of the question, but some criticism of US policy is possible. In an extraordinary apology for the British occupation of Iraq in 1920, the "suggested intro" reads: "This year is not the first time an outside power has sought to construct a modern, democratic, liberal state in Iraq. Britain tried to do the same in the 1920s". The benevolence of the US and the UK is simply assumed: "Today's US-led coalition, like the imperial occupiers of 80 years ago, are trying to free Iraq's government and security services from corruption and abuse."
But the clumsy strategy of the US is potentially "alienating a large section of the population." So the question arises of what "useful lessons could be drawn" from the British experience. In reality the 1920 occupation led immediately to a popular revolt that was ruthlessly suppressed. A puppet monarchy was imposed, which was neither "modern" nor "democratic" but was, as argued by the historian Mark Curtis, one of the least popular in Middle Eastern history.
The BSN strategy seems to be to emphasize Britain's cultural diversity. Bulletins regularly highlight ethnic minority contributions to the UK and interview-leading moderate Muslims. But it is possible to hear muted criticism of Israel. One item featured "A leading Israeli academic who has questioned both the wisdom and the effectiveness of the controversial 'separation fence'."
A clue to the thinking behind this lies in a 2003 report for the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) think-tank, coauthored by its then director Mark Leonard. He advised the Foreign Office on its Public Diplomacy Review in 2002 and was later appointed to the resulting Public Diplomacy Strategy Board, which directs Foreign Office propaganda strategy. Leonard wrote in 2002: "If a message will engender distrust simply because it is coming from a foreign government then the government should hide that fact as much as possible." The FPC report suggests the British government should not be afraid of "bloodying the Americans' noses" in its propaganda messages on Israel/Palestine. They must "ensure that the differences between UK and American positions and thinking are emphasized." The point is to tackle the perception that Britain "apishly follows every American lead" so the "usefulness" of "UK support for the US" is increased.
This strategy of criticizing the US, in order to support it better, conforms to Blair's wider Iraq strategy. It is clear from documents leaked over the past year (such as the Downing Street memo) that the plan was to use the UN as a device for gaining legitimacy for the invasion of Iraq. All this makes a mockery of Blair's claims to progressive values. Indeed it suggests that such claims are themselves cynical propaganda.
David Miller is professor of sociology at Strathclyde University
© 2006 Guardian Unlimited Newspapers