Source tells MEE that Home Office communications unit had final say on counter-extremism content created by media agency for Imams Online
The organisation behind a digital summit for Muslim leaders being hosted at Google's London headquarters has close links to the Home Office's secretive Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), Middle East Eye can reveal.
The event has been organised by Imams Online, a website which promotes itself as a “global voice for imams”, which tweeted on Wednesday morning that the event was "packed".
— Imams Online (@ImamsOnline) January 11, 2017
But MEE has been told that some content for the website has been produced by Breakthrough Media, a creative agency tasked by RICU with covertly disseminating counter-extremism messages as part of the government's Prevent Strategy.
According to a source, Imams Online is one of a number of ostensibly grassroots and community-led counter-extremism campaigns being run by Breakthrough Media through third party groups on behalf of RICU which has the final say on content and messaging and funds the work.
“Material was being written at Breakthrough and then sent across to RICU to look over it and approve it and then posted out on Imams Online,” said the anonymous source who has an inside understanding of the relationship between RICU and Breakthrough Media.
“Nothing went out without RICU's approval.”
Scott Brown, a director at Breakthrough Media, told MEE that those allegations were "misleading and incorrect".
"Breakthrough Media has previously worked with Imams Online, providing creative design services for their work aimed at stopping radicalisation and recruitment to Daesh [the Islamic State group]. This information is well documented in the public domain," said Brown.
He said that the company offered "in-kind support to community groups to help them get their messages to a wider audience in a clearer way".
"All groups that Breakthrough Media supports are independent and have ultimate editorial control ensuring all content represents their views and objectives."
Shaukat Warraich, the chief editor of Imams Online and the chief executive of its parent organisation Faith Associates, a consultancy working mainly with mosques and Muslim organisations, also said that the website was independent.
He pointed MEE to a statement made by Faith Associates last year in which it asserted Imams Online was “authored by the imams and scholars themselves” and stated that all of its content, campaigns and events were “independent of any external influence”.
“I am very proud of the work both Faith Associates and Imams Online have conducted to create engagement between any individual, group, organisation, institution or official body committed to the protection of the Muslim faith, the welfare of British Muslims and promotion of inter-community relations. It is only through continued dialogue, the desire to understand and working with one another that we will be successful,” he told MEE.
“Faith Associates and Imams Online have the same, strongly independent, editorial, theological and moral code. A code that runs through all of our work and holds us to account.”
A page from a leaked Home Office Prevent catalogue describing work done by Faith Associates
Warraich also referred MEE to a statement issued by Faith Associates last week denying that the digital summit was funded by Prevent after a leaked Home Office document posted online revealed that it had received £45,000 ($55,000) in Prevent funds to deliver mosque management training.
Important to engage
Speakers at the summit, which was billed as an “opportunity to sincerely discuss pertinent issues affecting the community and allow for an honest and open debate”, include Matt Collins, the director of the Home Office-based Prevent Delivery Unit.
In a presentation to a Local Government Association conference in 2015 Collins said: "We want to increase the number of community-based organisations to support and deliver a range of Prevent initiatives. Keen to expand into existing third sector organisations."
Collins is also listed as the acting director of "Prevent including RICU" in listings for a forthcoming conference on preventing extremism in education.
Imams Online is also using the summit to promote a new video titled “What British Muslims Really Do” which it says “highlights the incredible contributions Muslim faith leaders make to their communities across some of the UK’s most iconic and populated cities”.
An image from the RICU-produced #MakingAStand campaign
Some of those scheduled to attend Wednesday’s summit said they had concerns about Prevent, which faces criticism that it is discriminatory against Muslims, but believed it was important to engage with the government and social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter which are also sending representatives.
Bilal Hassam, a presenter at British Muslim TV, said that Warraich had 20 years of experience working in the Muslim community and that it was natural that he would be picked up by the government and the media.
“If we have an attitude that Muslims shouldn’t engage then this will only hurt us,” he told MEE.
Adam Kelwick, a Muslim chaplain, said he was not a fan of Prevent but that allegations of the summit’s association with the strategy were based on “conspiracy theories”.
Imams Online faced scrutiny last May over its alleged links to Breakthrough Media in a report by Cage, the human rights campaign group, which lifted the lid on RICU's work with several Muslim organisations.
Its statement then it said: “Imams Online would like to state quite clearly that any campaigns it has run, events it has held or content it has produced for its website and social media feeds is independent of any external influence.”
But MEE's source said that Faith Associates' links with RICU and Breakthrough Media were closer than it was admitting.
He said that Warraich was in direct communication with RICU head Richard Chalk, and that Breakthrough Media had a dedicated account manager for Imams Online.
'Write the message'
“The way it worked really was that he [Chalk] would have something that he wanted communicating, like a message of some form. What would happen is that Breakthrough would pick which one of these community groups they would push them through,” said the source.
“They would write the message, they would write the script, they would make the videos, they'd put together the strategy and everything and once it's all done they'd tell the group this is what we would like you to talk about.”
Scott Brown told MEE that Breakthrough did not have an account manager for Imams Online. He also said that Breakthrough Media was not involved in organising the digital summit.
MEE has previously reported links between Breakthrough Media and Inspire, the counter-extremism campaign group fronted by Sara Khan, and the Leicester-based Federation of Muslim Organisations, for whom it ran an online radio station, UmmahSonic.
Breakthrough Media also ran the social media accounts of the organisations with which it worked closely, the source said.
One of the products disseminated via Imams Online was a magazine titled Haqiqah which was intended to counter Islamic State (IS) group propaganda and received widespread media coverage when it was launched in October 2015.
Imams Online claimed the magazine was written by “senior Islamic scholars” but MEE's source said it had been produced in-house by Breakthrough Media staff.
“All of that from beginning to end was created at Breakthrough. The articles were ghost written. At the very end they'd be sent to be read over. You had Breakthrough Media people basically writing things that were meant to be religious. A lot of it was Googled.”
An image of Haqiqah posted on the magazine's Twitter feed
While some projects were commissioned by RICU, Breakthrough Media would also pitch its own ideas “over the road”, a phrase used by staff to refer to the Home Office because of the secrecy surrounding the work, the source said. The Guardian newspaper in May reported that some Breakthrough Media staff had been required to sign the Official Secrets Act.
“Sometimes it would be Breakthrough literally trying to make money. They would think of random ideas that they could pitch for content for these groups. It was mostly trying to second guess what Richard [Chalk] wanted.
“If RICU liked it, it would get made and Breakthrough would get paid for it. The groups would basically be given the material to push out. There was very rarely any push back.”
According to the source, Breakthrough Media's content was also shared widely with Prevent teams around the country.
“The Prevent organisers are basically given a menu of different products [that had been] edited or planned out by the Home Office,” he said.
MEE's source said he believed that all of the groups with whom Breakthrough Media has worked were aware of its links to RICU. But he said that transparency did not extend to all of those involved in the company's productions.
“When you are one of the kids being filmed, one of the radio presenters, when you are one of the actors, none of those people would know. It is very clear not to tell them,” he said.
Google’s involvement in Wednesday’s summit comes as internet and social media companies are under growing pressure from governments to tackle online extremism amid concerns about the potency of online propaganda associated with the Islamic State (IS) group.
The search engine giant last year told a parliamentary inquiry that it had set up a pilot programme that offered “Google grants” to charities and NGOs “dedicated to preventing radicalisation” which allowed them to place adverts for free against terrorism-related search terms of their choosing.
It has also sponsored counter-extremism programmes through Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas, its innovation think tank), including Abdullah-X, a YouTube cartoon “that aims to steer young minds away from extremism”.