Home Office employed private company to create Muslim-focused media campaigns ostensibly fronted by 'grassroots' organisations, report claims
The British government is running a covert “propaganda” campaign intended to project its counter-extremism message to British Muslims through supposedly “grassroots” community organisations, a report published on Monday claims.
Several recent high-profile counter-extremism initiatives that appeared to be the work of non-government organisations were actually orchestrated by a media company, Breakthrough Media, with close links to the Home Office's Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), the report says.
They include Fightback Starts Here, a counter-extremism campaign launched last July which was widely described as “Muslim-led” and backed by a broad coalition of charities, campaign groups and community organisations.
Another Breakthough project was a website, Help for Syria, which was launched in 2013, ostensibly by three Muslim charities, to encourage people to donate money rather than joining aid convoys or travelling to perform humanitarian work in the war-stricken country.
In some cases, the charities and organisations which fronted the campaigns were not aware of Breakthrough Media's close links to the Home Office, while Breakthough employees were required to sign the Official Secrets Act in order to conceal that relationship, the report says.
According to CAGE, the civil liberties group focused on issues affecting Muslim communities which produced the report, the campaign amounts to an attempt to manufacture “state-sponsored grassroots activism” and the “first concerted foray into cyberspace by the British state with the aim of covertly engineering the thoughts of its citizens”.
“RICU is using ‘grassroots’ organisations as mouthpieces for a Prevent-sanctioned agenda, which justifies a securitised approach to all aspects of Muslim life,” said Asim Qureshi, CAGE's research director and one of the authors of the report.
“There is also evidence to suggest that the government is using the Official Secrets Act to hide its relationship with the role of Breakthrough Media, the PR company driving the propaganda. This suggests an abuse of power and a contempt for open society.”
RICU is based in the Home Office's Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) and has been involved since it was established in 2007 in communicating the government's Prevent counter-extremism strategy.
Much of its work remains secretive, but Home Secretary Theresa May told parliament's joint security committee in 2011 that RICU was “currently road-testing some quite innovative approaches to counter-ideological messages”.
'Sharper and more professional'
An updated edition of the government's counter-terrorism strategy published in the same year also said that RICU would be required to “deliver sharper and more professional counter-narrative products”.
Breakthrough Media is a “creative communications agency” with offices in London and Nairobi whose past projects include a documentary for Al Jazeera about the mayor of Mogadishu, and a film called Faith on the Frontline produced for the UK's Armed Forces Muslim Association.
But other projects about which the report raises concerns do not feature in its online portfolio.
The Fightback Starts Here campaign was fronted by the Leicester-based Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO) and consisted of a video, a website and a letter published in the Guardian newspaper signed by representatives of “charities, civil society organisations and safeguarding groups” who pledged to work together to defeat the “poisonous ideology” of extremism.
The letter was also signed by relatives of David Haines and Alan Henning, two British hostages killed by the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.
A report of the launch in the Guardian quoted Suleman Nagdi, a spokesperson for the FMO, as saying that while other anti-extremism efforts such as the Prevent strategy were top-down, Fightback Starts Here was grassroots-based.
“Engagement with the community is just as crucial as any government policy. You can legislate as much as you want, but there must be a buy-in from the community. Hopefully, this will be that buy-in,” Nagdi said.