The British Government's Global Fake News Network

Published: Fri 17 Feb 2006 11:02 AM
The British Government's Global Fake News Network
David Miller, 15 February 2006
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.[1] 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 as a response to 9/11 the government launched a little known television propaganda service, which seems to mimic the US governments deceptive approach to fake news.
The British Satellite News website is a little coy about who funds it. It does say that it is "a free television news and features service". To all intents and purposes it looks like an ordinary news website, though its lack of copyright protection might raise some questions in alert journalists. Broadcasters can use BSN material "directly into daily news programmes".[2] Look carefully and you find that BSN is provided by World Television which also makes corporate videos and fake news releases for corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, BP and Nestlé. World Television also produced Towards Freedom Television on behalf of the UK Government. This was a propaganda broadcast distributed in Iraq by US Army psychological operations teams from a specially adapted aircraft, called Commando Solo, in 2003/4.
World Television, produces the fake news, but their efforts are entirely funded by the Foreign Office. According to its own estimate, the Foreign Office spent £340 million on its propaganda activities in the UK alone in 2001.[3] A comprehensive overhaul post 9/11means that this figure has probably markedly increased in the intervening period.
According to World Television, by November 2003, BSN propaganda material was being 'used regularly by 14 of the 17 Middle East countries. Over 400 stations around the world receive BSN stories. 185 are regular users of the stories, including broadcasters in Russia, Germany, Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Australia.'[4]
The diet of 'news' received by viewers of the service includes an endless pageant of government ministers and other official spokespersons. Recent headlines on Iraq include happy news such as 'Iraqi ambassador talks of allied troop timetable' (9 January 2006); 'Prime Minister in surprise visit to Iraq', (22 December 2005), or 'Iraqi ambassador upbeat on elections', (14 December 2005). Often Chatham House, the establishment think tank, provides the venue for policy discussions as in: 'The Psychology of terror - Experts meet', (23 December 2005)
Questioning the occupation of Iraq is out of the question, but some criticism of US policy is possible. In one extraordinary apologia 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, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.'
The benevolence of the US and the UK is simply assumed:
Today's US-led coalition, like the imperial occupiers of eighty 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 what 'useful lessons could be drawn' from the British experience.[5] In reality the British occupation led immediately to a popular revolt which was ruthlessly suppressed. A puppet monarchy was then imposed, which was neither modern nor democratic and was in fact 'one of the most unpopular in the history of the Middle East'.[6]
The BSN strategy seems to be to emphasise that the UK is diverse and multicultural. Bulletins regularly highlight ethnic minority contributions to the UK and interview leading moderate Muslims. But on some issues, such as Palestine, it is possible to hear muted criticism of Israel. One item featured 'A leading Israeli academic has questioned both the wisdom and the effectiveness of the controversial "separation fence"'[7]
A clue to the thinking behind this is to be found in a report for the Foreign Policy Centre in 2003 co-authored by its then Director Mark Leonard. Leonard had advised the Foreign Office on its post 9/11 Public Diplomacy review in 2002 and was later appointed to the resulting Public Diplomacy Strategy Board which directs Foreign Office propaganda strategy.[8] Leonard has no qualms about fake news and the deception it entails: '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', he noted in 2002.[9] The Foreign Policy Centre report suggests that the UK government 'should not be afraid of ‘bloodying the Americans’ noses’' in its propaganda messages on Israel/Palestine. The aim is to 'ensure that the differences between UK and American positions and thinking are emphasised'. The point is to tackle the perception that the UK 'apishly follows every American lead' in order that it can increase the 'usefulness' of 'UK support for the US'.[10]
This strategy of criticising the US, in order the better to support it, conforms well to Blair's wider Iraq strategy. It is clear from the documents leaked over the past year (including the Downing Street memo) that the strategy was to use the UN as a device for gaining legitimacy for the US/UK invasion. All this makes a mockery of Blair's claims to progressive values.[11] Indeed it suggests that such claims are themselves cynical propaganda.
[1] See the Sourcewatch page on Fake News:
[2]British Satellite News, About BSN,
[3] Chris Wilton, Jonathan, Griffin, Andrew Fotheringham, Changing Perceptions, Review of Public Diplomacy, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 22 March 2002>
[6] Mark Curtis, Unpeople, London: Vintage, 2004, p. 81.
[8] Chris Wilton, Jonathan Griffin, Andrew Fotheringham, Changing Perceptions, Review of Public Diplomacy, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 22 March 2002
[9] Mark Leonard 'Diplomacy by other means' Foreign Policy, Sept/Oct 2002,, cited in Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage 2003.
[10] All quotations from Mark Leonard and Conrad Smewing, Public Diplomacy and the Middle East London, The Foreign Policy Centre, 2003, pp 63, 65 + 69.
[11] For a discussion see . See also 'Blair in secret plot with Bush to dupe U.N.' by SIMON WALTERS, Mail on Sunday 08:22am 29th January 2006
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A version of this article also appeared in the Guardian, The propaganda we pass off as news around the world – [,,1709950,00.html] - A British government-funded fake TV news service allows mild criticism of the US - all the better to support it - David Miller, 15 February, 2006.

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