Islamic Media Unit

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Group.png Islamic Media Unit
(Propaganda)Rdf-icon.png
Parent organizationUK/FCO
Typepropaganda
Responsible for managing news about British foreign policy in the UK

Origins

The Islamic Media Unit (IMU) was set up within the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in October 2001 in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001 to alleviate any future similar crisis and to address Islamic opinion throughout the world. It has a special emphasis on the Arab media and to ensure that Arabic-speaking UK diplomats were available to explain UK policies. It appears that the unit was set up as part of a broader project of the Public Diplomacy Strategy Board to co-ordinate the BBC World Service, the British Council and the FCO. The board recommended that 'the organisations concerned should be adopting a more joined-up way of working', to enable them to be more effective in 'reinforcing the public diplomacy message about the UK'. The over-arching Board would provide 'guidance on the core messages' that the Government wishes to put across to its 'target audiences'[1].

The setting up of the IMU mirrors similar moves in other countries around the same period. In the US Henry J. Hyde, Chairman of House International Relations Committee introduced a reform of U.S. Public Diplomacy to improve America's outreach to international mass audiences. The Freedom Promotion Act 2002 [2] was introduced in March 2001 and passed in March 2002 and aims to rebuild a mass communications infrastructure to 'explain American policies and culture to the world'.[3]

The IMU is broadly divided into two departments; one deals with the Indian subcontinent and the second with the Arab world. Each department focuses on understanding the views and knowing the points of interest for the press in its respective region. The unit also aims to explain and clarify the British government's policies and stands. It then evaluates the news reports and reactions to measure the effectiveness of its actions. Randa William - Head of Unit and UK Government Spokesman for Arab Affairs - stated that one of the unit's tasks is to follow closely the 'Arab and Islamic press and assess it and deal with it'[4].

The timing of its creation with images of civilian casualties coming out of Afghanistan which lead to waning public support for the war points to the fact that it was part of a greater counter propaganda campaign aimed at regaining public support. In October 2001, Time Magazine's London Bureau Chief Jef McAllister in an interview on CNN which was assessing public support for the war suggested that the IMU was set-up as part of Tony Blair's campaign to gain support for the war. At that time Blair was on tour trying

to remind of the emotional significance essentially of September 11th and... trying to attract the Arab public. There's a new Islamic media unit set up in Downing Street — there are — with Arabic speaking officials who go on camera to Al Jazeera and other Arabic outlets, trying to build up support there[5].

The Campaign was re-invigorated in the run-up to and during the first wave of attacks on Iraq in 2003, when Tony Blair ordered a campaign to counter negative coverage in the Arab media of the war in Iraq. Blair's Spin Doctor Alastair Campbell reminded the press that 'London had set up a special "Islamic media unit" within the Foreign Office, with an official assigned "virtually full time" to speak in Arabic to the Arabic media'[6]. Campbell makes it quite clear that his counter-propaganda campaign was not directed at Bin-Laden's extremist webcasts but at independent Arab news outlets - or more specifically - Al Jazeera which continued to report the war on the ground from the perspective of the victims killed by Coalition bombs. The graphic images of dead women and children beamed across the Arab world and beyond were devastating for the Coalition's propaganda war. When Al Jazeera reported on a series of allegations of British Soldiers killing Iraqi Prisoners of War, Campbell commented:

Complete fiction but there it was aired. Now that is something that we have to get out there, knowing that it is happening, dealing with it, challenging it, rebutting it.[7].

In November 2001 Bush's American Spin doctor Tucker Eskew Came to Britain and worked closely for 5 months with Alastair Campbell to 'spin the war'[8] The Independent newspaper reported that 'What brought him to London was a joint media and propaganda operation, little publicised in Britain and unprecedented, even in the Second World War'[9]. Tucker Eskew worked with the Government's little-publicised Islamic Media Unit to get the allies' case across to "publics", especially in the Middle East[10]

The Islamic Media Unit was set-up in conjunction with the Coalition Information Center (CIC)[11] which co-ordinated the Coalition’s public communications about the military, diplomatic and humanitarian aspects of the campaign against "terrorism". The CIC - to which the FCO claims to have made major contributions and has offices in London, Washington and Islamabad - is otherwise known as the 'propaganda wing of the military's Operation Enduring Freedom'[12], and was 'known among journalists who tried to cover the war in Afghanistan as a veritable disinformation center'[13]. The London CIC was housed within and partially staffed by the Foreign Office[14].

Connections

Aims & Strategies

Its principle aim is to help build a better understanding of United Kingdom policies amongst people in the Muslim world [15]; the key areas it covers is Foreign Policy in (Afghanistan, MEPP, India-Pakistan, Iraq)[16] but, on the domestic front it also covers inter-faith relations and the role of the British Muslim community. The unit wishes to strengthen support among Muslims for the objectives of the "War on Terror". The FCO is clearly not shy in admitting that essentially one of the IMU's objectives is to sell the "War on Terror" - by extension the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan to Muslims around the world.

The FCO's 2002 Report [17] claims to draw on in-house expertise in Islamic affairs, culture and media. Its main strategy, according to the report, was to convey the British Government's message more effectively to an Islamic audience through

developing links with key Islamic media services operating in the UK and overseas, providing them with FCO spokesmen able to conduct interviews in the relevant languages, and briefing third parties at one remove from government for additional media appearances. The Unit also liaised with the print media over publication of interviews with and articles by Ministers and prominent Muslim figures in the UK in support of the coalition’s aims. It published and distributed leaflets in English, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Turkish to explain the campaign objectives to a Muslim audience both overseas and within the UK. The Unit worked closely both with British missions overseas to add value to their public diplomacy efforts, and with the Home Office on outreach to the Muslim community in the UK. We shared our experience with other coalition governments, to strengthen support for the campaign against "terrorism" more widely[18].

Activities

The Islamic Media Unit claimed that it retained access to "experts" at handling the media. and a database of regional experts which can be brought in at short notice in the event of a crisis such as the 9/11 attacks. In the recent "crisis" the 'Islamic Media Unit' has provided news press releases in fluent Arabic; the aim according to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is to improve public perception of Britain and its allies across the Arab and Muslim world and also within Muslim communities at home. [19].

The IMU has worked closely with the FCO's Engaging with the Islamic World programme and the BBC World Service Trust Journalism Standards to provide training in Middle East North Africa Region and to identify media partners in the region. The Project oversees the training of senior journalists and editors as trainers and mentors and aims to develop a robust system for monitoring the progress of journalists over time. The first round of professional four-week intensive UK media training began in May 2004 for seven journalists. The Islamic Media Unit briefed the team but the BBC World Service Trust (BBCWST) managed the training 'to exchange views and to explain that government contacts with journalists are a normal part of ensuring proper reporting and not a propaganda effort'[20]

In a Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the FCO's Annual Report 2002, Peter Collecott noted:

What the Islamic Media Unit has shown is that it is possible to have an effect on public opinion overseas and that that is crucially important. I think this will become a lasting part of our machinery. We realised quite early on that we needed to get people speaking fluent Arabic and in the press in the Muslim and Arab world just to put across our point of view.[21]

During the 2003 Iraq War

The Islamic Media Unit performed an advisory role in the British information campaign of the Iraq War. It dealt with "the bulk of Arab media analysis and targeting" of key target audiences and messages, "advising the Government on the Arab presentational implications of particular events" [22]. Gerard Russell, then head of the Unit, "regularly appeared on all of the [Arabic] channels - forward operating from an office in Jordan for much of the war - to explain the British position"[23]

Future

In recent years the Islamic Media Unit appears to have fallen off the radar - there was already very little media coverage of the unit; A search over all News in all Languages on the Lexis Nexis database reveals less than 40 direct references with almost nothing beyond 2005. In 2006 there were only three references covering the same story: one from the Al-Quds al-Arabi website and the other two from Iranian News. Public internet search engines reveals very little or no evidence of the IMU's existence or closure - a mere 200 hits with the latest citations on Google, Clusty and Metacrawler, revealing nothing beyond 2005. One the most recent references to the unit by the Home Office in August 2005 recommended the establishment of a Unit at the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), "modelled on the Islamic Media Unit at the FCO, to encourage a more balanced representation of Islam and Muslims in the British media"[24]. Moreover, as late as December 2005 there were recommendations for its continuation[25]; the same report states that the FCO is about to appoint a further two Arabic spokespeople and has plans for senior Ambassadors in key locations to receive media training to equip them for Arab media standard interviews. The team has also established a weekly ‘lobby’ for Arab and Islamic Media, and in January 2005 launched an Arabic version of the FCO website[26]. It also states that The FCO Communications Directorate appear to be taking steps to increase capacity in relation to the Islamic Media, not only through additional training for staff, but also through sharing best practice with other Government Departments.

At present the FCO is working with a range of Departments with responsibility for issues that affect Muslims in the UK and overseas to establish Islamic Media teams. The FCO have been able to provide key materials such as contact lists, information about Islamic press and television coverage in the UK, and general advice on how to set up specialist teams[27]. Many of the IMU's activities overlap or have been taken up by the Engaging with the Islamic World (EIW) which has the task of promoting understanding of British foreign policy abroad, but also has a domestic role in tackling extremism and building an understanding of Islam in Britain. In May 2006 a large chunk of the Home Office that used to deal with Muslim issues moved to Ruth Kelly's Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).The Foreign & Commonwealth Office's constant reshuffling in this department has led to some confusion in the Press as to who is in charge of what. Statesman Magazine Journalist expressed his frustration when he tried to secure an interview with the minister responsible for Muslim engagement to answer questions raised in a series of leaked Whitehall documents

It took some time for the departments to decide who was in charge. At first the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells agreed to answer questions, but then he withdrew, saying he could not discuss leaked documents. Following the reshuffle, the Home Office and the DCLG were similarly nonplussed, but as my concerns touched on counter-terrorism, the new Home Office minister Liam Byrne agreed to talk. A few days later, an internal switch led to a job swap and the offer was withdrawn[28].

In recent years the FCO has come under a lot of cricism with several newspaper reports questioning the 'readiness on the part of ministers to forge links with radical Muslim groups at home and abroad after FCO Civil Servant Derek Pasquill leaked a series of Whitehall documents to the Observer and Statesman related to the US practice of secretly transporting terror suspects to places where they risked being tortured, and UK government policy towards Muslim groups. [29].

All of the latest FCO publications indicate that most of the work in this area is now being conducted by the Strategic Programme Fund's (SPF) Engaging with the Islamic World (EIW) and Counter Terrorism CT Programmes. There is no mention of the Islamic Media Unit in the last two FCO Annual Reports and is no longer listed in the 2007 IPO Directory[30].

People

Islamic Media Unit (July 2004)

Source[31]

Islamic Media Unit (August 2005)

Source[32]

Islamic Media Unit (Jan 2006)

Source[33]


References

  1. FCO website, Changing Perceptions, Review of Public Diplomacy, Wilson Review, March 2002 Last accessed 13-Apr-2008
  2. Foreign Affairs Website Archives accessed 14-Apr-2008
  3. Foreign Affairs Website Archives, accessed 14-Apr-2008
  4. Document Nexis UK: Interview between Samir Nasif and Randa William for Al-Quds al-Arabi, London. Translated and supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring: Head of UK's Islamic media unit quoted on unit's aims, role Accessed April 13, 2008
  5. Nexis® UK: Document CNN: Campaign in Afghanistan also a Propaganda War; Interview with Jef McAllister 30-OCT-2001, Accessed April 16, 2008
  6. Nexis® UK: Document THE DAILY TELEGRAPH(LONDON) Blair calls for campaign to rebut 'negative' Arab media 1-APR-2003, Accessed April 16, 2008
  7. Nexis® UK: Document THE DAILY TELEGRAPH(LONDON) Blair calls for campaign to rebut 'negative' Arab media 1-APR-2003, Accessed April 16, 2008
  8. Nexis® UK: Document The Independent (London) TuesdayAMERICAN SPIN DOCTOR IN LONDON 19-March-2002, Accessed 14-Apr-2008
  9. Nexis® UK: Document The Independent (London) TuesdayAMERICAN SPIN DOCTOR IN LONDON 19-March-2002, Accessed 14-Apr-2008
  10. Nexis® UK: Document The Independent (London) TuesdayAMERICAN SPIN DOCTOR IN LONDON 19-March-2002, Accessed 14-Apr-2008
  11. Sourcewatch website Coalition Information Center (CIC) last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  12. Sourcewatch website Operation Enduring Freedom last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  13. Worldpress.org,"A Pretty Face for the United States," Roger Ricardo Luis, Granma Internacional (Communist Party weekly), Havana, Cuba, Aug. 22, 2002 Last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  14. FCO website, FCO Departmental Report 2002, Part 5 - Chapter 4, 11 September Response, P.40 Last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  15. Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) website, United Kingdom & the Campaign against Terrorism: One Year On report (11-Sep-2002), last Accessed 22-Feb-2008
  16. FCO website, FCO Departmental Report 2003, Chapter 8, Influence Worldwide last accessed 22-Feb-2008
  17. FCO website, FCO Departmental Report 2002, Part 5 - Chapter 4, 11 September Response, P.40 last accessed 22-Feb-2008
  18. FCO website, FCO Departmental Report 2002, Part 5 - Chapter 4, 11 September Response, P.40last accessed 22-Feb-2008
  19. FCO website, Changing Perceptions, Review of Public Diplomacy, Wilson Review, March 2002 Last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  20. Foreign and Commonwealth Office , Global Opportunities Fund Annual Report 2003-4, December 2004, p 55,57
  21. Parliament.UK Publications and Records FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE ANNUAL REPORT 2002
  22. Tatham, S. (2006) Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion, London: Hurst & Company, Page 95
  23. Tatham, S. (2006) Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion, London: Hurst & Company, Page 95
  24. The Association of Muslim Lawyers (UK) website, Summary of Recommendations: Working together to prevent extremism, Aug 2005,Last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  25. British Council website, Lord Carter of Coles Public Diplomacy Review Last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  26. British Council website, Lord Carter of Coles Public Diplomacy Review Last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  27. British Council website, Lord Carter of Coles Public Diplomacy Review Last accessed 23-Feb-2008
  28. New Statesman, Chaos over the biggest issue of our time, Martin Bright, June 19, 2006, Nexis® UK: Document Accessed April 14, 2008
  29. New Statesman, Chaos over the biggest issue of our time, Martin Bright, June 19, 2006, Nexis® UK: Document Accessed April 14, 2008
  30. The IPO Directory Jan 2006, COI Communications
  31. The IPO Directory July 2004, COI Comunications
  32. The IPO Directory August 2005, COI Comunications
  33. The IPO Directory July 2006, COI Comunications