A recent court judgement based on an argument from the government’s domestic propaganda unit, Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU), has resulted in the censoring of a video clip of British marine Alexander Blackman executing a wounded Taliban fighter.
Though several media companies argued that the clip should be aired as it was in the public interest to do so, the judge repeated the Home Office’s RICU head Paul Wilson’s words when he said: “It [the video] would provide terrorists with material they could use to underpin their ‘justification’ for undertaking terrorist attacks against the western powers and to underpin their extremist narrative at a tactical and strategic level.”
“They would use it to argue that western powers are corrupt, do not adhere to their own rules such as the military rules of engagement and the Geneva Conventions and claim that this was the way the armed forces of the western powers treat insurgents on the battlefield.”
There are four important issues that emerge from the judgement in this case which need to be brought to the fore.
Actions of British armed forces can be linked to political violence
The British government, in its counter extremism strategy in 2015, focusses on ideology as the key driver of “radicalisation”.
This approach, which led to a strategy that targets ideas and beliefs, has since bolstered disastrous state interventions such as PREVENT, widely discredited through its lack of scientific basis linking ideology to “terrorism”.
Up until now the government has refused to acknowledge the link between political grievances such as anger and disillusionment with British foreign policy, and political violence. In fact the government’s basis for its radicalisation theory, the ERG 22+ fails to acknowledge political factors at all.
However in this case, the judge, with the support of RICU itself, has admitted there is a link between the behaviour of British armed forces in Afghanistan, and political violence. In other words, the actions of British armed forces can be responsible for what the state terms “radicalisation”.
It must be noted that when the government advocates PREVENT, it disregards the actions of its armed forces abroad as a motivator for political violence, and yet as soon as their narrative stands to be damaged, the state provides the same links between armed forces atrocities and political violence that opponents of PREVENT and counter terrorism laws have always argued.
This is an important point that needs to be highlighted, amplified, and further acknowledged by those in power: that violence abroad is linked to violence at home.
RICU provided integral contribution to the court judgement
It is also worth noting that in this case the opinions of a government department formed an integral basis for the final judgement.
The government’s RICU has been at the forefront of a Cold War-style propaganda programme directed at Muslims. This programme has centred on funding organisations supposedly representing Muslims so they can spread information that is supportive of its counter-terrorism programmes. These counter-terrorism programmes themselves are detrimental to the cohesiveness of Muslim and broader society.
RICU has been at the forefront of this “soft” but deeply structural form of oppression against its own citizens.
It is disturbing then, that the propaganda arm of the government is wielding such a strong influence in this particular case – to such an extent that the judge repeats almost verbatim the highly politicised words of the state propaganda chief Paul Wilson.
Double standards in the courtroom and outside
Blackman has subsequently had his murder conviction overturned and reduced to manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility due to psychological illness. He will now serve only 7 years as opposed to his previous life sentence.
However what the public discourse around Blackman’s case lacked – in contrast with Muslim’s convicted of similar crimes – was the attempt to tarnish entire communities, investigate “radicalisation” at places of worship, or assess if his actions were influenced by extremist beliefs.
Neither did we see the terms “terrorist” loosely brandished, nor did we see the judge link his actions to a belief in white supremacy.
It is only late last year that a high court judge deemed the actions of a clearly mentally disturbed Muslim, Muhyiddin Mire, to have been “carried out to advance a religious or ideological cause, namely Islamic extremism”. Despite the similarities between the two cases, there is a clear disparity in how each of them was dealt with in the public eye.
It’s not only about censorship; it’s about justice
Several media outlets said the video should have been aired because it was in the public interest to do so.
On the other hand, some might argue that censoring the video is in fact a more powerful indictment of the act than releasing it. Indeed some acts of violence are too deplorable to show, and in silencing, sometimes the suffering of victims becomes more potent.
It is crucial then that the discussion around this issue not become about whether or not the video be censored – though this too does have its merits in debate – but about how we react to the inhumanity that nobody can deny is clearly evident within it.
The moral decay present in Blackman’s company was recently attested to in court by former senior officer Oliver Lee, who described Blackman’s company as “completely out of control”.
Sketching scenes that could have been taken from ‘Apocalypse Now’, Lee said another senior officer had described the company as “psychologically defeated, bereft of ideas, unpredictable and dangerous”.
Lee accused a second company also operating in Helmand, Afghanistan of the same, and said both companies dehumanised the local people and had “scant regard” for the rules of engagement.
The campaign which lead to his charge being reduced, seemed to focus on the “stress” experienced by soldiers. However as columnist Giles Fraser, who taught leadership and ethics to newly promoted majors, said: “Everyone in Helmand was stressed. Not everyone shot their prisoners.”
Tabloids that are heralding Marine A, Blackman, as a hero and victim of injustice will only serve to perpetuate the very narrative the head of RICU feared the release of the video would cause.
In many ways, the release of the footage is not so much about the content, horrific as it is, but on how much we as a society value the principles of equal justice.
CC image courtesy of Defence Images on Flickr
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)