By co-opting British Muslim organisations into ‘counter-narrative’ campaigns, and through its anti-advocacy clause, the Home Office is attempting to censure civil society.
Last week, a CAGE report entitled ‘We are Completely Independent’ and the Guardian revealed, how the government has devised a secretive propaganda programme, led by the Home Office’s RICU (Research, Information and Communications Unit). Through Breakthrough Media, RICU has been able to pump out government propaganda in an attempt to shape Muslim thought and behaviour. Most startlingly, they have used Muslim organisations as their mouthpieces, whether these organisations are aware of it or not.
The relationship between RICU and Breakthrough Media is allegedly protected by the Official Secrets Acts (OSA). The roots of this relationship go back a few years. In 2012, Theresa May MP said that RICU was “road-testing some quite innovative approaches to counter-ideological messages”. Certainly this scheme is reminiscent of Cold War tactics. When we noticed that small organisations were able to advertise on a large scale and have ease of access to mainstream media, our research team began to dig deeper into the issue.
In many ways the CAGE report confirms suspicions that many have held: that the government’s messaging surrounding its failing PREVENT strategy has become deliberately underhanded.
But the report is important because it draws attention to the need for our communities to be aware of who is producing the ‘counter narratives’ that serve to shape Muslim society – and what exactly their objectives are in disseminating this information.
We state clearly in the report that the issue is not with campaigning against extremism or any other -ism. Rather, the focus is on the threat posed to civil society “when governments start trying to engineer the contours and impact of that activism by secretly sponsoring some ‘community voices’ and misrepresenting and censoring others”.
The report is clear evidence that the government has engaged deceptively with the Muslim community. They have chosen to follow a propaganda campaign, rather than embark on serious and meaningful interaction. This is no doubt because the government seeks manufacture consent with its agenda, despite growing opposition to PREVENT. To do this it relies upon the services of Breakthrough Media to insidiously gain access to ‘grass roots’ organisations, and co-opt them into its ‘counter-narrative’ programmes.
read more: PREVENT a story of community resentment
The Guardian quotes a Breakthrough Media document as aiming to “influence online conversations by being embedded within target communities via a network of moderate organisations that are supportive of it’s goals”. The aim could not be more clear: to disseminate government propaganda in a way where the message is perceived to be coming from ‘grass roots’ organisations or from the community itself. This entire relationship is deceptive to the core. A source even told The Guardian “It’s not a genuine partnership, however: it’s a manipulative arrangement”.
Added to this is the alleged use of the Official Secrets Act, as mentioned in the CAGE report, to conceal the RICU-Breakthrough Media relationship. If this is true, as the report asserts, “we are staring at plain abuse of power and contempt for democracy”.
Silencing legitimate dissent
The anti-advocacy clause, a proposed new clause to be inserted into all government grants, will ensure that government funded charities can’t lobby the state. This sits perfectly with the government’s concerted effort to silence dissenting voices. Even UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai has said that the anti-advocacy clause was “being read by Charities as an effort to further silence them if they receive Government funds”.
This clause has united the charity sector against the government. Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO (National Council For Voluntary Organisations) said: “This is tantamount to making charities take a vow of silence and goes against the spirit of open policy making”. Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations), said he is “shocked and disappointed by the latest erosion of free speech and advocacy”.
Even more shocking – but perhaps no surprise – is that the head of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, is implicated in the creation of this clause. In an open letter to the prime minister, over 130 charity chief executives declared the clause as “ flawed in principle” and that it would instead “cost the taxpayer more money”. Despite the opposition, the most recent response of the government has been to pause the use of the clause “but … [remain] committed to it”. As MP Tommy Shepperd said, this is “reminiscent of a totalitarian political culture”.
read more: British government is borrowing propaganda tactics from Apartheid South Africa
Seen in light of the recent CAGE report, a clear picture emerges of the state’s heavy handed and deceptive approach to civil society. On the one hand, the government seeks to actively use taxpayers’ money for disseminating propaganda, with the purpose of shaping behaviours and forming a particular narrative about acceptable Islamic life. While on the other hand it is silencing charities that receive government grants, by barring them from shaping official policy.
This creates a terrifying civil society landscape where organisations supported by the secretive RICU can advocate and lobby government on counter-extremism policies – a self-reinforcing principle – while charities involved in advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable sections of society are held to a vow of silence. In the background to this, the government is attempting to shape a pliant Muslim civil society that serves as an echo chamber for state policy.
The right to know
CAGE’s report exposes how Muslims are being hoodwinked into following a government-sponsored programme, a course of action which has been meticulously constructed within the corridors of the Home Office in order to achieve the broader aim of manufacturing a more pliable and government-friendly civil society, which does not question its PREVENT agenda.
Since it is the role of civil society to call government to account, this is an alarming development, which threatens open society and fundamental freedoms.
Our communities must be treated with respect and communicated with in an open and transparent manner. Muslim organisations should not be unknowingly engaged by RICU. In the same vein, when engaging with community organisations, Muslims must be made aware of “any engagement with PREVENT in order to make informed decisions about receiving such services”.
This is crucial, or the end result is loss. RICU has already created an atmosphere of mistrust whereby Muslim communities are left in the dark as to the true nature of the activism they see. Authentic and genuine charitable work has been undermined by the government’s attempts to contrive support for its counter-extremism policies.
Attend the Student not suspects: PREVENT, Islamophobia and Civil Liberties National conference
(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.)