In the US, Washington has been rocked by the scandal of fake journalists. The Bush administration has been paying actors to produce news, paying journalists to write propaganda, and paying Republican party members to pose as journalists. In the UK this has been reported with our customary shake of the head at the bizarre nature of US politics and media. Implicitly we are relieved that, however bad things are here, at least we are not as bad as they are.
But Spinwatch can reveal that we have our very own fake journalists operating in the UK. The government pays for their wages and they provide news as if they were normal journalists rather than paid propagandists. Normally they work in a little known outfit with the acronym BFBS, which stands for British Forces Broadcasting Service. BFBS exists to 'entertain and inform' British armed forces around the world and is entirely funded by the British Ministry of Defence. BFBS is run by the SSVC. But on this occasion no mention of Ministry of defence funding was made. She was introduced simply as a reporter 'from the British Forces Broadcasting Service' who 'has been embedded with the Scots Guards'. As one wag inside the BBC puts it, this suggests a process of 'double embedding', first working for the MoD and second embedding with a regiment. The report began:
'Route 6 is the main road North out of Basra. It runs through the badlands of Iraq's marsh Arabs They make a living from crime - carjackings, smuggling and murder are common place. It's also the scene of an age old feud between two warring tribes.' (25 November 2004)
Naturally enough, we are told that the regiment in which the reporter is 'embedded' has resolved these tribal problems by negotiating 'a ceasefire' following which ' the two tribes had had their first nights sleep in several months'.
The British Army view of the Iraqi people can be less than sympathetic. The army crackdown on looting early in the occupation was codenamed 'Operation Ali Baba' after the folk tale 'Ali Baba and the forty thieves'. Issuing orders for Operation Ali Baba the commanding officer gave what the Army now acknowledges was an illegal order to 'work them hard'. This led predictably to torture, only discovered when some brave soul in a photo developing shop reported the resulting record of abuse to the police. The view of the Iraq population as thieves is evidently shared by both torturers and propagandists.
The report included interviews with five separate British soldiers including one with a 'master sniper' brought in to counter resistance attacks on the Iraqi police. But there were no interviews with any Iraqis. The report concludes with a straight forward piece of propaganda for the occupation: 'While the Scots Guards remain the ceasefire is likely to hold strong. There's been little trouble in the area since the peace was brokered and the ceasefire has been extended to December the first. But the Iraqi police and national guard still lack confidence and credibility to keep the peace on their own and should the fighting resume, the governor of Basra has given the go ahead for the Scots Guards to use more force to make route 6 safe again.' Even though the report has itself hinted that the fighting is targetting the occupation, we are left with the extraordinary statement that the army in illegal ocupation of Iraq is actually a 'peacekeeping' force.
According to the editor of Good Morning Scotland the piece 'was a bit a of a one-off because she happened to have been embedded with the Royal Scots. Until a few months ago Martha was a correspondent here at BBC Scotland (had been for several years) and is therefore a journalist we know and trust... It was quite an unsual commission'. Unusual indeed, but not unique. Further inquiries by Spinwatch have revealed that another item from a different BFBS journalist was broadcast on Radio Scotland on Christmas day 2004. Insiders at BBC Scotland are livid about this, indeed several have contacted Spinwatch to pass on their concerns. One reports that colleagues have remarked on the 'complete lack of balance' of the piece and one described it as 'an audio press release for the Army'.*
But were the BBC right to say that the journalist concerned was one 'we know and trust'? Certainly there has been a significant wave of journalists from the mainstream media signing up to work for the government since the election of the Blair government. Alastair Campbell is only the most famous. BBC journalists too have made the transition to propagandist as in the example of Mark Laity who became a spin doctor at NATO from whom no further work was commissioned..
The BBC editor claimed in defence that 'I should stress too that BFBS is not controlled by the MOD. It is funded by them in much the same way the BBC World Service is funded by the Foreign Office. Their journalists are actually employed by the SSVC, the Services Sound and Vision Corporation, which is a charitable organisation with editorial independence from the MoD.' (email to the author, December 2004)
This is not quite accurate. A quick visit to the website of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) which is the parent of the BFBS reveals that 'Our work makes a considerable contribution to the maintenance of the efficiency and morale of the three Services. Our activities are carried out directly for the Ministry of Defence. Any profits are donated towards Forces' welfare.' Whatever might be said about the World Service relationship with the Foreign Office, it has not ever been accused of donating its profits to the welfare of Britain's diplomats. The notion that the SSVC which is wholly funded by the MoD serves any other purpose than propaganda is fanciful.
The BBC editor also noted: 'Nonetheless we did flag up in the cue that she was embedded for the BFBS.' They did indeed, but very few radio listeners are familiar with what the BFBS is. This is true of the whole network of propaganda agencies in the UK is little known, but anyone with an internet connection can find out about the organisations involved. The Foreign Office runs a network of fake news operations and has done for years. In recently times these have been contracted out to private production companies with the helpful effect that the government funding is further camouflaged. They have also been extended markedly to focus more cetnrally on the middle east since 2001. One such is the London Press Service which is described as follows on the government I-uk site: 'an agency offering the latest British headline news, news round-ups, features and pictures for use by journalists overseas.'
This is a rather coy way to describe a government propaganda service. Click on its website for an admission of the defining feature of this whole network of agencies; that the news on the site 'is for free use by journalists'. Look in vain for an indication of who really funds this service. All you will see is a notice at the bottom of the home page : 'The london Press Service is operated and maintained by Intelfax Ltd.' Intelfax is in turn an independent production company but the London Press Service is funded entirely by the Foreign Office.
Or take the example of British Satellite News (BSN) broadcast for free over the Reuters World News Service. According to its website, BSN 'is a free television news and features service, which provides you with coverage of worldwide topical events and stories from a British perspective. Our dedicated team of experienced television journalists specialise in producing topical stories that inform and entertain a global audience. ' Again not much in the way of a clue that this is a fake news site. BSN is run by a company called World Television which does work for the BBC such as the live coverage of the TUC conference and also works for multinationals such as GSK and Nestle. The Foreign Office helpfully tells us that BSN has 'a particular focus on the Arab/Islamic world.' It also mentions that BSN 's fake news 'is currently used by 35 broadcasters in the Middle East and over 440 worldwide.' The secret of all this material is that it is not only free to use but that it is used as if it was genuine news and not British propaganda.
The UK is awash with fake news, of which the examples here are only a taste, it is just that we don't pay much attention to it. The American scandals over fake news are played out against the background of some pretty clear laws forbidding propaganda with a disguised source within the borders of the US. There are no laws forbidding fake news in the UK. Perhaps we needs some.
* Comments to the author from a BBC staffer, who, not unnaturally, prefers to remain anonymous, January 2005.
Good Morning Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland, 25 November 2004
Presenter 1: Soldiers from the Black Watch regiment in Iraq have carried out a major raid against suspected insurgents in villages on the banks of the Euphrates. The raid involving 500 troops was one of the largest British operations since the end of the Iraq war last year.
Presenter 2: Meanwhile the Scots Guards have successfully negotiated a ceasefire between two warring tribes just weeks into their tour of duty in Iraq. The soldiers were called in after fighting flared along the main road north out of Basra. Operation Energise aimed to stop the violence which has been affecting transport and communications to and from Basra City. Martha Fairley from the British Forces Broadcasting Service has been embedded with the Scots Guards.
Martha Fairley: Route 6 is the main road north out of Basra. It runs through the badlands of Iraq's marsh Arabs They make a living from crime - carjackings, smuggling and murder are common place. It's also the scene of an age old feud between two warring tribes. The Garamsha and Al Halaf (sp?) kept a low profile during Saddam's regime. But recently the fighting's flared up again and the warriors and tanks of the Scots Guards and Royal Dragoon Guards were brought in as a show of force and as Sergeant Jason Manassi from the Scots Guard has discovered they are also a source of fascination for hoards of local people.
Jason Manassi: There's a lot of people obviously trying to get involved but it's not in a bad way -they are -I really think they don't mean any harm at this stage. However we still need to be on our toes. We're at the moment doing a re-supply. We are showing a bit of force at the moment sending troops up all the time. It is working but I think they are more inquisitive as opposed to hostile at this present moment - which is good, which is good.
We travelled with a convoy of Scots Guards bringing supplies and fuel to the troops stationed along route 6. The Iraqi police have set up vehicle checkpoints along the road to try and control the violence and while they're stopping and checking the vehicles, the British forces are providing them with the support and credibility they need. But even after the arrival of the Scots Guards there's been a murder on this stretch of road. The second checkpoint we stop at is Beruki camp. The Iraqi police service have a station here and the policemen proudly show off their uniforms and weapons as we arrive. But they fear for their safety. Three of their colleagues have been killed by a sniper here in recent months. Scots Guards master sniper Robert Milton set up an operation to find the gunman who's thought to be holed up a mile away
Robert Milton: There's a sniper, enemy sniper within the buildings to our front, just behind and we're here to take him on basically. And it gives them reassurance on the ground that we're here to take out this person if we can find him.
MF: We return to route 6 the following morning a ten day cease fire had just been negotiated by the Scots Guards and the two tribes had had their first nights sleep in several months. Commanding officer Colonel Harry Nicoson says persuading them to come to the negotiating table was relatively easy.
Harry Nicoson: If you've got an armoured battle group and you plonk it in the middle of their village you tend to get their attention quite quickly and that is what happened. They immediately came up and spoke to us, we had two separate meetings brokered the cease fire with both sides and told them that if they didn't stick to it then we would come and sort them out or words to that effect and that's where we've got to at the moment. So we're now waiting for them to take it forward, set up their own meetings, led by Iraqis to now try and find some sort of solution to this problem.
MF: Meanwhile some of the heavy armour has been rolled back as this tentative peace unfolds. For Lance Corporals Stewart Thorpe and Ian McGinty it's been their first chance to get out on operation since they arrived in Iraq last month.
Stewart Thorpe: Basically we're just sat in a static location. The Iraqi police are doing their vehicle checkpoints and we're just showing a presence on the ground. If anything does happen we're there to respond to it.
Ian McGinty: What we've seen so far is the people are quite friendly they come and talk to us there's no problems there but the threat's always out there so we just have to wait and see and bide our time sort of thing and keep safe. You just have to keep your wits about you, make sure the guys are doing their job and that and make sure you're doing your own job as well.
MF: While the Scots Guards remain the ceasefire is likely to hold strong. There's been little trouble in the area since the peace was brokered and the ceasefire has been extended to December the first. But the Iraqi police and national guard still lack confidence and credibility to keep the peace on their own and should the fighting resume, the governor of Basra has given the go ahead for the Scots Guards to use more force to make route 6 safe again.
Martha Fairley reporting from Basra city. It's 8.42