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No compromise

Nicola Meyrick | 18:00 UK time, Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Analysis has a long and, some might say, rather worthy history as a thoughtful documentary strand on Radio 4. So it was pretty surprising that the programme this week found itself at the centre of suggestions that it had been used by a Whitehall counter-terrorism unit as part of a "global propaganda push" against al-Qaeda.

Osama Bin LadenThe story on the front page of Tuesday's Guardian didn't actually name Analysis. The paper's home affairs editor Alan Travis reported that, according to a secret Home Office paper, the BBC was being targeted by the Research, Information and Communication Unit (RICU), which aims to counter al-Qaeda propaganda in Britain and overseas.

It was quoted by the Guardian as saying: "We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters." It was quickly apparent to us that the programme in question must be the 7 August edition of Analysis, presented by the BBC's Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, and broadcast in a slightly different form on the World Service this week.

The programme was called "al-Qaeda's Enemy Within" and explored how the war of ideas within the Jihadi movement is becoming as important as the military frontline.
Was it the result of a "push" from RICU? Absolutely not. The truth couldn't be more different.

The programme was produced by Radio Current Affairs resident expert on political Islam, Innes Bowen. She first became aware of the story about ideological and theological splits in the Jihadi movement in May, when a contact who works for an Islamist think tank sent her a link to an article in an American journal. Innes and Frank then researched the subject and proposed the programme to the editor of Analysis, Hugh Levinson. He commissioned it early in July.

Frank and Innes did have some contact with RICU during the course of making the programme and went to see three members of the unit after they had finished recording all their interviews. The people from RICU gave them some briefing materials but those weren't used in the programme.

What's more, Frank's conclusion was pretty sceptical about whether the fact that former Jihadi scholars are now issuing theological condemnations of al-Qaeda, would have much short-term effect on the ground in Britain or elsewhere.

So, the programme was a completely independent and impartial piece of original journalism, not inspired by a Whitehall counter-terrorism unit or necessarily coming to the conclusion such a unit would like.

Are we being a bit too defensive about an August story in one newspaper? Does it matter all that much? I'd say it does - because the idea that Analysis was somehow compromised is out there on the blogosphere. And it's just not true.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "Frank and Innes did have some contact with RICU during the course of making the programme and went to see three members of the unit after they had finished recording all their interviews. The people from RICU gave them some briefing materials but those weren't used in the programme"

    ( I only went in for pack of cigarettes")!

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting how horrified you are that your own government might release information to the public via your programme.

    Do you think 'amnesty international' or 'stop the war coalition' etc ever 'push' information via the BBC?

    So long as you open with 'inteligence sources state...' or equivalent when discussing this - as Frank Gardner often does - then people are aware and can assess the information for themselves.

  • Comment number 3.

    You shouldnt be smoking Xie! And as for the bbc/western press in general, i have long since stopped relying on them for impartial information! The man/woman on the street usually has a much better point of view.

  • Comment number 4.

    It does seem incongruous since BBC will not even use the word "terrorist" unless it ascribes it to someone else as in "President Bush's so called war on terror." The one exception was in March 2007 when it thought its reporter Alan Johnston had been kidnapped in Gaza. We know which side BBC is on but it won't save you. The terrorists in general and al Qaeda in particular will attack anyone. A lot of governments found that out the hard way, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Indonesia, and others. Just hope you don't have to learn that the hard way. But in the meantime, in the war for the survival of human civilization against militant Islam, BBC has shown it does not favor it, not only by its biased reporting but by systematically dumbing down its entire organization. It's a faint ghost of what it once was living on its long past reputation and government subsidies in the form of license fees alone.

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Marcus, i agree that there are muslim extremists out there who need locking up. But no carpet bombing, do you see the difference?

  • Comment number 6.

    Well said jon112uk!! Why should the devil have all the best tunes? Too much uncritical coverage is given by the BBC to a range of pressure and special interest groups.They are rarely held to account afterwards if their predictions of disaster prove unfounded.

    Many news bulletins seem to consist of unchallenged "scary" press releases from such organisations which increasingly have a major impact on public policy.

  • Comment number 7.

    no 5: No, I don't think he does.

  • Comment number 8.

    #4

    Actually if you search the BBC website their are 500+ pages of examples to their use of or reference to the word "terrorist".

    However the word has become so politically loaded, with all parties using it to describe different things, as to be virtually meaningless as either a noun or an adjective. The cliche "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" has some basis in fact.

    After all, from the point of view of the British government of the time the Boston Tea Party could be regarded as a terrorist act, and to the native Americans the US army acted like a state-sponsored terror group - depends on your point of view!

    So the BBC and other news organisations would probably be sensible to be even more careful than they are in using the word unless contextualised properly.

    That said I agree the BBC is too mealy-mouthed in its description of those who use or misuse Islam in pursuit of their political aims. Religion has been (mis)used down the ages as a cover for agression and warmongering at both the individual and state level, and the BBC should not be afraid of telling it like it is.

    ps

    The Licence Fee is not a Government subsidy. All households in the UK who watch TV pay £139.50 (about 260 US dollars) a year for the BBC directly out of their own pockets. Whether you call this a tax or a fee, depends on what your agenda is. The Government only tells us how much we have to pay!

  • Comment number 9.

    Actually the BBC came this story relatively late. One would have hoped it would have been more on the ball than to need tipping off in May that there was an article in an American journal. This business of former top Al-Qaeda people having a reversal of mind has been reported for ages, since the middle of last year if not in some cases earlier, and one would have hoped Frank et al were monitoring, and reporting on, such developments more proactively. However, the Analysis programme was well put together, and as Nicola points out the conclusion was fairly sceptical. Eg I seem to recall that Ahmed Rashid, a particulary well-informed long-time journalist expert on the Taliban, Al-Qaeda etc said recruitment at grass roots level continues to flourish. The changes of mind of former top people may not have a major impact on the organisation and sympathising groups, and may also be fairly country specific eg to Egypt in one case, Libya in another, and to have a lot to do with the internal political scene, bargaining over prisoner releases etc. It seems that the RICU may have more to learn from the research and interviews of people like Frank than the RICU has to offer in the way of briefing materials. How about the BBC running an assessment of RICU and its modus operandi and usefulness.

  • Comment number 10.

    waqqar2054

    Yes, when there are high value targets among civilians in foreign countries and you can't "arrest" them, carpet bombing may be the only way to take those targets out. It is unfortunate that there will inevitably be civilian deaths but this is not the same and should never be confused with terrorists bombing civilians to deliberately terrorize an entire population. Carpet bombing was among the strategies the allies used to win World War II. The Islamic terrorists are counting on civilized people to find the killing of innocents during the battle to kill their own numbers so abhorrent that we will desist. The Israelis did this for the longest time until they realized that there was no alternative to bombing the terrorists and accepting the criticism if they wanted to protect their own people. Wars are not won by winning hearts and minds, they are won by finding and killing the enemy faster and more efficiently than he can find and kill you. Failure to understand this and impliment it because it is politically unpalatable is a losing strategy in the war against terrorism and any other war

  • Comment number 11.

    (10) i disagree - a life is a life.

    Bombing a village in Afghanistan is terrorism whether it is the Brits, the US or Taliban.

    Whether it is 'deliberate' or an accident of mis-intellegence, makes no difference.

    and, therefore, by extention, to carpet bombing. A precedence is not sufficient justification.

  • Comment number 12.

    The various definitions of "terrorism" do include bombing from 20,000 feet, etc.

    There is no agreement on the term.

    And the US Congress has decreed that a state or its employees cannot, by their definition, commit "terrorism".

    [See 'Ideology's Handbook'
    ISBN 0920282091, pg. 333]

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi marcus thanks for thinking about it. Just i think that u need 2 a little bit more. If the target is that high value they should use the SAS. No innocent deserves to die!

  • Comment number 14.

    #13 And the SAS aren't a special kamikaze squad or supermen either. You can't just parachute them into the centre of Baghdad and have then shoot Saddam and walk home.

    Generally big white guys in British uniform (because if they're not in uniform they're not protected by the geneva convention and can be hung as spies) carrying 200lbs of weapons stand out a little in the mid-east.

  • Comment number 15.

    The BBC has long been in the grip of NGOs and other quangos. They take feeds from organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Trust with as much as a question mark.

    Having said that, I have always found Analysis to be an exception. The programme often presents stories in a balanced way, probably because they have taken the trouble to look at the issues in depth. It’s unlikely that they could have been nobbled as the programme doesn’t appear to be made in a way that would let that happen.

  • Comment number 16.

    "She first became aware of the story about ideological and theological splits in the Jihadi movement in May, when a contact who works for an Islamist think tank sent her a link to an article in an American journal. Innes and Frank then researched the subject and proposed the programme to the editor of Analysis, Hugh Levinson. He commissioned it early in July."



    Ever heard of the 'Mighty Wurlitzer'?

    It sounds like you might be riding it.

  • Comment number 17.

    @Peter_Sym (14)

    Generally big white guys in British uniform (because if they're not in uniform they're not protected by the geneva convention and can be hung as spies) carrying 200lbs of weapons stand out a little in the mid-east.
    Like those two SAS guys arrested in Basra three years ago, dressed in Arab garb and travelling in a vehicle loaded with weapons, the vehicle allegedly* booby-trapped (standard SAS issue?) and the occupiers having allegedly* failed to stop at an Iraqi police roadblock and subsequently opened fire on the Iraqi police, killing one and wounding another?

    People may remember them from the manner and speed with which they were sprung from jail (very quickly, with tanks) and the commentary running back and forth between the MoD and the BSBC at the time, frankly bordering on black comedy at one point ("We've heard nothing to suggest we stormed the prison")

    *I say allegedly, because I've not seen these allegations folllowed up, and I'd be genuinely interested to know more about what happened there.

  • Comment number 18.

    "The BBC has long been in the grip of NGOs and other quangos. They take feeds from organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Trust with as much as a question mark. "

    And....? Every time I've seen something the BBC have reported from the Joseph Rowntree trust it clearly says as much. By your logic they shouldn't report statements from the UN, political parties, charities etc either.

  • Comment number 19.

    Peter, if the sas are half as good as they are supposed to be they could have ended this whole war along time ago with a single shot! Infact i think that they probably kept saddam alive in that little hole in the ground, just to prolong the ordinary Iraki's misery!

  • Comment number 20.

    Oh come on, everyone knows the SAS are a bunch of wussies, if you want *real* special forces, Frog Squad beats them hands down every time!

    (Disclaimer: Biased.)

  • Comment number 21.

    Can I put in a plea for a (more) correct rendering of the organisation's name in our alphabet? It should be something like al-Qa`ida or al-Qa'ida.

    The backtick (`) represents the Arabic letter `ayn, whose sound we don't have in English. It's a throaty "aa".

    The problem is more with the following vowel. In Arabic it's the short vowel 'kasra' - an 'i', but may be pronounced like a short 'e' (as in 'wet'). However, if we spell the word "al-Qaeda" it is pronounced by English speakers with an "ee" sound, which is quite wrong.

    You could dispense with the backtick, as even al-Qaida would be an improvement!

  • Comment number 22.

    This is why state broadcasting organsations exist, so the government has a decent hold over what sort of message it wishes to put out to its citizens.

    Barmy to think we pay the government money so it can pay people to tell us, some of the time, what to think.

    Is it any wonder people look towards alternative outlets for news?

  • Comment number 23.

    The problem with that point is private broadcasting organizations exist so a private individual has a stranglehold over what sort of message you get to hear.

    Faux news springs to mind instantly.

    *Intelligent* people don't take the news, regardless of its source or provenance, at face value. News is supposed to be the "teaser", it's up to the individual to go research it to their own satisfaction afterwards.

    Which is admittedly hard in the UK where all the information is so tightly controlled, your research on alternative sources is about to be monitored to death, and possession of unapproved information can lead to nice gentlemen who've watched too many movies coming through your door with guns.

  • Comment number 24.

    good point

  • Comment number 25.

    It matters because of an idea which exists in the blogosphere? Are you in the real world? Most ordinary people aren't that bothered about the blogosphere. Go to your local and ask everybody whether they've come across the idea that the programme in question and/or other programmes were compromised in the blogosphere and if so to name the blog they read it on, and I bet you'll find more people that don't know what the blogosphere is than you will who can name a blog on which that idea is so much as explored.

  • Comment number 26.

    Call it the blogo-sphere, the blogoid, the internet, the truth, call it what you want. It is now clear that i am not the only 1 who believes in this, and hopefully we will carry on fighting and one day win!

  • Comment number 27.

    ISRAEL IS GOING TO LISTEN, WHEN I SPEAK. HERE ME O PEOPLE OF ISRAEL. ISRAEL WILL, BEGIN TO MAKE PEACE WITH THE ARAB WORLD. ISRAEL SHALL, EXTEND AN OLIVE BRANCH TO ALL THE ARAB COUNTRIES. ISRAEL MUST, BECOME THE HUMBLE MEDIATOR FOR THE SAKE OF ALL MANKIND. ISRAEL SHOULD, MAKE PEACE WITH THE PALISTINIAN PEOPLE AND GIVE THEM "RESERVE STATUS" LIKE CANADIAN INDIANS. Godspeed Swift [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 28.

    Nicola:
    That is true....You can have a no-compromise attitude....

 

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