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Russia, Novichok and the long tradition of British government misinformation

Few of us realise just how many people the British state employs to ‘discredit’, ‘deceive’ and ‘disrupt’.

Image: Orwell's famous Ministry of Truth propaganda from his novel, 1984.

I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
Bob Dylan, With God on Our Side, 1964

The hysteria over the alleged Russian role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter is an extraordinary case study in the continuing relevance of understanding state propaganda in 21st century Britain. What happened to the Skripals has become less and less clear and we are still in no position to say that the Russians (or any other state) did, or did not, have a role. This is also a cautionary tale for the Corbyn project. The danger is not so much that people might believe the lies, but that significant figures in the Corbyn camp feel that they have to go along with them.

Whoever was responsible for the poisoning, we have had an inadequate account of what is known from the government. Instead they are adopting tried and tested Whitehall techniques to mislead and misdirect our attention.

In the Salisbury case, as Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan has shown, the government initially relied on a phrase that they thought could be defended as true but which was intended to cultivate a deception. This is that the nerve agent involved in the case is of “a type developed by Russia” (in fact the agent was reportedly developed by and in the Soviet Union, in what is now Uzbekistan). 

The deception was spectacularly successful. The entire mainstream media went along with it. Embarrassingly, many mainstream journalists deluged Craig Murray with abuse and ridicule for raising modest questions about the government narrative. Perhaps more remarkably the Russian connection was accepted, or at least gone along with, by significant sections of the Corbynite project. There is no need to list them all, but we can mention Paul Mason who tweeted that we needed to be “prepared to accept” the official account and even John McDonnell who stated that he “agrees with the prime minister” that Putin “is responsible and all the evidence points to him”. He also called for Labour MPs not to go on Russia Today. This might now be seen as a mistaken concession to the enemies of the Corbyn project.

The wheels began to come off the government narrative when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson departed from the script with an audacious lie saying he had spoken to the scientists at Porton Down who had confirmed there was “no doubt” the poison had come from Russia. The deception was then exposed by the extraordinary statement from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, confirming that, as sceptics had been suggesting, the identification of Russia owed more to geopolitics and propaganda than to science. Porton Down confirmed that there was no evidence to link the substance used to poison the Skripals to Russia, thus blowing a huge hole in the government’s phrase of the hour: “of a type developed by Russia”.

Inside the Whitehall bunkers where they dream these phrases up, there is even a term for this kind of propaganda. They call it a ‘term of art’. I first came across this term in 1988 at the Gibraltar inquiry into the killing by the SAS of three members of the IRA, which happened thirty years ago last month. According to the Ministry of Defence the phrase ‘suspect car bomb’ is a term of art which means no more than a car which for whatever reason is thought to contain a bomb. Thus as the former editor of the Independent on Sunday, Ian Jack memorably described, “you ‘find’ a suspect bomb by finding a car and suspecting it. Hence you ‘deal with’ a suspect bomb either by confirming its presence and defusing or exploding it, or by discovering that no bomb exists”. In Gibraltar the car bomb did not exist. Nor were the three members of the IRA, Dan McCann, Mairead Farrell and Sean Savage, armed - and thus they did not participate in the “gun battle” that British sources claimed preceded their deaths. McCann and Farrell had their hands in the air when they were shot. Savage was gunned down seconds later in what the pathologist at the inquest described as a “frenzied” attack, killed by as many as 18 bullets, with four to the head as he bounced on the ground with the force of the bullets.

It is not as if the use of propaganda phrases is an uncommon part of British political life in moments of crisis. The invasion of Iraq was sold to us using a number of such phrases, memorably including an attempt to convince us that Iraq’s chemical weapons programme was “active and growing”, when Iraq had no chemical weapons. Even Tony Blair, eventually, admitted that this was not true.

In more recent times the government attempted to bolster support for military intervention in Syria by claiming in November 2015 that ISIS was behind seven foiled terror plots in the UK. Yet on closer examination by MPs including Alex Salmond the officials would not confirm that the plots had been directed from Syria, but only that they were “inspired by” Islamist propaganda or “linked” to ISIS in some other way. In a striking parallel to the recent Porton Down admission, the official caution, when closely examined, cannot sustain the headline propaganda. If you want to understand how power works in contemporary Britain, you need to take into account the fact that the British government regularly lies. Its intent is to force people to comply through hectoring and dishonesty, aimed at intimidating those people – in parliament – who are in a position to directly constrain their actions.

Thousands of people employed to distort and deceive

To support their lies the British government employs thousands of people directly in propaganda and related activities. The other weekend in a talk at the Media Democracy Festival in Central London, I discussed British government deception activities, and made the claim it employed “thousands” of people to distort and deceive. Afterwards, both at the event and on Twitter, I was challenged on the figures – was it really “thousands”?. While it may not be very well known, the government does employ thousands of people in what used to be known as “propaganda”. We don’t know exactly how many since the government is a little touchy about some of the people it employs in this capacity. Nevertheless data from the Office for National Statistics, for 2017, show that the number of people who work in “communication” (including media work, social media, strategy, internal comms etc) in central government departments, executive agencies and non departmental public bodies, totals 3,450.

This is an increase on the total of 2,830 in those positions in the decade preceding the financial crash. After reaching a high of more than 4,000 in 2010, numbers declined modestly under austerity cuts, to 3,240 in 2013, climbing again to the current figure just under 3,500.

It is clear that these figures are an underestimate for a variety of reasons. For example the 490 employed in the MoD seems not to cover the media people in the armed services themselves. In 2007, for example, the total MoD complement was reported as as over 1,000, but this “excludes many military personnel involved in communications work” according to the official Defence Communications Strategy.

One imagines that the 370 people at the Home Office includes (probably) one hundred or so in RICU, the propaganda unit that masterminds covert propaganda on counter terrorism in the UK. The ninety listed at the FCO presumably includes those in the rather scarily titled Counter-Daesh Coalition Communications Cell which is known to work with the US and UAE governments (amongst others), in countering ‘terrorist’ propaganda. But the figures do not include any of those specialists paid to do PR by the government. Some of these are in covert roles, such as Breakthrough Media employed by RICU to produce government propaganda messages that can be issued in the name of Muslim civil society groups as if it were their own work – as was the case with the alleged ‘women’s rights’ group Inspire. Nor does it include the firm or firms that have been active in providing the propaganda operation of some elements of the Syrian opposition – only the ‘moderates’, we’re assured…

Also not in the figures - as the ONS has confirmed - are the unknown numbers that work for the intelligence agencies. Both MI5 and MI6 most likely have sizable staff groups working on propaganda, whether ‘communication’ is in their formal job title or not. Looking back on the Iraq debacle it was plain that those in government formally charged with communications – Alastair Campbell and the like - were not the only people involved in very detailed discussions about the precise phrases to use to mislead the public. Many of those in the intelligence apparatus, including the intelligence assessments staff in the Cabinet Office (120 of them in the latest data) and others in the MoD, FCO etc were intimately involved.

And let’s not forget GCHQ whose secretive propaganda unit - the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) - was disclosed by Edward Snowden. In 2011 JTRIG housed 120 people. Amongst the Snowden documents was a review of the group written by a UK academic which states that JTRIG engages in operations “characterised by terms such as ‘discredit’, promote ‘distrust’, ‘dissuade’, ‘deceive’, ‘disrupt’, ‘delay’, ‘deny’, ‘denigrate/degrade’, and ‘deter’.” JTRIG works closely with DSTL – based at Porton Down. In addition to the work they do on chemical and biological warfare agents, DSTL has a very significant number of people working on propaganda. It has been a key agency in undertaking research on ‘Information Operations’ (IO) and on ‘Psy Ops’ – both military euphemisms for propaganda – and currently advertises an Orwellian-sounding ‘Influence programme’. Amongst other things it was influential in the creation of RICU at the Home Office. None of the people working on this activity are included in the zero return that DSTL gave to the ONS on communications. Presumably they are all subsumed within the 3,120 listed as working in ‘Science and Engineering’ at DSTL, of a total of 3,750 staff.

All in all, therefore, it would not be surprising for the total figure of people working in propaganda for the British government, to significantly exceed five thousand people.

The propaganda techniques discussed here are not a secret, but perhaps they are not as widely known as they ought to be. Perhaps if these techniques - and the army of disinformation professionals who are paid to make stuff up and spread it - were more widely known we would be less subject to the hysteria in the press and Parliament we have seen in the Skripal case.

It is not that everyone has been swept up in the hysteria. There are millions of British citizens who have kept their wits about them. The contemporary period is indeed one in which many more people than in the previous two decades are more confident about existing outside the ‘filter bubble’ conjured up by the government, the spooks and the mainstream media. But there is some evidence in the polls that some – including some on the left – were taken in by the propaganda.

It is not that the public is the main target for this campaign any way. In truth the object of the game is to gain freedom of action for the political elite to pursue their chosen path in foreign policy and in war making. And the attack on Corbyn and the Labour Party is part of that process of disciplining the only proximate force with a reasonable chance of stopping the rush to aggression in Syria and indeed against Russia. Recent statements from some parts of the Corbyn project, agreeing with the Prime Minister on the threat from Russia, are a sign that the propaganda has some traction.

Now it has been decisively shown to be built on a deceptive Whitehall phrase it is urgent that we push back. Let us stop decrying those who ask inconvenient questions, as conspiracy theorists. Let us not hang our allies out to dry on the say-so of right wing trolls. Let us instead challenge every dubious statement from government. Let us be confident in our pursuit of truth. Let us not bow to the intimidation of the government, the media and the right to go along with the next hysteria du jour.

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