A tranche of leaked files shows that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is coordinating multi-agency propaganda programmes. These files show that the programmes mainly target the authoritarian regimes in Russia and Syria. This is not unexpected. More significantly, perhaps, documents also show that these programmes are not confined to just foreign targets.
The leaked files, were released to The Canary by ‘Anonymous’:
the “Network Hub of the UK government Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) EXPOSE network”. It is understood that the network facilitator of EXPOSE is “a consortium led by Zinc Networks who were formerly known as Breakthrough Media. The project’s resource partners are Bellingcat, DFR Labs and the Media Diversity Institute. The implementing consortium partners are the Institute of Statecraft and Aktis Strategy (no longer operating) with risk management and security almost certainly provided by Toro Risk Solutions. Grant fund management is probably handled by Ecorys”. EXPOSE is “a project of the Counter Disinformation & Media Development Program (CDMD), currently headed by Andy Pryce”.
In the blog In This Together, one of these earlier leaks provides details of an FCO request for submissions for a multi-million pound programme to commence in the summer of 2018. The programme was to “counter disinformation and propaganda” in “northern and eastern Europe”. Zinc Networks and its partners – including Bellingcat and the Institute for Statecraft – submitted its proposal, “A Network of NGOs”, to the FCO in August of that year.
The proposal stated that the objective was to “use audience-centric communications to undermine the credibility of disinformation sources for specific target audiences whilst building their resilience in the long term”. A list showed those involved in the submission. It included Chris Donnelly and Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow with Digital Forensic Research Lab (via the Atlantic Council). There’s also a summary of partners, as well as a proposed structure for the programme.
Another document shows that the FCO’s Expose network counter-disinformation programme includes media and think tank organisations across Europe. Bellingcat, Factmata, and ISD are listed under UK. Examples of these projects extend to the Balkans, southern Europe, Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Baltics.
In a sense, none of this is revelatory, apart from the extent of the partnerships involved.
Case study: BBC and Reuters roles
Based on his analysis of the recently leaked files, Max Blumenthal of the Grayzoneaccused Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) and BBC Media Action of playing an active role in the FCO propaganda programme. He claims the files:
cast serious doubt on the independence of two of the world’s largest and most prestigious media organizations, revealing Reuters and the BBC as apparent intelligence cut-outs feasting at the trough of a British national security state that their news operations are increasingly averse to scrutinizing.
The BBC and Reuters portray themselves as an unimpeachable, impartial, and authoritative source of world news, but both are now hugely compromised by these disclosures. Double standards like this just bring establishment politicians and corporate media hacks into further disrepute.
But in response, Jenny Vereker of TRF told the Grayzone:
The inference that the Thomson Reuters Foundation was engaged in ‘secret activities’ is inaccurate and misrepresents our work in the public interest. We have for decades openly supported a free press and have worked to help journalists globally to develop the skills needed to report with independence.
Also in response, the BBC told The Canary:
The allegations contained in The Greyzone [sic] report are false and a complete misrepresentation of our work. BBC Media Action is the BBC’s international charity. We provide technical training and mentoring to public service media in many countries, following the editorial standards and principles of the BBC. Our areas of work and our funding are clearly outlined on our website and in our Annual Reports. As an independent charity, we rely on the support of donors to carry out our work.
Ominously, perhaps, Twitter added a caveat to the Grayzone’s tweets of its article that read:
These materials may have been obtained through hacking
According to Mashable, this was the first time Twitter used such a label warning.
More FCO funded projects
In November 2018, The Canaryprovided evidence on how Statecraft was directly funded by the FCO. Indeed, foreign office minister Alan Duncan MP admitted:
In financial year 2017/18, the FCO funded the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative £296,500. This financial year, the FCO is funding a further £1,961,000. Both have been funded through grant agreements.
At the time, leaked files showed that the UK cluster of Integrity, funded by the Institute for Statecraft, included individuals who held hedge-fund interests or represented thinktanks, such as DEMOS, RUSI, the Henry Jackson Society, and Chatham House. It also named people who represented the Ministry of Defence and the FCO as well as Orbis. Orbis is the private intelligence agency headed by ‘Trump dossier‘ author and former MI6 operative Christopher Steele.
The Institute for Statecraft also boasts some interesting directors, invariably with a military or related background. For example, Donnelly was a special adviser to the secretary general of NATO (and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher). And Daniel Lafayeedney was a fellow with the Advanced Research and Assessment Group at the Defence Academy of the UK.
Nor is FCO-funded propaganda confined to foreign targets. In December 2018, The Canary ran a story showing how disinformation specialists with Integrity Initiative published a number of tweets denigrating then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Whether domestic or foreign targets, one thing is clear about FCO propaganda programmes. As confirmed by the earlier leaks and the latest ones, the programmes expose the sheer hypocrisy of UK government while accusing, say, Russia of doing the same thing.
The new leaked files provide a certain insight into how media and government work closely together in such propaganda programmes. Those partnerships named in the files complement the more informal arrangements between UK mass media and government. Altogether, these arrangements could even be characterised as components of the ongoing information ‘cold war’ – a war the extent of which we’re only able to glimpse.
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