By Matt Trinder
BORIS Johnson finally announced his government’s much anticipated review into post-Brexit foreign policy last week.
It was hailed as the most wide-ranging since the end of the Cold War, with the diplomatic service, tackling organised crime and the procurement of military supplies all under the spotlight.
Insiders had suggested the review was in turmoil before it had even gotten off the ground.
But the Prime Minister’s intention to look at the use of technology as part of “innovative ways” to promote UK interests is an ominous inclusion following last week’s Middle East Eye (MEE) revelations.
Leaked documents obtained by the outlet showed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) covertly established a network of citizen journalists across Syria during the early years of the country’s civil war to try and shape perceptions of the conflict.
These journalists were commissioned to produce TV footage, radio programmes, posters, magazines and even children’s comics to build an opposition narrative against President Assad.
Social media appeared to be the key element, however.
While many Syrians turned spontaneously to media activism via sites such as Twitter from the start of the war in 2011, the documents describe the way in which the British government sought to influence some of their output, seeing citizen journalism as a way of covertly swaying Syrian audiences.
According to MEE, the over-arching of the project was to promote the UK’s strategic interests in the region ahead of any possible military intervention – which was itself rejected by Parliament in 2013.
The papers make clear that those recruited were often unaware that they were part of a British propaganda initiative.
UK government contractors relied on Canadian, American and domestic funding to set up offices in Istanbul, Turkey and Amman, and Jordan.
It is here that they hired members of the Syrian diaspora, who in turn recruited citizen journalists inside Syria.
These journalists believed they were working for Syrian opposition groups – not manipulated from London.
An individual involved with the initiative told MEE that if Syrians were hired to produce “propaganda” for an external audience, its effectiveness would have been undermined, and the individuals themselves put in danger.
The Islamic State detained and murdered many young Syrian citizen journalists as it made advances into the country in 2015, labelling them ‘western spies.’
The FCO told Redaction Politics they were not prepared to comment on the allegations.
The covert operation also set out to deceive western journalists who believed they were seeing genuine unfiltered journalism from Syrians on the ground.
The evidence suggests that a policy of the ends justifying the means has long been sacrosanct in the FCO, even if the means have differed in the past.
In January The Morning Star reported on the release of declassified government papers in the National Archives which revealed that British intelligence colluded with the BBC to control international media during the 1960s and 1970s.
The British government paid news agency Reuters to set up a reporting service in the Middle East, funding it covertly via the public broadcaster, as part of a secret anti-communist initiative at the height of the Cold War.
The BBC did not comment directly on the allegations, but a spokesman said: “The BBC Charter guarantees editorial independence irrespective of whether funding comes form the UK government, the licence fee or commercial sources.”
In the past the FCO’s preferred tool was news agencies, now it’s social media.
The British government is simply rolling with the times, and by the looks of the ambitions outlined in the latest foreign policy review, this is set to continue.
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