Is RICU trying to influence the media?

November 28, 2008

Recently, Dr Andrew Garner from RICU gave a talk at King’s College London about the government’s counter terrorism strategy. There’s more information and background about RICU in a previous post, but just to reiterate for the purposes of what appears below, this is Garner’s personal view and not that of RICU or the UK Government.

At the end of the talk, I asked (in a slightly less concise manner than this): Is RICU trying to influence the media, and if it isn’t, how is a counter terrorism communications strategy going to work?

Are you expecting to get messages across unmediated on the Home Office website? This was Garner’s reply:

“We had a leak – Al Qaeda weaknesses leaked. It hit the Guardian front page – secret government unit tries to influence the BBC. The rest of the report was quite accurate and we were reasonably proud of that. That bit [the headline] was really very damaging. Because one, it painted it us in a way that doesn’t help, and two, it’s not true. We can try and influence media but in exactly the same way as any companies or press office will. We are tied – we have to tell the truth. We can’t try and do some sort of propaganda…”

There was an interjection from a member of the audience here: “Well, you do propaganda just not lies.” Garner continued:

“…we have to face courts if we get it really honestly wrong. You do try and influence, because that’s your communication. You do try and get messages out, but there are strict boundaries to that.”

(Had we not been running well over time, I might have usefully asked where those boundaries are.)

A few thoughts on the media and RICU

One of the problems for RICU is trying not to be so discrete that they are seen to be conducting some secretive propaganda campaign that people become suspicious of, while at the same time recognising that if they flashed up: ‘this government minister has been trained to give out anti-terrorism messages’, on our television screens, then that would obviously defeat the whole purpose.

Of course, Garner is right to say that other government departments do try to influence the media and get their messages across. I don’t hear many people complaining, for example, about this recent moonwalking bear propaganda hit on Youtube.

But when it comes to this area of policy, the media get suspicious. Partly because some journalists do genuinely want to hold the government’s influence over society to account, but also because this sort of stuff makes a great paper-selling front page as The Guardian demonstrated.

In his talk Garner, described the academic community as having an important role to play in countering terrorism and emphasised that it was not the task of government alone. It’s worth asking, too, whether the media have any responsibility in this area.

One politician I heard speaking on this issue didn’t feel the government had gone far enough in setting up RICU and envisioned strategy discussions between the BBC World Service, (which after all is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), and the government.

An idea that wouldn’t be popular with journalists. Often the media get defensive and state that it’s not their role to acquiesce with the government’s strategy. But if that means the media is inadvertently being duped into fostering terrorism that would be rather damning for the industry.

Journalists would probably counter that this vastly overestimates the power of a message in a piece of journalism. But there is a lack of research, which RICU is rapidly trying to address, in understanding media consumption, and influence in this area.

Media organisations do consider the effect of their coverage – there was significant debate about the use of kidnapping videos, before and after, the beheading of Kenneth Bigley in 2004.

On the other hand, we surely don’t want a media that acts as the government’s mouthpiece – a criticism of the profession levelled by people like veteran journalist John Pilger and more recently, Nick Davies, in his book, Flat Earth News.

The difficulty of trying to influence messages in a world of media producers

RICU also has to tackle something I’ve highlighted previously – the vast canvas of the media landscape. No longer can audiences be divided into ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ as they have done in the past.

Anything that is published can be potentially viewed by either the domestic or the international audience or in fact a multitude of different audiences with a variety of compositions.

However sophisticated your communications strategy, you often find that as soon as you have given out your message it is beyond your reach.

In today’s complex communications world, it can be easily altered, parodied, rejected and redistributed. Controlling, or even shaping, messages has never been so difficult.