Blair Using Fear and Spin for War on Terror

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Created Sunday, April 02, 2006

On February 20, 2006, UK’s mainstream media channel, Channel 4, broadcast their regular Dispatches documentary. This one was entitled Spinning Terror, where the journalist and political editor of The Spectator, Peter Oborne, presented the case that the British “government has reacted to the London bombings by rushing through anti-terror policies motivated by the desire to ward off tabloid criticism, gain electoral advantage and make the government look strong.”

In a pamphlet accompanying the documentary, Peter Oborne summarized that,

The [British] Prime Minister does not tell the truth about terror. Rather than look the threat steadfastly in the face, the British public has been fed half-truths, falsehoods and lies.

… New Labour has set out to politicize terror, to use it for narrow party advantage. Both major opposition parties have repeatedly offered to join with the Government to confront the major terrorist threat that Britain undoubtedly faces. They were right to do so. Yet again and again, their offers have been spurned. Meanwhile those who stood up for civil liberties—as Tony Blair did in 1993—are now accused of giving succor to the terrorists.

Peter Oborne, The Use and Abuse of Terror; The Construction of a False Narrative on the Domestic Terror Threat PDF formatted document, The Center for Policy Studies, February 2006, p.2

What are the tactics that Blair’s government, the media, and police have used? Oborne lists a few, such as:

  • Misleading statements;
  • Public scares;
  • Fabrication, “fantasy and invention.”

These same propaganda tactics were also used in the build-up to the Iraq war, though this documentary was in reaction to the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London.

For example, the documentary and pamphlet note that the “Ricin plot” and the plot by terrorists to blow up Manchester United football (soccer) club’s stadium was pure fabrication.

Appeasing The Tabloid Press and Spinning the Need for More Power

In the wake of the July 7, 2005 bombings, the tabloid press in Britain, in particular the right-wing tabloids, are often noted for their populist and even vicious approach to many issues. They appeared to be pressuring Blair to show that he would “act tough on terror” and that pressure seemed to be working. A consensus and unity that had been achieved between the main political parties in dealing with terrorism was about to be shattered, unexpectedly.

Proposals such as the “12 point plan” against terrorism as Oborne puts it, “showed numerous signs of having been cobbled together in a hurry. Some of the measures proved ill-thought out and unworkable.” Even the Home Office (the government department responsible for internal affairs in England and Wales) appeared to be caught off-guard with the unexpected announcement of this initiative. One of the most contentious points was the 90-day detention without trial, a proposal which, “smashed through the British tradition of freedom from arbitrary arrest dating back centuries” because the tradition could be “traced back at least to article 39 of Magna Carta, which states that the King cannot lock up his subjects until he puts them through a process of law.”

The end result was that,

The pattern of events leading up to the so-called 12 Point Plan, and in the days leading up to the Commons vote over 90 days was uncannily similar. In each case the Home Secretary gave the strongest possible impression, almost right up to the final moment, that he was minded to act consensually and find a compromise. In each case, the two major opposition parties believe they were badly misled. In each case, Downing Street appears to have suddenly taken over the management of affairs at the end. In each case, the Government’s tough line on terror was made into a political point.

Oborne, p.15

(This is not that dissimilar to concern and criticism raised of the Bush Administration and the Pentagon undermining some of the other US government agencies responsible for key issues. See for example this insightful blog entry: What would the Founders say?)

Oborne also notes that, “The Prime Minister, the British Government and the police have consistently misled the British public about the nature and scope of the threat to the British people over terror.” For example, during the discussion of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill in February 2005, he claimed that the security services needed extra powers so they could detail “several hundred” people engaged in plotting to trying to commit terrorist acts in Britain. What happened? As noted by some other documentaries as well, Oborne summarizes:

Nearly a year has gone by, and yet no more than 17 individuals have been made subject to Control Orders. At least half of them seem to have been foreign nationals, who had already been detained under Section 23 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. The Prime Minister’s suggestion that the Security Services were demanding new powers in order to deal with a new category of terrorist suspect turns out to have been nonsense. His figure of “several hundred” terrorists plotting mayhem was contradicted almost at once by Downing Street and what seems to have been a Home Office briefing. It seems to have been plucked out of thin air.

Oborne, p.17. See also: Dr David Morrison, What Became of Blair’s “several hundred” terrorists?, Labour and Trade Union Review, May 2005.)

During the build up to the Iraq war, it was repeatedly raised by all sorts of experts, organizations, government institutions and so on that a possibility of an invasion on Iraq is that it will increase the likelihood of terrorism, not diminish it. Yet, it seems Tony Blair and some of his top officials denied or forgot that. After the July 7 London bombings, Blair was quick to claim that this was not because of the Iraq war. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were being “dishonest” Oborne notes, when making such claims for they were advised this very concern, many times.

(As an aside, Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, at one point claimed to be astonished that a respected institution imply that UK not stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States, when all that institution said was that the Iraq war risked an escalation of terrorism in UK. It is quite common for politicians to spin in this manner, for they often receive more press coverage than institutions, and when the press do not challenge such claims—for they claim objectivity by simply reporting what was said—the details and important context is easily forgotten, and true or not, the damage is done, and spin/propaganda wins out.)

Only as of the beginning of April 2006, has the British government officially recognized that Britain’s role in Iraq was a key factor motivating the July 7, 2005 suicide bombers, some 9 months later. And this is from the Home Office, which would embarrass Tony Blair’s position, as he maintains that invading Iraq will make Britain safer.

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The Ricin Plot; Classic Use of Spin and Propaganda

In January 2003, when the US and UK were trying to convince the rest of the world of the threat Saddam posed to the world with his weapons of mass destruction, the police made a significant find. They announced that they had foiled a terrorist ring’s attempt to launch a chemical attack in Britain using the deadly poison Ricin. This was perfect for the Government. Tony Blair said, “The arrests which were made show this danger is present and real and with us now. Its potential is huge.” What was huge was the propaganda potential:

Shortly after in February that year, the United States’ Colin Powell presented “evidence” to the UN Security Council of Sadam Hussein’s WMDs. Amongst other things that turned out to be exaggerated or fabricated, Powell noted a direct link between the British “Ricin Plot” and an alleged al-Qaeda “poisons camp” in Iraq. The following day on BBC’s Newsnight program, Tony Blair backed up that claim. Later, a US general claimed that the US had destroyed a “poison factory” in northern Iraq, though no chemicals or laboratories were found, claiming that it was possible that the Ricin found in London was made there.

Oborne noted that the publicity value for the British government that this incident gave undermined judicial process:

It is unusual, and potentially prejudicial, for Ministers to comment on upcoming court cases. Nevertheless, as the Ricin case moved towards trial, Ministers continued to regard the Ricin trial as an important publicity resource. In due course, the trial judge was provoked into warning the Home Secretary to curb his public remarks for fear of prejudicing the case.

Oborne, p.22

But more than that, the propaganda and spin was immense:

  • No Ricin was ever found—it was some ingredients that could be used to create Ricin.
  • An initial press release was misleading, implying Ricin was tested for and confirmed as found—at that time it was just a preliminary test which could only indicate that Ricin might be present. A definitive test later confirmed there was no Ricin. (When chemical weapons experts at a government research facility did further tests and found no Ricin, they belatedly told the government in late March, and the government apparently never asked for the results. No matter, the propaganda value at that time was great. Furthermore, “the existence of Ricin continued to be proclaimed for over two years.”)
  • The government never announced that there was no Ricin, and the police and press continued to provide reference to the “Ricin plot” as reasons to possibly consider further policy changes, for example, to justify longer detention time (even though the detention time needed for suspects they were talking about was well within existing times allowed).
  • Of the five people charged, four were acquitted, and the ring-leader was sentenced to imprisonment, not on terror charges but for murdering a policeman during the arrest, though he was found guilty of “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by the use of poisons or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury.”
  • And the Ricin ingredients were not obtained from an imaginary Al Queda cell in Iraq, but from an American anti-Islamist web site! [The documentary did not comment on whether such a web site and the people behind it have been arrested for inciting terrorism or murder and certainly mainstream media has not described such groups as terrorist in as much depth for they are usually not going to attack Western Civilization.]

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The Plot to blow up Manchester United’s Stadium: Fabrication

Oborne summarizes this incident well:

On the evening of Monday 19 April 2004, the British people were alerted to an amazing coup. They learned how the police had seized a terrorist gang just as it prepared to launch an audacious bomb attack on Old Trafford stadium on match day, an attack which could have killed thousands of people. The story was billed by the Sun as an “exclusive” but splashed in other papers too. It dominated ITN and Sky News for two days. It was a national sensation.

And yet there was not a shred of truth in the story. It was a complete fabrication. It caused needless alarm amongst millions of TV viewers and newspaper readers. It stirred up anti-Islamic prejudice. It ruined the lives of several of the suspects. They lost their homes, their jobs and their friends as a result. They have never received a personal apology, either from the police or from the press. Unlike in the Ricin case, the British Government cannot be blamed. The police and, to an extent the media, are responsible for the invention.

Oborne, p.26

What happened shows how hatred, spin and propaganda can all combine.

400 Manchester police were involved in raid that saw eight men, a woman, and a 16-year old boy arrested. They were intensely interrogated for many days.

It was the right-wing tabloid, the Sun that had released headlines such indicating suicide bomb plots which other mainstream media, including TV reported for days. The Sun had fabricated this story based on the fact that police had discovered that one of those arrested was a Manchester United fan, and had discovered a couple of tickets to see a football (soccer) game. The two seats were in different parts of the stadium. The Sun felt this was so they could cause immense damage by blowing themselves up. Instead it was simply because they had bought the tickets from a tout, as they were Manchester United fans.

Not a plot in sight. That they happened to be Muslim fanned the Sun’s fantasy, it appears. The Manchester United memorabilia, assumed as part of some planning, was just memorabilia. They were not even likely to be extremists, given police found lots of beer in the kitchen and photos of girlfriends. They had integrated into British society having fled Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of Kurds. Furthermore, as Oborne noted, the police never released this information to the public at the time so the Sun could only have found out through the police themselves.

This evidence was then prematurely leaked, through unofficial police sources, to the press. The Manchester police then encouraged the story to run by issuing public statements that, while falling a long way short of giving outright confirmation, could be read as corroborating the story. Disgracefully, the Greater Manchester police refused to launch an investigation into the numerous leaks. The reporting of this incident was inflammatory and misleading.

Oborne, p.28

(Some high profile journalists and directors from the BBC and other papers were forced to resign or sacked for claiming the British government sexed up claims about Iraq weapons of mass destruction. Much pressure came from right-wing press. Of course, claims that actually have been sexed up or fabricated have not seen resignations in a similar way.)

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Some Ramifications

With the warning of being skeptical of official announcements also comes the warning to guard against how it is dealt with and reported:

It should be stressed that the Government is by no means solely responsible for this distorted public discourse on terror. The police and, to an even larger extent, the British media organizations have had a reckless attitude. Two key case histories—the “Ricin Plot” and the alleged terrorist conspiracy to blow up Old Trafford football ground—demonstrate the unreliability of both official statements and media reporting about terrorism.

A significant amount of press coverage in the two cases mentioned above was fabrication. But it should be stressed that this level of fantasy and invention was only possible in the first place, and sustainable over time, thanks to official prompting and collusion. Just as it suited Government policy that the “45 minute threat” should gain currency ahead of the invasion of Iraq, so was it helpful to Ministers that the British public should believe that Ricin had been found in a north London flat.

The experience of the past few years teaches us that what the Prime Minister, his Ministers, or the police say on the subject of terror must be treated with great skepticism.

Oborne, p.3

The problem of reliance on “official sources” in conjunction with little questioning or provision of deeper context has been a concern for a long time, and goes to the core of a truly functioning democracy (this is also a reason why I started this web site in 1998). Often, news outlets may report that the government or some other official source said something, giving it an air of legitimacy, but questionable claims from such sources are rarely questioned. Only the most public of issues, such as the build up to the Iraq war were sources questioned, but even then, only sometimes and often within a limited range of discourse. (The mainstream media section on this site goes into this in more depth, if you are interested.)

Such fabrications, deceit, and spin have a number of ramifications:

  • Real understanding of terrorism and why it exists is undermined;
  • Security services are undermined and hampered in their ability to 1) provide intelligence, 2) be assured of proper use of that intelligence, and 3) have public confidence in what they do.
  • Confidence and trust in government, its transparency and democratic process suffers;
  • Hard-liners win out while civil liberties are curtailed for poorly thought out policies.

[Tony Blair said] it would be disgraceful to accuse the Labour Party of being soft on terrorism simply because it opposed the [Prevention of Terrorism Act]. He suggested that, on the contrary, Labour was courageously holding out against knee-jerk politics. I can remember an implication in our conversation of how easy it would be to pander to the right-wing press, yet how wrong to do so. He was adamant that there was no contradiction between respect for civil liberties and security against terrorism.

Peter Oborne, recalling a conversation with Tony Blair in 1993, then shadow Home Secretary, about the Conservative government’s Prevention of Terrorism Act

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  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Sunday, April 02, 2006

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