Blair Using Fear and Spin for War on Terror
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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,
What are the tactics that Blair’s government, the media, and police have used? Oborne lists a few, such as:
- Misleading statements;
- Public scares;
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 London2.
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.
On this page:
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,
(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?3)
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:
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 5. And this is from the Home Office, which would embarrass Tony Blair’s position, as he maintains that invading Iraq will make Britain safer.
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:
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 plotas 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.]
The Plot to blow up Manchester United’s Stadium: Fabrication
Oborne summarizes this incident well:
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.
(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.)
With the warning of being skeptical of official announcements also comes the warning to guard against how it is dealt with and reported:
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 site6 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 war7 were sources questioned, but even then, only sometimes and often within a limited range of discourse. (The mainstream media8 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.
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