Home Office 'deception' in anti-extremism comms work 'like Cold War', says academic

Revelations by The Guardian that the UK Government has run a covert anti-extremism and counter-terror strategy raise serious questions about the "ways in which our governments communicate and the role of propaganda and deception in our society", according to a University of Sheffield academic.

Home Office: Cold War PR tactics? (Credit: Universal Images Group/REX/Shutterstock)
Home Office: Cold War PR tactics? (Credit: Universal Images Group/REX/Shutterstock)

Earlier this week, the newspaper reported that the Government has "embarked on a series of clandestine propaganda campaigns intended to bring about 'attitudinal and behavioural change' among young British Muslims", through a multimillion-pound operation run by the Home Office's Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU).

The Guardian said some methods used by RICU – one initiative spoke with thousands of students without any realising they were engaging with a government programme – "will dismay some Muslims and may undermine confidence in the Prevent counter-radicalisation programme".

In a piece published on the newspaper's website yesterday, the University of Sheffield's Piers Robinson says news of this "deception" is "disturbing", and likens RICU's work to government tactics in the Cold War.

"There are basic principles involved here, for deception and propaganda are at odds with accountability and democracy. They might sometimes be necessary and justified, but their use comes with great dangers and risks," writes Robinson, chair in politics, society and political journalism at the university's Department of Journalism Studies.

He concludes: "It is time to take a much closer critical look at the ways in which our governments communicate and the role of propaganda and deception in our society."

The Home Office said in a statement: "This work can involve sensitive issues, vulnerable communities and hard to reach audiences and it has been important to build relationships out of the media glare. We respect the bravery of individuals and organisations who choose to speak out against violence and extremism and it is right that we support, empower and protect them.

"Our guiding principle has to be whether or not any organisation we work with is itself happy to talk publicly about what it does. At the same time we are as open as possible about RICU’s operating model, and have referenced the role of RICU in a number of publications and in Parliament."

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