The Echo Chamber: News International and Police ‘terror briefings’
- March 02, 2012
As the seemingly endless tide of sleaze and corruption continues to ooze out of News International like sewage from a bust pipe, there was interesting testimony yesterday from Peter Clarke, the former deputy commissioner of Scotland Yard and head of the antiterrorist branch S013, on his department’s relationships with the British media and the Murdoch press in particular.
According to Clarke, the police regularly briefed the media on terrorism-related issues through off-the-record briefings, formal press statements and conferences, and lunches with selected journalists. Asked about the purpose of these briefings, Clarke replied:
The position with regard to counter terrorism in the early part of the last decade was there was a considerable amount of scepticism from many commentators about the reality of the terrorist threat in the United Kingdom, and to my mind there was an absolutely clear requirement that the scepticism, and particularly the allegation that some were making that the terrorist threat was being exaggerated as some sort of support for British foreign policy, needed to be addressed.
These allegations were not as insubstantial as Clarke suggests, and I have often made them myself. Over the last decade, numerous terrorist plots were foiled which subsequently turned out to be less imminent and less catastrophic than the way they were initially presented to the public by the British government.
This tendency to scaremongering and hype often occurred at politically sensitive moments relating to British foreign policy objectives. Take the January 2003 ‘Ricin plot’, when six Muslims were arrested for supposedly planning a bioterrorist attack with ricin.
The discovery of this ‘poison factory’ took place amid intense public debate about the Iraq war, and was cited on both sides of the Atlantic as another example of the threat of weapons of mass destruction, a danger that Tony Blair described as “present and real and with us now and its potential is huge”.
Within days of the arrests, the police already knew from laboratory tests that no traces of ricin or any other poisons had been found in the flat. At a 2005 trial the case collapsed and only one of the defendants was found guilty of murdering a police office and ‘conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.’
It is difficult to disentangle the Iraq war from the tanks that were sent to Heathrow in February 2003 in response to what Tony Blair called a ‘specific’ terrorist threat that never materialised, but which nevertheless led Health Secretary John Reid to remind the public that “This is not a game. This is about a threat of the nature that massacred thousands of people in New York.”
Then there was the wildly over-hyped “airplane plot” which took place in August 2006 on Clarke’s watch as deputy assistant commissioner, when 25 Muslims were arrested for planning to blow up transatlantic airplanes with liquid explosives and carry out “mass murder on an unimaginable scale”.
These arrests took place at a time when Britain was coming under considerable pressure for its collusion in the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, and it was presented to the British and public as if the plot was only hours or days away from execution – even though both Blair felt confident enough about the outcome to go on his Caribbean holiday after hearing of the imminent arrests.
It subsequently emerged that many of the so-called plotters did not even have passports, and the majority of them were released. In 2008 eight of the plotters were found guilty of conspiracy to murder but not to blow up airplanes. In a subsequent retrial three men were found guilty of “conspiracy to murder using liquid bombs” – an outcome that was very different to the scenario depicted in 2006.
When a top British security adviser recommends that concrete barriers should be constructed to in hospitals, school and supermarkets against suicide bombings, as Lord West did in 2008, then you know you are dealing with paranoia on an unimaginable scale – or calculated exaggeration.
For Clarke to claim that this did not happen is either myopic or disingenuous. Throughout virtually all the major terrorist plots of the last decade, the British media has generally followed the official line on terrorism without question, and the “scepticism” that he describes was mostly absent or minimal.
It was certainly not present in the Murdoch press, which appears to have been a special object of the antiterrorism branch’s ‘terror briefings’. In the autumn of 2004, said Clarke yesterday, he attended a briefing with the editors of the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times, the News of the World, at which Andy Coulson – and Rupert Murdoch were also present.
Clarke told the inquiry that the main subject of the briefing was the arrests of Muslim convert Dhiren Barot and a group of co-conspirators in August that year, following “clear evidence there that they intended to try to construct a dirty bomb in the United Kingdom and to attack the transport network and indeed to mount attacks in America”.
“Intended to try to construct” is as tortuous conceptually as it is grammatically. Though Clarke told the inquiry that the meeting with News International was part of a broader effort to explain to all major national newspapers “the reality of the threat that the country faced” that was exemplified by the Barot ‘dirty bomb’, once again there was a gulf between representation and reality.
Barot and his co-conspirators undoubtedly wanted to carry out some kind of attack, but as in many other ‘foiled plots’, their intentions do not appear to have been matched by their capabilities.
It’s not at all clear, for instance, whether Barot’s ‘Gas Limos plot’ to blow up limousines in underground carparks and cause ‘massive explosions’ had got past the fantasy stage, let alone whether it was actually feasible.
In 2007 Barot was found guilty of conspiracy to murder, though the prosecution did not question the defence’s argument that his network had had no funding, vehicles or bomb-making materials. In 2008 the Court of Appeal reduced his sentence from to 30 years, and noted that his conspiracy “did not amount to an actual attempt, and it was unclear whether his plots would have succeeded and what the consequences of them would have been.”
None of these caveats were present in the media coverage of the Barot arrests. Given that most media outlets appear to have been specifically briefed beforehand, it raises questions about the quality of the information the police were actually providing them with during their ‘terror briefings’.
But the Barot case just one more example of a morbidly-reinforcing relationship between the government, security agencies and police and a credulous and willing media when it comes to terrorism.
That there was – and is- a genuine terrorist threat to the UK is clear. But rather than provide the public with a sober and honest analysis of its scale, dimensions, and causes, the British government routinely invokes worst case scenarios and depicts global terrorist conspiracies in order to mobilise support for its foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.
For the most part the UK media has largely acted as a credulous echo chamber for these agendas. And it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the police ‘terror briefings’ were partly intended to ensure this outcome, and that News International in particular, probably did not need much persuading.