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10 August 2000 Edition

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Secrets and lies

Discrimination rife at NIO spin factory


Propaganda is rarely just about telling lies. It's more often about which bit of the truth is presented and which bit is suppressed. Think of it as a fractured mirror. A mirror can only reflect what's there, but fragmentation can fundamentally distort the image you see.

In a society which presents itself as a liberal democracy, citizens are encouraged to ``make up their own minds'' and everyone is deemed ``entitled to their own opinion'', but by and large the evaluations we make are intrinsically tied to the information presented or denied to us.

In a recent study, David Miller of Stirling Media Research Institute considers the mechanisms controlling the release and presentation of information about the Six Counties.

These mechanisms include censorship and black propaganda, secrets and lies, but increasingly important within the context of the current peace process, it also involves the control and management of information.

There are a number of players involved in information management in relation to the north of Ireland. The British government, British military intelligence and other securocrats, the RUC, the NIO Information Service and the film and print media.

Legislation underpinning the activities of these agencies has included overt mechanisms of censorship like the broadcasting ban ushered in by the Thatcher regime, emergency powers, Public Interest Immunity Certificates and the Official Secrets Act. As part of the peace process, the broadcasting ban was lifted, the atmosphere in media became freer and interviews with republicans became less hostile, says Miller.

``Given the changed orientations of British government policy and the prospect of peace, there was little appetite for intimidating the media and in a way it suited British government that Sinn Féin should come in from the cold.''

But significantly, other repressive legislation and practices remain intact. Indeed, as Miller points out, there has been an upsurge in the use of coercive legislation by a British government still determined to keep its role in the conflict firmly under wraps.

``The ending of the war has encouraged previously secretive activists to start telling their stories,'' says Miller, but ``books which attempt to reveal information about abuses of the law by the intelligence services, the army and police have found themselves on the end of court orders or attempts at suppression.''

Miller points out that there have been a string of cases that raise profound questions about freedom of expression and ``in particular the ability of Northern Ireland to move on and put the past behind it in full and frank acknowledgements of the crimes of all sides of the conflict''.

But the British state is not just content with suppressing information about the past; it continues to play an active role trying to manipulating the future through the control of information. Miller identifies the NIO Information Service as one of the key players in this endeavour.

The Information Service at Stormont has a relatively good reputation for accuracy amongst mainstream journalists, says Miller. ``It is certainly more than capable of deliberately misleading journalists and the public,'' but rarely gets involved in direct lies or black propaganda.

``The peace process has demanded a suspension of some of the wilder antics of the spooks. There is no more lying about state killings as in the Gibraltar or Stalker shoot to kill cases'' but ``this is partly because the state has stopped killing people in special forces ambushes''.

The NIO increasingly relies on the less obvious manipulation of the truth through ``the full range of modern spin techniques. Many of these are dishonest and lacking good faith, but they are also practised by other British government departments and increasingly but not to the same extent, by the Irish government.''

Miller exposes some of the techniques. For example, the use of focus and opinion research. It's simple enough - you carry out opinion polls but only publish those backing the position you want to promote.

A leaked memo written by the NIO's Director of Communication, Tom Kelly, highlights the point: ``A key requirement in developing our communications strategy will be a continuing flow of information about public attitudes and response.

``On some occasions, this will be helpful to our cause and on others not so. It will be important therefore to ensure that not all of the results of opinion polling etc. will be in the public domain.''

Another technique involves encouraging third party endorsements. The memo continues: ``We should be enlisting the help of those people to champion our cause e.g. Robin Eames and other church leaders, the heads of community organisations and trade unions and other members of the G7.''

The memo warns that ``while any overt manipulation could be counterproductive, a carefully coordinated timetable of statements from these people will be helpful in giving our message credibility''.

As if it isn't bad enough that information is being filtered through a prism of British interests, Miller further exposes the ethos within the Stormont unit as reactionary, sectarian and sexist.

``The issue of misuse of the Information service is particularly sensitive because sectarianism remains an issue in employment patterns in the civil service,'' says Miller. According to the most recent Equal Opportunities figures, Protestants still occupy four times more senior civil service posts than Catholics. ``It is clear that the recruitment pattern parallels the sectarian mindset of many NIO officials,'' says Miller.

He exposes the ethos at the heart of the information unit. Liz Drummond is a former Chief Press Officer at the NIO in London and she recalls a meeting with a senior press officer in Belfast, Billy Millar.

``He then took me back to Stormont to look at the press office and as we were approaching it he turned to me and said `of course, we've got two of them working here'. I said `two of what?' and he said `Catholics!'' and he said it with such venom I was shocked. I was appalled. I had never seen such blind prejudice.''

Drummond lasted a year in the NIO. ``There were just so many little incidents of bigotry, prejudice, ignorance, I thought I want out of it.''

By mid 1998 the proportions of Catholics at senior positions remained low, with a third of senior information officers Catholic and only one amongst the most senior 11 posts. Earlier this year, a new wave of promotion increased the Catholics in the Six-County Information Service to three amongst the top eleven, one of which is English.

According to Miller, Catholic information officers report that colleagues in the civil service still pass derogatory comments and make `jokey' sectarian remarks. ``The Information Service has a record so poor that it is required to advertise all vacancies in the press rather than internally.''

And then there is the problem of gender discrimination and sexist attitudes. One woman, Maggie Stanfield, describes an early encounter with her boss, the former head, Andy Wood.

She recalls being asked in a ``faintly accusing'' way by Wood ``Got a youngster have you?'' The answer being affirmative, Wood continued, ``You're not married, are you?'' In Stanfield's view gender underrepresentation is a consequence of misogynist attitudes in the Information Service.

And who exactly are the Information Service accountable to? According to Miller, the appointment of the executive led to the formation of an executive information service which was due to become formally separate from the NIO at the end of March 2000, but the executive was suspended before it happened.

Miller believes that David Trimble as first minister had ``tried to use the Information Service in the cause of a kind of Blairite presidentialism''.

Now each minister in the executive has a number of press officers but all the staff allocated to the nationalist parties were Protestant. ``I am not suggesting that this was either deliberate or sinister,'' says Miller, ``but it is noteworthy.''

``If Northern Ireland is to move to an open and inclusive system of government and peace is to be entrenched,'' says Miller, ``there will be a need to reform the information function of the NIO, which at present does not operate in a fashion consistent with open or democratic governance.

``In particular, there needs to be an open and free debate on the extent to which Whitehall spin is justifiable, especially in the context of a fragile peace. And there needs to be serious reform of the staffing of the NIIS to root out both sectarianism and gender discrimination in employment practice and the assumptions of civil servants.''

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