At the beginning of January, I was in Syria and Lebanon as the crisis in Gaza continued to unfold.
For someone British, it was instructive to compare the coverage of the conflict there with its coverage in the UK's mainstream media. The news reports broadcast in the Middle East made use of particularly graphic images of death, violence and destruction.
The images seen by Western viewers from their mainstream media were significantly different. This was to a considerable extent the result of Israeli restrictions on the media which prevented their entry into Gaza but was also the product of editorial policy which does not permit the transmission of such images.
Two audiences, both with a close interest in the same issues, were therefore being subjected to different treatment of them. Does this matter? It matters to the extent that one believes that the media, and especially powerful images, mould opinion. Different input, different output. Different information, different conclusion. Different image, different emotional response.
The events in Gaza were notable- indeed landmark - in many respects. My point here is that their immediate propaganda effect - an effect only possible through the presence of the electronic media - was dramatic and global. Even on the basis of the pictures seen in the West, the reaction was strong.
I believe that those conveyed by such stations as Al Jazeerah were potentially radicalising and capable of acting as recruiting sergeants to terrorism. Would that be obvious to the Western policy maker on the basis of the images he saw if, as will often have been the case, he was unaware of the different pictures being seen elsewhere?
<h2>The Challenge of Terrorist Use of the Media</h2>
I shall not pursue this question further now except to make the following points:
First, that as technology develops, so the sources by which messages and ideology of any kind are propagated become more diverse, and so they reach a wider more geographically dispersed audience. Opinion is mobilised ever more widely.
Secondly, that Western media no longer control the communications agenda of the world and we in the West cannot assume that all share the same news agenda or the same experience. So we may suffer from illusions about what others know and think. Moreover, we will not view and most of us will not even be aware of the websites and other forms of media that exploit the anger that events like Gaza engender. We need to be aware of our ignorance.
Thirdly, there may be a gap between the reality of events on the ground and their propaganda effect. Many people in the area, including Palestinians, take the view that Hamas did not do a good job in protecting them and that they are part of the cause - and not just victims - of the resulting misery. But this assessment, which may contain much truth, still does not detract from Hamas' propaganda coup which has been huge. And that is as important as any assessment of what might call the "real" situation.
Fourth, the differential effect of images of violence. Among some groups, especially those to whom Al Qa'eda and other terrorist movements aim to appeal, see portraying violence as a way of cowing opposition and of stimulating the appetite for further revenge. The widespread effect in many Western democracies is exactly the opposite. It sickens and calls for peace go up- some would say appeasement. Whatever the long term outcome, in the short term, the terrorist may well regard this assymetrical reaction as a double win.
The Western policy maker faces a complex media and communication challenge. Globally, Al Qa'eda raised terrorist messaging to new heights by exploitation of video camera pictures and sound disseminated globally through the internet or press agencies. They have been used to convey both general and specific threats, to show horrifying brutality and intervene quite adeptly in Western politics- to remind the world lest it should forget-of the leadership's continued existence and, of course to produce certain reactions: to act as a rallying cry and justification for suicide bombing and to prey on Western guilt.
These direct communications from terrorist sources are reinforced by the existence of innumerable websites accessible world wide but viewed in different national contexts which convey the jihadist message in more or less violent terms.
While passive or even interactive browsing of extremist messages or violent images does not by itself necessarily cause an individual to resort to violence - though we must not ignore this possible process of self-radicalisation - the internet has created and sustains 'virtual communities' of the likeminded where social interaction takes place online and can lead to radicalisation and violence. A radicalised individual may choose to act in his or her national context, or elsewhere. Terrorism is exportable. Therefore we should all be concerned about what appears on each others' screens and pages.
How do those who believe in the values of open and democratic societies and who are against change by violence counter such violent and extreme propaganda?
I doubt we can or should try to copy directly. But we surely need to devise effective counter messaging to increase our security.
<h2>The Open Society Response</h2>
Before I discuss various techniques democracies and those who support open societies could use, I want to make five broad points.
My contribution today is not so much about the substance of the strategy itself but about the techniques that can and should be employed in the fields of intelligence and media to implement it.
<h2>Open Source Intelligence</h2>
The title of this session specifically includes intelligence. Personally I doubt that what is commonly called secret intelligence which is of operational utility in tracking terrorism is of much use in countering ideological aspects. Its purpose is different. But so called open source intelligence, most certainly is relevant to policy making.
Open Source Intelligence refers to the analytical exploitation of information in the public domain that is obtainable by legal means. There are mountains of it round the world - on screen, sound and written press. Systematic study by people qualified to weed out disinformation can lead to an accurate and often quite complete analysis of the relevant issues. You would be surprised however how often open source material is ignored as a resource. The British Government pays for the monitoring and systematic analysis of foreign broadcasting.
Open Source intelligence will help us to build up an understanding of:
In other words, along side direct contact with important players, Open Source Intelligence can provide context for our policies and, in particular, context for our policies to address radicalisation
<h2>Challenging the Extremist Narrative</h2>
If Open Source Intelligence can provide context for policies to counter radicalisation, what role can the media itself - and in particular broadcasters and internet providers - assume in contributing to counter radicalisation efforts? And how should government use modern communications to get its messages across?
It is fair to say that so far extremists have made better use of media outlets than governments.
The extremist narrative is simple and straightforward. It is crafted flexibly to be adaptable to local circumstances and to the perceptions of local communities and circumstances. And it confirms and reinforces individual perceptions that are derived from violent images.
Government must counter this narrative in two ways.
First, by better communicating its policies and society's values through public diplomacy. For countries like the UK, this should involve British Muslims.
In the UK, the establishment of the Research, Information and Communication Unit is a step in the right direction. Through it, the government aims to exploit Al Qaeda's weaknesses by collating material to show that it has no coherent vision, that is losing support from prominent Muslims; and that its tactic of targeting the vulnerable destroys not just the prospects of individuals but blights wider communities.
But this is only one part of the equation. Government must also tackle Al Qaeda's ideology and narrative by reference to our liberal democratic values. This means developing a coherent thesis about what we stand for as a Western democracy and why, in the case of UK, this country is a valid model of which we are proud. Much more than has ben the case so far needs to be done in this area. It immediately becomes obvious of course that dialogue abroad on these subjects must be accompanied by dialogue at home.
Secondly, government is only one player in what should be a much wider communications effort. It must work in partnership with the media to monitor and take action against the use of the internet, in particular, by extremists. On the particular point about the use of the internet, I would suggest that a much more thoroughgoing monitoring of internet websites with those publishing illegal materials being taken down and the publishers being prosecuted is needed. It is harder - but I would maintain not impossible - to track the use of the internet by extremists. By, for example, drawing on techniques the police already use to tackle online paedophilia, and working with service providers to filter content.
<h2>Informing and Engaging the Public</h2>
My last point. We talk about increasing security as being the objective. But what is security? The threats these days are not just to the state but to the whole of society. Government needs to communicate with the public about the nature of threats and risks we all face. We need shared assumptions and expectations and they should be realistic.
We must be well prepared for crises whether as a result of deliberate terrorist attack, or non-motivated risks like catastrophic weather. Citizens and communities play a pivotal role in achieving effective security and resilience because they often have to manage the immediate response themselves, and are often best placed to know the location of important assets and vulnerable members of their community. In other words, the response of individuals and communities to threats and hazards has a direct relationship to the scale of disruption and disorder that might result. It is therefore imperative that government is as open as possible- and in the case of the UK more open than it is now, about the threats and risks we face collectively. And engages society in its active protection.
But realism also involves accepting that we cannot make security total. Also idealism. Even if we were able to obtain complete security, the price in terms or our liberties would be far too high. We must take sensible precautions, but not sacrifice freedoms which lie at the heart of Open Societies and which make them worth defending, The British Conservative party does not intend to try do this. We do not want a state which we invoke to protect us against each other. We want one in which citizens actively trust each other to preserve our shared values.