This week, UK officials face up to the colossus of Russia’s propaganda machine and one half of the country’s favourite double-act triumphed after reluctantly flying solo.
Spare a thought this week for UK officials up against the full colossus of Russia’s propaganda machine as the information war over the use of a nerve agent in Salisbury just over a month ago slammed up a gear.
The Russians mercilessly seized on a sliver of difference in language used by the UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and chief of the UK’s defence laboratory at Porton Down, to declare that the UK accusations against them were all bluff. Johnson seemed to confirm that the scientists had “no doubt” that the nerve agent was made in Russia. While on Tuesday, Porton Down’s chief executive said that the “precise source” had not been identified.
Russia declared this proof of their innocence and last night, at a meeting of the UN Security Council, dismissed the accusation that they were behind the attack as a “fake story”. To compound UK woes, it emerged that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had deleted a tweet they said was a “truncated” version of a briefing by the British ambassador to Moscow, which said that Porton Down had made clear that the nerve agent was Russian-made.
Impact? Momentum was with Russia and they took the opportunity to again point the blame for the attack at the UK. Everyone seemed to forget that the UK’s evidence for Russia’s involvement rallied allies behind unprecedented diplomatic measures just ten days ago.
By the time figures like former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind were wheeled out to remind us that the UK’s evidence for Russian involvement rested on more than chemical analysis, the Russian propagandists had won the skirmish. The Russians upped the ante even further at the UN security council meeting, blasting the UK and warning that the country is “playing with fire”.
What could be done differently? The Russians are way ahead in terms of information warfare and in that context, the UK’s achievement in building a broad international coalition against the Russians in response to the Salisbury attack is impressive.
Russian propagandists enjoy freedom from the inconvenience of facts and wrong-foot opponents with unexpected timing, dark humour and obfuscation. They ruthlessly exploit our own fears about fake news to expose and corrode the foundations of our institutions leaving them open to weathering by our own self-doubt as much as Russian lies. The pressure is on our bureaucracy to shore up trust in our institutions through accuracy and rigour while matching the speed of the Russian operation. Moves by social media organisations to tackle Russian “troll factories” including measures taken by Facebook this week are a good start. Arguably this grips the end of the supply chain rather than the pushers of propaganda. Is it time to take aim at the propagandists’ heavy-weight apparatus, starting with TV station, RT?
Dec flies solo
Judging by the social media posts from viewers of ITV’s Saturday Night Takeaway last week, there was barely a dry eye in the house as Declan Donnelly, one half of the nation’s favourite double act fronted the show alone after partner Ant McPartlin returned to rehab.
Donnelly said that he and ITV decided that the show must go on to honour a promise to take hundreds of deserving winners to Florida for the season finale. The show was a hit, peppered with oblique references to Donnelly having to do twice as much work. Reports attributing the 20 per cent slump in ITV’s share price since McPartlin’s drink and drug travails were revealed seem overblown but ITV bosses, mindful that the duo front two of their top three most popular programmes, bringing in all-important ad revenues, will be pleased that the country didn’t switch off, despite McPartlin’s absence.