Civil Contingencies Secretariat
UK Resilience and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.
Without attracting front page attention the Blair government has quietly presided over a revolution in internal propaganda systems for dealing with national emergencies. The overhaul was set in train in July 2001 as a result of the foot and mouth crisis and drawing on the experience of the floods of Winter 2000 and the fuel protests. Based in the Cabinet Office and overseen initially by the most senior propaganda official in the civil service, the Head of the Government Information and Communication Service, Mike Granatt, is the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. It works closely with another new body, the Health Protection Agency which encompasses parts of the Department of Health disease surveillance operation and the MoD's chemical and biological labs at Porton Down. Under the rather chilling website branding of 'UK Resilience', this network of organisations also works closely with the Special Branch and MI5. They tap straight into the CIC, chaired by Alastair Campbell. The aim of the CCS is said to be to improve the UK's 'resilience' to 'disruptive challenge'. It has already seen action in the firefighters dispute - an indication of the orientation of the CCS towards state rather than public service agendas. It was centrally involved in circulating information on the alleged 'threat' from Islamic 'terrorism'.
The CCS houses a 24hour monitoring spin operation called the News Co-ordination Centre (NCC) which stands ready for use in the event of the next emergency. It has also (in the wake of September 11) established a wide ranging review of information handling in an emergency situation undertaken by a working party involving government press officers and senior media executives together with police and local authority crisis planners. The Media Emergency Forum has produced a long report which the CCS claims 'reflects a more productive relationship' with the media. The approach taken by the CCS is more sophisticated than previous emergency planning responses which allow the government simply to take over the broadcast media. That system is still in place and according to Mike Granatt, now Director General of the GICS 'we've got a system that was put in place for nuclear war. We could press the button and pre-empt every transmitter in this country'. But this would be counter-productive. 'Voluntary' agreements with the media are seen as more effective. Granatt says 'we need a credible active, sceptical – rather than cynical – system of news reporting… Anything we do to subvert the process of giving trust in that is wrong… If the BBC or ITN… said we think you should do this because the government says so, we would be lost'. So productive has this been that it has occasioned little attention in the media.
It was the new propaganda apparatus that oversaw the release of the information on the alleged discovery of Ricin in January 2003 and which ordered the tanks to Heathrow in late 2002, following an intelligence tip off, reported as a Surface to Air missile attack on the airport. In the case of Heathrow Granatt has noted:
- 'I will now confess to you. I sat at all the meetings that decided to do that, and I have seen agony cross their face before… Ministers actually considering putting tanks at our biggest economic asset… after what I sat and heard, doing it was absolutely necessary and I can't tell you more – I'm very sorry about it but that's the fact. But I can tell you first hand there was no lack of sincerity and nobody does that because it's going to make some propaganda point for a war that at that point, wasn't entirely certain anyway'.
What Grannatt and others sat and heard was the intelligence assessment of the threat. Whether or not the threat was genuine or just more dodgy 'intelligence', no-one was arrested and no Surface to Air Missiles were found. Militarily it is not clear what the effectiveness of light armoured vehicles at Heathrow with a top speed of thirty odd miles an hour would be against a SAM attack launched at some distance from the airport. But according to senior sources involved in the decision: 'You don't catch rockets in an armoured vehicle. That is not the point. Part of the point of these things may be deterrence. So visibility is another part of the game'. Visibility - otherwise known as propaganda.
In the case of Ricin, the information was released, after deliberation in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, under the name of the then Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Pat Troop. She conducted a joint briefing at Scotland Yard with the police. Troop has maintained that the information that Ricin had been found was released because 'what we didn’t know when we started was whether or not we were then going to find lots of more Ricin somewhere else and therefore it was felt the public had the legitimate right to know.' According to a senior source involved 'the broadcasters response was very positive. They told us afterwards it enabled them to go straight to air… because they were talking to people they believed were trustworthy and experts in their fields' The CCS released the information in the knowledge that it would potentially prejudice the trial of the people arrested in connection with the find. As Mike Granatt noted prejudicing a trial comes way down the list of priorities after 'public safety'.
The claim that the information was released for public health reasons ushers in a new era or threat warning and assessment where the threat of terrorist attack is whipped up on shaky evidence for our own good - a very New labour propaganda solution. The 'threat' from Ricin in the 'environment' was clearly very small. The poison has to be ingested, inhaled or injected. Even if we suppose that the warning was genuinely given by civil servants operating in good faith, the information on which the warnings are based depend on the 'intelligence' services. Their collective lack of understanding of Islamic activists together with their own overhauled spin apparatus makes it difficult to discern whether the information was based on 'genuine' if misinterpreted intelligence or deliberate fabrication, as in the case of the MI5 leak that a planned gas attack on the London Tube had been foiled.
Either way the UK resilience apparatus appears credible to journalists and ensures effective wall to wall coverage for stories based on dubious sources which played very nicely into the propaganda campaign to take the UK to war.
In 2009 the CCS had the followng teams: Director of Civil Contingencies | The Horizon Scanning and Response Team | The Capabilities Programme | Strategy & Communications | Civil Contingencies Act and Local Response Capability Team | International, Exercises and Operations | Corporate Services and The Emergency Planning College.
In 2010 the teams were cut to five:
- Mike Granatt address to the Communicating the War on Terror conference, The Royal Institution, London, 5 June 2003.
- Interviewed by David Miller, The Cabinet Office, 17 July 2003.
- From:Dr Pat Troop, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health 'CONCERN OVER RICIN POISON IN THE ENVIRONMENT' 7th January 2003, Reference: CEM/CMO/2003/1, joint statement from the Metropolitan Police and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer <http://126.96.36.199/doh/embroadcast.nsf/0/2344372825A05AFC80256CA7005727CE?OpenDocument>
- Pat Troop, Address to Communicating the War on Terror Conference, The Royal Institution, London, 5 June 2003.
- Interviewed by David Miller, The Cabinet Office, 17 July 2003.
- Mike Granatt, address to the Communicating the War on Terror conference, The Royal Institution, London, 5 June 2003.
- See David Miller 'They Were All Asylum Seekers': The Propaganda Campaign To Link Iraq To Terrorism At The Expense Of Refugees. Scoop Thursday, 27 March 2003, <http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/HL0303/S00262.htm>
- Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) How We Work This is archived web content selected for preservation by The National Archives. This snapshot was taken on 31/03/2009, accessed 6 March 2010
- D Fletcher, Assistant Director, Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Cabinet Office, 'Civil Contingencies Secretariat Staff', Letter to Rizwaan Sabir, 7 April 2010