Reactionary Censorship in the UK: The Case of SpinProfiles
By David Miller August 18, 2010
In late June, 1 & 1 Internet, one of the world’s largest web hosting companies, took the dramatic step of taking down a public interest website that I help run in the United Kingdom called SpinProfiles (now renamed Powerbase). The move came after Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a British-based neoconservative who is the son of well-known journalist ChristopherHitchens, objected to a profile we published about him and his work.
Spinwatch/Powerbase can be controversial for those we profile—in fact, that is one of the key points of the website. Some of the organizations and individuals we focus on go to great lengths to evade transparency, including the growing number of groups whose ideas closely parallel those of U.S.-based neoconservatives. If we were to please all our critics, we would not have a site at all. Reactionary censorship like this is detrimental not only to the mission of websites like SpinProfiles, but also to the power of free speech.
Who Is Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens?
Neoconservatism is typically closely associated with the U.S. political scene. However, the political faction also has self-identified adherents across Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. These “Eurocons” share their U.S. counterparts’ devotion to military power and interventionist foreign policies. Also like U.S. neocons, the European variety has engaged in attacking what they describe as “Islamism,” which in their rhetoric is often indistinguishable from Islam. (For more on European neoconservatism, see Tom Griffin, “Who Are the Neocons?” Right Web, December 4, 2009.)
This is the milieu in which Meleagrou-Hitchens has circulated, rising swiftly through the ranks and working for a dizzying checklist of establishment neoconservative organizations. These links and his particular interest in Islam were catalogued in SpinProfiles’ dossier on Meleagrou-Hitchens.
Meleagrou-Hitchens focuses much of his work on so-called Islamists. In one early blog, he notes, “I have a special interest in Islamist pressure groups.” These groups “seek to move the discourse on terrorism and radicalization towards discussions of how liberal democracies can adapt themselves to Islamist ideals, and alter their policies in order to appease terrorism.”
His definition of Islamism is broad and encompasses most elements of the organized Muslim community in the United Kingdom, including in particular progressive elements that have been active in the anti-war movement and in opposing Islamophobic movements like the English Defence League and other far right groups. Meleagrou-Hitchens clearly has a distaste for the anti-war movement, referring to its supporters as “a rag-tag army of poorly informed students, unemployed people, members of fringe Socialist parties and Islamists” and “this mass of dreadlocked unemployed people.”
However, Meleagrou-Hitchens objects to being labeled “right-wing.” He describes his fellow think tank colleagues as “comrades,” utilizing the traditional language of leftist activists.
Meleagrou-Hitchens writes that “proponents and apologists of this ideology [Islamism] must be discredited and resisted.” This statement neatly summarizes his modus operandi because his main efforts are devoted to smearing and discrediting Muslim community activists and other critics of UK, U.S., or Israeli foreign policy, describing them as apologists for “terrorism.”
“It is the ideology of Islamism,” he writes, “which is the primary root cause of jihadist terror.” This puts him at odds even with the British intelligence agencies, who have acknowledged that the invasion of Iraq exacerbated opposition to the United Kingdom.
Meleagrou-Hitchens even goes so far as to denounce the veteran investigative journalist John Pilger for arguing that Tony Blair had made British people more at risk from terrorism. Pilger, he says, wrote a “disgraceful apologia” for “Islamofascism,” employing a term that has become fashionable among hardline U.S. neoconservatives, like Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes.
Like many of his neocons counterparts in the United States (including, most recently, Jeffrey Goldberg and Lee Smith), Meleagrou-Hitchens doesn’t shy away from brandishing the accusation of “anti-semitism” in order to marginalize his rhetorical foes. For example, when the mainstream journalist Peter Osborne—a critic of Islamophobia—produced a UK television program on the power of the “Israel lobby” in the United Kingdom, Meleagrou-Hitchens denounced him for using “the oldest antisemitic trick in the book.”
While still an undergraduate at King’s College London in 2005, when he was 21, Meleagrou-Hitchens signed the Unite Against Terror manifesto associated with leftist groups such as Labour Friends of Iraq. Those involved with the 2005 manifesto were substantially similar to those involved a year later with the Euston Manifesto, launched by a group of British intellectuals who regarded themselves as “out of tune with the dominant anti-war discourse” in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Before 2008, Meleagrou-Hitchens reportedly worked for a number of hawkish U.S. think tanks, including the Hoover Institution and the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is led by Clifford D. May, a former New York Times reporter who is also a member of the Committee on the Present Danger and a signatory to several Project for the New American Century letters.
Since 2008, Meleagrou-Hitchens has been associated with several British neoconservative organizations, including blogging for the Henry Jackson Society—the leading intellectual outpost for British neoconservatism whose supporters have included such neocons stalwarts as Robert Kagan—and working for Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion, which is headed by Douglas Murray, author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It.
Meleagrou-Hitchens has also blogged for the conservative Daily Telegraph and Harry's Place—a notionally “left,” but mainly pro-war attack blog. He also began appearing in the tabloid press as an “expert” on Al Qaeda in early 2009.
Currently, Meleagrou-Hitchens runs Standpoint magazine's Focus on Islamism blog. Standpoint was set up by the Social Affairs Unit, a right-wing think tank that was originally an offshoot of the first “Thatcherite” think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and which published the manifesto of the Henry Jackson Society as well as other neocon texts like a pamphlet coauthored by Anthony Glees titled When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses, which claimed that British universities are “recruiting grounds for those who wish to destroy parliamentary liberal democracy.”
Standpoint’s “starkest model,” according to the New York Sun, is Encounter, the “brilliant Cold War journal edited by Irving Kristol and Stephen Spender that dealt in Anglo-American themes and survived the not-so-minor scandal of being secretly funded by the CIA for part of its tenure.” The Sun quotes Johnson, “We're open to their calls.”
SpinProfiles’ page on Meleagrou-Hitchens also reported on his attacks on “Islamist” organizations, including his apparent association with a Policy Exchange briefing that attacked the 2008 Global Peace and Unity festival, the annual Muslim conference at London's ExCel Center. In October of that year, Nick Clegg, the current UK Deputy Prime Minister (then the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party) criticized Policy Exchange in a letter to its director, Neil O'Brien, for “privately” briefing against the event in London. Clegg mentioned the “notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims,” and said he was “appalled” to see “evidence” quoted from the Society for American National Existence, an organization which seeks to make the practice of Islam illegal. SpinProfiles reported that that the “properties” of the Word file containing the briefing listed Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens as its author.
Policy Exchange Pedigree
The SpinProfiles dossier on Meleagrou-Hitchens also highlighted a number of professional relationships that reveal a burgeoning network of rightist organizations in the United Kingdom, many of which have roots that go back to the heyday of fervent anti-communism. Policy Exchange, a group that has been heavily criticized for using questionable sources to attack parts of the Muslim community, is a case in point.
In 2007, BBC Newsnight revealed that Policy Exchange's report, “The Hijacking of British Islam,” was based in part on fabricated evidence. The report has since been removed from the Policy Exchange website.
SpinProfiles’ research also endeavored to show how Policy Exchange's publications on Islam in Europe have been shaped by its research director Dean Godson's advocacy of an approach rooted in Cold War propaganda techniques.
Godson’s family has a background in covert action and factional politics. His father, Joseph Godson, was an acolyte of Jay Lovestone, the ex-communist trade union leader who ran an international network for the CIA's James Angleton. During his tenure as U.S. Labour attaché in London, Godson senior was involved in an attempt to expel Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service, from the Labour Party.
Dean’s older brother Roy Godson is an expert on covert action and disinformationwho was involved in the Iran-Contra affair and worked for a number of Cold War-era pressure groups, including the Midge Decter-led Committee for a Free World and the Coalition for a Democratic Majority.
Dean Godson began his career as special assistant to John Lehman, a secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan who has supported the work of a number of neoconservative groups in the United States, including the Project for the New American Century, the Center for Security Policy, and the Cold War-era version of the Committee on the Present Danger. He also worked as librarian to Sir James Goldsmith, and as special assistant to Conrad Black. The Telegraph editor Martin Newland commented in 2004 about Godson’s approach:
I soon came to recognize we were speaking a language on geopolitical events and even domestic events that was dictated too much from across the Atlantic. It's OK to be pro-Israel, but not to be unbelievably pro-Likud Israel, it's OK to be pro-American but not look as if you're taking instructions from Washington. Dean Godson and Barbara Amiel [wife of Conrad Black] were key departures.
After Black lost control of the Daily Telegraph group in 2004, Godson joined Policy Exchange, which had been set up in 2002. The 13 current trustees of the Policy Exchange are a mixture of right-wing journalists and wealthy businessmen. Theodore Agnew, Richard Briance, George Robinson, Edward Sells, and Simon Wolfson are all British businessmen who have donated to the Conservative Party.
U.S. connections are also visible in the presence of Robert Rosenkranz on the board, an American multi-millionaire financier precluded from donating to the Tory Party as a foreigner. Rosenkranz has supported Policy Exchange and an associated think tank, Localis, as well as the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.
These familial, ideological, and financial connections to U.S. neoconservatives give an indication of the pedigree of the networks currently active in UK politics. This material was compiled on the SpinProfiles website, which aimed to stitch together publicly available information to provide a detailed picture of who's who in the sometimes shadowy world of right-wing think tanks and lobbying, in a way similar to that of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Right Web program.
Although all the information mentioned in the profile on Meleagrou-Hitchens is in the public domain and is fully referenced and sourced, our domain name registrar, 1 & 1 Internet, asked that the page be removed. They gave no reason, and when we queried the decision, they responded:
Regardless as to whether the contents of the webpage in question is factual and backed up by sourced information, we still have a legal obligation … to ensure that personal information (for which you have not obtained the permission for) is removed from your website.
When SpinProfiles asked what part of the information was “personal,” they declined to specify. When we declined to remove the page, the site was closed down.
Initially, we were not aware of what precisely Meleagrou-Hitchens objected to in his profile. According to the Guardian Diary, Meleagrou-Hitchens did not claim that anything in it was defamatory. We wrote to Meleagrou-Hitchens to ask for his reasons, offering to correct any inaccuracies and mentioning our right-to-reply policy, but he did not respond.
We have been in a similar situation before. In February this year, another person profiled on SpinProfiles complained to 1 & 1 Internet that her profile was defamatory. The complainant, Sagit Yehoshua,is a terrorism researcher whose research has involved interviewing jailed Palestinians. 1 & 1 Internet refused to tell us the precise text that was alleged to be defamatory and insisted that the whole page be removed.
Due to uncertainty over the alleged defamation, we removed the page, hoping to get clarity from the company. It was not forthcoming, although the issue appeared to hinge on the question of “personal” information. 1 & 1 Internet told us that “Ms. Sagit Yehoshua has expressly stated in a phone call to us that they do not want their personal information placed on the website.” Since then, we have reinstated the page, leading to further, ongoing, attempts to have the material removed.
With the Meleagrou-Hitchens case, we felt that unfounded defamation claims should not be allowed to set a precedent, where public-interest reporting can be censored at the request of any aggrieved individual. If such an approach were taken either online or in print journalism, it could signal the beginning of the end of independent journalism.
In responding to an article I wrote for the Guardian’s “Comment Is Free” website detailing his case, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens failed to mention any inaccuracies in our profile of him. His case rested on the argument that “People who are profiled by [such] websites should be allowed to reserve the right not to have any association with them, and this was the primary issue upon which my complaint was predicated.” In other words, internet censorship should be permissible when the subject of a report objects to the people or the organizations publishing the material. This would be laughable had it not had the effect of successfully shutting down our website.
This is part of an emerging pattern. When elements of the European right are victims of accurate reporting, they resort to smear. For Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, our use of the Freedom of Information Act is simply “cyber stalking,” and our efforts to report on terrorism studies institutes with connections to the UK or Israeli military is motivated by alleged anti-Semitism—or, as Meleagrou-Hitchens put it, by the fact that someone “is an Israeli Jew who studies terrorism.” Additionally, our public interest reporting on powerful and well funded groups seeking to influence the public agenda amounts to “campaigns of smear and harassment” by creating “selectively produced” profiles of people and groups with “different political outlooks.”
We see the issue in starkly different terms: Our work provides openly available data and facts on groups seeking to influence the public agenda. This is not simply a question of opposing viewpoints.
Meleagrou-Hitchens argues that our work does a “great disservice to British academia's long tradition of neutral and unbiased inquiry.” The difficulty with this claim, as we have shown time and again, is the increasing pressures on genuinely independent research on the powerful forces shaping our world. These pressures come, in part, from those same forces that try to distort debate by funding lobbyists, think tanks, and attack blogs to muddy the waters and attempt to reduce all of this to the level of contrasting political opinions.
In the end, as U.S. President John Adams once put it, “facts are stubborn things.” It is the fact that our public interest reporting is supported by evidence that distinguishes us from think tanks that rely on dodgy receipts or are engaged in activities that have been characterized as “relentless Islamophobia.” Establishment neoconservatives are not interested in democratic public debate, but instead pursue political warfare strategies aimed at undermining investigative research and reporting on their activities.
David Miller is a co-founder of Spinwatch, editor of Powerbase, a professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde in the Department of Geography and Sociology, and a contributor to Right Web.