Matthew Tannam-Elgie examines a curious case of fake news that surfaced during the Northern Irish conflict
In the years prior to 1968, the Northern Irish headquarters of the British Army was relatively tranquil. Semi-retired officers were usually sent there to live out the rest of their careers playing cards or admiring the scenery. When violence started spreading throughout the province, however, uniforms were dusted off and a red alert was placed on the Lisburn-based barracks for the first time in donkey’s years. As the sixties drifted into the seventies, the army became more concerned about the deteriorating situation and began to take rather interesting measures to fight terrorists.
Enter “Information Policy”. According to the late journalist Paul Foot, this was an Army Intelligence unit that provided false information to the press in order to disorientate terrorist groups. In some cases, the effort was quite successful.
For example, in 1972, the unit leaked fabricated reports that terrorists’ bombs were malfunctioning because of unsuitable chemicals. In actuality, it was because of faulty timing devices. Journalists weren’t to know better, though, and major broadsheet newspapers like The Guardian and The Observer carried the story into the public eye. Former army information officer Colin Wallace told Paul Foot that a number of terrorists actually believed the false stories, and had major difficulties finding other chemicals for their bombs. They only realised that the stories were fake a number of months after the initial reports.
A more extreme example is the cancer scare of 1972-73. Information Policy told journalists that nitrobenzene stored in IRA explosives could lead to mass-poisoning in the streets of Belfast, and newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian ran with the bogus claim. Esteemed scientists even appeared on television to discuss the grave situation at hand. The sole purpose of this false story was to cause terrorists to abandon their own weaponry.
While that last example of disinformation certainly frightened a number of innocent bystanders, it’s reasonable to suggest that the dissemination of fake news ultimately served a just purpose. If it took a bit of media manipulation to disorientate and weaken violent organisations, the ends probably justified the means (especially when considering the high numbers killed by those organisations). When one hears about Operation Clockwork Orange, however, things become more sinister.
This operation, as argued by Colin Wallace, was a disinformation ruse that targeted eminent British politicians. Many of the targets were labeled as communist sympathisers, and superficial links were furnished to establish them as such. Wallace has even said that some of the false accusations were supplied to Information Policy by rogue security agents, who wanted to undermine British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Disinformation was also given to journalists in what was apparently a conspiratorial plot to fool the public and dismantle their faith in Wilson’s government.
As bizarre as this scenario may sound, it was within the realm of possibility. Wilson himself voiced concerns that subversive security agents were intent on damaging his reputation, and his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Meryln Rees, claimed that a variety of strange press leaks did occur that were detrimental to the Prime Minister. Rees claimed that one leak stemmed from Army Intelligence, and Colin Wallace has said that the source of at least one other leak was Information Policy.
But let’s reel ourselves back to reality for a moment. Whether Operation Clockwork Orange actually consisted of an anti-Wilson plot is debatable, but it does seem to be a fact that disinformation was spread for the greater good of weakening terrorists. In and of itself, this story is a model example of genuine “Fake News”. The only question remaining is how far it actually went.
This story is the second in The Real Fake News, a series that looks at actual examples of media manipulation used to spread biased (or completely false) information.