On Thursday I had the misfortune of attending an event hosted by the Federation of Muslim Organisations for a body called UK HELPS — a government propaganda agency that aims to educate the people of Britain about the government’s humanitarian work in Syria.
Sharon Wardle, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Consular Strategy Programme Director who currently heads up the FCO’s Syrian office in Beruit began the evening of meaningless platitudes — best summed up by one audience member as a “spin roadshow.”
Sharon at least recognised that to end the conflict in the region there “has to be a political solution that meets the needs of all Syrians.” She was hopeful about future peace talks, observing that “negotiations have pretty much been on ice for the last couple of years.” Of course the recent decision taken by the Tories and 66 Labour MPs, including local Labour MPs Keith Vaz and Liz Kendall, to vote for the bombing of Syria could not have done much to speed up the resumption of meaningful diplomacy in the region.
James Helm, Director of Communications for the Department for International Development (DFID) was next up, pointing out that Britain already “more than plays our part” in helping Syrians, but that he wanted other countries to do the same too. Forgetting bombs and the pursuit of illegal wars, Britain apparently only does good things in the world, “I can assure you,” James arrogantly extolled, “this country is doing the right thing in so many ways.”
James was keen to get young people involved in sugar-coating Britain’s ugly foreign policy through DFID’s International Citizen Service program. As he put it: “Young people can get their hands dirty helping the worlds poorest people.”
His hollow spiel about helping the bombed and needy was followed by a twenty second contribution by Philippa, who noted that she worked in DFID’s Conflict Department and “was basically there to back-up James.”
With the discussion now opened up to the audience, local Labour Councillor Mohammed Dawood asked three questions: firstly he drew attention to the low number of Syrian refugees that the government has offered to take in: just 20,000 over five years, with less than 1,900 accepted so far. He pointed out that this low number doesn’t make sense given that we are the sixth richest country in the world.
Cllr Dawood also asked why UK HELPS could not arrange for an actual government Minister to come to address tonight’s meeting, and then asked what the group planned to do with the information they collected from tonight’s meeting. Evidently they plan to nothing on the latter point as no-one from the panel bothered to respond to that part of his question.
Strangely both Cllr Dawood and the only other Labour Councillor present, Patrick Kitterick, then got up and promptly left — only 15 minutes into the discussion.
From then onwards the meeting proceeded to heat up as many people were perhaps left perplexed by the vacuous nature of the panels non-responses and self-parodying statements.
Take for example, James, who in describing Syrians and how they used to live, admitted:
“I have always been struck by the fact that they are like us.”
Wow!… and that was coming from the government’s own Director of Communications!
In one of the most poignant contributions of the night, a well-informed member of the public highlighted the fact that the humanitarian aid that was being touted tonight by UK HELPS merely acted as a “nice front” on the ongoing, British and broadly Western, violent interventions in the Middle East.
Britain’s “bloody track record” was highlighted by the speaker, as was the government’s “colonial outlook, that hasn’t changed for over a hundred years.” He suggested that our government should stop selling weapons in the region, “stop interfering, and let the people of Syria decide their own political destiny.”
He also pointed out that it was “only after the Syrian people rose up against Assad that our government decided to stop referring to him as a moderate leader and called him by what he always was, a tyrant, a dictator.”
James’ response was patronizing in the extreme, with him whining: “What is the alternative? Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t be providing life-saving aid? Surely you wouldn’t want us to just leave them?” To which the critical commentator answered, “yes,” especially in reference to our military interventions in the region.
When another person highlighted Britain’s murderous escapades in Afghanistan, Philippa reminisced about her foreign service in the Helmand province. She said one of the keys to the conflict was education. “I remember visiting a girls secondary school in Helmand,” she explained, and “finding out that not one of the students mothers had been to school.” Bizarrely, after so many years of slaughter, Philippa felt she could conclude that “education was our positive legacy,” not death and destruction.
One angry litigation lawyer in the audience then piped up that everything we were hearing was spin. He drew particular attention to Philippa’s “extreme intellectual arrogance” for her comments on education.
Another related question from the public, that significantly went unanswered, was “how much money do we earn from the arms and ammunition sales to the Middle East?” That this went ignored makes sense given that the UK HELPS team was only on call to explain how Britain helps (not creates) the poor and downtrodden.
To be fair, the experienced public relations team sent from UK HELPS were, it seems, fairly new to the entire idea of trying to talk to the public. Philippa thus acknowledged that “this was a learning experience for us” as it “was only the second talk like this” that they had held. Now that doesn’t seem like much HELP, does it?