This past autumn, academic and Crikey contributor Shakira Hussein took in a decent meal and an agreeable view of Sydney Harbour. This past weekend, The Saturday Paper published what would quickly become her widely read account of that day spent in Woolloomooloo. The piece, of particular interest to Gosford’s rebel reverend Rod Bower and anonymous others who had attended similar events, reveals a little more than we Australians have previously seen about the state work often known in the West as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

Read it. It’s very good. But, it does omit all details of the lunch. So today, Crikey exclusively reveals Hussein enjoyed an assortment of Lebanese-themed vitals and a fruit plate of mid-to-premium quality.

We can also reveal that representatives from the Department of Home Affairs, unable to provide a response to The Saturday Paper before that publication’s deadline, were present. A spokesperson for the department has responded to our queries regarding the “Voice Accelerator” event to which Hussein accepted an invitation.

We’ll get to that response — if you can’t wait, it’s rather similar to that posted on the department’s website last weekend — and one provided by the opposition spokesperson for national security, presently. First, let’s come to understand how Hussein, a scholar whose popular work on the securitisation of Muslim women is shortly to be republished by Yale University Press, may have herself been approached to echo state-approved sentiments of which she has long been openly critical.

An agency called Breakthrough Media contacted Hussein in March. As reported on Saturday, the offer was breezy, benign and, I imagine, consistent with the uplifting tone used on the company’s website. The firm says its work is to create “positive social impact through communications”. In 2016, the UK Guardian described the work of the British-based agency rather differently — again, we’ll get to that. First, let’s establish how a post-doctoral sociologist with Shakira’s publication history, Google search results and social media profile picture — up until very recently, Eeyore the misanthropic donkey — ends up in a swish Sydney conference centre listening to what she soon recognised as horseshit.

“I was in it for the plane ticket.”

Hussein had, in fact, been itching to visit Sweatshop, a literacy and justice collective operating in western Sydney. This is what we might call work with a “positive social impact”. That the Breakthrough Media program Hussein attended — ostensibly to help “influencers” from the Muslim community to post more effectively on Twitter — has a positive impact of any sort, is uncertain.

I spoke yesterday with Dr Clark Jones, a research fellow in criminology at ANU with a long interest in counter-terrorism and CVE methods. “Programs like the work being done with Breakthrough Media, for example, are set in a security intelligence framework, which translates to very little buy-in by Muslim communities,” said Jones.  

The “Voice Accelerator” program began with a fruit-plate and continued by chatty correspondence to Hussein’s inbox for some weeks. It proposed content for Twitter and praised the work of “Accelerators” who had “gone viral” with, for example, friendly tweets about the experience of fasting during Ramadan. “Insights” on the impact of these approved posts were included in an information pack and, yes, it all does sound very sunny. But in Jones’ view, such programs are likely to create suspicion within the Muslim community. Further, he says, this and many other CVE programs seem to be more “about intelligence collection than supporting Muslim communities in need”.

Jones believes that CVE funding is often awarded where it is needed least. He is no opponent of national security; he is, I’d say, frustrated by the refusal of government to listen to evidence and the preference of government to fund insight-gathering, potentially counter-productive schemes. CVE in Australia, he says, is modelled after the British programs PREVENT and CHANNEL. “Research is now showing that this has been damaging to young people and their communities,” he said.

I have attempted by several means to contact Breakthrough Media. I have asked by email and phone for comment on their disclosure to participants in their CVE programs about their partnership with Dutton’s department. I have cheesed off my editor by filing very late today in the hope of a response from the company’s creative director, Tony Broderick, a former UK reality TV producer and former senior staffer at Twitter — a firm present at the “Voice Accelerator” workshop who have confirmed by email that they were aware that the workshop was funded by Home Affairs.

Anyhow, I didn’t get much. Breakthrough’s head of strategy, Rebecca Lewis — former campaign manager of RUOK — said: “As the Department of Home Affairs commissioned the work, I direct you to them for comment.”

Of course, I’d already done that. A spokesperson said, “Home Affairs has a contract with Breakthrough Media for communications, training and research services.” They described the objective workshop Hussein attended as one “to build participants’ confidence and capacity to use social media and participate in online discussions”. They also say that, “The Australian Government was a known sponsor of the workshop and Home Affairs staff attended.” Which is likely true, so long as one’s definition of the word “known” is the same as that of government departments.

The association is known to my friend and colleague Eeyore Hussein because she asked, read the fine-print and was jolted enough by the “Accelerator” experience. She was sufficiently familiar with Western CVE techniques to spend a good deal of time reading UK news reports on Breakthrough, an organisation founded by two men, one of whom, Scott Brown, is a former member of the British Conservative Party and once worked in Baghdad for Bell-Pottinger, the PR company recently deceased amid scandal. One, by the way, that was a previous supplier to Australian CVE services.

The story that consumed Hussein for weeks has now begun to eat away at me. Of course, it is hardly a surprise that government departments may overlook evidence, accidentally make things worse or outsource propaganda to smart British firms with Thatcherite credentials.

What is just darn annoying, though, is the possibility that genuine, sincere people are pressed into the service of those who may be cynical, and almost certainly have scant regard for effective national security practice.

A spokesperson for Mark Dreyfus, shadow AG and opposition spokesperson for national security, tells Crikey that “Labor will seek a briefing from the Department of Home Affairs on the operations of Breakthrough Media in Australia and its relationship to government-funded countering violent terrorism programs”.

Good, then. I’ll tell Eeyore — who has been sending me text messages for the last hour demanding to know how anyone could ever think of her as a sock puppet or less than an independent thinker — and see if the news calms her down.

 

Peter Fray

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