Fake News and False Flags: How the Pentagon paid a British PR firm $500 million for top secret Iraq propaganda

Fake News and False Flags: How the Pentagon paid a British PR firm $500 million for top secret Iraq propaganda

Organisation: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (United Kingdom)

Publication Date: 04/07/2017

Size of team/newsroom:small


Our investigation used big data to open up an extraordinary and previously unknown story: how controversial British PR firm Bell Pottinger got half a billion dollars from the Pentagon to make top secret propaganda and fake al-Qaeda videos in Iraq. It used this focal point to expose the private sector's role in wartime propaganda. The $500 million figure was new and surprising in itself, putting Bell Pottinger in the premier league of the Pentagon's British beneficiaries - an accolade normally reserved for the likes of BAE and Rolls Royce. It had never been published in the company's accounts, which for years on end were largely silent about the company's military work. But it was not until we began mining our procurement data that the whole story began to unfold. By cross-referencing spending records and chasing down the sources they generated, we found that the British PR firm had been embedded at the heart of US military intelligence operations, getting their product signed off by General Petraeus himself. The story shocked corporate-watchers, Middle East experts, and ordinary readers engrossed in the North by North-West-like tale of a film editor who went for a job interview and then suddenly found himself on a military plane to Baghdad.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

This story was a pioneering example of forensic data analysis paired with old-fashioned reporting. The reason we were able to spot what no-one else had - that Bell Pottinger had received a huge sum of money from the Pentagon - was that we had built a database of 13 million US military spending records. It wasn’t clear from our initial search of the database what Bell Pottinger was doing however. Indeed many of the records relating to their work in Iraq didn’t even name the company. We had to reconstruct the scope of the contract by cross-referencing the database with other publicly available records such as censuses and Inspector General reports. Using this information as a lead, we were able to track down former Bell Pottinger employees and eventually found a source willing to go on the record and tell us the huge story buried in the anodyne military jargon of the contracting records. It made page 1 of the Sunday Times in the UK, and the US version of the story in the Daily Beast got 500K hits shortly after being published. It catalyzed debate around ‘fake news’ before Donald Trump propelled the term to dominance. And activists around the world still cite the story as they try to understand how PR firms may be manipulating their own country’s politics.

Technologies used for this project:

To construct the database we had to download hundreds of separate files from the limited and rudimentary platform that the US government uses to publish its data, then recombine them into a fully searchable form. We hosted it on a secure remote Amazon server, and ran searches in it using SQL Workbench. We then analysed these search results using Open Refine and Microsoft Excel.


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