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Hollywood recruited to help fight IS, hacked emails show


Philip Dorling

Bob Geldof at Wembley Stadium in 1985 during preparations for the Live Aid rock concert in London, England.

Bob Geldof at Wembley Stadium in 1985 during preparations for the Live Aid rock concert in London, England. Photo: DAVID CAULKIN

Top Hollywood executives including James Murdoch have been recruited to help the United States counter Islamic extremist propaganda, according to hacked Sony Pictures emails published by WikiLeaks.  

Secret exchanges between the US State Department and Sony have also included a bizarre plan to recruit hip-hop artists to produce a Muslim We Are the World video to support the fight against Islamic State (IS).  US diplomats are looking for "the Muslim Bob Geldof" to lead the campaign. 

"We have plenty of challenges in countering [IS] narratives in the Middle East and Russian narratives in central and eastern Europe," US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy Richard Stengel emailed Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton in October 2014.  

Midge Ure.

Midge Ure.

"In both cases, there are millions and millions of people in those regions who are getting a skewed version of reality.  And it's not something that the State Department can do on its own by any means." 

Recruitment help wanted

Mr Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine, asked the Sony chief to help recruit other film studio executives to "help us think about better ways to respond to both of these large challenges".  

Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, has been suggested as the "Muslim Bob Geldof".

Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, has been suggested as the "Muslim Bob Geldof". Photo: Lucas Jackson

Mr Stengel wanted a "conversation about ideas, about content and production".  He promised the studio chiefs would find it "interesting, fun and rewarding" and there would be discussion about "commercial possibilities".   

Mr Lynton quickly recruited 21st Century Fox co-chief operating officer James Murdoch, Walt Disney chairman Andy Bird, president and chief executive of the Game Show Network, David Goldhill, as well as former chief executive of Turner Broadcasting Philip Kent.

"Is that enough for you?" Mr Lynton replied to Mr Stengel in November. 

Salman Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie. Photo: Shaun Curry

The leaked Sony emails show that State Department exchanges with Hollywood about IS began in September 2014 when Mr Stengel shared with Mr Lynton "a very out-of-the-box and perhaps very bad idea".

Video/concert proposal

Explaining one of his responsibilities was to "work on anti-[IS] messaging," the State Department's communications chief asked: "What if there were a Muslim anti-[IS] We Are the World video/concert?"

Sir Bob Geldof.

Sir Bob Geldof. Photo: Stephen Hird

"It could have Muslim artists from all over the world plus hip-hop stars," Mr Lynton suggested.  "It obviously couldn't and shouldn't be a USG [United States government] effort, but could be big all over the world.  Heck, there are only 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet and there's a very rich musical tradition."

Mr Lynton's idea looked back to successful charity fundraising efforts in the mid-1980s when Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote Do They Know It's Christmas and founded the musical group Band Aid to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia in 1984.  

Subsequently, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote We Are The World to raise money for African relief in 1985. 

Cat Stevens suggestion

According to Mr Stengel, the big question was: "Who is the Muslim Bob Geldof?"

"Cat Stevens," Mr Lynton replied.  A British-born singer and songwriter, Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam after converting to Islam in 1977.  He left his music career in 1979 to devote himself to Islamic educational and philanthropic activity. 

In 1989, he  became embroiled in controversy arising from comments he made concerning Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's death fatwa on author Salman Rushdie.  In 2004, Islam was denied entry to the United States on security grounds but was admitted two years later.  

He has repeatedly condemned terrorism and stated: "I have never knowingly supported or given money to [the Palestinian Islamic organisation] Hamas."  Islam returned to pop music in 2006 and in 2014 made his first US tour since 1978. 

Mr Lynton told Mr Stengel he had recently met Islam and offered to reach out to his agent.  However, no proposals for an anti-IS music concert have yet emerged. Geldof's re-recording of Do They Know It's Christmas to raise funds for the west African Ebola crisis in December 2014 encountered significant public criticism with the song's lyrics now described as ignorant and "cringe-worthy".

Advertising 'insight'

The State Department has also engaged with top US advertising executives in New York's Madison Avenue in an effort "to understand the idea of [IS], the appeal of [IS]".

"I've had some real insight from people in advertising and marketing about what the [IS] narrative is," Mr Stengel recently observed.  "When they win, it's, 'David has triumphed over Goliath'. And when they lose, the narrative is, 'Goliath is ganging up on us.' I've always thought that was a very smart way of looking at the power of their messaging and their brand."

Mr Stengel oversees the State Department's Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism communications, which controls at least 350 Twitter accounts and runs other social media campaigns in efforts to counter Islamic State's propaganda network, which reportedly produces more than 90,000 tweets and other social media posts every day.

Speaking at a conference in Indonesia on Wednesday, Mr Stengel said that internet service providers rather than governments should be responsible for shutting down websites and social media accounts used to spread hate speech and incite violence.  He is now attending a Singapore government-organised East Asia Summit symposium on countering violent extremism.

21st Century Fox did not respond to emailed questions concerning James Murdoch's interaction with the State Department on efforts to combat Islamic extremist and Russian propaganda.

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