John Jenks. British Propaganda and News Media in the Cold War. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. vii + 168 pp. Â£50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-2314-3.
Reviewed by Thomas P. O'Malley (Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies, University of Aberystwyth)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2008)
John Jenks's study is published in the Edinburgh University Press's International Communications Series. It sits well alongside other studies in the series like Philip Taylor's British Propaganda in the Twentieth Century (1999) and Martin Doherty's Nazi Wireless Propaganda: Lord Haw-Haw and British Public Opinion in the Second World War (2000). The series deals with the processes and impact of information flows between nation-states and within the wider context of globalization. Jenks's book develops this theme in relation to the British government's handling of domestic and international propaganda in the late 1940s and the 1950s. It is a detailed, convincing, and scholarly work.
The first two chapters on "Propaganda, Media and Hegemony: The British Heritage" and "Media, Propaganda, Consensus and the Soviet Union" provide academic and historical context. Jenks places his study in the context of work by, among others, Philip Taylor, Tony Shaw, Caroline Anstey, and Gary Rawnsley. He makes no claims to radical insights in relation to preceding work, but does offer a detailed analysis of the nature, purpose, and range of activities of the Foreign Office's (FO) Information Research Department (IRD).
The United Kingdom, having established dominance in the global news system in the nineteenth century, had refined techniques of overt propaganda and information management in the course of two world wars, 1914-18, and 1939-45. The tools used in this process included state intervention in the External Services of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), financial support for Reuters, and a worldwide network of FO Information Officers. During World War II the United Kingdom was allied with the Soviet Union, an alliance which by early 1948 had deteriorated into a Cold War. The media in the United Kingdom and the government's propaganda machinery had to switch from friendship to hostility. In "a little less than three years the British media developed a Cold War consensus of Soviet intransigence and British virtue, and the government prepared for a propaganda barrage to sell that message to the rest of the world" (p. 7). The FO was able to use its links with the British press and broadcasting industry and its subsidy of overseas news agencies such as the Arab News Agency and the India-based Globe Agency as a framework for developing anti-Soviet propaganda.
Chapter 3, on "Discipline and Consensus: The British News Media," describes how the media adapted to the new Cold War consensus with a willingness based on independently developed views about the emerging international situation. Yet "for those journalists who could not conform to the new ways of thinking … the career consequences could be steep" (p. 42). Where journalists were suspected of holding sympathies for the old wartime ally, or were not sufficiently pliant, official pressure was brought to bear, leading, for example, to the sacking of Reuter's Berlin correspondent in 1947 and the forced resignation of Basil Davidson from the Times in 1949. The BBC followed the government's shift of policy in early 1948, adapting to the new situation although it remained the subject of "steady hectoring" from the FO (p. 49). The "D" notice committee also sustained links between editors, managers, and the security and diplomatic establishment.
Chapter 4 examines the IRD, which was established in January 1948 to "destroy the Soviet myth" of a peace-loving workers' paradise and conducted research into the Soviet bloc "'solely to provide propaganda material'" (p. 63). It was based in London, with outposts in Cairo (later Beirut) Singapore, and Caracas. Its job was to influence opinion-formers by producing detailed research on the Soviet bloc so as to provide otherwise hard-to-get information for journalists, academics, and policymakers at home and overseas. It packaged its work in various formats, from detailed briefing papers to snippets for the popular press. It made use of prominent domestic figures like the politicians Woodrow Wyatt and R. C. Crossman, the academic Isaiah Berlin, the journalists Malcolm Muggeridge and W. N. Euer, and the novelist George Orwell in its effort to disseminate anti-Soviet propaganda.
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with the IRD's distribution networks and its institutional partners. The IRD used the Central Office of Information, the United Kingdom's diplomatic service, literary agents, news and feature syndication services, broadcasters, and scoop-hungry journalists "to discreetly get its propaganda to the desired market" (p. 80). The BBC "generally went along with the government" (p. 90). By 1957 the IRD claimed that, on average, seven of its articles and two of its briefings were published somewhere in the world every day (p. 93). It had a massive, covert international publishing program, generating or re-publishing anticommunist books, pamphlets, and even a comic strip of Orwell's Animal Farm (1946). The United States of America, with its panoply of intelligence and information operations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was the IRD's major overseas partner. In the United Kingdom it made covert links with civil society, forming partnerships with individuals in organizations like the Labour Party, where the international secretary and future Labour foreign secretary Denis Healey was a contact in the Church of England.
Chapters 7 and 8 focus on case studies. The first is on the IRD and the government's assault on the Soviet backed postwar international peace movement, embodied in the World Peace Congress. In particular, a barrage of pre-emptive and coordinated propaganda helped scupper an attempt to hold a Peace Congress in Sheffield in 1950, without the government having to sully its credentials as custodian of a liberal democracy by banning the event outright. The second deals with the IRD's use of defectors and information about the Soviet system of forced labor to foster anticommunist sentiment in the world's media. The IRD's interest in these areas faded as the policies of the Soviet bloc modified after Stalin died in 1953. But the techniques it developed to discredit the Soviet Union in these areas were used "to attack British dissent," in particular the nonaligned peace movement (p. 126). Interestingly, in the light of the way the British government sought to win support from the United Nations in order to legitimate the attack on Iraq in 2003, during the 1950s the IRD considered the United Nations "the best publicity platform in the world" (p. 143).
In a too-brief conclusion, one that might have explored some of the issues raised in each of the chapters in more detail, Jenks argues that the evidence he presents illustrates how "media consensus and government manipulation operate in a democracy during and open-ended undeclared struggle" (p. 149). In the case of the Cold War, the media developed its own gradual awareness of the problems the West faced with the Soviet Union, but the IRD did much to foster and maintain that consensus, trading on London's position as a center for global communications and carefully tailoring its factually orientated material to fit in with established "journalistic traditions of facticity and objectivity" (p. 150). This use of the British-based international system, he argues, probably accelerated the process of media globalization.
Jenks's study is based on a very wide range of primary sources, including those at the National Record of Archives (cited in his book under its former name of the Public Record Office), the Bodleian Library, the BBC archives, the Churchill archives, the Hoover Institute and the National Archives and Record Administration, Maryland, to list but a few. He has read widely in contemporary printed sources and in the accompanying academic literature and he uses all of his materials skilfully. He conducted a few interviews, but notably not with Denis Healey, a figure who not only linked the IRD with the Labour Party, but who later became foreign secretary in the 1960s and at the time of writing is still alive.
This book makes a valuable, empirically rich contribution to studies of the media and the state in the United Kingdom. It illustrates the sheer effort put into manipulating editors, journalists, broadcasters, politicians, and academics by the British state after 1945. It also, if read with Martin Moore's The Origins of Modern Spin (2006), confirms the importance of the ways in which the Attlee governments (1945-51) developed pre-existing methods of government communication to face the challenges of postwar domestic politics. Moore's account focuses on domestic communications, but his contention that 1945-51 was a "decisive period in the development of communication in Britain" (p. 11) gains weight from Jenks's detailed anatomy. One of the most significant developments of the prewar and postwar years was the way public relations grew as industry and permeated government. This was especially true of the Labour Party where Herbert Morrison, Lord President of the Council and then foreign secretary in the 1945-1951 governments, was alert to the importance of public relations from at least the 1930s. Dominic Wring points out in The Politics of Marketing the Labour Party (2005) that Morrison drew on his earlier experience with public relations when in government. Jenks's study provides, therefore, a further, and valuable, dimension to our understanding of how communications policies developed after 1945.
In addition, when read alongside the account of the Central Intelligence Agency's support for cultural warfare in Frances Stonor Saunders's The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Art and Letters (1999), it is striking how many intellectuals in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, especially academics and journalists, with their professional adherence to standards of objectivity, were willing to be co-opted by the state for covert ends. This illustrates just how fragile, and at times simply self-serving, professional ideologies can be.
Although the chapters are organized in broad chronological order there is a sense in which the book would have benefited from an overview chapter, outlining the key developments in the period, plus a sustained argument about the nature of the contribution the evidence it presents makes to studies of the Cold War and the media. The argument that the IRD's activities accelerated globalization is convincing if viewed in terms of the sheer volume of material and range of reach that the department achieved in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet this insight needs to be seen in the light of the industrial and technological forces of the postwar period which were driving global change, of which the IRD was just a part. Interestingly, although television re-started in the United Kingdom in 1946 and by the late 1950s was a well-established domestic medium in the United States and the United Kingdom, the book does not reflect on its importance, if any, to the work of the IRD.
The view that the IRD and its sister departments in the state sustained a Cold War consensus in the media is convincing. But Jenks does not assert, nor is it the case, that dissent from the FO and the IRD's version of the world did not exist. Jenks's evidence points to the importance of covert intelligence in the media as tool for setting domestic and international agendas, but the British state was not capable of winning consent permanently to contentious issues and to views which ultimately were at variance with emerging public opinion, as attitudes towards Suez and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) were to illustrate. Nonetheless he demonstrates with skill and conviction just how important setting the agenda was to the British state in this period, and it is a point that has continued significance for understanding relations between the state and the media since 1945. Notes
. For a different and somewhat more positive view on the BBC's actions in this area see Alban Webb, "Auntie Goes to War Again: The BBC External Services, the Foreign Office and the Early Cold War," Media History 12 (2006): 117-132.
. On the British government's attempts to persuade the United Nations to approve the attack on Iraq in 2003, see Milan Rai, Regime Unchanged (London: Pluto, 2003).
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