Big Brother is watching you: Propaganda at The British Library

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An intriguing new exhibition at  the British Library shows how  state propaganda has inspired  some of the most provocative and visually powerful images of the  past century. By Adrian Hamilton

The British have always thought themselves as above propaganda. Not for them the crude demonisation of other races and the rosy- coloured visions of a happy peasantry of authoritarian regimes. Propaganda was for tyrannies not for democracies.

Well, only up to a point according to a provocative new exhibition devoted to the subject by the British Library. In the First World War we were as crude as Goebbels and Stalin, with posters castigating Germans as the monsters of Belgian massacres and dramatic posters demanding that every true-born Briton should sign up for the fight and that every woman should encourage their menfolk to do so.

The images of Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer with the words, “Your Country Needs You” and the poster  declaring “Women of Britain say – GO!” were as direct and as nationalistic as anything produced on the other side. “Remember Belgium” says an  enlistment poster on show, playing on popular and carefully promoted  stories of just what horrors the Germany soldiery had perpetrated on the civilians when they invaded that country. Germany, the literature and the posters went, had given up all claim to civilisation and had become a beast, exactly the same message promulgated by the pamphlets and posters of the next war.

As the First World War went on, that crude appeal to sentiment and demonisation of the enemy seemed less  appropriate as the number of volunteers fell off and the casualties  mounted. Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail, put in charge of the new Enemy Propaganda Department, argued simply that propaganda that looked like propaganda failed its  purpose. He and Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express who headed the new Ministry of Information, urged greater subtlety and more  humanity in the posters and literature. Propaganda of imagery was replaced by “the propaganda of facts”, under which facts were kept as accurate as possible but used with a purpose.

Humour was added to the diet,  particularly in the Second World War when Winston Churchill and ministers were especially conscious of  morale at home in a country without allies and under nightly bombing. The newsreels of the time tried as far as possible to give the facts but to overlay them with an air of solid sense and gritty determination. In its manual on the subject, the Allied Headquarters preparing for D-Day declared “when there is no compelling reason to  suppress a fact, tell it… When the  listener catches you in a lie, your power diminishes. For this reason, never tell a lie which can be discovered.”

If the Americans preferred the solid approach of appeal to patriotic  sentiment at home and the declaration of freedom abroad, using the style of Norman Rockwell, our enemies caught on to the British preference for  humour and ridicule. There’s a  splendid Soviet poster from the 1960s  depicting America on the podium of a bank conducting with a missile “an orchestra of Psychological Warfare” made up of cartoon stereotypes. It’s genuinely funny.

The aim of the game remained the same however. Psychological warfare units were set up by the Allies to  promote “that aspect of intelligence in which information is used  aggressively to manipulate opinion”. The Cold War, seen as much a battle for hearts and minds as for territorial  influence, encouraged an even greater tendency to couch rhetoric as broadcasts in moral tones.

The resumption of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a resumption of old methods of propaganda. The  exhibition contains an example of the leaflets being dropped in local  language on the towns and villages of Afghanistan to help turn them against the Taliban. The words are less  strident, but the intention is no different from the leaflets dropped by Nazi Germany over the countries it  prepared to conquer or the propaganda propelled the way of our troops from the Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean War.

It’s easy enough to laugh at  Kim-Jong-un and the efforts to present him as the Great Leader of North Korea, chubby faced, overfed and  painfully ill at ease in the mass  demonstrations of loyalty marshalled about him. But what else was being done with the shots of Margaret Thatcher riding a tank in Germany after the Falklands War or the extraordinary ceremony, partly determined by herself, of her body on a gun  carriage accompanied by representatives of all three services and a  surround sound of gun shots as the hearse made its way to St Paul’s?  Harold Macmillan and Clement Attlee, both of whom had actually fought for their country in war, and in the case of Macmillan, thrice seriously wounded, preferred simpler ceremonies in their local churches.

See the grand picture of Napoleon in all his robes and the poster of Hitler in his simple military jacket and  determined face in the British Library and you have to  wonder whether the technique, and indeed the interpretation, is that different from President Bush in a bomber jacket on the deck of an aircraft carrier during the invasion of Iraq or, for that  matter, David Cameron and Tony Blair in calculated open-necked shorts and casual wear visiting the troops in the field.

The glorification of the individual as the human face of the state has  always been a primary resort of propaganda, in the statuary of the ancient world as much as the portraits of Stalin and Mao hung in every local office or the statues and prints of Victoria  distributed around the Empire. Equally, the toppling of the figures and the smashing of the pictures have been used, and choreographed, to demonstrate their overthrow.

But then to deride propaganda is a propaganda of its own. The British art of the “propaganda of facts” is a clever one that serves the left as much as the right. The liberal journalist amassing the images of suffering and the “facts” of wrong-doing to arouse moral outrage is practising exactly the same craft as the right-wing commentator collecting “facts” about immigrants or Nigel Farage declaring the “truth” of the EU, albeit with a smiling face. One man’s reality is another man’s propaganda, depending which side of the argument you are on.

Telling lies may in the end be self-defeating, as the Allied High Command held in 1944. But it is a mistake to  believe that propaganda doesn’t work. It may not convert people from one  position to another but it can prove a powerful instrument in reinforcing them in their feelings and prejudices. Demonisation of the enemy has  produced some of the most unpleasant, but also visually powerful images of the past century. In the “propaganda of facts” the mobile telephone and the internet have created diversity but also a self-generating momentum of  opinion that overwhelms any attempt at balanced analysis. The social network is the most powerful new tool of politicians to get their message across, Alastair Campbell, argued recently. He didn’t suggest that this was in the  interests of rational discussion.

If this intriguing show has a message it is that propaganda is a tool of persuasion, neither good nor bad. Context is all and the exhibition ends with a  section on public-health campaigns on Aids, road accidents and diet whose aims are of the best but whose means of persuasion are exactly those used to convince the Germans of the Jewish menace and the British to sign up for war. A poster urging people to cough into a handkerchief to prevent the spread of germs treats germs as an enemy in exactly the same in manner as posters demonising the Germans. The shocking pictures used to stop people smoking are no different in technique than the Nazi posters about Jews. Propaganda may have become a dirty word but it remains a much employed process.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, British Library, London NW1  (01937 546546) to 17 September

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable