Big Brother is watching you: Propaganda at The British Library

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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

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