The dirty tricks that were made in England
Scott Lucas on how a Labour government made propaganda war on Russians
Sunday 20 August 1995
Lord Healey can add a line to his CV - that of liaison between the IRD, the Labour Party and trade unionists worldwide. The BBC is revealed to have been eager - for a time - to act as an outlet for a government message disguised as "news". Stephen Spender and Bertrand Russell, meanwhile, are incorrectly identified as having "key roles" in the skulduggery.
Behind all this, however, the documents tell us something bigger, a poignant tale about Britain and the Cold War. For in this one area and for a fleeting few years it was the British who led the way in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Military and economic power might be the domain of the United States, but it was the Attlee government that first took arms in the battle for "hearts and minds" in the West as well as the East.
The CIA later became notorious for supporting almost any kind of organisation, reputable or not, that would criticise Moscow; the Boston Philharmonic, the US Olympic team, and even the Yale Glee Club were secretly funded to promote the American way of life. But these techniques were used first by the IRD. Two years before the US launched its propaganda offensive against Moscow, the IRD had its network up and running.
It was established in 1948, when the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, told the Cabinet: "By giving a spiritual lead now we ... will show clearly that we are not subservient to the United States or to the Soviet Union." His idea was to fight communism by spreading the ideals of British democracy, with a Labour flavour.
The existence and activities of this instrument of spiritual leadership, however, had to remain secret, partly because the word "propaganda" was widely associated with the Nazis. Instead, while the IRD churned out highly selective literature tailored to official objectives, its output was presented as the considered opinion of free-thinking individuals or bodies.
The BBC and friendly newspapers carried stories told by the IRD's eastern European contacts. MPs gratefully relied on IRD "speaker's notes" to guide them on the content of their speeches. Authors paraphrased IRD reports about "communist methods of infiltration into political, social and economic life".
A good example of this work, revealed in the papers opened last week, was Freedom First, a Trades Union Congress newsletter funded by the IRD through the simple trick of buying copies from the TUC at a grossly inflated price. These were then distributed abroad. "Such an arrangement," wrote Christopher Mayhew, the Foreign Office minister who oversaw the IRD, "would enable us to give Mr Tracey [the editor] financial support and, at the same time, preserve the non-official nature of the paper." Mr (now Lord) Mayhew also thoughtfully arranged for the IRD to provide the editorial content for this "non-official" TUC organ.
The IRD was so clever at this that it believed it should be telling the impetuous Americans what to do. Christopher Warner, the Assistant Secretary supervising the IRD, warned that at one stage the US was "thinking of stirring up the people behind the Iron Curtain". Britain had to curb the quest for liberation because it was "quite unable to give [eastern Europeans] any support if they indulge in subversive action. Apart from the moral aspect, this would be liable to have a very bad effect on British prestige".
By the end of 1948 IRD material was reaching all corners of the world. Meanwhile, the US propaganda effort was still in its infancy. Warner noted, with both pride and regret, that the State Department had nothing "corresponding to the IRD's basic papers".
This did not last. No bold message about British leadership and the Labour way could obscure London's increasing dependence on the US through Marshall aid and organisations such as Nato. The IRD had pounds 100,000 for its mission; once the CIA finally organised its campaigns, it had millions.
By the 1950s the IRD was a pale shadow of the CIA propaganda machine and was turning its fire upon other, lesser, opponents: Nasser in Egypt, Kenyatta in Kenya, Sukarno in Indonesia, even, in its final days, the student protesters in 1968.
Four days before the IRD's creation, Attlee had told the country of a Britain that would avoid the extremes of the US and the Soviet Union: "Our task is to work out a system of a new and challenging kind, which combines individual freedom with a planned economy, democracy with social justice."
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the IRD's covert techniques, the real tragedy was the failure of this mission. It would be the US, with its own propaganda means and ends, that would define the image of the Free World.
The writer is lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham.
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