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REAR WINDOW : COLD WAR :The British Ministry of Propaganda

BRIBERY, subversion and propaganda were the main weapons of the Cold War. We sometimes forget, however, that they were used not only by the Soviet Union but also by Britain and the United States.

We know that the KGB was painstakingly compiling its files in Moscow, allegedly recording Michael Foot as "an agent of influence" and logging contacts with Richard Gott, the Guardian journalist. But few people are likely to have heard of the Information Research Department, a top-secret group within the Foreign Office which, at one time, had more than 300 "contract" personnel on its books. Official files are normally made public after 30 years; all but a few IRD files, though, are still withheld on "national security" grounds.

During its existence - from 1948 to 1977 - the IRD planted anti-Communist propaganda at home and abroad. Many of its stories of Soviet atrocities and anti-British plots were exaggerations of the truth rather than falsehoods; however, the journalists who used them were never allowed to reveal the source.

As early as April 1946, Foreign Office and BBC officials discussed a propaganda campaign against Moscow, but it was Christopher Mayhew, a junior Foreign Office minister in the post-war Labour government, who in December 1947 initiated the idea of a separate propaganda department. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, told the Cabinet a month later that it would "oppose the inroads of Communism, by taking the offensive against it, basing ourselves on the standpoint of the position and vital ideas of British social democracy and Western civilisation . . ."

From its inception in 1948, the IRD carried out its task through "private" channels. The cardinal principle was that none of its outlets should identify the Government as the source, so maintaining the fiction that Britain, unlike the Soviet Union, did not engage in state propaganda.

"Speakers' notes" were drafted by the IRD for government ministers, backbench MPs and public figures in business and other professions. Contacts with trade unions were developed through a young Labour Party official called Denis Healey. Another Labour official, Herbert Tracey, worked with Mayhew to run the anti-Communist organisation "Freedom First", secretly subsidised by the IRD, to distribute newsletters to trade union organisers. There was even a "private" publishing company, Ampersand, which printed books, sometimes under its own name, sometimes under the imprint of the Bodley Head or Allen and Unwin , neither of which knew of Ampersand's link with the IRD. The authors of IRD-subsidised books included Mayhew, Healey, Leonard Schapiro, the Soviet specialist, and Robert Conquest, the historian, who had been one of the first IRD staff. Healey, Schapiro, Conquest and Tracey may not have known their work's source.

But the cornerstone of the IRD's efforts was its placement of material with the press and radio services. When it closed in 1977, the IRD had a list of more than 100 journalists on nearly every national newspaper who, wittingly or unwittingly, would use its material. This was supplemented by the work of the "impartial" BBC. From the earliest days of the IRD, Foreign Office documents show that the BBC agreed to "temper its broadcasts to accord with the national interest" and to broadcast stories "to draw [the Soviets] out on subjects to which we should like to know the answers". Hugh Greene, later the BBC's director-general, was then running its services in Eastern Europe. His papers record that programmes for the region were "to pillory the Communist regime and display it as being ridiculous as well as cynical and evil".

What kind of material did the IRD place? The case of Lieutenant-Colonel Grigori Tokaev, an air force aerospace engineer who defected from the Soviet Union in 1948, provides one example. Under the IRD's wing, he "wrote" three articles for the Sunday Express in January 1949 under the headline "The most important story that has come out of the Soviet Union . . . Only five years before the attack, perhaps only three". He asserted: "Stalin and the Politburo are working hard and on an enormous scale to perfect long-range rockets and long-range air power . . . They are, moreover, equipped to wage biological warfare." Tokaev's articles were so scaremongering that even Foreign Office officials questioned their truth. Despite this, the BBC overseas service featured him in a series of talks.

Another example was material on Soviet labour camps. In one of the first IRD briefings, the conditions were compared to those in Dachau or Belsen. Whether this was reasonable or not, the figures for the "slaves" in the camps were remarkable - "20 millions, or one in 10 of the whole population", according to the IRD. The department provided no proof for this estimate and it is not matched by any declassified material in Government files. Even Mayhew, addressing the UN Committee on Human Rights in October 1948, felt obliged to cut the figure to between five and 15 million.

The IRD went on to provide material, used both by the BBC and MI6 to "detach Albania from the Soviet bloc". In the 1950s, attempted to discredit nationalist leaders in Britain's African colonies. Later still, it provided anti-IRA propaganda after the start of the Troubles in Ulster.

Thanks to Oleg Gordievsky and others, we now have a clearer idea of how the Soviet government operated in the Cold War than we do of how the British operated. We do not know precisely how much "information" in British newspapers, BBC broadcasts or trade union pamphlets was the direct result of the IRD's efforts. The case can be made that there was a moral difference between the campaigns of the IRD and those of the KGB, that secret activities in freedom's cause should be contrasted with those in the service of totalitarianism. But if so, why are the IRD files so jealously guarded by the Government?

The author lectures in modern history at the University of Birmingham.