Saturday, 24 March 2012

Secret History - How the British government controls and censors the news

Apologists for British capitalism have always claimed, at least in peace-time, that we have a "free press", that the media is not controlled by the government, and that the British Broadcasting Corporation is "independent" of the state. Censorship, we are told, is abhored in "free" Britain. But is it? And was it?

The truth, in fact, as the opposite.

Combating Stalinism

During the Second World War, following first the German invasion of the Soviet Union on Sunday, June 22, 1941, and the attack on Pearl Harbour, by the Japanese on December 7, also in 1941, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were somewhat reluctant allies. At least, on the surface, they appeared to be buddies. It was not, however, to last. The thieves who had united in defeating Nazi Germany soon fell out once war was over.

Even before the war ended, the British Foreign Office was preparing for an ideological offensive against the Soviet Union; and had discussed the matter with the British ambassador in Moscow. Likewise, Soviet propagandists had never entirely ceased criticism of Britain and the United States. Nevertheless it was not until the Marshall Plan had got underway, in 1948, that the Attlee Labour Government decided to counter Soviet propaganda, directed against Britain and the United States.

During the war, the British government's main propaganda organisation was the Political Warfare Executive, in which the BBC, together with other organisations, was used to promote policy. In 1947, however, the Political Warfare Executive was closed down.

In 1948, the Labour Government agreed to a major expansion of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI); it also re-established the PWE under a new name, the Information Research Department (IRD). It was set up by Christopher Mayhew, a Labour MP and former intelligence officer, who was a junior minister at the Foreign Office.

The Information Research Department

After lengthy discussions with various British ambassadors from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and with officials in the Foreign Office, Mayhew said that "...Bevin approved my proposal for an ideological offensive against Stalinism" (Mayhew, Time to Explain). He continued:
"... my aim put officially on record anti-Stalinist propaganda material for worldwide dissemination by IRD. IRD's material, well-researched and authoritative, was now finding a ready market. We had representatives in all British embassies and high commissions abroad, who fed this material into friendly and receptive hands" (Mayhew, p111)

The IRD was funded by the Secret Vote, of the government, in the same way were the secutity and intelligence services, MI5 and MI6. (War of the Black Heavens, Michael Nelson, p27). By the mid-fifties, the IRD had sixty staff in the Soviet section, and between 300 and 400 in its headquarters in Carlton House Gardens.

At home, in Britain, the IRD's main purpose was to counter Soviet and Communist Party propaganda, and particularly to expose Stalinist "front" organisations; it also attacked what it called fellow-travellers and "left-wingers" sympathetic towards the Soviet Union and other state-capitalist regimes. (Inside Story, Chapman Pincher, p175) During the Suez crisis of 1956, the IRD was converted into the Information Co-ordinating Executive under direct military command (The Friend, Nigel West, p10)

The staff of the Information Research Department were a strange mixture of East European, Russian and Ukrainian emigres, mostly former Social Democratics; former members of the Political Warfare Executive and MI5 and MI6. Indeed, relations with MI6, particularly with Section IX, which dealt with the Soviet Union, were very close; and the IRD was representative at all the liaison meetings in London between MI6 and the CIA for much of its existence. In time, the CIA came to provide most of the IRD's funding. It was closed don by the then Foreign Secretary, David Owen, in 1977. (Games of Intelligence, Nigel West, p5)

The Press

During the Second World War, as in the First World War, the British press was largely controlled by the government, and was subject to censorship. One or two newspapers, such as the Daily Worker and the Daily Mirror, were either banned or threatened with banning when they "stepped out of line", or merely criticised aspects of government policy regarding the war. Such censorship and control could not continue, at least overtly, following the end of the war. But government interference in, and with, the press continued and, during the Cold War, again increased, but in a completely and covert manner.

Christopher Mayhew admitted that the Information Research Department "had developed close links with a syndication agency" (p112). It did much more than that, however.

The IRD employed many journalists; it also had many contacts with "reliable" journalists on British and overseas newspapers. The IRD concluded deals with several British newspapers, which then gave it permission to print and reprint articles. Both the IRD and MI6 "placed" its agents in papers such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer, as well as The Economist. Indeed, at one time, Kim Philby was working for MI6, The Observer, and the KGB! And "after an abortive attempt to buy The Observers Foreign News service, it concluded a deal withb them which gave the IRD the right to distribute articles cheaply, or even free of charge, to the media of selected countries" (British Intelligence and Covert Action, Jonathan Block and Patrick Fitzgerald, p94)

The British-based newsagency, Reuters, during both world wars, received large grants from British governments in exchange for distributing "helpful" stories; but, following the allied victory in 1945, the board of Reuters decided to stop accepting them. But by 1964, Reuters found it virtually impossible to operate in certain areas as the Middle East, and was forced to reach an agreement with the IRD. For over six years, Reuters received £28,000 from an IRD subsidiary.


The myth that the BBC is independent is generally believed;yet, even before the Second World War, in 1938, "the government controlled the BBC's home political broadcasts" (Truth Betrayed, W.J. West, p54). Security vetting of broadcasters and staff was set up in 1937, "at a time when the BBC was almost taken over by the government as state propaganda".

Throughout the war, the BBC was under complete and direct control by the government. The BBC was subject to all Political Warfare Directives; and MI5 had to vet all "those who appeared at the microphone for their political reliability" (Spymaster, W.J. West, p80). And at that time, political reliability meant supporting "Uncle Joe" and Britain's ally, the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Ministry of Information, banned the publication of George Orwell's book. Animal Farm, in 1944 because it was considered to be anti-Soviet; and Orwell was forced to leave the BBC after making an uncensored broadcast.(Years later the IRD and MI6 as well as the CIA, promoted Orwell's Animal Farm as anti-Soviet propaganda).

Of the situation before, during, and after the Second World War, West comments:
"The BBC's alleged independence from Government supervision was a myth - widely propagated and, indeed, firmly believed in by many employees at all levels in the BBC from that day to this, but a myth none the less" (Truth Betrayed.p57)

* In 1948, a formal agreement between the BBC, on behalf of the British Foreign Office, and the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Service (FBIS) divided up the world for monitoring various radio, and later, TV broadcasts. This continues to this day; and the information is supplied to various government agencies, the home and overseas BBC broadcasting services, and the press. Thus as with Reuters, at least in the past, radio and TV news in Britain is heavily biased in the government's interest.

...And the Cold War

On 8 January, the British cabinet adopted proposals by the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, to set up a "propaganda section" to "oppose the inroads of communism by taking the offensive against it" (Nelson, p26). The BBC overseas service was expected to spearhead such an offensive. The main target was to be "the broad masses of workers and peasants in Europe and the Middle east" (Ibid, p27) And in April, a top-secret memorandum stated "categorically that the views of the British government should be made clear in the Iron Curtain countries principally through the BBC".Bevin emphasised that he would make certain that the BBC present policy in line with that of the government. By July, 1948, Mayhew reported that the new Information Research Department was turning out a steady stream of anti-communist propaganda. After some discussion, the BBC increasingly used IRD material. Nelson comments:
"The Foreign Office and the BBC were later to make the remarkable admission that 'much of the material and a great deal of the background for the BBC's broadcasts to the Soviet Union, the satellites and China, reaches the BBC from this Department. The liason in this respect is both close and constant" (Nelson, p31)

Co-operation between the BBC and the IRD remained close until the IRD's demise in 1977. BBC connections with both MI5 and MI6 were, and stillare, close. Charles Wheeler, a well-known BBC correspondent in Berlin, has recounted how he liased regularly with the IRD for many years. He also passed information on to MI6, as did Wheeler's successor R.A.Harrison. Not surprisingly, the Soviets jammed the BBC (and Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe CIA-funded) broadcasts to the Soviet Union. Such jmming, continued on and off, until the mid-1980s.

Nevertheless, differences occasionally arose between the BBC and the Foreign Office, particularly during the Suez Crisis in 1956. Eden expressed disstisfaction with the Overseas Service for allowing members of the opposition, including the Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, to criticise the government over the invasion of Egypt. However, in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the BBC was concerned to make certain that its liaison with the Foreign Office be improved. "The corporation intends to ask its senior staff to keep more closely in touch with the heads of the geographical departments of the Foreign Office...This should ensure that broadcasting, as an instrument of foreign policy, is as effectively exploited as it can be", a Foreign Office official recorded. In 1948, a survey of British embassies thought the BBC was not anti-Communist enough; BY 1961, they considered the BBC to be too anti-Communist!Soviet commentators agreed.

Later, during the Falklands Islands conflict and the Gulf War, BBC broadcasts, both to home and abroad, on radio and TV, were rigorously controlled and censored by the Ministry of Information(sic) and the armed forces. And even today, most participants on radio and TV are vetted, and likely opponents of capitalism refused participation in current-affairs programmes, although BBC producers are quite prepared to invite on to their discussion programmes such as tame "revolutionaries" as Tariq Ali.

Background Books

During the Cold War, particularly between 1950 and 1970, The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) produced and subsidised 1,000 books. The CIA was even prepared to use the writings of Marx and Engels against the Soviets. One such work, for example, was The Russian Menace to Europe, a collection of articles, letters and news dispatches by Marx and Engels, selected and edited by two American "Kremlinologists", Paul W. Blackstock and Bert F Hoselitz. Another such book was the so-called Penkovsky Papers, written and produced by Peter Deriabin, an ex-KGB officer then working for the CIA.

But the Americans were not alone in producing clandestine books and publications as propaganda. Nor were they the only ones using selected writings of Marx in the interest of capitalism. The British government, through the Information Research Department, was doing likewise.

At the initiative of the Information Research Department, many academics contributed a series of propaganda books, known as "Background Books" and "Background Specials". Among them were Hugh Seton-Watson, Michael Kaser, Leonard Schapiro, Sir Bruce Lockhart, Francis Noel-Baker, Max Beloff, Elspeth Huxley and Bertrand Russell. The IRD established a company called Ampersand; its directors were wartime intelligence officers, Leslie Sheridan and Victor Cannon Brooks, who, in 1953, were joined by another director, Stephen Watts, a former journalist and MI5 employee, who was appointed by IRD editor of the "Background Books" and "Background Specials". All the "Background Books" and "Background Specials" were discussed and vetted by IRD before publication, first by Batchworth Press, then through Phoenix House until 1960, when Bodley Head became the publishers until the 1970s. (Block and Fitzgerald, pp96-97)

Such publications were, in the words of Christopher Mayhew, "fed into friendly and receptive hands. At home, our services were offered to,and accepted by, large numbers of selected MPs, journalists, Trade Union leaders and others" (Mayhew, p111). Many workers who knew nothing of the origins of such workers, were either given them free of charge or at reduced rates, generally through agents of the state or through Trade Union head office officials secretly working for the IRD. One was TUC general secretary Victor Feather.

One such "Background Special" which circulated widely around 1956, and which may have been read by older readers, was Marx and Soviet Reality, by Daniel Norman, a Rumanian emigre who claimed to be socialist but who had served in the French army during the war. Norman's arguments were particularly subtle, as, unlike, most Western propagandists, he claimed, as had the Socialist Party of Great Britain for many decades, that the Soviet Union was not communist but a state capitalist regime (chapter 5). Much of his arguments were Marxist in content, and he even mentioned that there were Soviet millionaires. Citing Marx, Norman was particularly critical of Soviet censorship (but, of course, not British government censorship!). However, whilst using Marx against Soviet propagandists, Norman considered communism/socialism to be Utopian, a "Marxist Utopia" of which Marx and Engels dreamed (p14).

Daniel Norman was right in saying that Marx opposed censorship and government control of the press, and media, even if he was only concerned with condemning Soviet censorship and lack of freedom.

Marx and the Press

In 1842, Marx was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung which, like other publications, was subject to Prussian censorship laws, and was itself banned in 1843. Nevertheless, writing under the nom-de-plume of "Rhinelander", Marx wrote a series of articles in April and May, 1842, commenting on the proceedings and debates of the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly. Part of his comments are still worth repeating here:
"The censored press remains bad even when it turns out good products, for these products are good only insofar as they represent the free press with in the censored press, and insofar as it is not in their character to be products of the censored press. The free press remains good even when it produces bad products, for the latter are deviations from the essential nature of the free press. A eunuch remains a bad human being even hen he has a good voice. Nature remains good even when produces monstrosities. The essence of the free press is the characterful, rational, moral essence of freedom. The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilised monster, a perfumed abortion." Debates on Freedom of the Press, Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol1, p158

Although still a Hegelian in 1842, Marx continued to oppose censorship and government control of the press when he became a socialist/communist as do socialists to this day. A socialist society of the future must, of course, of necessity, be thoroughly democratic, and administered and controlled by the people as a whole with all the information freely available. It will - must! - abolish what Marx called the "monster of unfreedom" of capitalism in Britain and throughout the world.

Peter E Newell

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