The evolution of the Ministry of Information and Home Front propaganda, 1939–42
Department of History, School of Humanities and Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University, U.K.
Amongst the pantheon of notable achievements and victories pertaining to Britain during the Second World War there is one government department that is conspicuous by its absence: the Ministry of Information (MoI). Both at the time and subsequently this body was derided for being out of touch, if not altogether incompetent. However, a more careful examination of the files setting out internal, private discussions reveals a more sensitive and informed body than perhaps previously given credit for. This essay makes a case for a more sensitive and nuanced appraisal of the MoI that places their early efforts in broader perspective. What is revealed is a body that understood the limits of their power, striving to place faith in the good sense and fortitude of the British people.
A good deal has been made of the fact that, amongst the numerous volumes that are the official History of the Second World War, the Ministry of Information (MoI) is the only one of the great ministries and wartime bodies to have no volume dedicated to it. Informed opinion has it that this is a reflection of that organization’s failure to show themselves to best effect. Both at the time and subsequently the MoI has been regarded as something of a failure or at least a cause for embarrassment.
Malcolm Smith has argued that the MoI were ill-equipped for the task allotted to them, resulting in:
A straightforward amateurishness, the product of public school and Oxbridge civil servants completely out of touch with ordinary people. (Smith 2000, 31)
This theme of a body misguided, ill-informed, and incompetent forms part of Ian McLaine’s definitive history of the MoI, where he laments their early efforts as being based on the ill-founded assumption that “the mass of their fellow citizens would need to be cajoled and wheedled into acceptance of their obligations” (McLaine 1979, 22). Yet, the government had good grounds for acting in this way. It had been calculated in 1937 that a German declaration of war would be accompanied by immediate and continuous bombing resulting in 600,000 deaths and twice that number injured (Calder 1969, 60). Further, in October 1938, a committee of psychiatrists predicted between three and four million cases of acute panic, hysteria, and neurosis among the general population in the first six months of the war (Titmuss 1950, 19–20). Yet the MoI were lambasted for the resulting campaigns, with no credit given for their efforts to offset that potential danger. The conclusion drawn was that here was a body of people with little connection to or knowledge of the masses with whom they crucially needed to communicate. Where they did try to connect with them, certainly in the early stages of the war, the results were seen as being patronizing and didactic. The widely accepted view is that the MoI, desperate to engage the people with the war, acted on the people, compelling them to come around to the right sort of attitude, approach, and behavior.
To date the general approach has been to condemn the MoI as an aberration within the narrative of “our finest hour,” at least for the first three years of the war. Contemporaries, and subsequent historians, regarded the MoI as a body for ridicule in their ham-fisted efforts to connect with the people. The pervasive image is of an elite group apparently insensitive to the mood of the nation, or at least seriously naïve. However, deeper and more careful reading of these files offers glimpses of a body that was perhaps not so gung-ho nor ignorant in their efforts, and perhaps more sensitive, insightful, and engaged than they have previously been given credit for. Admittedly, from the outset in 1939, those working within the MoI did struggle to get a measure of the British people and tailor their response and output in an appropriate fashion. Yet even in those files relating to the beginning of the war, we do not find a haughty body vaingloriously riding roughshod over the people. Instead there is evidence of pragmatism along with sensitivity and a longing to trust the people. Though early campaigns may appear misjudged, this is not necessarily evidence of malice or delusions of omnipotence. In private, the MoI acknowledged their shortcomings and were keen to get the people onside, doing what best they could to support them through the war. This developed and extended through 1941 and 1942, when initial caution was followed by an increasingly liberal approach and appreciation of the ministry’s limitations. Certainly, by the time of Brendan Bracken’s appointment as Minister of Information in July 1941, a degree of maturity and certainty had developed, by which point the ministry was able to go about its business generally to good effect.
From insipid invocation to clarity and information: the Ministry of Information 1939–42
Immediately prior to the beginning of the war, those charged with considering how best to engage with the masses and sustain positive morale had great ambitions in terms of what they hoped to achieve. The Government’s Pre-War Publicity Division received a “Memorandum by the International Broadcasting and Propaganda Enquiry” of June 21, 1939 establishing that:
The ideal function of propaganda is to win popular support for a cause by captivating the emotions and flattering the reason of the public (i.e. Men like to think that they are acting according to reason even if in reality emotion and other non-rational forces are, as so often, much stronger determinants). Popular propaganda should substitute emotion for reason under the guise of facilitating the process of reasoning. (see Taylor 1981, 61)
There are hints here of elitist, didactic puppet-masters with a sense of righteousness and self-assurance, the grounds for much of the criticism of the time, and most notably brought into focus with the MoI’s now notorious first poster campaign.
In September 1939 posters declaring “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, will bring us Victory,” and “Freedom is in Peril—Defend it with all your Might!” were placed on 24,000 railway sites, in 27,000 telephone booths, and on scores of thousands of sites in pubs, shops, factories, service establishments, public libraries, buses, and trains (the third in that series, the much-derided and presently ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On,” was never actually issued at this time). These first efforts were, indeed, misplaced and misguided. The sentiments that the British people were being asked to express were not alien to them, and there was widespread resentment that they might be compelled to respond in this way when they were widely thought to be naturally disposed to do so anyway. The response was robust and far from flattering. The Times believed that:
the insipid and patronising invocations to which the passer-by is now being treated have a power of exasperation which is all their own. There may be no intrinsic harm in their faint, academic piety, but the implication that the public morale needs this kind of support, or, if it did, that this is the kind of support it would need, is calculated to provoke a response which is neither academic nor pious. (September 23, 1939, 7)
By the end of 1939, in correspondence with the MoI, those within the Home Office concerned with Home Security acknowledged the need to avoid such “insipid invocations.” In considering the “preparation of the public for air raids” it was declared that the “public should know the answer to ‘What are we fighting for?’” but that it should be stated in “concrete terms” rather than in the form of hollow or vacuous promises such as “A war to end war” (HO 199/434). It was also acknowledged that the MoI would not be able to simply direct the people as they saw fit: they were not in fact ignorant as to the limits of their power, as might have been suggested.
Drawing on expertise gained during the Spanish Civil War, the MoI referred to the work of the Spanish psychiatrist, Professor Mira, noting how “direct propaganda measures were less effective than the indirect reassurance of the population” and that, in similar fashion, “the suppression of terrifying rumours or facts” ought to be avoided (HO 199/434). Contrary to accusations that the MoI had no faith in the people, there is evidence here that they trusted and respected the British people. The MoI were not so sanctimonious as The Times implied they were. They recognized that, “The people must feel that they are being told the truth” and that “Distrust breeds fear much more than knowledge of reverses.” There was a determination to tell the people “the truth” on the understanding that “It is simpler to tell the truth” (HO 199/434). Immediately prior to the outbreak of war, in their issue of September 2, 1939, the New Statesman had warned:
It is strictly true that Britain to-day has no need of propaganda. The Ministry of Information can be a Ministry of Information and not a Ministry of Lies, Dr Goebbels has made truth Britain’s greatest asset. (332)
It would appear that those charged with preparing the public for what lay ahead were actually cognizant of that.
Nevertheless, through 1940 the government grappled with the notion of placing the people in the war, blighted by a determination to compel the public to seize the initiative. Implicit within this was the idea that the British people needed to have such notions impressed upon them, a reaction to concerns within the government that the steadfastness of the British people was as yet to be proven. The fledgling MoI was obsessed with the notion that the people needed to have their duties and responsibilities impressed upon them, as opposed to relying on a natural reservoir of war-mindedness that actually transpired to be present. The result was a sense of dissonance between government and people, and adverse reaction to such impositions issuing from the MoI. As Siân Nicholas observes with specific regard to the MoI’s output through the BBC, the British people “wanted to be talked with, not talked to” (Nicholas 1996, 61).
This attitude became all the more pronounced, and imperative, in the wake of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in June 1940: at this vital time the British people required more than insipid platitudes. The Emergency Committee of the MoI reported that, “what the public now desired was not so much exhortation as guidance” (quoted in Yass 1983, 20). Contrary to the idea of the MoI as a faceless bureaucracy ploughing on regardless, internal memoranda highlight how they were listening, and were sensitive to the mood of the nation. The “First Daily Memorandum” of July 22, 1940, from the Intelligence Branch within the Ministry of Home Security to the Head of the MoI’s Home Intelligence Division, Dr. Stephan Taylor, referred to the “present (and we hope transient) unpopularity of the Ministry of Information” and the fact that that body was exposed to “wide arcs of criticism” (HO 199/448). Similarly, the “Daily Memorandum for Home Intelligence” of July 31, 1940 recoiled at the ongoing criticism of the MoI in the Daily Herald, which they found to be “very injurious not only to the Ministry of Information but to all persons whose duty it is to be interested in what people say or think.” They lamented that “the agitation against the Ministry of Information is not serviceable” (HO 199/448).
Pressing on, R.H. Parker, head of the Home Division of the MoI, circulated a “Yardstick for the Measurement of Propaganda and Publicity” on July 3, 1940 drawn up by Mary Adams, previously a producer for the fledgling BBC television and now Director of Home Intelligence at the MoI. Whilst still laboring under the rhetoric which, to date, had blighted the MoI, there was at least some evidence of a maturing common-sense approach. Adams still impressed the need to talk up those “positive elements,” extolling how “We are Right, Strong [and] efficient,” laboring under such patronizing invocations which stressed:
We must each and all make a maximal effort;
It all depends on us;
It’s a hell of a job, but we can manage it.
However, as an indication that some of those more vacuous and didactic approaches might be put to one side, Adams also stressed the need for “Clarity; Simplicity” (HO 199/434). All this culminated in what might be seen as the greatest evolution and maturing of approach within the MoI when, in August 1940, the Planning Committee of the MoI declared that:
Exhortation must be as far as possible abandoned. The word “morale” must not be used again. People must on no account be told to be brave. In future the Ministry would restrict its role to information and explanation. (see Yass 1983, 28)
Moving into 1941, a growing element of trust is evidenced in the government’s dealings with the people and its overall approach to propaganda and information. It was also through 1941 that some of the heaviest and most widespread air raids occurred, and in consequence offered the greatest test of the resilience of the British public. Ultimately they were not found to be wanting, and in recognition of that, it was understood that the best approach was to provide the most honest and practically truthful information that was feasible.
In considering the merit of publishing casualty figures associated with air raids, Home Security in a meeting with the MoI on April 18, 1941 solicited a favorable response to the principle of publication “in order to counter exaggerated rumours” (HO 199/381). In this matter the British public were to be trusted and considered of sufficient acumen to handle such news with stoicism and growing determination. This really proved to be the best way forward; after all, as the New Statesman observed in 1941: “the nature of the present British public… is more alive to humbug and more insistent on honest statement than any public has ever been before” (June 21, 1941). There was also ongoing recognition and realization of the extent of the powers and the abilities of the MoI. Such opinions were given public airing by Harold Nicolson (at this time Parliamentary Secretary to the MoI) in the BBC Handbook 1941, when he observed how the “British public… have a healthy dislike of all forms of governmental propaganda” and how the MoI was “the most unpopular department in the whole British Commonwealth of Nations.” Nicolson declared that “honesty is the best policy every time.”
The government, and indeed the MoI, by mid-1941 had come to realize that the British people were alive to the nature of the enterprise in which the nation was engaged and cognizant of their crucial role within that, and there was now an understanding that they did not need to be “cajoled” or “wheedled.” This attitude was to mature further, with the MoI becoming increasingly sensitive to the people they were trying to reach and their circumstances. This improving performance reached its apogee with the appointment of Brendan Bracken as Minister of Information in July 1941.
Through 1941 “the Ministry of Information ceased actively meddling in morale… and came to regard the British as a common-sense, calm and courageous people” (McLaine 1979, 217). In November 1941, Stephen Taylor observed:
Exhortatory campaigns aimed at producing alterations in states of mind, e.g. making the public more confident in final victory – the “Mightier Yet” campaign; making people Empire minded – the “Empire Crusade.” There is little evidence that these campaigns have any appreciable effect. The public was confident in final victory before the “Mightier Yet” campaign, and is still extremely confused on the subject of Dominion status. For many months, public opinion on the subject of the prosecution of the war has been ahead of, rather than behind, Government action. Where there is complacency it is completely untouched by advertising campaigns. (quoted in McLaine 1979, 251)
Whilst there may be irrefutable proof that the first campaigns of the MoI were misplaced and ineffective, if not actually damaging to popular morale, the argument that this is evidence of a body “completely out of touch with ordinary people” cannot necessarily be sustained. The MoI was not the aloof, perhaps even arrogant, body that has frequently been presented. Despite early setbacks, the MoI did not simply press on as an insensitive, disconnected, or even malicious organization. These private papers instead demonstrate a body aware of their shortcomings and keen to make good. Learning from their less than auspicious start, they were quick to adopt a more tempered approach, trying to speak in definite rather than abstract terms, and quickly developing trust in the people. The MoI did not simply plough on regardless, but instead understood the limits of their power, listened to the people, evolved, and adapted. Perhaps there is something in the British psyche that recoils at the prospect of something as devious and underhand as propaganda: such distaste might account for the hasty decision to brush the MoI “under the carpet” rather than celebrating its achievements amongst the Official Histories. However, a more sensitive review of these records suggests perhaps at least some cause for rehabilitation, even if celebration is a step too far.
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Nicolson, Harold. 1941. “Propaganda.” In BBC Handbook 1941. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 27-32.
Smith, Malcolm. 2000. Britain and 1940. History, Myth and Popular Memory. London: Routledge.
Taylor, Philip M. 1981. “Techniques of Persuasion: Basic Ground Rules of British Propaganda during the Second World War.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 1 (1): 57–66.
Titmuss, Richard M. 1950. History of the Second World War: Problems of Social Policy. London: HMSO.
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