Why spin didn’t help win World War II

New Statesman, 12 November 2001

Two light aircraft – one British and one German – met every few days on the tarmac at Lisbon airport for most of the Second World War, to exchange a bundle of the latest newspapers from home.

Both sides regarded poring over each other’s papers as so crucial to the war effort – to judge each other’s morale and track their own propaganda – that they were prepared to risk this informal arrangement. It was almost as important as tracking their press at home.

You can’t see the same civilised swap going on with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban somehow, but broadcasts are monitored in Arabic just as they were then. And twice a day, the News Co-ordinating Centre at the Cabinet Office produces a report for all the government departments involved in the so-called ‘war against terrorism’ about the entire British output on the subject – on websites, newspapers or phone-ins.

These reports are making worrying reading for ministers at the moment, because – although the polls show consistent support for military action – the reports show a slow ebbing away of public backing.

Hence the increasing rhetoric about bin Laden’s mental status (Straw) or British ‘moral fibre’ (Blair), and the emphasis on reminding the public of the original atrocities that got us here. And hence Alistair Campbell’s sophisticated new war spin operation, based in Islamabad, London and Washington.

The allies have an immediate disadvantage – as Campbell put it so graphically: “Bin Laden just sits in a cave and chucks out videos”. This is partly because neither government knows much about what’s actually happening on the ground.

But it’s also partly because it’s now accepted wisdom in the US military that the key to keeping public enthusiasm high is a very tight rein on war information. That means lots of pictures of weapons, lots of affable generals on TV, lots of rhetoric to counter bin Laden’s, but not much more.

For Campbell, it means sophisticated rebuttal, getting everything on message and rather sketchy plans for a TV advertising campaign around the world, organised by the new US under-secretary for public diplomacy and advertising guru Charlotte Beer.

The Pentagon has even hired a PR company, the Rendon Group – former PR advisors to Monsanto and the government of Kuwait – on a four-month, $400,000 contract to maximise support for bombing.

But the lessons of World War II is that rebuttal and spin isn’t enough – because Tony Blair’s moral rhetoric will not sit easily with what was then known as the ‘Sealed Lips School’. It isn’t a combination likely to win hearts and minds – and it wasn’t what won them in occupied Europe either.

Unless we learn those lessons, the conflict may increasingly appear to be just a balanced war of words, and the enthusiastically informative Arabic TV station Al-Jazeera will look in comparison like an authoritative source of truth.Strangely enough, it was projecting a moral image of the war to Europe, and how to do so, that lay behind some of the bitterest Whitehall battles over news management during the Second World War.

“So far we have merely scratched about on the surface, repeating arguments based on unprincipled and superficial ideas about the political, social and economic likes and dislikes of our audiences; scoring facile but impermanent victories,” wrote the Director of European Broadcasts, Noel Newsome, in his propaganda plan in 1940, arguing that hearts are won by raising the moral level, not by point-scoring.

“If our propaganda remains superficial, unprincipled and opportunist it cannot, however clever or cunning, contribute anything towards shortening the war, still less towards laying the foundations of a post war world fit for anyone to live in.”

Newsome was never a household name, though he broadcast three times a week as the ‘Man in the Street’ – a regular monologue about life in wartime, broadcast in English, and heard in Britain and around Europe – but during the war his influence was immense.

He was a 32-year-old Daily Telegraph sub-editor when he was appointed to run the BBC’s European news operation, on the day war broke out. By force of personality and amidst furious controversy, he went on to build the wartime organisation that transmitted to Europe, broadcasting from Bush House on three channels and in 20 different languages (including English) for a total of 36 hours a day – the biggest broadcasting operation in the world at the time.

Although nominally under the joint control of the BBC and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), it was Newsome who shaped the daily line against Goebbels, and dominated the voice of Britain in Europe, and then the voice of the allies at SHAEF from Radio Luxembourg.

“Would you risk your life to listen to that?” he scrawled on official scripts – demanding that people listening secretly to illegal wirelesses around Europe deserved the straight-talking truth. He managed this so successfully, that by 1945, up to 15 million Germans were risking death to listen in.

Newsome managed to hold a line between the Sealed Lip School in government, and those on the political Left in the PWE who wanted to tailor the news for different audiences – and he did so by easing direct control of European broadcasting away from the BBC.

News as a propaganda weapon could be too sophisticated to be convincing, he argued. If it was going to be believable to suspicious listeners in occupied Europe, it had to be the same everywhere, recognisably British and it had to be true – and the ideals for which the nation was fighting should shine through every broadcast, using religion, art, literature and the whole orchestra of free culture. This was not time, for example, to ban German composers.

Of course, it was a different news environment then. Naming merchant ships was strictly forbidden, and the location of air raids couldn’t be published for 30 days – though they usually were in practice if the city was obvious to everybody. Then as now, there were strict rules about anything that could endanger military operations – and until 1940, the BBC was obliged to read official press releases out in full.

There were also regulations against publishing anything calculated to foment opposition to the war – which at one stage came close to being used to shut down the Daily Mirror.

As the Nazis swept across France, the British government even bowed to pressure from the French – who had been keeping their own population completely in the dark – and censored news about where the Germans had reached.

But it wasn’t completely different. The Times became a venue for Keynes and Beveridge’s campaign against Chamberlain’s handling of the war, and the Daily Express took the opportunity to campaign against the black-out, rationing and conscription.

There was also a great deal of public discussion about strategy, like the campaign for a ‘Second Front Now’ to help the Soviets. There was a particularly notorious article by Lloyd George in the Sunday Express in October 1939 arguing that Poland hadn’t been worth fighting for.

Despite the powerful new Ministry of Information and relative silence of the three service ministries – fully-paid up members of the Sealed Lips School – Whitehall realised early on that too much control was counter-productive.

The BBC was left to reflect the different sides of the political debate – not just because it was true, but because it was also rather good propaganda. It demonstrated the freedom and democracy they claimed to be fighting for.

Even so, the European Service was constantly clashing with the conservative Foreign Office, furious that Britain was broadcasting anything that could upset Franco or – to start with – Mussolini. And livid that Newsome could describe the Soviets as ‘allies’ after Hitler attacked them, until Churchill did just the same in the House of Commons.

Eisenhower was a particular adversary. Newsome – then at Radio Luxembourg – announced that Paris had fallen the moment de Gaulle reached the suburbs, disregarding Eisenhower’s order that the announcement wasn’t to be made until US troops had arrived.

Newsome became critical of Goebbels’ weakness as a spin-doctor because of his hostages to fortune – the massive claims, the fake stories that sounded good short-term but later turned out to be false. At one stage, Hitler ruled that Churchill’s name was not to be used on the air without the epithet ‘whisky-drinking’.

Faced with this level of subtlety, the BBC fought to keep the European news as clear of short-term ‘spin’ as possible. Once they discovered they had been duped by the military into broadcasting false news designed to confuse the enemy during the Norwegian campaign, Newsome sought out powerful officials to protect them who would be equally determined this wouldn’t happen again.

There were still official complaints about BBC ‘comment’ during the Home Service news, or about J. B. Priestley’s radical broadcasts – originally intended as an antidote to Lord Haw-Haw. But in the end, the PWE stalwart Richard Crossman agreed that – far from being obsessively ‘on-message’ – “our psychological warfare was credible because it was not uniform”.

Under Newsome’s control, the BBC European Service took this even further, persuading the government of the critical importance of getting the bad news out before Goebbels did.

It was vital, for example, that the news of the sinking of the battlecruiser Hood was broadcast before the Germans. Some pieces of bad news, like the fate of the convoy PQ17, still had to seep out through the foreign press, but the battle of radio news depended on announcing your own disasters before the enemy could do it for you – a lesson the Pentagon has yet to re-learn.

Under Newsome’s influence, news also had to be unsophisticated enough to be real. “We’re British people, with all their qualities and faults, with feelings and emotions,” he told his 500 staff after the fall of Singapore, “and not denationalised, impersonal polyglot cynics with the generous emotions of a fish, intimidated by fears that what we feel like saying will be ‘bad propaganda’.”

Being real also meant being sympathetic, even to ordinary Germans. The BBC German Service’s comedy soap opera, about the ordinary life of a Berlin charlady called Frau Wernicke – featuring letters home from a jobsworth type called ‘Corporal Numskull’ – was a completely new style of programming for Germany listeners. It was even the future West German leader Konrad Adenauer’s favourite programme.

The Sealed Lips would have preferred Goebbels-style bombast. “Our bitterest critics were those who objected to admissions that the Allies were far from perfect and had made mistakes,” said Newsome in his final broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, “and that our enemies were not all, to a man woman and child of them, villains beyond redemption.”

Newsome’s journalism as propaganda was extremely controversial and survived because it had Churchill’s personal backing. But he pushed the limits of editorial control to the utmost, taking it upon himself to reject Hitler’s July 1940 peace offer to Britain over the radio without any reference to higher authority – disconcerting Goebbels and other Nazi leaders who had expected days of high-level agonising from the British establishment.

The rejection was actually delivered on the air by Sefton Delmer of the Daily Express – later in charge of the ‘black’ propaganda radio stations broadcasting in German, and run separately from 100 Oxford Street. “We hurl it right back at you,” he told Hitler over the air, on Britain’s behalf – using very un-BBC language, “right in your evil-smelling teeth.”

Unfortunately for Newsome, the future lay with his subordinate and bitter rival, the German Service head Hugh Greene, the future BBC director-general – and the man Mary Whitehouse was to hold most responsible for the Permissive Society.

Uneasy about their role in wartime propaganda, the BBC never forgave Newsome for manoeuvring the organisation outside their direct control. He stood for Parliament for the Liberals in 1945 and they never let him broadcast again. The most recent BBC history of the World Service only gives him a footnote.

Many of his insights seem to have been forgotten too, especially when it comes to the tricky business of making Tony Blair’s ‘moral fibre’ real and believable to the people of the world.

When CNN Chair Walter Isaacson tells his staff that it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan”, it injects a small kernel of doubt, at home and abroad.

It’s the same when the Americans drag their feet admitting that their first ground raid had failed, or when the BBC uses that mantra “these figures have not been confirmed” – as if civilian casualties were somehow a bizarre invention of the Taliban.

So when Charlotte Beers unveils her slick TV ad campaign in the Middle East, let’s hope she realises that worldwide sympathy requires something that is both more sophisticated and less sophisticated than slick image and a disembodied corporate voice.



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