Propaganda as “Information”

Information research department

In 1947, Morrison’s first post-war Parliamentary Private Secretary, Christopher Mayhew, was working for the Foreign Office and went as a member of the British delegation to the U.N. General Assembly.   The cold war was heating up and Stalin’s Soviet Union had embarked on an aggressive worldwide campaign of Soviet propaganda through the Communist International or Comintern.

Mayhew found himself subjected to these Russian tirades against the West at U.N. Assembly meetings. He wrote, ‘To this flood of propaganda, the western countries made no organized response at all.  At the UN, which the Russians and their satellites used without inhibition as a propaganda platform, the convention among western delegates was not to reply to Soviet diatribes but simply to deplore the abuse of UN meetings for propaganda purposes and to urge respect for the agenda.’

Mayhew says he felt strongly about the effect of this Russian propaganda and that the west’s strategy of not replying was seriously mistaken.  Stalinist propaganda was having an influence on third world countries and, he believed, should be opposed.  He also felt that mere rebuttal was not enough and said he wanted to ‘carry the propaganda war into the enemy’s camp.’

Mayhew adds, ‘I also felt, more controversially, that social-democratic Britain was better placed than capitalist America to take the lead; and also that since anti-communist propaganda would be anathema to much of the Labour Party, it would have to be organized secretly.’

This secret organisation that Mayhew conceived would prove to be a mirror image of the secret Ministry of Spin that Morrison had created two years earlier with Mayhew’s help, and a virtual resurrection of the wartime Political Warfare Executive, this time with Russia as the target, instead of Nazi Germany.  Unlike the PWE, however, Mayhew’s brainchild would operate domestically as well as internationally.

The organisation that was formed in secret within the Foreign Office as a result of Mayhew’s initiative, and which he himself was to head from 1947 to 1950, was given the innocuous-sounding title of the Information Research Department or IRD, to conceal its real purpose. A Foreign Office minute from 1951 says, ‘It should be noted that the name of this department is intended as a disguise for the true nature of its work, which must remain strictly confidential.’  It was based initially in Carlton House Terrace and later Riverwalk House, Millbank.

The true nature of its work was described by Mayhew; ‘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.  At home, our service was offered to and accepted by, large numbers of selected MPs, journalists, trade union leaders and others, and was often used by the BBC’s External Services.  We also developed close links with a syndication agency and various publishers.’

A typical IRD operation would have been to study Soviet newspaper reports on drunkenness and use them as the basis for an article pointing to communism being rife with alcoholism. The journalists favoured by inclusion on IRD’s list were kept in ignorance about the true nature of its source and the material was mailed to their homes in plain envelopes.

Christopher Mayhew rejected any suggestion of impropriety in all this covert propaganda. ‘We certainly did absolutely nothing to distort or twist the British media,’ he later said. ‘it was only black propaganda in the sense that our work was all undercover and the existence of the department was confidential.’ Yet the kind of ‘black ops’ described above smacks more of psychological warfare than a British government information office dealing openly and honestly with media and public.


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