This talk is called ‘Information at War, the Ministry of Information 1936 to 1946’. It was presented by Professor Simon Elliot, as part of the Summer Lecture series, on Thursday 18th July 2019 at the National Archives, Kew.
Good evening everyone, my name is Lucy Fletcher and I’m the Director for Government here at the National Archives and it is my great pleasure to welcome you all to our very first event in this year’s annual Summer Lecture series. For those of you who are new to our lecture series, they form a vital part of our very ambitious research programme that we have here at Kew, and as part of the programme we ask leading academics to draw inspiration from the priorities that are set out in The National Archives’ research strategy, and throughout the summer we invite them to explore the issues around an annual theme that is underpinned by the incredibly rich collections that we are holding here at Kew.
This year our lecturers have focused on research priorities relating to Openness, Access and Use and People, Place and Rule. And their work has, as you can see, given rise to this year’s theme, which is State and Society, Cultures of Communication.
And just before I introduce our lecturer for this evening we would like to thank the Friends of the National Archives for their generous sponsorship of the lecture series this summer.
So it is now my great pleasure to introduce Simon Elliot, Professor Emeritus of the History of the Book at the University of London. Simon has published on Quantitative Book History, Publishing History, History of Lighting, Library History and the History of Reading. He was general editor of the four-volume History of Oxford University Press from 2013 to 2017, and recently directed a large scale project on the communication history of the Ministry of Information, in partnership with us at The National Archives, the MOI being the subject of this evening’s lecture.
So please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our inaugural guest speaker for the 2019 National Archives Summer Lecture series, Professor Simon Elliott. Thank you.
Well thank you very much for that very kind and welcoming introduction, and thanks to The National Archives and to the Friends. I’m delighted to be able to be here to talk to you this evening about information at war.
Now the Ministry of Information (MOI), which was formally established almost exactly 80 years ago in September 1939, in London University’s Senate House, was responsible for communicating news and opinions about the conduct of the war not only to the British people but often more generally to much of the rest of the world. That is to all those in the nations of the Empire, to allied countries, to friendly nations and to those countries which remained neutral.
One of its principal roles was to monitor and maintain the morale of the British people. A tricky business when propaganda was often a dirty word and when the aim was to save an open society threatened on all sides by closed and authoritarian ones. Additionally the MOI was responsible for relations with UK newspapers and for censoring them. It conducted these many missions, not only through print of a variety of sorts but also by means of radio broadcasts, mostly through the BBC but through photographs, films, public meetings and static and travelling exhibitions. During the early years of the war it even employed loud speaker vans to tour bombed areas to give information about where and how to get emergency shelter, food and clothing.
Now that’s a watercolour of Senate House painted around 1942 when the MOI had taken over almost the whole building. The MOI was in other words an extraordinarily large, active centre for the transport and transmission of information using all the means of mass communication then available to it.
But it wasn’t just about sending information out. By mid-1940 it had developed its own home intelligence unit which used many of the techniques that mass observation had pioneered in the 1930s to survey public opinion throughout the UK. This feedback was conveyed in weekly reports produced until the end of 1944, reports which were read intently by MOI staff responsible for monitoring the country’s morale and by identifying things that might negatively affect it, such as rumour.
In other words, here was a communications system which unlike most other contemporary publishers and communicators, had a rapid feedback loop, one that alerted it to its successes and its failures and acquired it often within a few weeks, radically to change the given public relations strategy.
The MOI was a complicated organisation which combined politicians, civil servants and a remarkable rag bag of writers, producers, publishers, film-makers, journalists, commercial artists and advertising men. Some of these people were brought in on a temporary basis others acquired a semi-permanent status. Few other organisations could have contained and used, effectively for the most part, such a diverse range of people as Cecil Beaton, Nicholas Bentley, Sir Kenneth Clark, Nancy Cunard, Elizabeth David, Arthur Koestler, Cecil Day Lewis, Paul Nash, Nicholas Pevsner, Neville Shute, Mervyn Peak, Laurence Olivier and Dylan Thomas and John Betjeman.
I want to overstate this epic effort at communication by looking at its surviving evidence of its activities. Let’s start with the wide variety of ways in which it used that most common of media, print.
From 1941 onwards the MOI published a sequence of popular paperbacks under the general title of Official War Books. The first of these was the ‘Battle of Britain’ published on 28th March 1941. It was an unillustrated 32-page pamphlet plainly bound as you can see and selling at three pence. This was a standard bleak civil service printed product. Despite this over 300,000 copies were speedily sold.
It was at this point that enough of those working for the ministry that this already encouraging demand could be multiplied if only the MOI used the language of commercial art and of photo journalism that had come to full power between the two wars. Using the techniques pioneered by Picture Post and its rivals, the second edition had a striking, graphic cover and an equally vivid title page. It was packed with photographs, maps and diagrams and was priced at precisely six pence. There, for instance, is a diagram revealing a control system which controlled the scrambling of fighters to intercept German bombers. Of course there are significant omissions: there is no mention of radar and no mention of course of Bletchley Park. But at least the general pattern was clear and explanatory and people could comprehend it and could match it with, for instance, BBC news broadcasts.
Here is a vivid representation of the third phase of the Battle of Britain. By the end of 1941 this version had sold 4.8 million copies within Britain alone. Combined UK sales and licence sales abroad, it is estimated that this title alone had sold about 15 million copies by the end of the war.
The second in the series – ‘Bomber Command’ – published in October 1941, sold 1.36 million in just over a month. By March 1944 the official War Books series had total sales of over 23 million and was making a profit of around £30,000 a year.
Another title – ‘Front Line’ – was issued in French, Italian, Russian and Arabic, while ‘Combined Operations’ was translated in to no fewer than 12 languages.
The War Books were consciously designed to be two books in one. A book in the series could be read as though it were a Penguin special, with large quantities of explanatory prose, but for those who could not or would not read at that level, it was a picture book packed with graphic explanations. A wartime social survey report on official War Books concluded that, I quote “the audience for MOI books is to some extent the same as the audience for illustrated magazines and small topical books of the Penguin non-fiction type”. A remarkable 74% of respondents to this survey considered the publication of these books to be a good use of the government’s time and money.
But it was not just books. There were also posters such as Dig for Victory, which were printed in the hundreds of thousands and millions. Here is a photograph of a bombed urban area with hoardings surrounding the bombed out area and an array of posters. You’ll notice that Dig for Victory is featured as the second poster from the left. The bleakness and the predominance of the posters suggest a quotation from George Orwell’s ‘1984’ which I give you now:
“Outside, even through the shut window pane the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and although the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything except the posters, that were plastered everywhere”. By the way this is just one of 19 references to posters in ‘1984’.
Reluctantly setting all this aside for the moment, I’m going to concentrate on just one aspect of the print campaign, the printing and publication undertaking essentially for the market abroad. That is print directed at allied friendly and neutral countries. From 1941 the MOI was printing at least two monthly magazines for international consumption. War in Pictures had a print run of about 450 to 500,000 copies a month, and Neptune, a magazine focusing on the British Armed Services and their allies, was commonly printed in 450 to 600,000 copies a month, with the encouragement to read it and then pass it on as a way of maximising circulation, very similar to the approach of Penguin books.
But it was not just the monthly print runs that were impressive, it was also the distribution pattern. Quite commonly both magazines would be distributed to over 80 areas each month, an extraordinary logistical achieve in the midst of a world war. This particular issue of Neptune, for instance, was sent to, among many other places, Canada, Australia, Southern Rhodesia, Barbados, Ceylon, Panama, Mexico and Congo, and printed in English, French and Spanish editions. In all, this issue of Neptune was distributed to 83 countries and areas. 9,000 to India, 25,000 to the USA, 400 to Afghanistan in French and no fewer than 80 copies to the remote island of St. Helena.
As with many MOI products, such journals used strikingly modern graphic design to maximise impact. In these popular publications images were as important as text, and photographs and graphic art were used extensively, often spread over more than one page as we saw in the title page of the ‘Battle of Britain’ and frequently bled over to the margins to the edge. The impact of the graphic design revolution of the 1920s and 30s was evident in almost every publication, and not only in terms of the effective use of photography, but also in the way in which standardised icons were used to represent statistics, a process which showed the influence of Otto Neurath’s work on Isatype in Vienna and later in Oxford.
A series of postcards illustrating various achievements, the top one illustrates the tonnage of German shipping sunk in red and tonnage of British material sunk. Postcards were extensively printed and distributed not only to convey information but also excitement and adventure through vivid pictorial representations. Novel MOI postcards were packed with graphically rendered statistical information. Quite often they resorted to even stronger traditions in 20th century visual culture, such as the cartoons and comics of the 1920s and 30s.
The comics of the inter-war period had a readily identifiable impact on other products of the MOI such as the magazine Flag of Victory which was published in a number of languages. Here’s a front page of a typical issue of the magazine. Vivid diagrammatic images such as cut away drawings were also extensively used to explain the technology of current weaponry. This is the mosquito fighter bomber. Anyone who remembers the striking images presented in British comics of the 50s and 60s, particularly Eagle and Girl, will recognise in at least one of their origins these products of the MOI.
All forms of popular cultural image making were called upon and used in order to support the war effort, and convey Britain’s case, including the Hollywood treatment of Princess Elizabeth who is here represented as a Hollywood starlet. The MOI was determined not simply to distribute globally in an undifferentiated way, it recognised the different regions and different markets had different audiences and different needs, and the print had to follow the contours of specific markets if Britain’s case was to be effectively made.
So, for instance, we get a pamphlet directed specifically at Roman Catholic audiences in countries that were very widely distributed in South America. Hitler’s War on the Catholic Church was an absolutely vivid portrayal of Christ crucified not on a cross but on a Swastika. For children in Arabic speaking cultures there was a series of adventures called Johnny and Ahmed, Adventures in the English Countryside, clearly emphasising the equality and friendliness of the two boys. For Persia we have a spoof Persian miniature with Hitler as the evil Caliph dreaming of the coming of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. And for Africa a vivid British tanks and guns guard African homes.
In the last case the Empire responding to such advertisements, provided men and materials and then Britain in return expressed its gratitude in print. The thanks was not general but targeted to specific countries. Your bombers in action, thank you Gold Coast.
At the other end of the scale, the MOI could produce something small and very modest, something that could be scattered from a car or aeroplane, flyers that could be hidden in the palm of the hand and yet carried a punch. Here’s a flyer that gives the recipient information about how to access BBC broadcasts – at the bottom you will see “so listen to the voice of Britain and of freedom”. And here is a stencil much in use when Britain began to supply all sorts of materials to its new ally the Soviet Union after July 1941. Greetings from the British people and the same in Russian.
By the early 20th century offset lithography had made it much easier to print on surfaces other than paper – commercial printing on standard food containers such as biscuits and sweet tins is a notable example. The MOI also exploited this technical advance; here’s a lapel badge featuring the face of Churchill. No fewer than 30,000 of these were sent to Guatemala and 40,000 to Persia. I imagine if any survive they are collectors’ items.
But it wasn’t just printed materials. As one of the most popular and widely used new media, film was an important channel of communication for the MOI. The ministry produced nearly 20,000 short and feature-length films during the war; here for instance is Anthony Asquith directing Peggy Ashcroft in a short film about 10 minutes in length called ‘Channel Incident’, which is based upon the Dunkirk experience, this in September 1940. And here is Captain Roy Boulting and Colonel Frank Capra editing ‘Tunisian Victory’ in 1944. And here is an absolutely standard poster announcing a new film showing, but of course the details of the time locality are to be filled in later. And here’s an example of such a film show, it’s in 1944 the canteen of London Transport where a 16mm film is being shown.
As with printed material, films travelled widely. Each region of the country had a number of cinema vans which toured their areas setting up shows in local venues. Here is an MOI film van arriving in a town in Banffshire in 1943. And even further afield there is an MOI cinema van – as you can see, British Ministry of Information, in Eritrea in 1942.
While we are on the subject I should mention that in 1940 the travel writer and MOI employee Freya Stark was travelling around north Yemen accompanied by a projector, which allowed her to show films in, among other places, the harems of Salah. What those in the harems thought of such films as ‘Everyday life in Edinburgh’ or ‘Army manoeuvres at Aldershot’, was not, sadly, recorded. However one should add that at the same time Freya Stark was also collecting information for Military Intelligence in Cairo and contributing to subversive propaganda among Italian communities in Aiden, Libya and East Africa.
As we have seen, modern visual design was employed to maximise the impact of the MOI s messages. The most effective way of doing this was not to use flat images on a printed surface or projecting them on a screen but to offer an immersive, three dimensional experience, the sort that could be provided by an exhibition. Some were very simple and small scale, often presented in a shop window. Here for instance is a brief exhibition on Britain’s bombing offensive of Germany in 1940. It’s located in a shop in Holborn in 1940. Thousands of these were sent throughout the country; any bombed out shop, any department store that hadn’t got enough goods to display would offer a room and an exhibition of this description would be put up.
A little more sophisticatedly, here is a mobile exhibition leaving the Senate House. As you can see from the note on the car, private scraps in town come and meet. This is about saving and renewing and recycling materials; they called it salvage and you’ll see in the trailer that there is a receptacle to put books in here, which could be sent to other readers or simply restock bombed out libraries or if they were particularly useless, they could be pulped and used again. The main displays along on the side of the trailer and of course the exhibition would be continued inside.
There was a special exhibition space throughout the Second World War in Charing Cross underground station, and the MOI put a series of exhibitions on. This is, as you can see Jungle Front: it’s about the war in the South Pacific. As you can see, you enter the exhibition through the dense tropical foliage.
Travelling exhibitions; this is a photograph of an exhibition called Off the Ration, which is how to grow and cultivate your own food. Here are a couple of members of the ATS loading various cages with, you can probably just detect that in the top screen right, there is “the kind to keep”, in other words the hens that would lay eggs and you could later use them for food, and below that “the kind to weed out”. This is ruthless Darwinism but then after all if you’re trying to feed your family you can’t afford to be sentimental.
The largest exhibition of all was one devoted to the British Army in 1943. This is quite a rare coloured transparency of that exhibition. It was set up in the basement of a bombed out site of John Lewis in Oxford Street. It was such a huge exhibition it couldn’t easily be toured, but it went later to Birmingham and then finally to Cardiff.
Print, films and exhibitions: all these modes of communications to the public were firmly under the control of the MOI. Fighting the war by mobilising and projecting information was clearly a huge task, involving thousands of people working on many fronts using many different media, all at the same time.
It was a complicated and expensive business. How the public generally or individuals responded to the MOI’s efforts was not controllable and in an essentially still open society, those responses might be forceful and contrary, and those forceful views might affect how others received the same information. In other words, what was complicated become complex when one factored in public reaction. This would be true of course for a newspaper advertisement, a leaflet, a book, a broadcast, a film or an exhibition.
However this complexity was at its most immediate in an activity also run by the MOI which we had not yet considered: public meetings. This was a large scale operation; between 1940 and the end of the war, the MOI was responsible for more than 160,000 public meetings throughout the country. It was clear to those in the MOI that public meetings had a function that could not be adequately performed by any other medium. In part this was a matter of satisfying public demand. In the years immediately before 1939 political parties had been running public meetings at the rate of thousands a year and voluntary organisations probably matched that number, so the public expected this form of communication.
However, it was more important than that. It was also more personal than radio broadcasts and more trusted than the printed word, which was known to be subject to censorship. As meetings were held at particular places and on particular times, they could be designed to deal with specific or local problems and the questions that arose from them. Most meetings were covered extensively by the local press so their impact was far wider than their immediate audience. But above all, and I quote the MOI here, “the spoken word at a meeting is a personal link with the Government. The mere holding of a public meeting at which questions can be asked is an act of confidence”.
There were a large number of temporary or full-time speakers who went round the country, and all those speakers had their own posters which would summarise their biography and then allow you to fill in the details of the meetings where and when. There is John Dodds and Eileen ___. There were large public meetings, war commentary meetings, open air meetings street appeals and cinema appeals. Speakers were also sent to address voluntary society meetings, factory meetings, meetings of British and Allied forces and even lectures in schools. What surprised the MOI was the success of outdoor factory meetings using loud speaker vans to get to audiences which, even in remote locations, numbered in their hundreds. Outdoor meetings in London were run daily from 19th June to end of July 1940 in Hyde Park.
Many of the larger public meetings and voluntary society meetings would normally consist of an introduction of the speaker by the Chair of the meeting or by the local MP, followed by the speaker’s talk, which usually lasted between 45 and 60 minutes. This was then followed by a question and answer session. The meeting closed by a vote of thanks, usually given, if the chair were a member of a political party or by a representative of one of the other parties. This was very important as a means of ensuring that the meeting could be considered, in MOI terms, as all party, and therefore fair and balanced.
Questions raised in the question and answer session might be very specific but not very relevant. At a meeting in Northumbria one of the most famous of the MOI speakers, the novelist Bernard Newman, spoke for an hour about the strategic significance and the problems of the Mediterranean, only to be asked by one questioner whether blind men ought to pay rates for street lights. However, much more common in 1940 were questions about the reliability of government information, in particular of Air Ministry statistics about British bombing raids on Germany and the relative losses of German and British fighters during the Battle of Britain.
There was no way of protecting speakers from embarrassing or awkward questions. Newman was an experienced public speaker and could provide an honest answer which was nevertheless framed in the most positive way possible. He also embraced current technology wherever he could. He carried lantern slides to illustrate various of his topics. He frequently spoke in cinemas and sometimes used the films being shown there as the basis for his talks. In fact at meetings he often asked for the radio to be switched on so that he could comment on the latest news immediately after it had been broadcast.
One talk he gave at the Victoria Barracks in Belfast to 250 officers was transcribed verbatim by two members of the ATS, typed up, copied and a copy then given to each officer, so that he could give the talk to his own unit. A more sophisticated version of this occurred later in the war, when a factory boss in London recorded all Newman’s talks to his workers and then loaned the resulting records out to Home Guard, Civil Defence and other groups.
Of course reports of meetings might not concentrate on the main argument, but instead on what the speaker said during the question and answer session, particularly if it were unguarded or off message. The MOI had on file newspaper reports that sometimes troubled its higher echelons. However most publicity was good publicity and Newman was delighted to boast when his activities were covered extensively. On a five-day visit to Northern Ireland in 1940 press publicity exceeded, and I quote Newman, “450 column inches all first class propaganda. It would have cost the MOI more than £200 in advertising rates”.
The uncontrollable nature of the public meeting became palpable with the publication of the Beverage report in late 1942, with its proposal for a post-war welfare state. By early 1943 requests for speakers on the Beverage report were in their hundreds and at least three written requests for Beverage himself to address public meetings, had been made from three very different but alliteratively linked towns of Bradford, Bournemouth and Bangor. Given that Churchill was not keen on Beverage and the war cabinet was divided on the matter, the MOI felt that it could do nothing until the Government had decided its policy on the report. However, given the open nature of any meeting that encouraged questions to the speaker, this was not as inhibiting as it might seem.
The report from Wales made this clear, quote “we’re getting a number of questions in on social security and the Beverage report and several of our speakers have had to deal with them”. Even the MP Arthur Comyns Carr KC could be ambushed; he was billed to talk on the Middle-East but did “at the request of the audience devote some part of his speech to the report”. Clearly the MOI needed to assess the impact of its huge and diverse output, so it could monitor both successes and failures and adjust its communication tactics accordingly. As I’ve already mentioned, it did this by producing home intelligence reports and wartime social surveys and here is a page from one of these surveys.
The range of these topics covered by these two forms of social survey is too broad to be discussed in general, so I will illustrate their use by looking at just one aspect: the MOI’s interest in readers and reading in the UK in the first years of the war. On reading these reports what is apparent immediately is that the MOI was interested not just in the reading of books and newspapers, but in individuals’ and groups’ relations to the various ways in which information was being conveyed to them.
Responses therefore to advertisements, to posters, to radio broadcasts, to films and to exhibitions were all equally important as far as the MOI was concerned – it was the reading but in the sense of scanning a host of media and extracting information and opinions from them all. This allowed the MOI to envisage each individual as being surrounded by a medley of voices, which modified each other, or which cancelled each other out, or which collectively or individually were misunderstood or forgotten or ignored.
We mustn’t be sentimental about reading and the MOI certainly was not. Most reading experience is not transformational or memorable. Even when it is remembered it may well be remembered partially or mistakenly, the reader asserting an inalienable right to edit and shape experience for his or her own intellectual and emotional convenience. It was these sorts of problems with which the MOI had to struggle.
Let’s take a look at a few reading experiences the MOI discussed in its reports in the early 1940s. Some studies were broad and speculative, such as the discussion on the reading of astrology columns in the newspapers. This is what the MOI said of astrology:
“About two thirds of the adult population probably glance at or read some astrological feature regularly or occasionally. About four out of ten have some degree of belief or interest in them. There are indications that this belief or interest has increased since the war. Those who make astrology a major element in their daily conduct are few. But those who are influenced in smaller ways or in their general outlook on the turn of events are many. People want to believe in something that at least appears to interpret events and trends in our complex and dangerous civilisation, a civilisation by which a great many people are confused and worried and in which many of their certainties are destroyed. The boom in astrology may be regarded as a symptom rather than a cause of the decline in Christian belief, as opposed to conduct among working people. Of the absence of any fully satisfying social code, and of the absence of any satisfactory external standard against which to measure current events, to feelings of worry and insecurity, it offers immediate though temporary antidotes and sedatives which are continually renewed”.
What most concerned the MOI was the way in which astrology promoted personal rather than communal interest at a time when the great stress had to be on we were all in it together not as individuals but collectively. I quote:
“The long-term effect of belief in astrology is probably more to stress false confidences than real ones to emphasise personal interests rather than common interests and economic rather than moral or spiritual issues”.
More commonly, however, the home intelligence reports presented studies of particular, mostly MOI produced material. For instance on Sunday 2nd March 1940, an advertisement using graphics to explain how to cope with incendiary bombs, was widely published in the Sunday papers. The home intelligence report suggested that, I quote, “there is general agreement that the advertisement was seen and read by the majority of the public. Evidence of mass observation shows that in a small sample of interviews, approximately 60% had seen and read the advertisement. In a village in Worcestershire where a detailed study was made, rather over half those questioned had seen the advertisement, but many of these had not been sufficiently interested to study it in detail. However, the visual element was responded to positively, quote “a pictorial method of presentation was everywhere praised but there were important criticisms of special aspects. Detailed interviews show that the pictures had been studied with care”. They had been read in other words.
The commonest criticism was of the inaccuracy of certain positions taken up by the fire fighter; “he held his head far too high”, “he’s changed his hand”. The report’s conclusion was optimistic. “The advert appears to have registered well and its pictorial form was generally appreciated. Detailed interviews showed that freedom from anxiety about various problems involved, although few people had experience dealing with firebombs, the majority appeared to have confidence that they could tackle them successfully”.
Now the bombing of civilian targets and responses to the bombing were of great interest to the MOI. In these situations readers were concerned not only with their own personal reactions but of others’ possible reactions including the enemies. For instance, it was reported in Coventry that, I quote, “on April 11th 1941, the day following the second serious raid, there was much grumbling that the new raids were the result of optimistic press statements after Coventry’s first blitz, indicating that the industries of the town were carrying on. There were many requests that nothing of the kind should be said on this occasion. One incident is described by the Deputy Regional Information officer as being significant and symptomatic. An anonymous note was left in the MOI loudspeaker car which read, “It’s time the so-called Ministry of Misinformation was closed down. Any more blah about Coventry factories not being affected, and you ought to be hounded out of the city”.
This feeling of sensitiveness has continued and the article in the daily Sketch of April 12th headed “Coventry carried on as before”, was regarded by the public as likely to provoke further raids. But the greatest problem presented to the MOI by readers was their extensive and recurrent scepticism. Unlike today when false news, non-news and improbable accounts are generated and consumed by an audience more concerned with feelings than facts, the more likely to be interested in tweets than truth, the readers of 1940 doubted lots of things. They feared being bamboozled, tricked into false optimism, misled by what they suspected was propaganda. They resented being patronised; they’d been told, and most believed, that they were fighting for truth and liberty and even in the middle of a desperate phase of the war, did not want to see those values subverted.
For instance, many readers expressed scepticism when presented with accounts of the Battle of Britain. On Saturday 10th of August 1940 it was recorded that, I quote, “our air losses are constantly compared with those of Germany and since German communiques are widely heard or read in this country, people are at a loss to understand the reasons for our disproportionate losses. Without interpretation and explanation, vague suspicions grow. The recent publication of the comparative table of air losses brought many comments illustrating this, quote “I thought the losses were about 5 to 1 not 2 to 1”. “It’s not as favourable as I thought”. “I wish I felt sure we were always told the truth”.
It became obvious to the MOI through a variety of reports, that readers and listeners had their confidence raised by detailed, even technical, descriptions of the conflicts, which gave those readers a feeling of being trusted with the truth. For instance, on the 14th August 1940, the MOI reported and I quote “every day provides us with some further evidence of people’s doubts about news.
Formulae repeatedly come in for criticism. Any explanation which throws a light on the background situation is welcomed. Technical descriptions, i.e. those which give the reader or listener some sense of control over the situation, are well-liked and eyewitness accounts whose authenticity can be guaranteed are approved. The desire of the reader to get a balanced, as far as it was possible, and an accurate view is an acute one.
This included the desire to read the enemy’s accounts even if it were generally known such accounts were, if anything, even less reliable. I quote again, “There is evidence that the public is dissatisfied at the action of the police and wardens in collecting the German leaflets dropped on this country. These will be valued as souvenirs and many people declare that they would like to read with their own eyes what was written in the leaflets”.
How might we begin to read the MOI’s views of reading in the broad sense with which we use that term? In the light of the speed with which in 1940 the invading German forces were able to demolish French public morale and see panic among the population, one of the most important roles given to the MOI was to maintain the morale of the British public. Although the MOI began with a tub-thumping campaign which alienated people, parliament and the press in largely equal measure, within a year or two it became obvious within the Ministry that trustworthiness, rather than upbeat declarations or over optimistic accounts of events, was the key to maintaining morale. Readers needed to be treated as adults who could take detailed and balanced reports, even on discouraging events.
So concerned was the MOI to capture and hold the trust of its readers that it recorded the following suggestion, and, I quote, “It has been suggested that reproductions of the German leaflets should be made for circulation and this would satisfy those who were dissatisfied as well as convincing opinion abroad of our sincerity”.
Now there’s no evidence that this suggestion that this was taken up but it was an indication of how seriously the MOI took the need to convince its audiences both home and abroad. It was this willingness to listen and, if possible, to respond, which by the end of the war resulted in the MOI receiving the highest public approval rating of any Government ministry.
I want to end by looking at just one more product of the ministry’s impressive output. This is a photograph from a MOI campaign designed to encourage women to find utility clothing attractive and fashionable. As part of this campaign models were photographed on the leads of no doubt a Georgian building in Bloomsbury with the enormous pyramidal structure of Senate House looming in the background. The brightly lit pretty girl in the foreground, the mass of Senate House, the home of the MOI, may remind those of a post-war generation of Senate House’s most notorious role in literature. George Orwell’s ‘1984’, the Ministry of Truth or Minitrue was modelled on Senate House, which Orwell knew well as his wife worked there. Here is his description of it: “the Ministry of Truth was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glitteringly white concrete, soaring up, terrace upon terrace, 300 metres into the air”.
However, for the generation brought up before 1939, and for whom this fashion shot was intended, its meaning was likely to have been rather different. Built between 1933 and 1937, Senate House, as a modernist centre for the capital’s international university, was a dazzling survivor of the Blitz and the second tallest building in London.
At that time the centre for an enormous and, on the whole, trusted source of information, its image would have suggested resilience, strength, modernity and utility. Just the thing to be associated with sensible but attractive fashion.
Understanding how a message is received as the home intelligence reports make clear, is a complex business. Even more so when it comes from a time, albeit less than 80 years ago, which now seems remarkably remote. An object lesson perhaps, in the dangers of importing or imposing modern values on a past where everything was done so differently.
Thank you very much.