How the FO waged secret propaganda war in BritainRichard Fletcher, George Brock Phil Kelly, Observer, Sunday 29 January 1978, page 2
by RICHARD FLETCHER, George Brock and Phil Kelly
A SECRET Foreign Office department set up after World War Two to distribute anti-Communist propaganda abroad also covertly planted material in Britain.
Over a period of 30 years material and money from the Information Research Department (IRD) went into books published under highly respectable imprints. Some of them are still available in public, school and university libraries. Anti-Stalinist material was also infiltrated into trade union literature.
After 30 years, the IRD finally became an embarrassment to Ministers, who feared its approach to propaganda was out of date and a threat to détente relations. Its activities were first curtailed by the late Anthony Crosland, and last May it was closed down by his successor as Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen.
Documents in the hands of The Observer reveal that within a year of its foundation in 1948 the department was paying a hidden subsidy to an anti-Communist magazine, Freedom First, which was circulated to trade unionists.
It was negotiated secretly between the editor and Mr Christopher Mayhew, then a Foreign Office junior minister and the man who created IRD.
The department used a small publishing company, Ampersand Ltd, which published IRD-inspired material for 20 years and bought thousands of books for distribution by IRD.
A director of Ampersand since 1953, Mr Stephen Watts, confirmed to us that IRD paid his firm's costs, including office bills and authors' fees, and he 'always understood' that the money was from the secret vote, the Parliamentary allocation of money for the intelligence services.
The IRD began life in January 1948 after the Attlee Cabinet approved a plan put up by Mr Mayhew for a vigorous information offensive against the Iron Curtain countries which, according to his memo, were winning the ideological cold war.
Mr Mayhew had asked his officials to draw up plans for a 'team of two or three "devillers",' who were to prepare and assemble material under a 'specialist in ideological warfare.'
In a 'Top Secret' memo to the Foreign Secretary, Mr Ernest Bevin, in December 1947 he said : ' The material would be concocted and devised by the Communist Information Department' (IRD's provisional title).
He proposed a book extolling the merits of British social democracy, suggesting as a title 'The Straight Answer.' He added: 'It would probably. be inadvisable to issue an English edition for public circulation at home, since this could be attacked as expenditure of taxpayers' money for internal political purposes; but the private circulation to key people in this country of a limited number of the English language edition would be practicable and extremely helpful.'
Mr Mayhew, his officials and his confidants at Labour Party headquarters were well aware of the risks they were running.
Mr Mayhew, now a member of the Liberal Party, said last week that IRD dealt in 'true facts' and commented: 'It's difficult to make out that there's anything sinister about this. We were ahead of our time in fighting Stalinism. In the post-war years there were many illusions about Stalinism, not least inside the Labour Party. We were certainly taking great political risks, and quite right too.'
In May 1948 Mr Mayhew told Bevin that he had made arrangements with Herbert Tracey (an official in the Labour Party's international section) for the dissemination in the Labour movement at home of anti-Communist propaganda.
Mr Tracey ran an anti-Communist committee called 'Freedom First.' Mr Mayhew noted a month later that the committee's material should be supplied by IRD on a 'strictly confidential basis.'
The note went on : 'Mr Tracey would work out a financial estimate on the basis of 5,000 copies covering three or four languages. We would then see what we could do in the way of a hidden subsidy - e.g. by purchase of copies for use and distribution by our information officers.'
An idea of IRD's information-collecting methods, as opposed to dissemination, can be gathered from a note from Mr Mayhew to one of his officials in January 1949. It suggests 'grey' propaganda - carefully selected material energetically reproduced and distributed - rather than 'black' propaganda of lies and fiction.
Mr Mayhew recommends using the Press monitoring section at the Moscow Embassy to gather suitable material.
In addition to sponsoring anti-Communist books IRD also distributed British news-paper articles to developing countries. Newspapers in those countries were carrying material supplied by Russian and Chinese news agencies because it was all they could afford.
So IRD, wishing to counter that influence, made arrangements with some British news organisations (including, in 1968, The Observer Foreign News Service), which gave IRD the right to distribute articles cheaply, or even free of charge to the media of selected countries. In the case of THE OBSERVER Foreign News Service, which syndicates articles by Observer writers, it was a condition that the articles could not be altered.
The arrangement between IRD and Ampersand for subsidising and publishing anti-Communist books began in the 1950s.
Mr Stephen Watts, the head of Ampersand, said last week that he would discuss possible book titles with the heads of IRD. Those books would be commissioned and edited by Mr Watts, who would arrange for sales of copies to IRD for distribution overseas.
That discreet arrangement was merged with conventional current affairs publishing. Mr Watts, as a freelance publisher's editor, created and edited a series of more than 100 volumes called Background Books, which was published by two small firms between 1950 and 1960, when Bodley Head took over.
IRD paid for the books in two ways: by buying up to several hundred copes of a title they wanted and by meeting production costs for titles published by Ampersand under their own imprint.
Ampersand also acted as a purchasing agent for IRD, buying Bodley Head books and other publishers' books through Bodley Head's credit facilities.
Ampersand's accounts for the years 1967-76 list total payments to Bodley Head of £55,991 but Bodley Head were not able to confirm this
They also show 'reimbursement' of publishing expenses and overheads over the same period of £89,670. Mr Watts said that this had been paid by IRD.
The accounts were audited each year and a copy of them was sent to the Foreign Office, which then paid reimbursements to Ampersand.
Mr Max Reinhardt, managing director of Bodley Head, said : 'Ours was an orthodox publishing arrangement with Stephen Watts. I naturally had no ides of Ampersand's connection with IRD or the Foreign Office.'
Mr Watts told us that the arrangement between IRD and Ampersand had been suggested by the late Mr Leslie Sheridan, a wartime intelligence man. He was deputy head of IRD in 1961 and the founder of Ampersand.
Although the British public didn't know about IRD's activities, ironically the Russians were handed details of what was happening on a plate.
When Mr Mayhew was assembling his staff a colleague approached him and recommended a young diplomat as a 'man deeply versed in communism.' That man was Guy Burgess, one of Britain's most famous post-war defectors, who was on the staff of IRD for several months until sacked by Mr Mayhew for being 'dirty, drunk and idle.'
Additional research by Paul Lashmar, Tony Smart and Richard Oliver.
- Guardian article: David Leigh recounts the 30-year history of the Foreign Office's covert propaganda operation David Leigh, Guardian, 27 January 1978, page 13
- Sunday Telegraph article: How MI6 pushed Britain to join Europe Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, Sunday Telegraph, 27 April 1997, page 10
- Times article: MI6 fed Cold War propaganda to BBC Michael Evans, Times, 20 October 1997, page 8
- Guardian article: Wilson government used secret unit to smear union leaders Ian Cobain, Guardian, 24 July 2018