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19 November 2001

A timely lesson in propaganda

In the present war, the Americans could learn from the BBC news chief who strove to get the bad news

By David Boyle

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.

You can’t see George Bush or Tony Blair making a similar arrangement with the Taliban, and that is not the only sense in which our current leaders’ attitudes to propaganda and the media differ from those of the 1940s. It is now accepted wisdom in the US military that you keep public enthusiasm for war high by restricting information. That means lots of pictures of weapons and lots of affable generals on TV. There are also rather sketchy plans for a worldwide TV advertising campaign, organised by the advertising guru and new US under-secretary of state for public diplomacy, Charlotte Beers; and the Pentagon has hired the Rendon Group, a PR company that used to advise Monsanto and the Kuwaiti ministry of information, on a four-month, $400,000 contract to maximise support for the bombing of Afghanistan.

But the lesson of the Second World War is that rebuttal and spin aren’t enough. It was no use, wrote the BBC’s director of European broadcasts, Noel Newsome, in 1940, “scoring facile but impermanent victories”. Newsome argued 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 . . . towards shortening the war, still less towards laying the foundations of a postwar world fit for anyone to live in.”

Newsome was a 32-year-old Daily Telegraph sub-editor when he was appointed to run the European news operation, on the day war broke out. He was responsible for 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 later the voice of the Allies from Radio Luxembourg. Throughout the war he was embroiled in fierce controversy. “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, as many as 15 million Germans risked death to listen in.

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He fought not only against the “sealed lips” school in government but against those who wanted different news broadcasts for different audiences. News could be too sophisticated to be convincing, he argued. If it was going to be believable to listeners in occupied Europe, it had to be the same everywhere, it had to be 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 the time, for example, to ban German composers.

True, there were restrictions. Naming merchant ships was forbidden, and the location of air raids (in theory, at least) could not be published for 30 days. There were strict rules about anything that could endanger military operations. As the Nazis swept across France, the British government bowed to pressure from the French – who had kept their own people in the dark – and censored news about where the Germans had reached. But Whitehall realised early on that too much control was counter-productive. The BBC was allowed to reflect the different sides of the political debate – not just because it was true, but also because it was good propaganda. It showed the freedom and democracy we claimed to be fighting for.

Newsome pushed the limits of editorial control to the utmost. In 1940, without referring to higher authority, he allowed Sefton Delmer of the Daily Express to reject on air Hitler’s peace offer to Britain, to the consternation of the Nazi leaders, who had expected days of high-level agonising. “We hurl it right back at you,” Delmer announced, “right in your evil-smelling teeth.”

Newsome became critical of Goebbels as a spin-doctor because he used stories that sounded good in the short term but later proved to be false. At one stage, Hitler ruled that Churchill’s name was not to be used on air without the epithet “whisky-drinking”. The BBC fought to keep its news clear of short-term “spin” and, when Newsome discovered that it had been duped by the military into broadcasting false news designed to confuse the enemy during the Norwegian campaign, he swore that it would not happen again. He even persuaded the government that it should get out bad news, such as the sinking of the battlecruiser Hood, before Goebbels did.

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 comedy soap opera run by the BBC German Service, about the ordinary life of a Berlin charlady called Frau Wernicke, was a completely new style of programming for German listeners. It was a favourite with the future West German leader Konrad Adenauer.

The “sealed lips school” 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.

Sadly, the future lay with his subordinate and bitter rival Hugh Greene, the head of the German Service and future BBC director general. The BBC, uneasy about its wartime role, never forgave Newsome for being so independent. He stood for parliament for the Liberals in 1945 and was never allowed to broadcast again. The most recent BBC history of the World Service gives him only a footnote.

Many of his insights seem to have been forgotten, too. The Americans, who took so long to admit that their first ground raid on Afghanistan had failed, could learn much from Newsome. We must hope that, when Charlotte Beers unveils her TV ad campaign in the Middle East, she realises that, to convince the world, she needs more than a slick image and a disembodied corporate voice.

David Boyle’s The Tyranny of Numbers is published next month by Flamingo (£8.99)

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