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Lies, damn lies – and propaganda

Credit: Loren Orr/Getty Images

Credit: Loren Orr/Getty Images

June 28, 2018   6 mins

It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Rome: the Palazzo di Propaganda Fidein the Piazza di Spagna, begun in 1644 by Bernini, and finished in 1667 by Borromini.  But that word – propaganda – carved so prominently above the entrance, jars. This was once a city of fascist propaganda, after all. And old sins cast long shadows.

We forget, though, that for the first 250 years of its life, when this particular instance was carved, the word was not only innocent but benevolent. The inscription above the palazzo’s entrance reads: Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide (loosely: Pope Urban VIII’s College for the Propagation of the Faith). The Sacra Congregatio (sacred congregation, in the sense of a group of people) de Propaganda Fide was originally founded in 1622 to assist the Church’s missionary work, the college being one of its first initiatives. And Propaganda came from propagare – to spread.

But even in its holy manifestation, propaganda wasn’t objective. The Thirty Years’ War had just begun, a conflict that was as much about the soul of Europe as it was about princely sovereignty, and Propaganda Fide(as it was usually referred to) was as much about spreading the Catholic faith in Protestant in Europe, amid the counter-reformation, as it was about missions in the New World and Asia. It was the Truth, though, as revealed in the Gospels and taught by the fathers of the Church. Although some of that teaching was questionable, Propaganda Fidemade no attempt to spread lies to further the cause of truth.

It was not until after the French Revolution that the word started being used to refer to the spreading of secular ideas. And nor did these secular ‘propagandists’ spread lies. But if their readers did not expect them to spread lies, they were alive enough to their lack of objectivity.

An example of this wariness occurs in 1844 in a review of Louis Blanc’s Histoire de Six Ans: 1830-1840, in Blackwood’s Magazine: “Perhaps the vagueness we complain of in M. Louis Blanc is dictated by mere prudence; perhaps there is no vagueness to the eye of a propagandist.”

The word only really began to be associated with deliberate distortions – in some cases downright lies – in the First World War. Anti-German propaganda produced by Britain focused on the savage and barbaric “Hun”, and Kipling certainly obliged with a brilliant poetic call-to-arms, “For All We Have And Are”, which included the line: “The Hun is at the gate!”. Although blatant lies appear to have been few, atrocity stories were repeated without much attempt at verification (though only a few would subsequently prove without foundation).

The “propaganda” – the term was used colloquially – was designed not only to galvanise the home front and spur recruiting, but also to rally support in America where German propaganda was particularly active. This was because it was in America, a neutral but a major source of the raw materials of war, that the stakes were highest.

So alert to the potential of German propaganda in America was London, that in the first hours of the war, the German transatlantic telegraph cable was dredged up and cut. British propaganda was disparate and uncoordinated however; it was not until 1918 that a fully-fledged Ministry of Information was set up, under Lord Beaverbrook.

When the Americans entered the war in 1917, they brought with them what would later be called a psychological warfare branch, which they called the propaganda section of the Intelligence Department. One of the department’s officers, Heber Blankenhorn, wrote afterwards that:

“At first Washington was a little reluctant, perhaps from an instinctive feeling that there must be something the matter with any weapon the German government was so fond of using. When our own propaganda was finally sanctioned it was with this stipulation – THAT IT SHOULD CONTAIN NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH.” [2. Heber Blankerhorn, Adventures in Propaganda: Letters from an Intelligence Officer in France (New York, 1919)]

This notwithstanding, propaganda in the First World War generally set the low standard for what was to come: the opening of a gap between the “official truth” and the undisclosed reality. In the 1920s and 30s, the Nazis and Soviet Russia widened that gap, in retrospect almost beyond belief.

Outright lies became the staple of German propaganda, and the word became synonymous with the opposite of truth

The Nazi Propaganda Ministry, directed by Dr Joseph Goebbels, progressively took control of every form of communication in Germany, so that Nazi propaganda grew in parallel with the elimination of opinion inimical to the regime. Once alternative voices had been silenced, there was no check on what could be published, and truth became what Goebbels could get the German people increasingly easily to believe. Consequently, outright lies became the staple of German propaganda, and the word became synonymous with the opposite of truth. So much so that in 1967, Pope Paul VI would rename Propaganda Fide as Congregatio pro Gentium Evangelizatione– Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.

The BBC, on the other hand, took the view from the outset that while broadcasting the truth could have short-term penalties, in the long run it would pay dividends.It set up its (government-funded) German-language radio service in September 1938 at the time of the Munich crisis – when war looked imminent, but was postponed by Neville Chamberlain’s (prime minister) flying to Munich to parley in person with Hitler. The BBC’s director-general, Frederick Ogilvie, maintained that for the service to become a trusted news source, even defeats would have to be truthfully reported.

Churchill’s dictum was that truth is so precious in wartime that it should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies
This was not an easy policy, or perhaps even an obvious one, given Churchill’s famous dictum that in wartime truth is so precious that it should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.

Nevertheless it became policy, and it paid off. Despite German attempts to jam the broadcasts and imprison those caught listening, the BBC became one of the most significant sources of information for those living under Nazi rule. As a BBC memorandum of March 1942 explained:

“News was the magnet which attracted the audience and consequently talks followed the news, in the belief that the audience attracted by the news would continue to listen to a talk for which they might not otherwise tune in. It was the aim to be first with the news whether good or bad and in practice bad news was usually given first. In this way each bulletin ended with better news. It was the tone of the last items which left a ‘taste in the mouth’. Broadcasting of bad news helped with the reputation for truthful statement which was the basis of our service.”

The BBC German Service became a model for operations in other countries too (by 1943 the Corporation was broadcasting in 54 languages), and the BBC World Service, into which the separate services were incorporated after 1965, became the proverbial beacon of hope for many in Eastern Europe in particular.

Truth, accuracy and impartiality were the touchstones.

And yet, of late, the BBC’s correspondents (or “editors”), in developing their own distinctive personas and “voice” – in manner and body language at least – have seemed to reposition the BBC; or given opportunity for some to question whether the touchstones were still in place.

For example, in February 2017, at a hastily called White House press conference, there was a troubling exchange between President Trump and Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America Editor:

Trump: Where are you from?

Sopel: BBC.

Trump: Here’s another beauty.

Sopel: That’s a good line. Impartial, free and fair.

Trump: Yeah. Sure… Just like CNN right?

The BBC’s reputation for truth, accuracy and impartiality was being challenged by the President of the United States and Sopel, with his arrogant retort, did nothing to correct that accusation – or impression. Indeed, he probably confirmed it.

Donald Trump found an unlikely ally the following morning (17 February) in Peter Oborne, the veteran Telegraph and Mail columnist, who was appearing on the Today programme. Sopel was live on the BBC’s Today programme talking of this “most extraordinary” press conference and directly afterwards, Justin Webb, the Today presenter, asked Oborne for his reaction.

Sopel’s “smugness” allowed Trump’s mantra of ‘Fake News’ and a hostile press to gain credibility

Oborne astonished Webb by comparing BBC coverage of Tony Blair with that of Donald Trump to illustrate what he believed was BBC bias. The BBC and the liberal media had “cheered it along” when Blair showed “complete contempt for the truth”, he said, and that they were only calling out Trump’s lies now because he was a president with unfavourable rhetoric.  The problem, he said, was Sopel’s “superficial arrogant smugness”, which allowed Trump’s mantra of ‘Fake News’ and a hostile press to gain credibility.

Jonathan Swift had written of this 300 years ago, in The Examiner:

“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”

This is Russia’s ‘information operations’  doctrine today. In the aftermath of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals in Salisbury, the Russian media campaign did not directly counter the facts but instead tried to spread doubt. “Britain’s chemical warfare establishment at Porton Down is near Salisbury” was one such claim. This is true, though no causal evidence was suggested: it was just the fact, the raising of an alternative question in the mind.

The Trump technique – in his jab at the BBC– may well have had something in common with this. But for it to succeed in the long term, there has to be the possibility of doubt in the mind of the listener. Could that scintilla of doubt have been sewn beforehand by Sopel’s failure to contain his personal views?

For this is how propaganda first gains traction.

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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