In January, it was announced the UK government would launch the National Security Communications Unit, a dedicated organization to counter the growth of ‘fake news’ with disinformation of its own. While hailed as a new initiative, weaponizing information for defensive and offensive purposes is familiar territory for Whitehall.
Almost half a year after the proclamation, concrete details of the organization — the how, what and why — still remain scarce, but a look at past British state activities in this regard may be illuminating.
In 1948, the British Foreign Office created the Information Research Department, a secret anti-Soviet propaganda organization that had a significant impact on Western media reporting over the course of its three-decade existence (then-Foreign Secretary David Owen closed it down in 1977).
The brainchild of Labour MP Christopher Mayhew, IRD was by the time of its disbandment one of Foreign Office’s largest departments. In 1949, IRD had a staff of 52, based in central London — by the mid-1960s, it employed 390, with 48 based overseas, had a vast budget and coordinated weekly with with MI5, MI6 and the BBC World Service.
Despite this voluminous growth, the public remained totally unaware of its existence until its activities were partially exposed in The Guardian in January 1978 by its investigative reporter David Leigh.
Subsequent investigations have shed further light on its shadowy actions. In the their 1996 work Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, Paul Lashmar and James Oliver noted the “vast IRD enterprise had one sole aim.”
“To spread its ceaseless propaganda output — a mixture of outright lies and distorted facts — among top-ranking journalists who worked for major agencies, papers and magazines, including Reuters and the BBC, as well as every other available channel. It worked abroad to discredit communist parties in Western Europe which might gain a share of power by entirely democratic means, and at home to discredit the British Left,” they wrote.
A representative example of the kind of material IRD placed in the UK press is provided by the example of Lieutenant-Colonel Grigori Tokaev, a Red Army air force aerospace engineer who defected from the Soviet Union in 1948. His name was attached to three articles — written by Department staff — that appeared in the Sunday Express in January 1949, which claimed the Soviet Union was a maximum of five years away from acquiring the ability to destroy each and every Western country. While even Foreign Office officials, unaware of the stories’ true source, dismissed the claims as nonsense, the material was regurgitated by media organizations the world over.
IRD also had a significant cultural impact at home and abroad. Perhaps most notably, it sought to promote George Orwell’s work — specifically his anti-totalitarian novels Animal Farm and 1984 — far and wide, via a number of mediums. The secret transportation of translated copies of both works into the states of the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe was an aggressively pursued policy of the UK and US governments until the fall of the USSR in 1991, and a strategy originally concocted and executed by IRD.
Similarly, in the early 1950s, IRD promoted a newspaper comic strip based on Animal Farm, which ran in several countries including Brazil, Burma, Eritrea, India, Mexico, Thailand and Venezuela. In 1954, these comic strips were transformed into a highly popular animated film, which again received significant financial and practical support from IRD and the US Central Intelligence Agency — as did the 1956 film adaptation of 1984.
Orwell’s contribution to IRD’s efforts wasn’t entirely posthumous, either — shortly before his death in 1950, the noted author and journalist provided the Department with a blacklist of individuals who were “unreliable” and “should not be trusted” — this included “cryptos” (secret communists), “fellow travellers” (communist sympathizers), and outright members of the Communist Party.
However, writer Alexander Cockburn has noted Orwell also included people on the list for no other reason than they were gay, or non-white, believing such individuals had a greater capacity for treachery.
Out of Control
Such activities appear positively mundane when compared with IRD’s subsequent activities. For instance, in Indonesia, the Department — along with MI6 and the CIA — was instrumental in the removal of popular nationalist leader Sukarno from power.
IRD’s psychological warfare campaign in the country saw the unit both nationally and internationally perpetuate false stories of killings and subversion carried out by the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party), which in turn were used as a justification to carry out very real massacres by the Indonesian military.
At least half a million people — and potentially a great many more — died as a result. In 1967, Sukarno was finally removed from power in a military coup and replaced by General Suharto, who ruled the country with a brutal iron fist for the next 31 years.
The unit also spent the early 1970s supporting UK entry to the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the modern European Union.
British and American intelligence services had long-supported UK membership of the EEC, covertly funding the European Movement (the most prominent pro-European group in Britain) for decades.
However, as the country finally began the process of joining, public and political support for the move had begun to wane — as a result, IRD spread pro-EEC propaganda throughout the UK media, and sought to discredit prominent figures who opposed accession.
Pro-European articles ostensibly written by Members of Parliament and heads of business, which appeared in many lading newspapers, were in fact authored by IRD staff. It’s even been suggested BBC staff perceived to be too anti-European were removed from their jobs.
Nonetheless, IRD’s legacy at home was also blood-spattered, in more ways than one — the Department’s propaganda campaigns were a major part of UK war efforts in Northern Ireland during the initial phases of ‘the Troubles’. IRD staff were apparently eager to get involved in the conflict, as warming relations between the Soviet Union and the West had placed the Department’s future in doubt — its budget had been more than halved in 1971.
IRD’s purview in the region was clear — “expose extremists, discredit and isolate them, and counter their efforts by damping-down inter-communal tensions [by exploiting] any tendencies to disagreement and rivalry” among Republican opposition groups.
Examples of the Department’s activities include spreading false stories of IRA embezzlement, Soviet shipments of rocket-launchers into Ireland, Republican links to international terrorist groups, and spreading rumours making explosives caused cancer to rumours and explosives hidden in women’s clothing risked being ignited by friction in their underwear. MPs seen as having ‘unhelpful’ (ie sympathetic) views on Northern Ireland were also smeared via a variety of false stories.
Propaganda also accused terrorists of dabbling in witchcraft and black magic — British intelligence agents would plant black altars and upside-down crucifixes around Belfast. Colin Wallace, an Army intelligence officer, has claimed agents would even collect chicken blood and place it on the altars, “so it looked like there had been a sacrifice, or something.”
One unnamed journalist covering Northern Ireland at the time recalls how he and his colleagues “were overwhelmed by a blizzard of facts and atrocities, lies and propaganda, and it was simply impossible to tell truth from fantasy, fact from fiction.”
One involved countering terrorist use of bazookas. They were difficult to handle, and the IRA didn’t understand why some shells hadn’t been exploding when fired — in reality, they’d neglected to remove safety caps before pulling the trigger. IRD seized on this ignorance by issuing false stories stating bazooka shells needed to be tested electronically — this, it was hoped, would result in shells exploding in the tester’s hands, killing them and anyone nearby.
IRD also exploited the deaths of two young nationalists, who perished when making a bomb in the extreme cold. Staff told journalists this happened because gelignite reacts to changes in temperature, a fiction duly reported in the media — the IRA then disposed of many explosive stocks leaders believed had been ‘contaminated’ by adverse weather conditions.
However, on top of these ‘successes’, there were numerous failures — which were extremely costly, and often merely served to push ordinary citizens into the ranks of militant groups. Eventually, the UK government ended IRD’s role in Northern Ireland, handing responsibility for managing the conflict’s informational element to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the mid-1970s.