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The IRD, a unit in the Foreign Office and creation of the British Intelligence community, played a major role in Western news and cultural media from 1948-1977. It financed a publishing house ‘Ampersand’ and at one time employed a staff of 300. A secret Foreign Office memo in February 1948 described the establishment of the IRD as a response to the “developing communist threat to the whole fabric of Western civilization”. The origins of the IRD lie in the recommendations in a paper put up by the Imperial Defence College.
In their book on the IRD, Lashmar and Oliver note that “the vast IRD enterprise had one sole aim: To spread its ceaseless propaganda output (i.e. 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”.
IRD fed information and propaganda on 'communists' within the labour movement through confidential recipients of its briefings one of whom is now known to be the late Vic Feather into the media, and into the Labour Party's policing units, the National Agent's Department and the Organisation Subcommittee.
However a more insidious role has been documented by Lashmar and Oliver. These authors explain that in the 1960s the Foreign Office was fearful that the British-backed neighboring Malaysian Federation would be influenced by Sukarno's independent stand and this would result in the loss of the world's largest source of rubber. Moreover, Britain had a 40 percent stake in Royal Dutch Shell with its monopoly status in Indonesia, controlling at the time 75 percent of the world's oil production. Their book details the role of IRD and British propaganda efforts against Indonesia's Sukarno in 1965, before and after the so-called abortive "coup," which became the excuse for Suharto's genocide against the PKI. IRD and MI6 "black" operations were intense before and after this alleged coup, as forged documents suggesting PKI atrocities and Chinese intervention were combined with sophisticated signals intelligence that monitored Sukarno's every move.
By the late-1960s the IRD was cut back by the Labour Government, and Intelligence writer Stephen Dorril states that it found additional work in Northern Ireland: “its Information Policy section was engaged in the 1970s in running propaganda campaigns against mainland politicians”. IRD was closed down in 1977 because its cover was blown by a persistent researcher Richard Fletcher. The Foreign Secretary at the time, David (now Lord) Owen was reported in The Guardian (18 August 1995) as stating that the IRD had become involved in the grey area of manipulating journalism and that clandestine operations were MI6’s job, not that of a “civil department”.
(Sources: Britain's Secret Propaganda War By Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, Sutton Publishing, 1998; MI6: Fifty Years of Legal Thuggery By Stephen Dorril, Fourth Estate, 1996)
From the outset of its creation in 1948, the Information Research Department (IRD) in the Foreign Office set out to manipulate the BBC. Ralph Murray, the first head of the IRD is quoted as saying “our situation is now such that it seems essential that we should approach the BBC and cause them, by persuasion if possible, to undertake such programme developments as might help us”.
Michael Nelson, who was allowed access to the BBC archives notes, “The Foreign Office regarded the BBC as by far the most important propaganda weapon it had in Eastern Europe”. He disclosed that BBC correspondents in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, including the veteran broadcaster Charles Wheeler, were fed classified material gleaned from covert intercepts of Soviet bloc communications to generate anti-communist propaganda broadcasts during the cold war. In another private arrangement between the BBC and the Foreign Office, confidential letters written to BBC correspondents by people living in the communist bloc at the start of the cold war were passed on to the MI6.
Some of the BBC’s senior management was unabashed with this propaganda role, notwithstanding public statements of impartiality and objectivity. In the 1950s, shortly before he became Director General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green devoted much of an address to the NATO Defence College in Paris on psychological warfare to a description of the BBC and propaganda. He did not hesitate to use the word propaganda repeatedly.
The BBC’s covert links with the intelligence community has continued in a variety of forms. In July 1985 the Special Branch used the roof of Bush House to film and photograph people taking part in a demonstration protesting against the plan to abolish the Greater London Authority and introduce rate capping.
It was also reported to be established practice for the MI5 to send three-monthly security surveys to the BBC and that it had been the job of the Chief Assistant to the Director General to receive these secret briefings and also to liaise with MI5 on behalf of the Director General. The Chief Assistant to Alisdair Milne at the time was Margaret Douglas, who denied this role. The job position was later renamed ‘political assistant’ to the Director General.
In August 1985 the BBC admitted that MI5 vetted its senior staff. The British press carried a report that an applicant, Isabel Hilton, had been denied a job as a reporter in Scotland in 1976. This block was linked to her membership of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. At the time, being ‘pro-Maoist’ was considered a security risk! The Guardian also named Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham, formerly of the Signals Regiment and now an MI5 officer, as responsible for vetting job applicants and appointments to senior posts. Professor Alastair Hetherington, former controller of BBC Scotland confirmed the existence of the vetting system, adding “I did not like it and was unhappy about it”.
In the 1950s British Intelligence secretly ran an influential Arabic radio station, Sharq al-Adna, under the cover of a commercial station. It transmitted anti-Israeli commentary, readings from the Qur’an and music. During the Suez Crisis (1956) it became the ‘Voice of Britain’, broadcasting propaganda with sanitised BBC news bulletins. When some BBC staff complained, the government threatened deep cuts in BBC grants.
(Sources: Overt and Covert: The Voice of Britain and Black Radio
Broadcasting in the Suez Crisis, by Gary D Rawnsley, 1956.
(Sources: MI6 : Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service
by Stephen Dorril, Touchstone Books, 2002
War of the Black Heavens: The Batles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War by Michael Nelson, Brassey’s, 1997
The Guardian, 28 July 1985
The Guardian 19 August 1985
The Observer, 1 September 1985
The Times, 20 October 1997)