When the Conservatives were returned to power in 1951, one of Churchill’s first acts was to order an enquiry into the misuse of public funds for propaganda purposes. Churchill was now 77 and in failing health and the party was led in practice by Anthony Eden (left).
At first the Tories abolished the Cabinet committees that Morrison had used to control propaganda and made deep cuts into the MOI’s successor, the Central Office of Information. They closed down the Crown Film Unit completely, stopped the distribution of films to cinemas and mobile screenings in factories and village halls, cancelled the government lecture service, cut the budget for exhibitions in half, and cut back the Social Survey’s spending and staff. In the first six months of the new administration, they cut the number of Central Office of Information personnel by almost a third, from 1,413 to 974.
However, it was not long before Eden, who succeeded Churchill in 1955, found he needed all the PR tricks he could muster and virtually re-instated the Ministry Of Information in peace time. The event was the Suez Crisis of 1956 in which Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company. He was quite within his rights to do so and had the backing of a UN resolution. But the contest between the two men had become a personal struggle and Eden was determined that ‘Nasser must go’.
There followed a three month period in which Eden pretended to be seeking a peaceful solution while secretly briefing the press that he would force Nasser out, and ordered the Ministry of Defence to prepare an invasion of the Canal Zone. He pressed into service a number of ex-MOI officers who had become key players in the Foreign Office, including Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, who had run the BBC’s Overseas Service during the war. The man who ran the Foreign Office’s disinformation service at Eden’s behest was Douglas Dodds-Parker a former Special Operations Executive officer.
He was assigned to set up and chair a Committee, partly to disseminate information on the crisis and partly to make suggestions for actions against Egypt and Nasser personally. The committee included Dodds-Parker’s wartime chief from the Special Operations Executive, Charles Hambro and Geoffrey McDermott, the Foreign Office Adviser to the Secret Intelligence Service. Initially the Committee’s brief was to counter Egyptian propaganda in the Middle East. Once the crisis broke, its role was expanded to include the Government’s domestic propaganda strategy, including the BBC.
In his 1986 account of Suez, Dodds-Parker distanced himself from the flood of press releases that were issued in response to the torrent of enquiries. ‘ . . . every day replies given over my name were sent all over the world by the London Press Service. Most well-informed individuals believed these replies to be incorrect or worse; and that I was a fool or a knave, or both.’
Whether behind the invasion plan or not, Dodds-Parker evidently warmed to his task because he reported to his superiors that journalists were taking the bait. Perhaps confusing the similarity of the Suez propaganda campaign to his wartime role in SOE, he added, ‘This seems to show that our psychological warfare is working.’
When British military preparations for an invasion were well advanced the Cabinet began to talk about imposing censorship on the press. Chancellor Harold Macmillan complained in cabinet that ‘We have no censorship powers . . . and there is no way of stopping the most detailed accounts of shipping, troop movements and the rest. Personally I doubt we shall get through all this without taking back the old war powers.’ Churchill was in no doubt. He told Eden bluntly, ‘A censorship should be imposed.’
It was the old MOI hand, Walter Monckton who brought them back to earth. Imposing censorship before war was actually declared, he told them, would be politically suicidal. Eden got around this problem by the simple expedient of issuing ‘D-Notices’ – formal written requests to editors to refrain from publicising sensitive details relating to defence or security matters. The D-Notice system appealed to the Eden government because of its secrecy. Any newspaper editor who complied with a request to censor his copy was forbidden to tell his readers that what they were looking at was subject to censorship. And because there was no official compulsion behind D-Notices they could be passed off as voluntary.
In this way, Eden managed to get the press to censor itself during Suez while keeping the public in the dark about what was going on and giving the appearance that it was all done voluntarily in the interests of the country. Later on he even persuaded editors to allow military censors to decide what information should and should not be published – in other words he got them to agree to censorship in peacetime.
Inevitably Eden’s house of cards collapsed. At the end of October 1956, the invasion went off as planned but resulted in a storm of protest in Britain . Eden’s strategy now backfired on him spectacularly. He had kept the press, Parliament and people in the dark about his real intentions, while secretly preparing for war yet insisting he was seeking a peaceful solution. His obsessive secrecy and his plan to keep the press from reporting his preparations for war meant that news of the biggest military action since the Second World War came as a bombshell to most people in Britain. He had neglected to explain to the British people why such a military invasion was necessary.
The outcome of Eden’s invasion of Suez included 2,000 to 4,000 killed, with 1,000 Egyptian civilians, and around 5,000 Egyptian wounded. The financial cost was around £275 million (about £5.5 billion in today’s values) but its financial effects were even greater. The pound came under sustained attack and Britain was forced to borrow heavily from the International Monetary Fund – the first time the IMF had been involved in such an international crisis. It was also the end of Britain’s role as a world power.