Reds under the bed

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Once Christopher Mayhew’s Information Research Department was up and running in late 1947, it began to keep lists of journalists and others who could be ‘trusted’ to be fed with anti-Communistr propaganda. Mayhew recalled that  ‘IRD’s material, well researched and authoritative, was now finding a ready market.  We had representatives in all British embassies and high commissions abroad, who fed this material into friendly and receptive hands.  At home, our service was offered to and accepted by, large numbers of selected MPs, journalists, trade union leaders and others, and was often used by the BBC’s External Services.  We also developed close links with a syndication agency and various publishers.’

The IRD’s list of friendly journalists – or those who could be influenced by government – was extensive. For an article in the Guardian, journalist David Leigh was able to trace three writers connected with the Financial Times; five from the Times ; two from the Observer ; five from the Sunday Times ; five from the Telegraph ; six from the Economist ; one from the Daily Mail ; two from the Mirror ; one from the Sunday Mirror ; and one from the Express. Guardian journalists on the lists included Hella Pick, Michael Simmons, Ian Wright and Victor Zorza.

As well as a list of journalists who were approved by IRD there was also a McCarthy-style black list of those who were thought to have communist leanings and hence to be unreliable. In May  1949, Celia Kirwan, a close friend of George Orwell working for the IRD, was handed by Orwell a list he had compiled of thirty-eight journalists and writers who Orwell thought, ‘are crypto-communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists.’  His list included Charlie Chaplin; J. B. Priestley; the actor Michael Redgrave; the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin; MP Tom Driberg and novelist Naomi Mitchison.

As well as disseminating material, the IRD also covertly financed the publication of books penned by well-known authors.  Soviet critic Robert Conquest was a member of IRD’s staff and so needed little encouragement to edit the eight-volume series Soviet Studies, published by the Bodley Head. Bertrand Russell wrote three short books subsidised by the IRD: Why Communism Must Fail, What Is Freedom?, and What Is Democracy? In this case Russell knew perfectly well that the publisher, Background Books, was backed by IRD cash.  But other writers, such as the philosopher Bryan Magee, who contributed The Democratic Revolution, were outraged when they learned who was financing the publisher.

From 1953 to 1958 the IRD was headed by Ralph Murray, a former member of the wartime Politial Warfare Executive.  Murray in turn later was succeeded by John Rennie who was later to become Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service from 1968 to 1973.  IRD was linked with SIS from an early date. In 1952 novelist Fay Weldon joined the staff of IRD.  She later recalled  that when a visitor from SIS arrived she and her colleagues were told to ‘Turn your backs!’ so the visitors could walk down the corridor unseen.

Shortly after Rennie took over, IRD collaborated with the CIA as part of what was referred to as the cultural cold war.  The CIA paid to have a cartoon version of Orwell’s Animal Farm made in London by Halas and Bachelor, who were employed to make Government information films.  The IRD gave the film wider circulation, especially in countries threatened with communist domination, including ‘backward’ areas of Britain’s Commonwealth, and paid for Chinese, Arabic and Burmese versions.

At around the same time – 1953 – The CIA provided the cash to finance the launch of Encounter, an Anglo-American literary journal founded by British poet Stephen Spender and U.S. journalist Irving Kristol – later celebrated as the godfather of neoconservatism.  When the CIA finally admitted their role in funding the journal, Stephen Spender resigned in protest.

Read about the formation of the Information Research Department here.

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