For two years, between 1941 and 1943, novelist and essayist George Orwell worked for the Ministry Of Information as a BBC Talks producer for the Eastern Service. His job was to write propaganda for broadcast to India, where he was born and served in the police. His wife, Eileen, also worked for the Ministry Of Information in the censorship department, until 1944.
Orwell was one of a number of prominent literary figures who worked for the MOI in the war – including Graham Green and J. B Priestley. Other writers declined to serve as propagandists. Evening Standard cartoonist David Low, for example, refused at first to work for the Ministry because of its ‘ineptness and futility.’ C.S. Lewis refused the idea of writing columns for the MOI as he did not want to ‘write lies’ to deceive the enemy.
The BBC’s Overseas Service was under MOI direction throughout the war and Orwell was at first keen to support the government’s propaganda efforts. At his interview, he impressed the BBC’s Director of Empire Services, R. A. Rendall, who wrote in a memo, ‘He accepted absolutely the need for propaganda to be directed by the Government and stressed his view that in war-time discipline in the execution of Government policy was essential.’
His experiences with the Ministry Of Information seem to have changed his mind on this. In 1942 he confided to his diary that, ‘All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.’
He went on after the war, in 1948, to write his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he draws on his experiences to create a fictional ‘Ministry Of Truth’. When describing the ‘Ministry of Truth’ Orwell had in mind the headquarters of London University, Senate House, which, throughout the Second World War, was the home of the Ministry Of Information. The Ministry of Truth was, he said, ‘an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising 300 metres into the air’. Senate House, a white Portland stone skyscraper rises a comparatively modest 64 metres into the air above London’s Malet Street, rather than 300, although it housed nearly 3,000 MOI staff at its peak during the war.
Minister of Information during much of Orwell’s time at the BBC was the domineering (though also human) Brendan Bracken. It has been suggested that Orwell borrowed his chief’s initials – BB – for the domineering fictional figure of Big Brother. He also gave his fictional Ministry a shorthand name – MINITRUE – which is similar to the MOI’s telegraphic address – MININFORM.
The BBC later discovered that ‘the target audience of Indian students at whom Orwell’s broadcasts were aimed did not in the main possess radio sets. Even those lucky enough to be able to tune in would have found the signal so weak as to render the broadcasts virtually unintelligible.’
This finding, made with the benefit of hindsight, raises the question whether Orwell would have been pleased or disappointed that his propaganda had no effect.