One of the British government’s first acts of war in 1939 was to form the Ministry of Information to combat Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda and broadcast government press releases to the world’s media.
For the first year of its life, the Ministry Of Information gained a reputation for bungling incompetence. It was distrusted by the press and by the public, especially after it published the ill-conceived “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters which attracted widespread scorn as being patronising.
Based in Senate House, London University’s HQ, the new department was thrown together hurriedly at the outbreak of war. The MOI recruited many censor-minded ex-servicemen (including 300 former naval officers) and civil servants, but few journalists initially. Ultimately, by 1943, it employed 2,900 staff including around 200 journalists.
The MOI had three Ministers in quick succession, none of whom lasted very long. The first, Lord Macmillan was a Scottish judge. He resigned after four months admitting that he had little idea what the MOI was supposed to do. The second Minister was John Reith, cantankerous founder of the BBC. He also lasted only a few months, because as soon as Winston Churchill took office as Prime Minister, he moved Reith, whom he detested. In his place, Churchill appointed an ex-soldier and politician Duff Cooper. Like his predecessors, Cooper failed to get a grip on the Ministry, largely because the three service ministries – the War Office, the Admiralty and the Air Ministry – refused to relinquish their hold on news of what was happening in the war. Fleet Street and the British public often learned about events first from German press releases. In 1942, Cooper, too, resigned, later admitting that his heart was not in it. Accepting his resignation, Churchill said, , ‘I suppose it was my fault. You should never harness a thoroughbred to a dung cart.’
To fill the post – by now regarded as a poison chalice – Churchill, together with Lord Beaverbrook persuaded Brendan Bracken to take on the task as Minister of Information. Bracken was Churchill’s Parliamentary Private Secretary and had been a close personal friend and ‘fixer’ for Churchill since the 1920s. He was the publisher of The Financial Times and the Economist, and so had experience of newspaper publishing. Bracken reluctantly agreed.
A tall, talkative Irishman with a domineering manner, Brendan Bracken’s appearance was striking. Henry ‘Chips’ Channon described him in his diary as, ‘. . . Brendan Bracken, that kind-hearted, garrulous, red-headed gargoyle, whom I have always considered a fraud . . .’ Bracken was often taken to be Churchill’s illegitimate son. Churchill himself, was said to have been, ‘amused and slightly flattered,’ by the idea and whenever he was asked if Brendan were his son, he replied, ‘I only wish he were.’ Bracken is also said to be the model for Big Brother (“BB”) in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Against all expectations, Bracken made a great success of managing the Ministry. He won round the Air Ministry, who he persuaded to release details of numbers of aircraft involved in raids, and the War Office, who he persuaded to allow journalists to accompany the troops in North Africa for the first time. Eventually he even won round the Admiralty, especially after they sank the Bismarck, but failed to take a single photograph of her sinking for the papers, angering Churchill. Bracken was ably assisted by two talented officials, Director General Cyril Radcliffe and Francis Williams who was head of press censorship. Williams was a former editor of the Daily Herald who would become public relations adviser to Clement Attlee in the post-war Labour government.
Extracted from The Ministry of Spin