Tuesday, 19 September 2006

The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920

The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920
Brian P Murphy; Aubane Historical Society and Spinwatch; ISBN 1 903497 24 8; pp 90. £4

In August 1920, Basil Clarke arrived in Dublin as director of government publicity with the specific task of countering Sinn Fein propaganda. As Brian Murphy shows in this concise, fascinating and important study, Clarke was ideally suited to his new job. A highly experienced and widely travelled journalist with the Manchester Guardian and Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, Clarke ended the 1914-18 war as special correspondent for Reuters and the Press Association at the GHQ of the British army in France. In his reporting Clarke admitted that “he broke laws and orders innumerable” with “no remorse; not the slightest”. In 1918 he became director of special intelligence branch of the Ministry of Reconstruction and in 1920 (just before moving to his Dublin post) director of public information at the Ministry of Health.

Working alongside Clarke was Captain H.B.C. Pollard, press officer of the Police Authority’s information section. Another experienced journalist with many years’ service at the Daily Express, he had been staff officer in the intelligence section of the War Office from 1916-18. Murphy highlights Pollard’s outrageously racist views of the Irish people. In his 1922 book, The Secret Societies of Ireland: Their Rise and Progress, Pollard wrote on the IRA: “…there is nothing fine about a group of moral decadents leading a superstitious minority into an epidemic of murder and violent crime; yet this is what has happened of recent years in Ireland, it is what has happened time and time again in the past, and it will happen again in the future; for the Irish problem is a problem of the Irish race, and it is rooted in the racial characteristics of the people themselves.”

In addition, Major Cecil John Charles Street, director of the Irish Office in London, was engaged in many aspects of propaganda work, in particular building up cosy contacts with Fleet Street editors. All three (Clarke, Pollard and Street) worked closely with Basil Thomson, head of Special Branch in London

Drawing on a wide range of sources -- including Colonial Office files in the National Archives, Kew, reports of the mainstream and Republican press, memoirs and histories -- Murphy argues convincingly that the activities of these British propagandists in 1920 marked a significant (though, to date, largely ignored) moment in the development of the national security state apparatus.

Through a daily news sheet titled Summaries of Official Reports and Outrages and the police journal, the Weekly Summary, which began publication in August 1920, the mainstream British press was fed disinformation, lies and distortions which highlighted the alleged success of the Crown Forces and portrayed the IRA as a “murder gang”. Moreover, Murphy shows that by shaping and refining the news in the British interest, Clarke not only produced a propaganda message for his time but also provided a historical narrative for all time.

In impressive detail, Murphy, a member of the Benedictine Community at Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, examines a series of critical events – such as the execution of Kevin Barry after a failed attack on a British military lorry in Dublin and the ambush of British forces by the IRA at Kilmichael on 28 November 1920. And he shows how the official line was swallowed wholesale by the mainstream press -- though vigorously challenged by the Republican press such as the Irish Bulletin.

For instance, after the shooting in Dublin Castle of the IRA fighters Dick McKee, Peader Clancy and Connor Clune, Clarke’s “official” account asserted (falsely) that the three men had been shot while trying to escape. It was this account which appeared in the mainstream press, with The Times’s headline on 24 November proclaiming “Desperate fight in guard room – murder gang members”. In addition Clarke published fake photographs to show that an escape had been attempted by the prisoners.

In an extremely useful foreword, Professor David Miller argues that the 1920 Dublin milieu “produced the public relations industry in Britain”. Clarke, for instance, left government service in the early 1920s and established one of the first PR agencies, Editorial Services. And between 1929 and 1931 he worked as PR official for the Conservative Party. Pollard, on the other hand, played a significant role in bringing General Franco back to Spain in 1936 to launch his murderous coup against democratic Spain.

Miller also draws parallels between the torture techniques used on IRA captives and on Iraqis at Abu Ghraib. For instance, Tom Hales and Patrick Harte were viciously attacked, kicked, punched, hit with revolver butts and tortured with pincers. In addition, they were threatened in a mock execution and made to hold the Union Jack while photographs were taken of them.

As Miller concludes: “One of Murphy’s most extraordinary revelations is that the techniques, which shocked the world in Abu Ghraib, have a history longer than perhaps anyone outside the military and their political masters has suspected.”

For copies of the book contact jacklaneaubane@hotmail.com or wwws.spinwatch.org

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