Historical documents released by the Foreign Office shed new light on how a secretive team of British civil servants tried to influence the international media during the Cold War.
In one intriguing episode the UK government in the late 1960s persuaded the British-based news agency Reuters to set up a reporting service in the Middle East, funding it surreptitiously via the BBC.
This was contrived by the Information Research Department (IRD), a shadowy section created within the Foreign Office in 1948 to fight the propaganda battle with the Soviet Union. It covertly produced anti-communist material.
In 1969, Reuters agreed to establish a new office in the politically-volatile Middle East, at the secret request of the IRD. It would provide news copy in English and Arabic about local and world events, for reuse by newspapers and broadcasters in the region.
The recently disclosed documents at the UK’s National Archives show how this plan was devised and the terms in which civil servants discussed the proposal.
IRD staff acknowledged that they would not have “editorial control” over Reuters, which “would not accept government control”, but they hoped the UK government would gain “a measure of political influence”. Officials thought “this influence would flow, at the top level, from Reuters’ willingness to consult and to listen to views expressed on the results of its work”.
The Reuters service replaced a previous agency called Regional News Service (Middle East), which was directly funded and ultimately controlled by IRD as one of a number of such news operations around the globe. But the department regarded it as “not cost-effective” and had decided to dissolve it.
British diplomats in the Middle East were worried about channels of influence being filled by “hostile or semi-hostile agencies”, such as the Egypt-based Middle East News Agency, the Soviet agency Tass, and even Agence France Presse.
They wanted “an objective and accurate service of high quality” to combat what they described as the “calculated fabrications” from “slanted” agencies.
Reuters at the time faced major financial difficulties internationally and needed subsidy for the new service. But the Foreign Office did not want to fund it openly, as it felt that could damage the agency’s reputation.
So an “unorthodox” plan was hatched which involved the BBC paying “enhanced subscriptions” to Reuters for access to its news copy, on the basis that the Treasury would then compensate the BBC’s government-funded international services for the extra cost.
In this way, Reuters would be provided with “concealed support”. A Foreign Office memo stated it was important to avoid “any suggestion of a secret arrangement between HMG and Reuters”.
The scheme was approved by Sir Charles Curran, then head of the BBC’s External Services, and later the corporation’s director general. Only two other senior BBC staff were to know the real purpose.
Sir Charles told the Foreign Office that any sum higher than £30,000 annually for this would “look fishy” and appear to be “a badly concealed government subsidy for other purposes”.
But eventually it was agreed the BBC should pay Reuters £350,000 over four years. The documents only go up to 1970, and it is not clear from these files what proportion was actually received back from the government.
The hope was that Reuters would in due course manage to make this new Middle East news service profitable in its own right, although the Foreign Office had concerns about this.
One official wrote: “In going for a profitable service, will Reuters not be tempted to put in popular items (sports, lighter material, human interest) and leave out the political material which is what we want? We know all about the ‘icing on the cake’ argument, but if only the icing is sold and the cake left, our purposes are not served.”
‘Fleet Street attention’
The Foreign Office was also already paying a secret subsidy to Reuters for Latin American news reporting via a front company, but it did not want to replicate this arrangement for the Middle East.
Officials wrote that the company involved had “barely credible annual accounts” and “already looks queer to anyone who might wish to investigate why such an inactive and unprofitable company continues to run”.
IRD staff were worried about the threat of “Fleet Street attention”, but the work of the Information Research Department went unreported until the late 1970s, after it had been closed in 1977 by then-Foreign Secretary David Owen.
Reuters’ spokesperson David Crundwell told the BBC: “Many news organisations received some form of state subsidy after World War Two. But the arrangement in 1969 was not in keeping with our Trust Principles and we would not do this today.
“Reuters receives no government funding, supplying independent, unbiased news in every part of the world.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC Charter guarantees editorial independence irrespective of whether funding comes from the UK government, the licence fee or commercial sources.”
The Foreign Office declined to comment on this story, but it is now gradually releasing more historical records relating to the IRD and avowing more of its past activities.