This post by Dr Henry Irving originally appeared on the Institute of English Studies Blog on 4 April 2014.
The Ministry of Information (MOI) established by the British government during the Second World War was regarded as an anomaly by many of its contemporaries. Responsible for a range of functions, from censorship to the monitoring of morale, it was set up to meet a national emergency. The idea that its work might continue beyond the end of the conflict was simply not contemplated by those responsible for its creation.
Unlike similar temporary departments, such as the Ministry of Food, the MOI has never been the subject of an official history. It is one of the few parts of the British war effort to have been spared such an honour. Even more surprisingly, a renewed interest in its outputs (mythologised by the ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ message) has yet to encourage a full appreciation of its roles and responsibilities.
The lack of interest cans be explained by the fact that the MOI has been remembered as a failure. It was an organisation responsible for issuing news and encouraging public opinion that appeared to understand neither the press nor public relations. An organisation that fell apart within four weeks of its creation and which took two and a half years to rebuild. It was once satirised by contemporaries as the ‘Ministry of No Comment’, and a former minister believed ‘there [was] no place in the British scheme of government for [the Ministry]’.
Existing historical accounts have tended to echo these sentiments. Armed with vivid anecdotes about MOI officials refusing to divulge the content of leaflets dropped over Germany to American newspapers lest the information ‘aid the enemy’, it is easy to see why this has been the case.
However, by focusing on the MOI’s initial difficulties, historians have tended to paint a somewhat distorted picture of this extraordinary institution. The MOI was after all simultaneously responsible for communicating information to the domestic population; presenting the British war effort to those in allied and neutral countries; providing other parts of government with accurate reports of public opinion; and operating systems of censorship that covered many parts of the media. It is to be expected that these sometime conflicting functions would create serious internal and external tensions.
One aim of our project is to increase an understanding of these tensions. Approaching the MOI as a study in communications history, it will explore the complex relationships that developed between the department and its audiences. Moreover, by carefully tracing developments across the entire Second World War period, these findings will be used to assess the extent to which the MOI learned from its mistakes and successfully adapted to changing circumstances. As the same former minister explained, we must remember that any department like the MOI ‘is an organism, not a machine’.