A Ministry of Information Film Unit car leaves Senate House © IWM (D 1199)
This post by Dr Henry Irving explores the way that the Ministry of Information's launch was handled by the British government.
One of the striking facts about the Ministry of Information (MOI) is that it attempted to start work at full speed. The MOI was created by the British government on Monday 4 September 1939 to 'promote the national case to the public at home and abroad in time of war'. It became immediately responsible for both censorship and publicity.
The first Minister of Information, the Scottish Law Lord Hugh Macmillan, was appointed later on that first day and recalled that he found ‘a large office and staff with already defined duties and tasks and already in full operation’. He explained that it was ‘a full grown and elaborate establishment … with which I had to do my best to familiarise myself’. This would cause notable difficulties, with one of Macmillan’s personal advisors privately noting that the Minister ‘had not the vaguest idea of what he was taking on’.
Much work had already been undertaken. Planning for the MOI had begun in October 1936 and had gathered pace after 1938. A ‘shadow’ MOI had even been (briefly) assembled on 26 September 1938 after the week of heightened international tension which preceded the Munich Agreement signed by Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. However the MOI had remained an official secret during this time, with knowledge of its existence limited to a relatively small number of civil servants, MPs, government advisors, and BBC officials.
The initial secrecy can be explained by the fact that the MOI tended to be viewed through the lens of past experience. This led to two interlinked difficulties. First, as the MOI was regarded as a wartime necessity, the government was unwilling to release details of its existence lest they be taken as evidence that diplomacy had failed. This fear anticipated later criticism of ‘appeasement’ and fed into a second set of worries about the place of ‘propaganda’ in peacetime.
All of this would change when Nazi troops began their occupation of Prague on 15 March 1939.This was a direct violation of the terms of the Munich Agreement and hardened attitudes. With efforts at diplomacy in tatters, Chamberlain now needed to convince the British public that the country was ready for war. Thus, despite continued fears from some cabinet ministers, he informed Parliament on 15 June 1939 that planning for the MOI had already begun. This led to further announcements, culminating in a debate at the end of July when the Home Secretary noted that his aim was to form ‘a comprehensive and efficient machine that would be able to work as soon as war came upon us’.
Privately, however, those responsible for the MOI were less confident. The civil servant responsible for planning had been asked to work towards a provisional launch date of 31 December 1939 but was certain that the MOI would not be fully functional until at least March 1940. This process was overtaken by events as Europe slid towards war and an official announcement that the MOI had launched was made just hours after war was declared on 3 September 1939.
The formation of the MOI represented an important development in official communication. It is therefore fitting that so much discussion had gone into how it was to be announced. The process sketched out above exemplifies a broader shift away from appeasement and towards an effort to reassure the public that Britain was prepared for war. However, as Macmillan testified, declarations of readiness did not always translate into reality. This was to be a recurrent problem for the MOI.