In this second post, Marc Wiggam examines the Ministry’s methods for gathering intelligence and feedback on its propaganda from its offices in Sweden.

In my previous post I outlined how the Ministry used its Local Information Committees to help inform and shape domestic policy during the war. As with the audience at home, it also needed to know what people abroad thought and felt. But in the absence of an intelligence gathering system similar to its domestic operation, the Ministry’s agents abroad – usually press attaches based in British consulates or embassies – sent back more impressionistic but still influential assessments of the conditions for, and reception of, the Ministry’s foreign propaganda.

Sweden was something of a unique case for the Ministry. Non-aligned and an important source of war resources and material, it was open to both German and British propaganda operations. As such, it remained a key market for the Ministry’s European section. Ministry staff were based in the offices of the Stockholm legation, and whilst cost was certainly a factor in keeping staff together, having a separate office was also felt to be possibly counterproductive for Swedish reception of British propaganda. In July 1939, the legation in Stockholm had already advised that Swedes were likely to be suspicious of any explicit Ministry presence and that it might instead ‘be able to get away with a considerable extension of the Press Attache’s activities’.[1]

An earlier report had similarly advised that overt forms of propaganda would be counterproductive and irritate the population. But it also highlighted the fact that Swedes were "almost passionately anxious for political information, particularly about the UK." Though sensitive to open coercion, a lack of effort from the British to communicate was certain to be seen as a lack of interest in Sweden, and an absence of policy towards it.[2] A propaganda effort, however subtle, was needed to maintain some sort of British and Allied profile in the mix of news and opinion to which Swedes were exposed, and to impress on them their country's importance to Britain.

Material from London – telegrams, articles, audio, photographs, films and various books and pamphlets – were distributed through local channels, with local newspapers republishing articles as they saw fit. Articles from Swedish newspapers and magazines, and books of special interest, as well as information on the use of the Ministry’s material in Swedish media was also sent back to London for translation and distribution within the Ministry and elsewhere in government. A budget report of the press department’s work in Sweden from 1943 gives a concise overview of its broad scope:

Press department activities were concerned with the distribution of UK press leaders and background material from MOI. A full bulletin service was maintained. Nyheter från Storbritannien (News from Great Britain, a Ministry publication) was issued weekly with a circulation of 250000. Feature and political articles were being distributed to about 150 newspapers and periodicals. Window displays were arranged. The Economist was reproduced in Sweden. A sponsored newsreel distribution was carried through in cooperation with the American legation and Paramount. Connections were maintained with Swedish publishers for the publication of British books. [3]

The Ministry’s main publication in Sweden was Nyheter Från Storbrittanien, which republished articles from the British press deemed of interest for Swedish readers. Its audience skewed towards rural populations and the working class, which it was felt had little access to the kinds of news city populations did. Eventually reaching a weekly circulation of 280,000 copies a week, it was distributed for free to those who’d asked to be placed on the paper’s mailing list. Treasury proposals in 1944 to reduce costs and charge for the newspaper were not acted upon, as the Ministry predicted a drop in circulation to about 5-6000. In its response, the Ministry wrote that ‘The paper has undoubtedly earned for us a very great number of friends among the provincial and working class population and the withdrawal of this facility would have unfortunate effects.’ [4]

But what effects? The treasury’s question as to what results could be expected from the Ministry’s propaganda was typical of its mindset, but it was surely a necessary one. Even in 1945, the Ministry’s assessment of its work in Sweden was couched in hazy terms - clandestine support given by the Swedes to Norwegian and Danish government the sole concrete result claimed for its efforts to influence opinion. [5]

But to look for concrete results is perhaps to miss the point of the Ministry’s work, and the manner in which propaganda and structures of information work. Bernhard Cohen crystallized one of the key tenets of agenda setting theory in 1963 with the idea that the media “may not be successful in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.” [6] The Ministry’s efforts to channel and calibrate its material for Sweden’s public sphere were central to establishing a space in which Britain, and the ideas it and the allies fought for, could be projected. Doing this relied on an unprecedented mix of commercial and political intelligence that the Ministry developed over the course of the war, and was repeated in other parts of the Europe, the Americas, and in the Middle and Far East. Our project aims to uncover the true scale and complexity of this part of the Ministry’s work.

[1] TNA FO 930/9, Letter from Monson to Leeper, 27 July 1939.

[2] TNA FO 930/9, Monson to Halifax,  24 July 1939.

[3] TNA FO 930/14, Tennant to Northern Section, November 1944.

[4] TNA FO 930/13, Memo to Welch, 5 April 1944.

[5] TNA FO 930/15, Leadbitter to Northern Section, 23 January 1946.

[6] Bernhard Cohen, The Press and Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963) at p.11.

Further reading: Robert Cole, Britain and the War of Words in Neutral Europe 1939-1945