A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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The weekly Report aims at presenting an unbiased and objective picture of the state of British public opinion on matters connected with the war. It covers a period which ends three days before the report is produced. It attempts also to assess, as accurately as possible, the general state of public confidence during the same period.

It must be emphasised that the Report sets out to be a record of opinion , and not in fact , except in so far as opinion itself is a fact. Frequently the public is misinformed or mistaken, and on such occasions the public's views are given without comment.

There are no absolutes by which the state of public confidence or morale can be measured. Estimates of public confidence must, therefore, be comparative. In order that the Report may be seen in perspective, it is essential that the contents of previous Reports should be borne in mind. The British public tend as a general rule to take good work or efficiency for granted; they are reluctant to voice praise or satisfaction. Most of their comments on current events, on the Government, and on Government action, are, therefore, critical. Unless this fact is remembered, the Report may be thought to overpoint the critical side of the picture. It is a safe assumption that, when a topic is not mentioned in the Weekly Report, it is not a subject of widespread criticism among all strata of the community.

There are two important provisos which readers of the Report should bear in mind. A large section of the British public is inarticulate and does not formulate its feeling at all clearly. Special methods have therefore been devised so that the opinion of this section may be expressed; but in the process of converting ill-formulated ideas into words, distortion may sometimes occur. Further, since the Report is a summary of public opinion in the country as a whole, it represents more than any one individual is likely to be thinking or feeling. An industrial worker may have strong views on the loss of some tanks in battle, transport difficulties to and from work, and hold-ups in production: a housewife may feel strongly about the B.B.C. news service, dependants' allowances, and the shortage of canned peas: the Home Intelligence Weekly Report adds up the views of everybody and records those views which are held strongly by wide sections of the community.

Since the Report is primarily intended to show how the public is reacting to the news and its presentation, and so that the Ministry of Information may be guided in its work, the report has to be produced very quickly. Unless this is done, it is impossible for the Ministry to take corrective measures while the news is still fresh in the mind of the public. The need for rapid production prevents the use of an exact numerical method for expressing the extent and strength of public opinion. The absence of such exact checks makes it necessary for the greatest care to be taken at all stages in the production of the Report, if the qualitative assessment of opinion is to be accurate.


The principle adopted throughout the process of collecting Home Intelligence is that of continuous cross checking . At every stage in the work, source is checked against source, and assessment against assessment.

Sources :-

i. Regional Intelligence Officers : Attached to the Regional Information Officer in each of the civil defence regions is an officer whose special duty is Home Intelligence work. In London, owing to the great complexity of the problems, there is a special unit composed of three officers. To make it clear that the work is not concerned with the views or the activities of individuals, but rather with the broader facets of public opinion, the word ‘intelligence’ is, as far as possible, avoided; these officers are therefore called Senior Assistant Officers. Great care has been exercised in their selection. Before they begin work, they are given a short training course in which the essential need for objectivity is repeatedly driven home. They are taught that, when at work, they have to become impartial recording and assessing machines free from political or other bias; in short their emotions must be put in cold storage.

The basis of each Intelligence Officer's work is a panel of voluntary contacts scattered throughout the region, roughly on a population basis. Each contact must fulfil the following criteria:-

  1. He or she must be personally known to the Intelligence Officer as a sensible, level-headed person.

  2. He or she must have the nature and object of the work adequately explained and must be in sympathy with it. It is expected that the recruitment of a new contact will seldom be done in less than one hour's interview

  3. He or she must be a person who, by the nature of his, or her, occupation comes into contact with a large number of people every day. Examples are:-

    Doctors, parsons, shopkeepers, trade union officials, bank managers, W.V.S. officials, C.A.B. secretaries, librarians, W.E.A. organisers, hospital almoners, factory welfare workers, business men, local journalists, factory managers, licensed victuallers, newsagents, etc.

To each contact it is explained that the Ministry of Information is not concerned with ‘snooping’ on people, but with what is thought and said about the war, the news, legislation and administration, because, as the Government's central publicity department, it is the Ministry's job to find out where explanation is needed and where things are not running smoothly. It has to be impressed on contacts that they must try to reflect the opinion of those they meet, not what they themselves feel. In practice, Intelligence Officers soon come to know the personalities of individual contacts, and it is only in the light of such knowledge that their reports can be assessed. Intelligence Officers are continually recruiting new contacts and, as this process goes on, the validity of the work increases. But the recruitment of each contact has to be carried out on an individual basis and unless this is done the accuracy of the work is not maintained.

In each Region, Intelligence Officers now have between two hundred and four hundred contacts. Each week, a proportion of them are asked, by telephone, by letter or by personal interview, how the people they meet are taking the war and the news; what particular difficulties, if any, have arisen; and if there is any substantial volume of praise or criticism. Intelligence Officers are taught most precisely to avoid the use of leading questions, as it is of vital importance not to stimulate grumbles and criticisms which are latent or unexpressed. A rota of contacts is thus worked through each week and in this way the danger of over-tiring contacts is avoided. The number of reports which Intelligence Officers receive each week from their contacts varies, but a minimum of thirty is aimed at. In practice, a much larger number is frequently obtained. Thirty such reports from reliable contacts will, of course, reflect the opinion of a very much larger number of people.

ii. Local Information Committees . Throughout the country there are a large number of Local Information Committees. Those are co-opted bodies, which include representatives of the political parties, local authorities, voluntary organisations, etc. Many of these committees submit reports on the state of public feeling in their areas. Such reports are treated by Home Intelligence with some reserve. Committees are not in the nature of things a reliable means of assessing public opinion. The eloquence or personality of one member may colour the views of the whole Committee; or a majority opinion may be recorded instead of a statement of both sides. Furthermore, the training of committee members in the task of assessing public feeling is fraught with difficulties. For certain routine enquiries, committees have their value; e.g. for reporting public feeling about the shortage of certain commodities. Such information is regularly collected for the Board of Trade and other Government Departments. Individual members of committees may, however, from time to time, be recruited as intelligence contacts.

iii. Regional Office Staff . Besides the Intelligence Officer in the Regional Information offices there are Meetings Officers, Committee Officers, Films Officers, etc. The duties of these officers frequently bring them into contact with large numbers of members of the public and they co-operate most helpfully with the Intelligence Officers. Staff speakers, who address public meetings both small and large, submit reports of the problems which were raised at their meetings and these are sometimes of value; questioners at public meetings are not, however, regarded as in any way representative.

The Intelligence Officer thus collects a large amount of “raw material” each week on which to base an appreciation of the state of public opinion. This appreciation is similar in format to the Home Intelligence Weekly Report. In making it, the Intelligence Officer has constantly to bear in mind, not only the information received, but the source from which it came. Sources are cross-checked against each other, and, unless there is a considerable volume of evidence for a statement, it is omitted from the appreciation. Before this is sent to London (by express passenger train), it is vetted carefully by the Regional Information Officer and points which appear doubtful to him are verified or omitted. Intelligence Officers are discouraged from reporting to London purely local matters which the Regional Information Officers can deal with much more satisfactorily, in conjunction with regional heads of Government departments.

iv. Postal Censorship . Special arrangements have been made by Postal Censorship to prepare weekly reports on subjects covered by Home Intelligence, at their regional censorship units. In addition, much fuller monthly reports are prepared at the London headquarters of Postal Censorship, but the weekly regional reports are of greater immediate value, because they are more up to date.

The Postal Censorship material is of enormous volume, but, in using it, certain provisos have to be borne in mind:-

  1. The largest part of the outgoing mail is bound for Ireland. This part contains an unduly high proportion of lower class writers and on account of certain special affinities, these writers are not necessarily representative of the British working classes. Thus, the question of the Irish ports continued to be an important topic in Postal Censorship long after it had ceased to interest the average Englishman.

  2. Writers abroad may frequently adopt a conscious or unconscious propagandist attitude, either from patriotic motives, or with a view to producing some action by relatives overseas.

    Such sources of bias as these have constantly to be remembered in dealing with Postal Censorship material.

v. Police Duty Room Reports . By arrangement with the Home Office, Chief Constables' Police Duty Room Reports on Home Opinion, News, and Propaganda, are sent to the Home Intelligence Division. There is inevitably a time lag between the production of these reports and their scrutiny. Further, it is not always easy to know how much value should be placed on them without knowing something of the personality of the reporter.

vi. Special and Occasional Reports . The most valuable of these are the reports from the Listener Research Department of the B.B.C. These give a very exact index of the reactions of the public to all phases of broadcasting, but again there is a certain time lag which limits their value. Reports are received from a number of voluntary societies, e.g. the Women's Voluntary Services, the Citizens Advice Bureaux, etc. These are of greater value in confirming trends already noticed, or in suggesting new lines for investigation, than as a major source of new material.


The same principle of cross checking is applied to the compilation of the final Weekly Report as is applied by each Intelligence Officer. Each regional report is checked against the others and, unless there is substantial evidence for a statement, that statement is not included in the final Home Intelligence Weekly Report. In addition, the regional reports are cross checked against the postal censorship weekly regional reports and against any other sources of information which may be apposite. Three carefully trained workers prepare the first draft of the Intelligence Report on this basis. The draft is then taken over by the Director, or Deputy Director, of the Home Intelligence Division, together with all the regional and other reports, and the whole is cross checked once more and re-assessed. When the final draft has been prepared, it is again rapidly re-assessed by the senior officer who has not performed the first re-assessment, and is also read through by the Director of the Home Division.

The whole process of compilation has to be done in under forty-eight hours, but in spite of this there is very rarely any dispute among the different assessors about the final version.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the validity of the Report is the high degree of agreement which is usually found between the thirteen different regional intelligence reports. The Intelligence Officers have no possibility of collaborating, and at any time they may be called upon to give the evidence for any particular piece of information. That public opinion throughout the country (on other than local matters) should be so uniform is not really surprising since nearly everybody is now touched by the B.B.C. and national newspapers, while wartime legislation is also on a national basis.

6th April, 1942

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