Propaganda – Better To Tell The Truth? Orwell's Question

In April 1943 George Orwell asked ‘Is it better from a propaganda point of view to tell the truth or to spread confusing rumours and promise everything to everybody?’ He went on to ask ‘whether propaganda can ever achieve anything on its own, or whether it merely speeds up processes that are happening already’?

These questions arose in his review of E. Tangye Lean’s Voices In The Darkness: The Story Of The European Radio War.

Tangye Lean Voices in the Darkness 1943

Orwell began his review ‘Anyone who has had to do propaganda to “friendly” countries must envy the European Service of the B.B.C. They are playing on such an easy wicket! People living under a foreign occupation are necessarily hungry for news, and by making it a penal offence to listen in to Allied broadcasts the Germans have ensured that those broadcasts will be accepted as true. There, however, the advantage of the B.B.C.’s European Service ends. If heard it will be believed, except perhaps in Germany itself, but the difficulty is to be heard at all, and still more, to know what to say. With these difficulties Mr. Tangye Lean’s interesting book is largely concerned.’

What were the ‘difficulties’? He went on to lay out some of these: ‘First of all there are the physical and mechanical obstacles. It is never very easy to pick up a foreign station unless one has a fairly good radio set, and every hostile broadcast labours under the enormous disadvantage that its time and wavelength cannot be advertised in the Press. Even in England, where there is no sort of ban on listening, few people have even heard of the German “freedom” stations such as the New British and the Workers’ Challenge. There is also jamming…’.

Orwell was, of course, being slightly disingenuous as he had himself described the German stations in some of his other journalism. These stations were not the publicly acknowledged German broadcasters, such as Radio Hamburg where William Joyce made his nightly broadcasts, but ‘black’ stations where a few quislings and a few more idiots selected from Prisoner of War camps were allowed free rein for a few minutes. It was on the Workers’ Challenge that a moronic Tommy was allowed to ‘eff and blind’ in describing Churchill and the government – listeners in Britain tuned in to hear words they had never heard elsewhere before.

Orwell goes on to describe how incompetent was French broadcasting during the Battle of France compared to the German, and how once France was conquered ‘the Germans were ready with programmes of propaganda and music which they had prepared beforehand’.

As Orwell says the government had been forced to launch a BBC external service in 1938 when confronted with the worsening situation in Europe. In turn many of the staff were continental exiles, anti-Nazis and refugees. Among them was Georg Arthur Weidenfeld.

Derrick Sington Arthur Wiedenfeld The Goebbels Experiment

In 1942 Weidenfeld and his co-author  Derrick Sington published The Goebbels Experiment: A Study of the Nazi Propaganda Machine. A few months later, in his Foreword to Voices In The Darkness, Lean thanked Weidenfeld: ‘I have had the invaluable help of Mr Weidenfeld, co-author of The Goebbels Experiment, and without his erudition I should have had to leave bigger gaps in the story.’ After the War, Weidenfeld anglicised his other given name to George and became a successful publisher as Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Books such as these two were very popular. A scan of Voices In The Darkness is available online at archive.org, apparently made not of the first but the second printing. The first edition, though, was in March 1943, despite the printing history in the online copy; meaning that by April 1943 the book had been printed once and reprinted at least twice. Between these two books, one of which acknowledges the other, one can deduce that at least in Britain it was possible for the interested layperson to study both Allied and Axis methods of propaganda even while the War raged.

Towards the end of his review Orwell says ‘in general propaganda cannot fight against the facts, though it can colour and distort them’. One may doubt whether that statement is true today, in an age where ‘post-truth’ means that facts are no longer solid. In turn, though, that may be because of the medium through which propaganda is distributed: it was true in an age of newspapers, books and wireless, but it cannot be true in an age of social media. Perhaps the light of truth which used to pass clearly as if through windowpanes of the press is now being distorted as it passes through media which act more like bottle glass. One needs another lens beyond to bring the facts back into focus, and that lens is not yet in place.


Bibliography:

Review of Voices In The Darkness by E Tangye Lean (Tribune, 30 April 1943) is in Volume XV of the Collected Works, edited by Peter Davison.

It is most easily found in Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings, edited by Peter Davison, which is available in hardback and softback at all good bookshops.

L J Hurst

Last updated: 17 December 2016

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