British government’s new “anti-fake news” unit has been tried before – and it got out of hand

By 1949, IRD had a staff of just 52, all based in central London. By 1965 it employed 390 staff, including 48 overseas, with a budget of over £1m mostly paid from the “secret vote” used to fund the U.K. intelligence community. IRD also worked alongside the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and the BBC’s World Service.

Playing hardball with soft power
Examples of IRD’s early work include reports on Soviet gulags and the promotion of anti-communist literature. George Orwell’s work was actively promoted by the unit. Shortly before his death in 1950, Orwell even gave it a list of left-wing writers and journalists “who should not be trusted” to spread IRD’s message. During that decade, the department even moved into British domestic politics by setting up a “home desk” to counter communism in industry.

IRD also played an important role in undermining Indonesia’s President Sukarno in the 1960s, as well as supporting western NGOs – especially the Thomson and Ford Foundations. In 1996, former IRD official Norman Reddaway provided more information on IRD’s “long-term” campaigns (contained in private papers). These included “English by TV” broadcast to the Gulf, Sudan, Ethiopia and China, with other IRD-backed BBC initiatives – “Follow Me” and “Follow Me to Science” – which had an estimated audience of 100m in China.

IRD was even involved in supporting Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community, promoting the U.K.’s interests in Europe and backing politicians on both sides. It would shape the debate by writing a letter or article a day in the quality press. The department was also involved in more controversial campaigns, spreading anti-IRA propaganda during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, supporting Britain’s control of Gibraltar and countering the “Black Power” movement in the Caribbean.

Going too far
IRD’s activities were steadily getting out of hand, yet an internal 1971 review found the department was still needed, given “the primary threat to British and Western interests worldwide remains that from Soviet Communism” and the “violent revolutionaries of the ‘New Left’.” IRD was a “flexible auxiliary, specializing in influencing opinion”, yet its days were numbered. By 1972 the organization had just over 100 staff and faced significant budget cuts, despite attempts at reform.

IRD was eventually killed off thanks to opposition from Foreign Office mandarins and the then Labor foreign secretary, David Owen – though that may not be the end of the story. Officials soon set up the Overseas Information Department – likely a play on IRD’s name – tasked with making “attributable and non-attributable” written guidance for journalists and politicians, though its overall role is unclear. Information work was also carried out by “alongsiders” such as the former IRD official Brian Crozier.

The history of IRD’s work is important to future debates on government strategy in countering “fake news”. The unit’s effectiveness is certainly open to debate. In many cases, IRD’s work reinforced the anti-Soviet views of some, while doing little, if anything, to influence general opinion.

In 1976, one Foreign Office official even admitted that IRD’s work could do “more harm than good to institutionalize our opposition” and was “very expensive in manpower and is practically impossible to evaluate in cost effectiveness” – a point worth considering today.

IRD’s rapid expansion from anti-communist unit to protecting Britain’s interests across the globe also shows that it’s hard to manage information campaigns. What may start out as a unit to counter “fake news” could easily spiral out of control, especially given the rapidly expanding online battlefield.

Government penny pinching on defense – a key issue in current debates – could also fail to match the resources at the disposal of the Russian state. In short, the lessons of IRD show that information work is not a quick fix. The British government could learn a lot by visiting the past.

Dan Lomas is Program Leader, MA Intelligence and Security Studies, University of Salford. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).