Last week I was doing some research at the British Library, and while I was waiting for my requested documents to be brought up from the vaults, I had a quick tour of the library’s latest exhibition. It’s called Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, and it’s an exploration of the origins and common strategies of propaganda.
The working definition of propaganda here is simply “the manipulation of collective attitudes”. The exhibition has limited its focus on state, so the far more pervasive influence of corporate propaganda will have to wait for another time and place.
The term usually has negative connotations, but one of the key points of the exhibition is that propaganda can be good or bad. It depends on the message and the motives. Public health campaigns such as ‘five a day’ are attempts to manipulate collective attitudes and therefore propaganda, after all. The question I found myself asking in response to the many examples on show is ‘who is served?’. Does it serve the people, or is it aimed at reinforcing an oppressive state – although those lines quickly get blurred, especially in communist regimes.
The show is full of relevant artefacts, from early coins to Second World War air-dropped leaflets to the famous Gulf War playing cards. The inclusion of the Blair government’s famously ‘sexed up’ Iraqi WMD dossier was a provocative touch, but the object that I found most striking was probably the Boer War board game from 1900. I’ve been reading about that war for another project recently. It was a horrendous guerrilla conflict and all kinds of atrocities were committed in the name of the British Empire, including the invention of the concentration camp. But here was a game for children called ‘With our Bobs at the Front’. No players represent the Boers, it’s more of a race to conquer South Africa – that way the Empire always wins.
The game demonstrates a number of the different strategies of propaganda which the exhibition highlights along the way. It appeals to patriotism, promulgates the cult of personality around Lord ‘Bobs’ Roberts, and makes it fun. Other important strategies are to imply everyone agrees, stir up outrage, and appeal to self-interest. Choose your message and stick to it, repeating it until it sinks in. And as early 20th century newspaper tycoon Lord Northcliffe would have said to the designers of this poster on the left, “obvious propaganda is third rate propaganda.”
Thinking about these techniques and noticing them around me, I couldn’t help but think of common modern examples, particularly around the Jubilee and the Olympics last year. So it was interesting to reach the last section of the exhibition and find both of those things. A video has Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, talking about the whole Olympic project as an exercise in ‘country branding’. Whether or not individual elements within it were propaganda, such as the opening ceremony, there’s no doubt that the Labour government that put in the initial bid were hoping to manipulate the world’s attitudes towards Britain.
I shared my brief visit with a couple of schools groups, one of them a history class that spent a good while dissecting the subliminal details of a large portrait of Napoleon. It would have been an unusually useful school trip, if you came away from it equipped to spot government propaganda when you see it.
- Propaganda runs until September at the British Library.