Feature - The art of deception;
The sinister pro-war tactics of Wilson's Labour government in 1968
July 25, 2008 Friday)
At the risk of boring readers into the ground, here is another look at how the government reacted to British anti-Vietnam war protests in 1968.
Another inch-thick dossier of papers from the Home Office fell through my letterbox, revealing more incredibly thick behaviour by the Establishment. The way they were then gives a warning about the way they are now.
In 1968, a Labour government that was much more left-wing than Brown's gang responded to protests with paranoia, dishonesty and wild talk of bomb plots.
Protests against the Vietnam war were bigger and more raucous than any London demos for over 30 years. They were part of an international wave of rebellion and so had bigger political ambitions than previous protests and were ambitions that rejuvenated the left.
But the protests still only involved tens of thousands of people and did not threaten the state. They still seemed to scare them to the edge of madness.
As I revealed last month, the Labour home secretary and defence minister actually discussed using troops to hold the demonstrators back. Thankfully, they decided against sending in the army, so they turned to their second defence - satire.
Sir Burke Trend co-ordinated the government's defence against the dangerous long-haired barbarians of the New Left. I know that his name sounds made up, but Sir Burke was real - he was cabinet secretary and an important Establishment figure.
He pulled together a joint committee of the prime minister, with the foreign, home, education and Scottish secretaries, on the "state of student unrest." Under Trend's guidance, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and all agreed that the Information Research Department (IRD), a propaganda unit close to MI6, should "put together and circulate among students material which would help put student organisations on their guard against the ill-disposed. This, I took it, would be circulated anonymously."
Another cabinet office note for a September 12 joint ministers' meeting says that the government wanted to "give fullest support to the NUS (National Union of Students) as an organisation," so "canalising the current mood of protest" away from the militants.
To this end, IRD officials were "preparing a fairly light-hearted, satirical leaflet for distribution by the National Union of Students in time for the opening of the new term, aimed particularly at the sceptical first-year student" to try to discredit the militants.
At one level, this was a classic propaganda operation. Lesson one of "information management" says get a third party to deliver your message. The cabinet committee minutes say: "It would be counterproductive for the government to be seen to be too closely involved in student affairs, and the means by which the government can influence student opinion are clearly limited."
However, it seems that somebody in the NUS was willing to act as the government's patsy and deliver their message. It is also clearly potty. Sir Burke's government satire committee against the reds sounds like a Monty Python sketch.
The government's propaganda campaign was ridiculous but also sinister. The Information Research Department was a nasty bunch. It also created dossiers warning vice-chancellors about dangerous "red" students.
They were happy to use the most alarming smears. One vicious dossier says that anti-war protesters "have been buying small arms" and making "Molotov cocktails."
The government's attempts to beat protests with spoofs and send-ups failed, but they did have other propaganda weapons. They leaned hard on the media.
Home secretary Callaghan called in chairman of the BBC governors Lord Hill before a demo to "put the view that, on these occasions, television cameras were not neutral and contributed to the atmosphere."
Callaghan told the BBC boss that "the police needed support in all these matters. They would feel particularly strongly if television cameras showed some momentary lapse of retaliation on the part of a police officer, but not the deliberate violence which provoked it."
Callaghan wanted the BBC to get behind the police's "momentary lapses" with truncheon and boot. Lord Hill jumped into line, declaring that he "accepted that the BBC had a duty to society as well as a duty to report the news and he entirely agreed with the home secretary's approach. He said that the matter could be confidently left to him to deal with."
Oily Lord Hill promised to do all this behind the scenes, saying "that it was nevertheless a delicate point to put over, any overt movement on his part would almost certainly get publicity and therefore be counterproductive. He mentioned that Mr John Crawley, the news and current affairs editor of the BBC, was entirely in his confidence on these matters and could be approached with absolute safety by the home secretary."
Callaghan also called in the 10 chairmen of the top newspapers for a meeting at which he insisted that "television and newspaper cameras were not neutral," reminding the Fleet Street bosses that "there was a feeling among the police that the published photographs tended to concentrate on some retaliation by a police officer, rather than on the blow by a demonstrator which provoked a police officer."
Where the BBC were oily, the newspapermen were loudly onside. One chairman asked if their staff could chase demonstrators and whether the courts were tough enough on protesters.
In 1968, a Labour government raised the threat of terrorism by protesters, secretly circulating stories that were the basis of lurid headlines like "Yard in terror bombs hunt."
They used these stories to push a willing media away from "neutral" reporting, encouraging them to get behind police "retaliation."
The lesson is that we should think twice when the government says: "Trust us" about security. Sometimes, when they feel threatened and when they get too carried away in their cabinet committees, they actually go a little bit mad.