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The Evolution of British Public Diplomacy 1954-1969: Part 2

July 8, 2011

Part 1 is here.

Why did the Duncan Committee recommend such big cuts in ‘information work’?

I think that there are three reasons.  Firstly, the change in the overall foreign policy situation reduced the need for the activity.  Secondly, that in the years of plenty in the late 1950s the overseas information programme had lost touch with the fundamental approach laid out in the Drogheda report.  Thirdly, there were doubts about the effectiveness of the activity itself.

  1. The Duncan report argued that UK foreign policy should take on a north Atlantic and commercial orientation hence there was no longer the need to maintain a scale of information activity appropriate to a global great power status. Also the end of decolonization removed some of the requirements of the previous 15 years where information activity had been used to forge new relationships with the newly independent countries.
  2. Although the Duncan Committee recommended big cuts in Foreign Office information it affirmed the general approach of the Drogheda Report, that had also been reaffirmed by the Plowden Report in 1964.  Information work was understood as a support to foreign policy goals not as a separate activity.  The corollary of this was that efforts at the ‘projection of Britain’ – that is general publicity to create a positive image of the UK should be avoided.  Information work should be undertaken by members of the foreign service who should be tightly integrated with the political work of the missions. Information work should be aimed at elites who were in a position to influence others rather than at the mass of society. The Duncan Report suggested that during the years of plenty the scale of information work had meant a neglect of these principles. Separate information offices had proliferated and that these had tended to treat information activity as an end in itself and to embark on quixotic efforts to reach society as a whole – India is singled out as a particular case – in 1968 there were 117 staff in the New Delhi information office.  The report argued that core functions such as media relations could be achieved with much smaller numbers of staff – indeed the report emphasizes that all members of the diplomatic service should be able to deal with the media and be aware of the public relations requirements of their work.
  3. The third factor was scepticism about the effectiveness of much of the information work carried out.  It’s easy to forget that pre-internet ‘information’ tended to mean written material.  Thus the ‘overseas information services’ are in part an elaborate global network for producing, translating and distributing printed material much of it written in the UK.  This immediately created the risk that much of the material was actually irrelevant to audiences in most of the world – a complaint frequently made by staff in the field.  Even if relevant to a particular country it was wastefully sent to too many people. The Duncan report dismisses the effectiveness of written material.  While it is easy to share their scepticism it should be noted that the report doesn’t draw on any research beyond their own observations .

The Duncan report formed the basis for discussion about the UK’s overall overseas representation and the following years did see big reductions in Foreign Office information activity.  In future posts I will pick up this story.

One final thought.  It strikes me that in today’s FCO there would be little dissent from the approach to ‘public diplomacy’ set out in the Drogheda report even though I suspect that few people there have ever heard of it.  The fusion of diplomacy and public diplomacy has deep roots in the UK.

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