From the Vaults: Robert Marett, Through the Back Door: An Inside View of Britain’s Overseas Information ServicesAugust 3, 2011
Librarians are usually short of shelf space so they’re happy to sell off those really boring tomes that nobody wants to borrow. On the other hand it’s good for me because I can get my hands on those fascinating frequently forgotten public diplomacy books . A prime example is Robert Marett’s Through the Back Door.
During the 1930s Marett combined working for the Shell oil company’s Mexican subsidiary with being a part time correspondent for The Times. With the approach of the Second World War he was recruited into the organization that was to become the Ministry of Information. This was the beginning of a thirty year career in ‘information work’ that saw him rise to head the Foreign Office’s information departments before retiring as Ambassador to Peru. Through the Back Door is part memoir and part history of the information activity of the period. It’s an incredibly valuable resource for understanding the evolution of British public diplomacy not least because of Marett’s rotation between work in the field and work in London, to summarize his career:
1939-1941 Special Agent in Mexico developing the British information organization there. (Marett was clearly ahead of his time in that his work there makes extensive use of international public-private partnerships that is he’s working with the French government and private companies. )
1941-1942 Regional Information Officer covering Central America and the Caribbean.
1942-1943 British Information Services in Washington DC and New York
1943-1944 Deputy Director, Overseas General Division, Ministry of Information
1944-1945 Director UK Information Office, Ottawa (including a period as a Public Relations Officer at the San Francisco Conference that established the UN)
1946-1948 Deputy Director, British Information Services, New York
1948-1951 Embassy, Lima
1952-1955 Deputy and the Head, Information Policy Department, Foreign Office (during this period he also including served as the secretary to the Drogheda Committee on Overseas Information Services)
1955-1958 Consul-General, Boston
1958-1962 Under Secretary of State for Information Departments
There’s a lot of interesting stuff for the student of public diplomacy
Marett brings out some of the thinking behind the report of the Drogheda Committee – ‘the bible of overseas information work’. Essentially this saw the UK as having three basic tools; the official information services – that is the Foreign Office’s’ information work’, the British Council and BBC’s external broadcasting. Information work was the priority in developed countries with sophisticated media systems. Even in the 1950s the Foreign Office saw that the development of reliable domestic media systems including television as undermining the reach of external broadcasting hence the priority given to working with the media in foreign countries. Information work was also seen to be important in garnering support for British exports – although the book doesn’t say that much about commercial work it is clear that it was consistently an important part of British PD activity.
By the end of the 1950s there was a a growing appreciation of the opportunities for external broadcasting offered by the diffusion of transistor radios across the developing world. Broadcasting was the weapon of choice for reaching the communist countries. It is clear that there was a degree of tension with the BBC because of the FO view was that external broadcasting was useful for some countries but much less for others. It’s also interesting that one preference for information work was that it was easier to see its effects in printed stories or changes in a newspaper’s editorial line.
One of the most striking chapters is the discussion of the British media operation at the 1945 San Francisco Conference that created the United Nations. An information team of over a dozen provided a press office with two sub offices, twice daily briefings with the chief spokesman, press conferences with the leaders of the British delegation, occasional dinners which brought together selected journalists and statesmen, a daily summary circulated to all of the 2000 journalists covering the conference and to other North American media, plus additional commentary and press summaries for the British press corps. Marett cites an article by the editor of the Christian Science Monitor praising the work of the British information officers. The importance attached to media coverage of foreign policy and the effort devoted to influencing it isn’t something that has appeared in the past 20 years.
One relatively minor point that is worth mentioning is that use of non-attributable briefing papers is normally seen as a characteristic of the Information Research Department and British Cold War activities but Marett was using a similar method during his time in Canada. It’s also worth noting that the IRD gets only one mention in the book even though this was the peak of its activities.
Three general points about the nature of PD work are worth repeating.
- The importance of organization and resources: ‘Anyone of average intelligence can think up a propaganda line to suit a particular situation. But the line will be of no value unless there exist the men and machinery to put it across.’
- The strategic alignment of context, policy and communications: In looking at the challenges facing British propagandists during the Second World War he makes the point that life was much easier in Europe than it was further east where British imperial interests were opposed to those demanding independence.
- The operational alignment of policy and communications. Marett makes the point that in the 1950s those staffing policy desks in the Foreign Office were not ‘publicity minded’ and that at times the Information Policy Department had to ‘push our way in uninvited whenever we saw some situation developing which in our judgement might require publicity treatment’.
A final question: who would want to get rid of an interesting book like this? Clearly somebody with no interest in these issues. My copy is stamped ‘Foreign Office Printed Library’.