The Cold War was a battle of ideologies, during which propaganda was every bit as important as weaponry, but usually more subtle.
The Cambridge Five have become a high-profile example of the influence of Soviet propaganda – students at a top university, and later MI6 spies, who developed communist sympathies and turned on their country.
But Western powers were equally adept at manipulation, as Richard Beeston acknowledges in his memoire: Looking for Trouble.
Beeston recalls working for an Arabic broadcasting station in Cyprus, in the 1950s, which ‘unknown to most of its staff, came under the authority of the Secret Intelligence Service’. (1)
He notes that the station ‘could take a stronger pro-British political slant than the BBC could afford to’, and that its objectives were ‘to protect Britain’s strategic and oil interests in the Middle East’.
The British government asserted that the station was ‘a private company registered in Cyprus to promote cultural and information exchange’.
Interestingly, Beeston notes ‘none of our listeners were fooled by this’, but says the station remained hugely popular because of ‘a first-class drama and music programme’. (4)
The Near East Arab Broadcasting Station at which Beeston worked was a classic tool of British propaganda. It was a means of using soft power – British culture and entertainment, to attract an audience, and raise sympathy for the British cause abroad.
It was deceptive propaganda, dubbed ‘black propaganda’ by Jacques Ellul, as it was covert – propaganda disguised as news and entertainment.
In Munitions of the Mind: a history of propaganda from the ancient world to the present day, Philip Taylor argues the pervasiveness of black propaganda came about because of the development of nuclear weapons. These forced the US and USSR into a standoff, in which military action was too dangerous. To justify continued military spending in the absence of conventional conflict, the two superpowers had to ensure ‘fear of the enemy was sustained at a higher level than fear of the bomb’.
Elaborate propaganda campaigns were established, in which ‘agents of influence’, spread throughout the world, disseminated information to help their cause. Richard Beeston was one such agent – a journalist broadcasting a pro-British message to a foreign audience.