Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How they all lie to us

Few people will labour under the illusion that government "spin" is anything new, or was invented by Blair and his cronies. But it is not always easy to appreciate how far back it goes, and how entrenched it is in the mechanisms of government.

That much emerges when you read a heart-warming account of a visit by the King and Queen to the East End, at the start of the Blitz, supposedly to see for themselves the sufferings of their subjects, and to show sympathy and understanding. But what in fact you are seeing is a highly skilled spin machine in operation, so skilled that even to this day it is not properly recognised for what it was.

The clue is in this story in The Daily Express (left – click to enlarge - and then click again), second column under the picture of the King shaking hands with the child, with the caption "They'd lost their homes, but could still raise a cheer". It is dated 10 September 1940, three days after the London Blitz started, and a day after the visit.

Particularly memorable is the headline because, according to the junior minister of information, Harold Nicolson, when the King and Queen did go visiting on 9 September, the crowd actually booed them. This, of course, does not negate the headline. Undoubtedly, the royal couple was cheered. But we are not told the whole story.

However, the particularly egregious example of "spin" is not that, but the reference to Anderson shelters (type pictured below). Made of curved corrugated iron bolted to strong supports, the shelters were issued in their hundreds of thousands.

The shelters were supposed to be buried three feet underground in back gardens with eighteen inches of earth piled on top. They were small and cramped, cold, not soundproofed, and tended to flood regularly. And crucially, they offered no protection against a direct bomb hit, or even a large calibre bomb landing close by.

It is with this in mind that we read the report, and find that the King is taken to a site were there just happen to be some Anderson shelters, whence he surveys the scene and, pointing to the shelters among the wreckage, remarks on the protection they had given. He does this so very clearly that his remarks find their way into all the main newspapers.

There is nothing particularly sinister in this, you might think, except that, on 18 September, the King and Queen are again taken to see survivors of "heroic rescues", throughout a tour of three districts of London which had sustained extensive bomb damage.

A special point was made of introducing the royal couple to men and women whose houses had been wrecked by a direct hit. Then, as he had on the 9th, the King made a point of talking up the Anderson shelters, this time saying: "These Anderson shelters are wonderful".

The King and Queen then "listened with interest" while occupants of two unharmed shelters (sic) told them of escapes when the bomb fell only a few yards away. So clear were their comments that they were not only recorded in the national dailies. Even the Glasgow Herald had the quote, while The Yorkshire Post had: "The marvellous escapes from death of men and women whose houses had been wrecked by a direct hit led the King to say: 'These Anderson Shelters are wonderful'".

The The Daily Mirror (p7), however, had already gone one better. Its report had: "Looking round at the destruction, the middle of which were two unharmed Anderson shelters, the King remarked, 'These Anderson shelters are wonderful, wonderful'".

Needless to say, the converse did not apply. When on the night of 9/10 October, an overnight raid wrecked the Anderson shelters in the gardens of Mapledene Road, Hackney, killing the occupants (pictured above), there was no mention of the horror in the press.

When, the following week, the Queen visited the area, her entourage smiling and laughing as they inspected Civil Defence workers (pictured below),  after a further 173 had been killed in a basement shelter , they were not shown the site. Nor did the incident stop Herbert Morrison, in his maiden speech to the Commons as Home Security Minister that day, singing the praises of the shelter.

What you are seeing here was not accidental. It went back to the 1920s, to 1938 and then, in particular to April 1939 when the government quite deliberately set its face against providing deep, bomb-proof shelters for the people of Britain. Not least, it was thought, if people were provided with comfortable, safe shelters, they might stay there and war production would suffer.

Even as late as 12 June 1940, then Home Secretary John Anderson told the House: "I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters". In this war, he said, "we must avoid at all costs what I may call the deep-shelter mentality".

Two months to the day, the effects of that policy were evident in Portsmouth, when two women - Mrs Robertson and her married daughter, Mrs Mann - were killed when their Anderson shelter was blown out of the ground. This was reported at the time, by the Daily Mirror, one that clearly escaped the censor.

The mistake was not to be made again. Thus, when in a repeat raid on Portsmouth on 24 August, several Anderson shelters were blown apart by the force of the explosions, nothing of this was reported in the press.

With several trench shelters also having been hit - and a works air raid shelter taking a direct hit, killing twenty-four and wounding forty-two dockyard workers - rumours about the widespread loss of life in the city and dockyards led to a belief that German aircrews were deliberately aiming their bombs at individual shelters. For some time afterwards, people were afraid to go into the shelters during alerts.

Clearly, this had to be dealt with and the press had already been enlisted to run a series of "thumbs up" stories, emphasising escapes, miraculous or otherwise, of people sheltering in Andersons. Even on this day, the Daily Mirror (p12) ran an article headed: "Be Wise and be Safe", reporting how the shelters had "again proved their worth yesterday". The report recalled:
One received a direct hit, but the two occupants are alive, although badly injured. Another bomb fell a few feet away from a shelter containing five people. It wrecked six houses and buried the shelter, but the occupants were unharmed. In another instance people in shelters five yards from where a bomb fell were unhurt.
Again in the Daily Mirror, but also in the other national dailies on 28 August 1940, another miraculous survival was aired, this one with a picture. The story was headed: "And They Came Out of it Alive ... " (pictured right - click to enlarge, and click again).

"The edge of this bomb crater, 30ft deep, in a household garden near London", readers were told, "is only 4ft from the Anderson shelter. But the two people in the shelter during London's six hour raid - Mrs Clark and Miss Clark - were unhurt. You see Miss Clark in the picture examining the damage to the structure".

Consulting Engineer Ove Arup had an explanation for what was happening. He had been a particular advocate of deep shelters before the war – and had built one for the Air Ministry. Describing a meeting with an unnamed senior civil servant on shelter policy, he recalled being told: "What really mattered was to keep people quiet, to give them confidence in the measures taken and to prevent panic; this psychological or political aspect was more important than the safety of the shelters".

And there it was. Committed to a deliberate policy of providing inadequate shelters, when the policy started showing evidence of being disastrously wrong, instead of dealing with it, the government resorted to the techniques with which we are so familiar. It suppressed information and attempted to "spin" its way out of the situation. In so doing, it fed the press a diet of propaganda and even enlisted the King and Queen in the deception.

As it was then, so it is now. Yesterday, we asked "What is royalty for?" Well, part of the answer was evident way back in 1940. Then as now, they are part of the propaganda machine that keeps the proles happy and under control.

Just don't run away with the idea that "them up there" have any concern at all for your wellbeing. What matters with any policy is "... to keep people quiet, to give them confidence in the measures taken ...". Nothing ever changes.

Extracted from "The Many, Not the Few - the stolen history of the Battle of Britain", to be published by Continuum on 15 November.