Gray Propaganda

Gray propaganda falls somewhere between white and black propaganda. The source may or may not be identified, and the accuracy of the information is uncertain. During World War I Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau, better known as Wellington House (where it was headquartered), conducted a major campaign directed at the then neutral United States through an American branch headed by Sir Gilbert Parker (1862-1932), a Canadian-born writer and British M.P. British propaganda was not explicitly designed to persuade America to enter the war on the side of the Allies; benevolent neutrality was considered infinitely more preferable. Wellington House therefore decided to provide American policymakers with the material they needed to make up their own minds about the issues (unlike the German propagandists, who bombarded American public opinion with their propaganda of exhortation). Wellington House targeted America’s elite in the belief that it would, in turn, influence the larger public.

An educated or elite audience likes to believe that it can spot propaganda when confronted by it, and then duly dismiss it as “propaganda.” British propaganda therefore required delicate handling. Wellington House had to disseminate material to its target audience that did not appear to be propaganda— or at least not all the time. Rather, it had to take the form of reasoned argument based on the facts—although not necessarily all the facts—and presented in an objective manner. Some of this propaganda material came directly from Wellington House (white), while other portions were disguised (gray). For this purpose, a clandestine publishing operation produced material that was distributed under the imprint of famous commercial publishing houses such as Hodder and Stoughton, John Murray, and Macmillan.

In World War II Britain’s Political Warfare Executive (PWE) produced gray propaganda as well as black. An example was the highly praised newspaper for German troops entitled Nachrichtenfur die Truppen, which was delivered by air. The contents of the paper could not possibly be reconciled with official German authorship, but the failure to disclose its true origin permitted the newspaper to express views that might have been embarrassing if attributed to an official British source.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Western powers attached great importance to psychological warfare, employing propaganda measures to sway international opinion to support the free world and, ultimately, to bring about the disintegration of Communist regimes. In 1948 the British Foreign Office sponsored a peacetime covert propaganda agency, the Information Research Department (IRD), which was intended to counter Soviet and Communist propaganda and defend Western liberal democracy. The IRD was formed in the aftermath of the Communist coup in Prague and increasingly hostile Soviet propaganda. Supported by Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin (1881-1951), the approach adopted was secretive and aggressive, designed to take the initiative away from the enemy. IRD was in many respects a peacetime PWE. Its task was not black propaganda, which was the preserve of the secret intelligence service MI6, but rather gray propaganda, biased information emanating from an indeterminate source. The target was Communist Russia and the task was to attack and expose this ideological enemy and offer “something better.” Gray propaganda was adopted because it was more direct and aggressive than white but less likely to offend the Soviets quite as much as black propaganda. The content of anti-Communist gray propaganda was to highlight Western values as a counterpoint to Soviet activities. At one level IRD material consisted of in-depth confidential studies on aspects of Soviet Communism designed for high-level consumption by senior Allied politicians. On a less classified level, radio broadcasts, pamphlets, articles, letters, and speeches were all used and directed at policymakers in Eastern Europe, who could use such material as factual background in their general work without the need for attribution. To distinguish its activities from those of the Americans, the IRD concentrated on areas threatened by Communism outside the USSR. The ability of IRD to disguise its sponsorship of cultural activity until the late 1970s points to the reason for its success, namely, the fact that much of it was not generally recognized as propaganda.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Radio Moscow employed gray propaganda when it attempted to justify its actions. A television documentary entitled “Afghanistan: The Revolution Cannot Be Killed” was broadcast on Christmas Day 1985. The program deliberately gave the impression that the conflict had been started by other powers. Iran and Pakistan were specifically implicated and captured mercenaries claimed that they had been sent to Afghanistan by the CIA. The film ended with pro-Soviet troops being cheered by Afghan crowds. The source of the message was not in question, but the information was largely inaccurate.

In the wake of 11 September 2001 involving terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, D.C., the United States pre pared the population of Afghanistan for a planned U.S. air and land war by dropping food containers and radios that could only pick up one signal. The U.S.-run radio station, which did not formally identify itself, simply referred to itself as Afghan FM. Sandwiched between some lively Afghan music an announcement was broadcast “for the attention of the noble people of Afghanistan.” The announcer then proceeded to explain that American forces would be passing through the area and that their aim was not to harm the people but rather to arrest Osama bin Laden (1957- ) and those who support him.

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