Their propaganda and ours

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I joined my first organisation in 1971. The body had more than 2 million members in more than 20,000 branches and provided potentially life-saving information.

The organisation was the Tufty Club, created by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1961 to curtail the growing number of deaths and injuries to children caused by road traffic accidents.

Tufty's songs, books, puzzles and badges are on show at the British Library's new Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition, a subject, of course, that was not all about helpful cartoon squirrels and their fluffy friends teaching "kerb drills" to small children.

Tufty and later Green Cross Code campaigns were probably not in the forefront of Noam Chomsky's mind when he said that "propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state".

The idea that propaganda can be a powerful tool for those who seek to gain or maintain class rule dominates. The idea is not new. Alexander the Great had coins minted showing him as Heracles, the son of the god Zeus, and the Roman Empire was manifest via its monuments. We go from the use of gold to symbolise immortality in Lefervbe's painting of Napoleon to Uncle Sam recruitment posters and the skilful use of social media by Obama's campaign team during the 2008 US presidential elections.

The first notable use of the term as we would recognise it today took place in 1622, when Pope Gregory XV established a special group of cardinals to control all foreign missions and sought to extend their influence in non-Catholic territories. They were called the Congregation de Propaganda Fide.

Propaganda gained its notoriety during and after the First World War. The clashing imperial ambitions of the dominant European nations necessitated not only a mobilisation of industry to provide the boats, planes, bullets and boots on the ground but also the mass production of newspapers, leaflets, posters, songs, books and films to make the case for war.

The pacifist Lord Arthur Ponsonby, in his 1928 book Falsehood in Wartime, said that "when war is declared, truth is the first casualty". It would resonate loudly with those that listened to Tony Blair justify the invasion of Iraq.

But if the First World War gave propaganda a bad name, an altogether more sinister edge was added with the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 30s. The swastikas, the sickening anti-Semitic caricatures and the monolithic superstructures in tribute to Hitler send a shiver down the spine when you knew that this representation of power led to the Holocaust.

The variety of the British Library exhibits fascinates. They include a fan celebrating the recovery of George III - "health is restored to one, happiness to millions" - and a wartime Careless Talk Costs Lives hankerchief, alongside a Superman comic used to inform Bosnian children of the dangers of landmines which was later withdrawn when too many children deliberately walked through minefields hoping that their hero would save them. There's With Our Bobs to Pretoria, a kind of jingoistic ludo, and stamps from North Korea to promote their six-year plan of industrialisation.

The hilarious Ministry of Information films - including my 1945 favourite Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - make Harry Enfield's Cholmondley-Warner sketches look more like a rip-off than a spoof.

It is naturally accepted that there is an all-powerful media and ruling class. In the British Library exhibition, and in popular culture more widely, there is little space for the propaganda of John Heartfield's wonderful anti-Nazi photomontages that were flyposted around Berlin at the height of Hitler's power, or for a mural from the Falls Road in Belfast, and even though David King's Russian Revolutionary Posters are on sale in the bookshop, there is little evidence of Rodchenko or Lissitsky.

As it happens, I was unable to take up my invite to the official press viewing. Instead, I joined the lively bunch of PCS members at the library who had chosen to strike at the launch of the exhibition. The pickets created a memorable piece of propaganda themselves when they were pictured with their placards underneath the giant Propaganda banner welcoming people into the exhibition. According to my sources in the PCS, the leaflets they handed out to the public that day will now be on show at the exhibition.

However, there is room for that iconic shot from 1968 - the front page of the Black Panther - Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in the air. We were all waiting for that moment to come in the Olympic Stadium at the London Games last year, our own ruling classes using the opportunity to showcase British capitalism, and it came - not in the actions of Danny Boyle and his opening ceremony- but in the actions of 80,000 people booing George Osborne at the Paralympics.

See, not everyone gets taken in by the hype.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is at the British Library until 17 September