Spotting the propaganda: a missed opportunity

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At the start of the British Library’s Propaganda exhibition, the visitor is introduced to the subject by means of a short public information film from 1949, where a learned older man is explaining to young Jimmy the different means by which propaganda works, and why he ought to think carefully about what he reads. The film ends with an exhortation to the viewer to do the same: to undertake their own research into the propaganda that surrounds them. I felt it was a bit of a shame, then, that the exhibition didn’t quite follow through on this advice.

The popularisation (if not the invention) of propaganda was done in the early part of this century in the service of war, and nation-building, and accordingly the exhibition had amassed a great deal of material around this, ranging from a ‘how to spot a Jew’ film produced by the Nazis, to posters exhorting Brits to buy the products of Empire, and of course the famous ‘Uncle Sam’ image. In the last room the exhibition moved on to other uses of propaganda by the state, in looking at propaganda aimed at improving the health of populations.

Now I understand that any exhibition has a limited amount of space to work with, and also that in this case the topic could be interpreted as to encompass almost any form of delivered information, which would make it impractical to shape into a coherent exhibition narrative. The entire history of painting could be seen as propaganda for the illiterate masses, for example. But the delineation of propaganda chosen seemed to be too tightly defined to really drive visitors to think about its role in their own lives. Namely, it was largely limited to propaganda produced by the state (which is not inherent to the definition of the term), in the service of nation-building/ defense, and it presented propaganda as a rather crude form of persuasion – exhortations in big bold fonts that beat the reader over the head with their message – that mainly happened before the 1980s.

I think it could have condensed all the war stuff – the genesis of propaganda – into one or two rooms, and then proceeded to take a much wider view.

Because propaganda has developed and been used for all sorts of interesting things throughout the 20th century, which didn’t really get a look-in here. Something I personally know a bit about is the battles that have been waged over how our towns and cities should look. I love/ hate the patronising and patriarchal Local Authority public information films made in the 50s explaining why ‘slum clearance’ was necessary (all those ugly Victorian terraces, all jumbled up). I think this debate – why towns and cities have come to look the way they do – is something worth telling people about.

I was also disappointed that there wasn’t very much about civil rights. There were a few shots of Black Panthers, and one interview with a feminist author who had decided not to get married. But overall I felt the stories that were being told – the wars of words waged between groups through messaging to the masses – were the ones we already know a great deal about. Everyone – I hope – is very aware of Nazi persecution of the Jews. (And I’m not arguing this shouldn’t have been a feature of the exhibition, as it’s probably the defining case.) But, by contrast, the anti-womens’ rights movement, for example, is not something that has ever been much publicised – nor was it here. And there are many other groups that are regularly demonised in today’s Britain (the poor? immigrants? travellers?) without question. A more powerful visitor experience would surely have shone a light on those issues.

This would have been useful because the fact is, in Britain at least, propaganda techniques have moved on, are much more subtle, and therefore harder to spot (apart from, perhaps, in The Sun). As a parallel case, think about the complexity of techniques used in advertising today, compared to those of 50 years ago. Nowadays, brands have to work harder to make people buy their stuff than just flashing up a sign saying ‘Buy x!’

In one of the talking heads films recorded with various experts, the journalist John Pilger remarks that from very early on, given the negative connotations that the word propaganda had attracted, an alternative term was coined: Public Relations. Actually, I thought he could have mentioned any other number of media through which the powerful seek to persuade: advertising, consumer magazines, journalism or – the worst culprit – Hollywood films. Numerous films have recently been deployed with some not-very-hidden messaging about the supremacy of the West/ Christian world over the evil Arab – I’m thinking 300, Batman, Iron Man 3, Blade Trinity (where the resurrected Dracula is located in modern day Iraq). But actually this isn’t a new thing: there used to be loads of films demonising the Commies.

So, in summary, perhaps the British Library needs to stage a Part 2. But I did wonder if a more powerful finish to this exhibition might have been to confront the visitor with an array of contemporary media, and, given everything they’d just learnt, apply it to the variety of hidden messaging coming at them in their own lives.

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