Ministry of Information

In the propaganda war that was to accompany the shooting war, the British government lost no time in getting started. On 4 September 1939, the day after Britain's declaration of war, it had its own Ministry of Information (MOI) up and running.

The overt functions were threefold: news and press censorship; home publicity; and overseas publicity in Allied and neutral countries. The objectives included informing and helping to control the public, to shaping public opinion at home and abroad and influencing the governments of friendly and potentially friendly foreign countries, and neutral government.

Preparation had started as early as October 1935 under the auspices of the Committee for Imperial Defence. It was largely conducted in secret; otherwise the government was publicly admitting the inevitability of war. Propaganda was still tainted by the experience of the First World War. In the "Great War", several different agencies had been responsible for propaganda, except for a brief period when there had been a Department of Information (1917) and a Ministry of Information (1918).

Planning for the new MOI was largely organised by volunteers drawn from a wide range of government departments, public bodies and specialist outside organisations.

In the 1930s communications activities had become a recognised function of government. Many departments however had established public relations divisions, and were reluctant to give this up to central control. In early 1939 documents noted concern that the next war would be ‘a war of nerves' involving the civilian population, and that the government would need to go further than ever before with every means of publicity ‘utilised and co-ordinated', as it fought against a well-funded and established Nazi machine.

Threatened by censorship, the press reacted negatively to the MOI, describing it as shambolic and disorganised, and as a result it underwent many structural changes throughout the war. Four Ministers headed the MOI in quick succession: Lord Hugh Macmillan, Sir John Reith and Duff Cooper, before the Ministry settled down under Brendan Bracken in July 1941. Supported by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the press, Bracken remained in office until victory was obvious.

The Ministry was responsible for information policy and the output of propaganda material in Allied and neutral countries, with overseas publicity organised geographically. American and Empire Divisions continued throughout the war, other areas being covered by a succession of different divisions. The MOI was not, in general, responsible for propaganda in enemy and enemy-occupied countries, but it did liaise directly with the Foreign Office.

For home publicity, the Ministry dealt with the planning of general government or interdepartmental information, and provided common services for public relations activities of other government departments. The Home Publicity Division (HPD) undertook three types of campaigns, those requested by other government departments, specific regional campaigns, and those it initiated itself. Before undertaking a campaign, the MOI would ensure that propaganda was not being used as a substitute for other activities, including legislation.

The General Production Division (GPD), one of the few divisions to remain in place throughout the war, undertook technical work under Edwin Embleton. The GPD often produced work in as little as a week or a fortnight, when normal commercial practice was three months. Artists were not in a reserved occupation and were liable for call up for military service along with everyone else.

Many were recalled from the services to work for the Ministry in 1942, a year in which £4 million was spent on publicity, approximately a third more than in 1941. £120,000 of this was spent on posters, art and exhibitions. Many extra designs were pre-prepared in order to cope with short lead-times and the changing events of war. Through the Home Intelligence Division, the MOI collected reactions to general wartime morale and, in some cases, specifically to publicity produced.

In March 1946, the MOI was dissolved. Its residual functions passed to the Central Office of Information (COI), a central organisation providing common and specialist information services.