Tag Archives: propaganda

Occupational Hazards of a Secret Agent

In this guest blog, Paul M H Buvarp, a PhD candidate at the School of International Relations at St Andrews, explores the risks of working as an undercover propagandist during WW1.

War is a messy affair. Decisions are made and filtered through bureaucracies and offices, creating often very inefficient systems prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. Secrets are difficult to keep, plans are difficult to authorise and it is nearly impossible to receive clear directives. Perhaps the most vulnerable class in this regard in the First World War were those who depended particularly on secrecy, authorisation and direction — the secret agents.

Rowland Kenney (1882–1961) was one such secret agent whose frustration with the system ranged from humorous to downright despairing. Kenney was sent to Norway in 1916 to be the spearhead of the British propaganda campaign there. As an agent of the Foreign Office News Department, he received a cover identity as a Reuters Correspondent, which enabled him to make close connections with the press elites in the country. He was, by all accounts, very successful. By the end of the war, and in a period of only two years, he had personally been responsible for over one thousand pro-British articles appearing in the Norwegian press, and had held a significant role in shepherding the fall of the Berlin-influenced Norwegian national news agency and the creation of a London-friendly agency in its place.

The secrecy of his mission was essential not only because of his personal safety, but also because of the nature of his work. Kenney was of the belief that propaganda was at its most effective when it was not known to be propaganda. In one of his earliest reports, he wrote of his German counterpart in Norway and how that agent’s heavy-handedness and obviousness had turned the press and the people against his message.

It is difficult to tell to what extent his cover was upheld, i.e. whether some of his Norwegian contacts were aware of his true mission. There is nothing on paper to sharply suggest any of them did, and in fact, when he is referred to in Norwegian documents and memoranda, he is referred to as Reuters Correspondent. However, maintaining this identity was no easy task.

Oslo's Grand Hotel today
Oslo’s Grand Hotel today. Image by Asbjorn Floden (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the summer of 1917, for example, the British Legation in Oslo received a visitor by the name of Ellison from Britain. It is not made explicitly clear who exactly Ellison was, but it is suggested that he was one of the many British do-gooders who spent the war going from place to place, dipping their toes in other people’s business. He appears—at least in Kenney’s writing—to have been unfortunately indiscreet. On Oslo’s main street stood the Grand Hotel (which still stands today) which doubtless was a centre-point for both Norwegian and foreign dignitaries, agents and elites in wartime. On the first day of Ellison’s visit, Kenney and Ellison were speaking in the foyer of the hotel, and Ellison evidently made the point that Kenney was in effect a secret agent of the Foreign Office. Kenney, mortified, acknowledged to his handler that it might have passed unnoticed, but that it may also have ruined his work.

A continuing theme throughout Kenney’s papers from the First World War is his constant battle to register his address with the Foreign Office, as well as to have them send certain necessary materials. Presumably, the Legation was under surveillance, and in order to maintain his secret position it was important that messages and packages could be received privately. While the idea carries merit, Kenney was more than a little annoyed when after nineteen messages had been sent about his new address, packages were still sent wrong. His twentieth message got the job done, only after it was passed through the Legation and encrypted in code.

Perhaps the most basic necessity to remain covert was the nature of payment for Kenney’s work. Payments were slow and unpredictable, and in order to elicit some form of response, Kenney sometimes had to threaten with resignation, or even borrow money privately from the British Minister’s private pocket. The Foreign Office payments naturally had to be disguised, so as to not blow the cover of his Reuters employment. When Kenney one day found his payment coming directly and openly from the Foreign Office, he was not amused: “The cat is out of the bag, and the spy hunters are dogging your tracks all over the place, but why, oh why, do your people do these things?” Being a secret agent was no easy task.

The First World War was in many respects an unprecedented challenge for governments and bureaucracies. It created a demand for a massive coordinated system, the likes of which had never before been seen. That the system was not as streamlined as it should have been is no surprise, and it is a credit to Kenney’s hard work, dedication and good luck that he at all succeeded. Notably, Kenney is still absent from the history books, so it might be safe to say that he has kept his cover very well.

The Middle East and World War One

Nowhere in the world did the First World War have such profound or long-lasting effects than the Middle East. Carrie Dunn reports on an Early Career Fellowship that’s helping to shine a light on a crucial period of world history.

An AHRC-funded research project is the first study of the ideas behind the West’s attempt to replace the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and their consequences.

Dr James Renton of Edge Hill University is looking at the British Empire’s development of the concept of the ‘Middle East’, a system based on the principle of nationality – which also resulted in a plethora of violent ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts.

He argues that the work is vital to understanding the problems across the region today.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in how the West has understood the Middle East, and the relationship between that understanding and imperialism and colonialism, and it was clear to me that there wasn’t a recognition that there was a massive change at the time of the First World War.”

The British hoped to mobilise support for the Allies and secure post-war control of strategically important areas in the region by claiming that they were fighting for a new era of national freedom. They embarked on a huge propaganda campaign to make that case. Renton’s project also examines how the idea of a new age of nationality and freedom succeeded in increasing nationalism among Arabs and Jews.

“I came to realise that this new vision was being presented for political reasons to mobilise the Middle Eastern world behind the war effort,” Renton says. He suggests that the British never expected the Middle East to be genuinely independent because of their racial stereotypes about the people living there – that they were somehow inferior and incapable of governing themselves.

Yet the promotion of national self-determination had the apparently unforeseen effect of mobilising widespread calls for immediate independence, and when that didn’t happen, there was widespread protest and violence.

'Map of the Middle East, 1918
‘Map of the Middle East, 1918’

“Political elites across the Middle Eastern world started to have new expectations of complete national freedom, and so although the British and their French allies stimulated a new vision of the future, it took on a life of its own,”

However, these roars of dissent did not succeed. Instead, the British and French Empires, with the approval of the international community in the newly-established League of Nations, imposed a new autocratic system that remained in place until the beginning of the 21st century.

Renton stresses the complexity of the interactions between the Middle East and the “outside world”. He points out that to attribute many of the current conflicts in the region solely to the impact of the 2003 Iraq invasion or the Arab Spring – as many media debates do – is far too simplistic.

“It’s a picture of complexity that goes back to the First World War,” he says, and he is keen that today’s policymakers understand that, adding: “I’m not talking about some trite effort to learn lessons from the past.

“It’s not about drawing parallels with then and now – it’s making the case that the war marked  the beginning of a system of political instability, with the interaction between this attempt at control and the unleashing of an expectation for national freedom. It’s a wider story that began in 1914 – and it hasn’t ended.”