British Council Wartime Role


Extract from the Draft Minutes of the 53rd Meeting of the Finance and Agenda Committee 9th April 1940 11am:

The Council’s Relations with the Ministry of Information

  • ‘Sir John Reith had disclaimed any intention of absorbing the council. He had even offered to hand over to the Council the control of all propaganda work in foreign countries – an offer which had been declined as likely to endanger the proper activities of the Council. It had been agreed that the only matter to be settled was the delimitation of Films, Books and Periodicals, Entertainment, Press and activities in the Empire. Settlement was reached except in regard to one or two comparatively minor points, but Sir John Reith’s record of the discussion was so inadequate that, in consultation with Lord Riverdale, a new record had been prepared in the hope of clearing up certain ambiguities and had been sent to the Ministry. The Ministry then prepared another version of the discussion which had followed partly the original version and partly the Council’s version.’

  • ‘Mr Guedalla reported that he had interviewed Sir Kenneth Clark about the division of film work between the Ministry and the Council. Sir Kenneth had been most reasonable and said he could see no ground for dispute. Mr Guedalla had pointed out that the Council had an organisation in being before the war for production and distribution of films, that 809 films had been distributed in 85 countries for theatrical display during the past year and 608 for non-theatrical purposes, and that this organisation will have to continue after the war. Sir Kenneth accepted the contention that the film work of the Council should not be interrupted. It had been agreed that a distinction should be drawn between war-purpose films and peace-purpose films and that if any question of priority arose the need of the war-purpose film must prevail. Mr Guedalla had pointed out that a sum of £90,000 would probably be needed for the Council’s film work during 1940/41, to which Sir Kenneth Clark did not demur. Sir Kenneth Clark had also proposed a fuller representation of the Ministry on the Films Committee of the Council and this Mr Guedalla had welcomed.’

Extract from the draft minutes of the 41st meeting of the Executive Committee 9th January 1940 11:30am:

  • ‘The Chairman reported that it had been suggested that £25,000 might be surrendered to the Treasury leaving £10,000 in the unallocated sub-head for the remainder of this year. He said the attitude of the Treasury had been discouraging and that the present position was impossible. The Treasury had promised a grant of £380,000 for the current year of which they had so far received £195,000 and recently after constant requests, the Council had been sent a mere £10,000 instead of the usual instalment of £50,000. This would enable the Council to carry on for ten days or so, at the end of which period would be necessary to overdraw the Bank if another instalment were not paid.

It was resolved that the Committee could not accept a situation in which they might be held responsible for the Council’s overdraft.’

  • ‘Mr Speaight said he had gained the impression that the Treasury’s attitude was probably due to a fear that the Council’s activities might overlap those of the Ministry of Information and to a feeling that cultural propaganda was not necessary in time of war. He thought this attitude was probably due to insufficient understanding on the Treasury’s part of what the Council’s activities really were.’

  • ‘The Chairman said he proposed to address the three parties in the House of Commons on the Council’s work and that it was also proposed to issue a pamphlet stating the case for the Council’s work in wartime.’

Letter to Rex Leeper concerning relations with the Ministry of Information from an unknown source 2nd January 1940:

  • ‘Now I come to the particular question of “Telefacts”. Mr Colin Turner, who is the agent for these “Telefacts” in this country, approached the Council during the crisis of last August, and we were considering his proposals when war broke out. Mr Turner was at once referred by the Press Department to the Ministry, and called on the Foreign Publicity Directorate with introductions from the Council. I am bound to say that Mr Turner expressed very considerable dissatisfaction with the manner in which he was received at the Ministry. He complained that he was passed on from officer to officer, and that no one seemed competent to give him a decision or even tell him that the proposals he had to advance would be seriously considered.’

  • ‘During the time which has passed since then we did not lose sight of Mr Turner’s proposals, but we were occupied in adjusting the Council’s position and settling our future lines of activity. Mr Turner lately put up some modified proposals for the use of “Telefacts” which only concerned distribution in the Far East. These proposals appealed to us not only because propaganda of this kind seemed a useful means of distributing information to semi-literate peoples, but also because the cost would be comparatively small in itself and we were anxious not to incur considerable liabilities on an untried project.’

Letter to DB Woodburn of the Ministry of Information 20th November 1939:

  • ‘It has been decided, as matter of fundamental policy, that the work of the British Council shall be completely divorced from that of the Ministry of Information and it is for this reason that the Council have reverted to Foreign Office control, in order that the Council may carry on its work after the “outbreak of peace” without having been compromised bay any political propagandist taint.’
Letter sent to the Chairman of the BC 13th November 1939:

  • The letter simply states that Lord Derby is unable to chair and attend the meeting to discuss the conversion of the Joint Film Committee of the British Council and the Travel Association into the Film Committee of the British Council.

Memorandum from The Chairman of the BC to the Secretary General 1st November 1939:

  • The Chairman suggests that there be three divisions of propaganda, the work of which will be divided up between the MOI and the BC

    1. Belligerent or Political (MOI)
    2. Cultural (BC)
    3. Educational (BC)

Notes for Minster’s Speech 18/10/39:

  • A summary of the Foreign Publicity division that dealt with propaganda in France and all neutral countries, excluding the USA. The text stresses how far advanced German methods of propaganda were going into neutral countries in comparison to the UK. ‘It must be emphasised that the German propaganda department had, at the out break of the war, been operating for at least five years as an organised Government machine. This point has been universally overlooked by those who criticise the Ministry which only came to being five or six weeks ago. So far as their foreign propaganda is concerned, the Germans have been spending money on this particular activity at the rate of at least six million pounds a year; their agents have been for months, if not years, stationed in foreign capitals – many of them attached to Embassy staffs – and numbering scores of persons in each important place.’

  • The rest of the text explains how Britain are developing and strengthening their own methods of propaganda. The only mention of film is as follows:

‘There is a universal demand for war photographs, newsreels and films. Neither of these were available when the war broke out, but the supply of the former has been going on for the last fortnight and the results are beginning to show themselves. Films, unfortunately take a longer time to produce and, so far, we have little to show for our efforts to obtain them.’

Extract from the draft minutes of the 40th meeting of the Executive Committee 10th October 1939 11:30am:

Future programme of work by the Council

  • The extract alleges that there had been attempt to put the Council under the MOI at the outbreak of the war. In response to this the extract mentions that representations were received from the Foreign Office from a number of missions abroad urging that the activities of the council should be intensified rather than diminished, advice that the Foreign office decided should be taken. (Captured a picture of this particular document)

Correspondence to Earnest Fass 30th January 1939:

  • A letter written on behalf of Rex Leeper to advise on the possible uses to which the BC might be put in case of war. This was written on the subject of Film:

‘As regards films I am at a loss to know what to recommend. The present expedient of the Joint Committee of the Council and Travel Association is ineffective, because it is on a scale and disposes of technical knowledge quite insufficient to deal with the enormously important question of propaganda films. The recommendations of the Vanisittart Committee for the setting up of a National Film Council, which was to be the controlling body to deal with all matters affecting the production and distribution of National prestige films, fell a victim to the Treasury axe, which destroyed a promising infant before it ever drew breath. Perhaps a national emergency may so galvanise the imagination of those responsible that some such Film Council may be set up. Until it is, we should I think do the best we can with the existing compromise – remembering that some effective executive body, combining representation of all the important interests, must be formed with the least possible delay. In this connection, the recommendation of the Vanisittart Committee deserve careful consideration.’