How Britain learned to deal with rumour

The spread of rumour and gossip has always been a topic of concern for governments in need of public cohesion and obedience. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the British government displayed exactly this concern and took action to try to suppress rumours that they thought would be damaging to morale.

The first posters issued by the Ministry of Information, ‘Careless talk costs lives’, were designed by comic artist Fougasse (Cyril Kenneth Bird) and were generally perceived as being successful. They were understated and humorous and simply warned the public against inadvertantly giving secrets away to the enemy.

In 1942, other posters were designed to urge commissioned officers to be weary of discussing military matters around women – ‘Keep mum, she’s not so dumb’. It seemed that the MoI believed this to be a major problem. The National Archives:

The campaign was to make a direct appeal along the lines of ‘Cherchez la femme’, as a reminder that ‘when in the company of a beautiful woman, remember that beauty may conceal brains’. Service personnel seemed particularly ready to disclose their station and line of work.

Keep mum, she's not so dumb

These campaigns were concerned only with inadvertant sharing of secrets, and so they were not perceived as aggressive or divisive. However, later efforts attempted to silence rumour and gossip more generally and these were far less subtle. Some posters relied on simple commands, not to those spreading rumours, but to those who might listen: ‘Lock the door, close your ears to rumours’, ‘Emphatically refuse to listen to anything but official news’.

Other examples of the MoI’s less than successful propaganda include the ‘Silent Column’ campaign. The campaign encouraged the belief that all rumours or negative opinions of the war were dangerous and should be suppressed and people should actively report one another to the police. It used characters such as ‘Mr. Knowall’ and Miss Leaky Mouth’ to separate out and vilify members of the public who were regarded as being damaging to morale. In his book Ministry of Morale, Ian McLaine argues that this, combined with the targeting and rounding up of aliens in Britain, created an ‘atmosphere of suspicion unconducive to national unity’.

The silent column

McLaine argues that these examples demonstrate that the propagandists had the mistaken idea that the British public would inherently bow to authority due to their obsession with class differences. With these failures, it soon became obvious that there was a gap between those in authority and the British public and this misunderstanding between them was in itself harmful to morale.

With this increased awareness and the outlook of the new Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, appointed in 1941, the Ministry shifted its focus towards disseminating information and away from restricting and controlling it.

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