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Interview: Dr Christopher Bannister


Over the next ten weeks we’ll be publishing interviews with our 2017 New Generation Thinkers. Today we talk to Dr Christopher Bannister from the School of Advanced Study at the University of London about his research, becoming a New Generation Thinker and the chance to make programmes for BBC Radio 3.

The New Generation Thinkers for 2017 make their radio debut on Radio 3 Tuesday 4 April

Professor Rodney Harrison

His story so far

Christopher is a historian currently researching the activity of British Ministry of Information (Mol) in Latin America during the Second World War including the impact of a specially set up fashion show. His research has also focused on the propaganda programmes of each side in the Spanish Civil War and the conspiracy theories in 20th century Europe, and, in particular, those with a transnational anti-Semitic focus.

The Second World War has been the subject of so many books, films and documentaries that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we know it all.

But there are still fascinating untold stories out there – including the work of the Ministry of Information’s ‘Mad Men’ in South America.

“What interested me about the story was that people seem to think that they know everything about the Second World War. And yet here was a situation that hardly anyone had heard of,” says Dr Christopher Bannister, University of London and a New Generation Thinker.

He believes that his research into the work of the Ministry of Information will intrigue Radio 3 audiences and provide a valuable perspective on the modern world.

“At a time when the United Kingdom's place in the world is uncertain, with rival ideas over what direction to take to ensure that the nation's global influence is maintained, an examination of how this was achieved in the most challenging era of modern British history would be relevant to all audiences,” he says.

The Ministry of Information’s work in Latin American countries was vital to the war effort.

It was essential that the republics did not ally themselves to the Axis powers – not least because Britain imported large quantities of its meat from the continent. And so the Ministry of Information embarked on a major propaganda offensive to ensure that this didn’t happen.

But this couldn’t be organised from London. The long distances, unreliability of telegrams and an Atlantic Ocean patrolled by German submarines made that impossible.

Instead the job was entrusted to a group of men on the ground. They were given the title of 'Press Attaché' and briefed not to follow direct instructions from London. But instead to act as they saw fit in order to ensure the local population, in the words of an Ministry of Information official, 'came to view the British war effort favourably'.

“They were not civil servants, parachuted in from Whitehall. But men who had made Latin America their home by design,” says Dr Bannister. “The Ministry of Information wanted men that had experienced the Republics as individuals, as private actors, and who came with well-developed personal networks to ensure Britain was presented favourably.

“They would buy drinks for editors to place Ministry of Information written articles in newspapers, take cinema owners out to dinner to ensure no German newsreels were shown at their picture houses and bribe officials to let British propaganda pass the censor. They worked like an advertising agency. They were, to use a clumsy cultural comparison, Mad Men's Roger Sterling put to work for Great Britain.

“This was a war being fought in new ways deploying propaganda in more subtle and nuanced ways.”

But while these men’s methods were more civvy street than battle ground they were still motivated by patriotism and firmly believed in the British way of life.

“Interestingly, later in the war, when a lot of propaganda shifted towards presenting Britain as a progressive country that was changing, with ideas about a new welfare state, this caused quite a lot of friction with a group who clung onto a more traditional idea of Britain as an imperial power,” says Bannister.

It’s these kind of counter intuitive elements that Bannister believes make his story perfect for Radio 3. “I'd like people to understand that while the Second World War may feel like something you understand, it isn't,” he says. “There are still in interesting historical questions out there.

“The New Generation Thinkers the perfect platform. It’s a very interesting project and I'm very excited about it. My main interest is showing how the Ministry of Information worked in a specific context. While we are very familiar with some of some of their work; the popularity of the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster in particular has been astounding and its appeal has gone beyond Britain's borders as the poster and its myriad interpretations have become an international phenomenon.

“But this raises the question as to why something so particularly 'British' has proven so popular? Was there an equivalent during the war itself? Did the Ministry create something equally evocative for international audiences at the time? Has it had as lasting an impact?

“The work of the Ministry of Information overseas is not well known and I want to change that.”

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