Jefferson Morley | January 14, 2020
Britain Secretly Funded the Reuters News Service in 1960s and 1970s
Intelligence agencies almost always seek to influence the news media in their spheres of influence. To control the news media, is to control public perceptions and to keep secrets, two key functions of spy services.
In authoritarian countries like Russia and China, this influence is exercised overtly and enforced via public legal measures which mass media outlets must obey or be shut down. If journalists don’t play by the rules, they face extra-legal measures. When Proekt, an investigative web site in Russia dared report on the mercenary empire of President Putin’s confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin, they started receiving “obscene, violent and unpleasant threats.”
In democracies like the United States or the United Kingdom, the manipulation of news organizations is done covertly so that the appealing public image of a free press is protected while the covert reality of government influence/control remains hidden.
In the United States, for example the CIA manipulated the news media in the 1950s through 1970s under a secret operation that employed upwards of 400 people.
According to reporter Carl Bernstein’s account in Rolling Stone:
Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad.
In context, the BBC’s Jan. 13 report that the British government secretly funded the Reuters news service in the Middle East and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s is less than surprising. It is a reminder of the reach of Western intelligence agencies.
“We are now in a position to conclude an agreement providing discreet Government support for Reuter services in the Middle East and Latin America,” according to a redacted 1969 British government document marked “Secret” and entitled “Funding of Reuters by HMG”. “HMG’s interests should be well served by the new arrangement,” said the document, which was declassified last year. HMG stands for Her Majesty’s Government.
According to the BBC, the plan “was contrived by the Information Research Department (IRD), a shadowy section created within the Foreign Office in 1948 to fight the propaganda battle with the Soviet Union. It covertly produced anti-communist material.”
IRD staff acknowledged that they would not have “editorial control” over Reuters, which “would not accept government control”, but they hoped the UK government would gain “a measure of political influence”. Officials thought “this influence would flow, at the top level, from Reuters’ willingness to consult and to listen to views expressed on the results of its work”.
So while British government did not exercise the direct control over the Reuter’s news reporting, it believed it could shape the coverage in favorable ways.
In many ways, covert influence is more advantageous for an intelligence than outright control. The obvious pro-government bias of a news outlet like Russia’s RT signals to readers the source of information (or disinformation) they are receiving. If readers don’t know the government is funding a popular news service, they will be more trusting and less skeptical about its reporting.
In a statement Reuters said it would not enter into such an agreement today.
All of which begs the question, do Western intelligence agencies seek to covertly control or influence ostensibly independent news organizations? The answer is, of course. That doesn’t mean all news organizations are compromised. It means editorial independence is more important than ever.