London Radio Service
The London Radio Service
The most significant and least known of all the attempts to place material in overseas media involves the semi-covert use of radio news bulletins. The London Radio Service (LRS) provides verbatim transmission of ministerial speeches and press conferences as well as producing its own news reports, features and interviews which it attempts to 'place' in radio news programmes around the world. These reports and features are provided free and often the London Radio Service (LRS) provides the technical capacity to receive its products down phone lines for a nominal fee of about £25, which was described by one LRS news editor as 'peanuts' (Interview, London August 1990).
News and features are posted to British Embassies and consulates on tape or, more directly, by telephone or satellite. They are provided in a variety of languages and the service is expanded 'to reflect FCO priorities.' (COI 1989a:2) For example, the Caribbean Service was established in the aftermath of the invasion of Grenada by the USA in 1984 (COI 1989a:6-7). According to sources in the COI, the LRS has developed from an old style Pathé news type propaganda outfit to supplying what is now called 'indirect propaganda'. In the 1970's:
- It was essentially still being run by civil servants with a strong Foreign Office input, therefore they would dictate policy and the result was that we tended to just pump propaganda. It was successful, but not as successful as it could have been. [But now] it has become a normal news service. So we're well away from propaganda to what I would call indirect propaganda... The whole point is that you can't... take the old approach by saying there's the good guys and the bad guys and the bad guys have to be shown as pretty nasty, bayoneting babies... Now you have to be totally impartial, while still pushing the line (Interview, London August 1990).
The speed of reaction is facilitated by the access which the Information Service has to government Ministers. On occasions, according to sources in the NIO, Ministers have made statements on US radio within the hour of an event occurring: 'Long before anybody else could get in on the act' (Interview, London August 1990). One example is Mrs Thatcher's condemnation of the London bombings in July 1982 (Simon 1982:6).
The main interviewees on the LRS are the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Defence Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary (COI 1989:4). It is clear that government ministers are featured overwhelmingly and there few if any interviews with critics of the British government or even with members of British opposition parties. On the rare occasions that the existence of the LRS has emerged in media reports, diplomats have been relatively upbeat about its success. Patrick Nixon, the head of BIS in 1982 related:
We have a satellite link with the Central Office of Information in London, and when a government minister makes an important statement of policy, and we think that it's newsworthy for our customers, we can feed it, if necessary live, as we did on many occasions during the hunger strike... direct through special lines into ten radio networks. These ten networks in turn service no less than 6,000 of the 9,000 radio stations in the country. And this means that we can put our policies right at the top of the news ('File on Four', BBC Radio Four 23 November 1982).
One of the reasons that it is relatively easy for the LRS to place materials in radio schedules is that many radio stations are poorly resourced. This is well recognised by the COI, as one editor related: 'radio is the Cinderella of broadcasting. If it's free they'll take it' (Interview, London August 1990). Another valuable feature of LRS products, from the official point of view, is that there is no indication for radio listeners that the material originates with the British government:
The distinguishing feature of COI radio as compared with other radio services is that material... is then broadcast by a station as if it were its own (COI 1989a:1).
Some radio stations are themselves apparently not aware that the London Radio Service is a semi-covert British government operation. But, because they get it free, many do not to ask many questions. According to one news editor:
- A lot of stations are surprised that we're government. They don't put two and two together. Because we don't put an obvious government line across... Four or five years ago I was talking to people in broadcasting in the Middle East and they were stunned when I said 'No we're not BBC.' They thought we were BBC. They had their doubts because BBC have copyright. You can't touch or tamper with the content of the tape... or the line of the tape, whereas with us, you can do what you like with it. At the end of the day someone could take the cut [interview] out and write a script around it which has the opposite effect. We find that most places don't do that because they haven't got time to do it (Interview, London August 1990).
It is worth observing that this semi-covert approach is probably illegal in the US. Any information emanating from a 'foreign principal' is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act to be identified as such. All written or printed information distributed by British Information Services in New York features a standard form of words indicating that 'This material is prepared, edited, issued or circulated by British Information Services... which is registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as an agent of the British government'. Copies of all such material is required under the Act to be filed with the Department of Justice and available for public inspection. Not to do so is a criminal offence. However, the products of the London Radio Service are not labelled as the product of the British government, nor are they filed with the Department of Justice.
David Miller (1994) 'Aerial combat', New Statesman and society, 18 November 1994.
- COI 1989a:2