Basil Clarke

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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

Sir Basil Clarke (1879-12 Dec 1947) was an early pioneer of Public Relations (PR), setting up one of the first PR companies in the UK called Editorial Services in 1924. He also acted as a war correspondent in the First World War, later writing a book of his experiences entitled My Round of the War. Born in Altrincham, the son of a chemist, Basil Clarke went to Manchester Grammar School and then to Oxford University, where he studied classics and music. As a young man, he was a member of the Lancashire rugby fifteen.

Journalism career

His entry into journalism apparently came after a chance encounter in a pub, where he joined in with some strangers as the fourth voice in a Gilbert & Sullivan quartet and was invited to write an article on musical appreciation for the Manchester Guardian. This article was greatly admired by a leading member of the Sunday Times and Clarke was invited to join this paper and after working there for several years, later joined the Daily Mail.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he was sent as a clandestine war correspondent to France. Journalists were not allowed in the war zone at this time, but Clarke managed to evade the authorities longer than any other reporter to roam the front lines. Years later, war correspondents had become greatly respectable and he travelled to almost every theatre of war reporting for the Daily Mail.

Intelligence and propaganda

In 1918, he became director of special intelligence at the Ministry of Reconstruction. After this, he spent a short time as editor of the Sheffield Independent before moving on to director of public information at the ministry of health. He was soon moved to Ireland by the British government to be director of public information at Dublin castle, in the centre of the Irish rebellion. After the cease-fire, he was sent as a liaison officer to the deep south of the country.

During the reign of George V, Clarke was asked to write several speeches for the monarch. George V apparently once remarked "Clarke, I like the speeches you write for me, you don't make me sound too bloody pompous"[1]

Among his "victories", he is credited with making pasteurised milk acceptable in England and campaigned for legislation to have imported skimmed milk marked "unfit for babies." On behalf of the Heinz organisation, he successfully fought for legislation to stop the use of harmful colouring matter and adulterants in preserved foods. Henry J. Heinz, the founder of the business, was personally brought over from America to give evidence at a select committee of the House of Commons on the subject.

The Danish government, for his services in "promoting Anglo-Danish friendship and trade," made him a member of the Dannebrog, which is roughly comparable to a knighthood. He was also made a knight of the realm during the brief premiership of Andrew Bonar Law.

Propaganda in Ireland

Miller writes:[2]

Murphy shows that the British were pioneers in propaganda and that they took to it with enthusiasm. He also shows how the standard account of British fair play is entirely wrong. In Dublin in 1920 the propaganda apparatus pumped out entirely false and deliberately misleading stories. 'Propaganda by news' was how they described it. The key quality that it must havem according to Basil Clarke who was in charge of the operation, was 'verisimilitude' - having the air of truth. According to his own account the routine 'issue of news gives us a hold over the press'. At the twice-daily press briefing at Dublin Castle, journalists 'take our version of the facts' and they believe all I tell them', wrote Clarke. The service 'must look true and it must look complete and candid or its "credit" is gone'. The policy, therefore was to disseminate lies and half truths which gave the appearance of truth. As Major Street, another of the propagandists noted: 'in order that it may be rendered capable of being swallowed', propaganda 'must be dissolved in some fluid which the patient will readily assimilate'...
Street and Clarke also worked closely with the head of Special Branch in London, Basil Thomson. Through him they were connected to the key imperialist lobby networks in London. These individuals were not abashed about their politics, describing their network as the 'diehards' and the 'London Imperialists'. Central to it and very close to Thomson was Admiral Reggie 'Blinker' Hall, who was the director of Naval Intelligence in the 1914-18 war. Together with Thomson, Hall interrogated Roger Casement in 1916 and personally leaked his 'black diaries' to the press in order to ensure that Casement would not be reprieved as a result of the campaign being run by Arthur Conan Doyle. According to historians of the period, Hall's victory in ensuring Casement was hanged, 'was all very gratifying; an object lesson in secret service power which Hall was never to forget'...[3]
Clarke left government service in the early 1920s and set up one of the first PR agencies: Editorial Services. By the end of the 1920s this was a significant operation with 60 staff. During this period (1929-31) Clarke worked as an early PR man for the Conservative Party.[4]

Contact, References and Resources



  1. Alan Clarke. The Life & Times of Sir Basil Clarke - PR Pioneer. Public Relations. 1969. Vol. 22 (2) pp. 8-13.
  2. David Miller, British Propaganda in Ireland and its significance today, Spinwatch, 24 March 2006.
  3. Bernard Porter, Plots and Paranoia: A history of political espionage in Britain, 1790-1988, p. 141
  4. Alan Clarke, 'The life and times of Sir Basil Clarke, PR Pioneer', Public Relations, 1969 Vol 22(2) p. 9-13.