The £9 million leaflet setting out the Government’s thoughts on the forthcoming EU referendum appeared on the mat today. I take a semi-professional interest in it, since in the 1980s I used to work as a copywriter and editor at the now-defunct Central Office of Information, previously known as the Ministry of Information where Orwell unhappily worked in Room 101 during World War Two. When I worked there, when computers and emails hadn’t been thought about, we used to get a phone call from some government department instructing one of us to hotfoot it over to Whitehall to take a brief on some new initiative or disaster which required a government leaflet. We’d cross over Westminster Bridge, take the brief, then come back and work with designers and print buyers and illustrators and such like to produce something which set the facts out clearly. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the finished item would be sent to the printers and off we’d go. Now, despite the fact that the COI was mostly made up of unreliable, boozy, gossipy layabouts like me, the thing about it was that it retained a strong ethos of public service. I remember clearly that everyone had a sense that they were there for a reason, and part of that reason went back to idealistic notions about an impartial Civil Service which had its roots in the great Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 19th century. And one of the primary responsibilities of working at the COI was that you were expected to protect and maintain the notion of impartiality: there was a belief that information should be presented to the public in a non-partisan manner, so that that people could receive information and then make their own minds up.
I can remember when this started to change. It was in the late 1980s, and we had been asked by the then Department of Employment or the Home Office to produce a leaflet about the Government’s plans with regard to job creation. A particularly observant editor in my team spotted that there were several sentences in the copy which were not only not neutral, they clearly set out a Conservative view about employment as opposed to a Labour view. This was not what government information was supposed to do. So I rang up our client in the Department and told them that we would have to remove certain phrases. There was a pause, and they said they’d come back to me. They did: the following day, we were informed that the COI was not required to produce the leaflet, and instead, it was produced and printed by a private sector advertising agency. It was the first example I could remember of the Government realising that they needed to loosen their ties to the traditional ethos of public service as contained in the history of the British Civil Service. Tony Blair, who came along later, benefited hugely from Thatcher’s disdain for tradition. His lot oversaw the dismantling and eventual dissolution of the COI.
So that brings me to this nasty little offering. It’s a 16-page, A5 colour leaflet, clearly produced by a design agency which wants to mimic the old COI stark typography. It is riddled with supposition, from page one, where it repeats verbatim Cameron’s claims for the concessions he wants us to believe he secured from Brussels recently, to page four, where it says “Leaving creates uncertainty and risk”. That’s an utterly outrageous partisan comment which is not designed to enable the general public to be equipped with information; it is merely a soundbite. This tone continues throughout the leaflet – on every page, there are statements of belief from the In Team which could just as easily be countered from statements from the Out Team. This isn’t information: it’s propaganda.
And that’s why this Government believes it can do what it wants. Because we’ve had years now of erosion of the concept of public service, erosion of the notion of accountability, and years of professional politicians choosing a career in politics as a route to self-advancement. Poor old George Orwell left the Ministry of Information because he felt that he was restrained by its precepts from outlining his own personal views on the future of society. He went off to imagine a world in which traditional language had no meaning, where new vocabulary was needed to enforce the submission of the population.
That’s the world in which this leaflet was produced.