Information Research Department

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The Information Research Department (IRD), founded in 1948 by Christopher Mayhew, was a department of the British Foreign Office set up to counter Soviet propaganda and infiltration, particularly amongst the western labour movement.

Although the existence of the department was kept confidential, the Soviet Union was fully aware of it as Guy Burgess had been posted to IRD for a period of two months in 1948 before being sacked by Mayhew for being "dirty, drunk and idle."[1]


In a confidential paper to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, in 1947, Mayhew, at the time a junior minister, had proposed a "propaganda counter-offensive" and Attlee summoned him to Chequers to discuss it further.[1] Mayhew ran the department with Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick[1] until 1950.

The original offices were in Carlton House Terrace, before moving to Riverwalk House, Millbank, London.


The first head of IRD was Ralph Murray, later a diplomat. John Rennie, who subsequently served as head of MI6, was head of the department between 1953 and 1958. The last head of the IRD was Ray Whitney, later a Conservative member of parliament and junior minister. IRD was staffed with many emigres, from Iron Curtain countries. IRD officials were ordered not to tell even other FO staff where they worked. IRD flourished in the 1950s. The staff of the Soviet section alone rose from 20 to more than 60. Embassies had resident IRD men under cover who planted material on local journalists – and opinion formers. Other staffers included Robert Conquest and his assistant Celia Kirwan, who was given Orwell's list.[2]

The IRD was one of the largest sections of the Foreign Office.[3]


IRD's main targets were in the Third World.[1] However, it was also set out to "be of use to" British media and opinion formers. As well as supplying material to the BBC World Service, secret lists were compiled of approved journalists and trade unionists to whom material was offered, if not always accepted.

British introductions to IRD were made discreetly. Journalists were told as little as possible about the Department. Material was sent to their homes under plain cover as correspondence marked "personal" carried no departmental identification or reference. They were told documents were "prepared" in the FCO primarily for members of the diplomatic service, but that it was allowed to give them on a personal basis to a few people outside the service who might find them of interest. As such, they were not statements of official policy and should not be attributed to HMG, nor should the titles themselves be quoted in discussion or in print. The papers should not be shown to anyone else and they were to be destroyed when no longer needed.[1]

As part of its remit "to collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications",[4] it subsidised the publication of books by Background Books, including three by Bertrand Russell: Why Communism Must Fail, What Is Freedom?, and What Is Democracy?[4] Russell was fully aware of the funding for his books, while others, such as the philosopher Bryan Magee, who contributed The Democratic Revolution, were outraged when they found out.

Other publications were written by IRD staffers such as the scholar and author Robert Conquest.

Likewise, the IRD funded the Burmese, Chinese, and Arabic editions of George Orwell's Animal Farm.

In a joint operation with the CIA, Encounter magazine was established. Published in the United Kingdom, it was a largely Anglo-American intellectual and cultural journal, originally associated with the anti-Stalinist left, intended to counter the idea of cold war neutralism. The magazine was rarely critical of American foreign policy, but beyond this editors had considerable publishing freedom. It was edited by Stephen Spender from 1953 to 1966. Spender resigned after it emerged that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which published the magazine, was being covertly funded by the CIA.[5]



Following the abortive Indonesian Communist coup attempt of 1965 and the subsequent reprisal killings, the IRD's South East Asia Monitoring Unit in Singapore assisted the Indonesian Army's destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) by circulating anti-PKI propaganda through several radio channels including the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Malaysia, Radio Australia, and the Voice of America, and through newspapers like The Straits Times. The same anti-PKI message was repeated by an anti-Sukarno radio station called Radio Free Indonesia and the IRD's own newsletter. Recurrent themes emphasised by the IRD included the brutality of PKI members in murdering the Indonesian generals and their families, Chinese intervention in the Communist attempt to overthrow the government and the PKI subverting Indonesian on behalf of foreign powers. The IRD's propaganda efforts were aided by the United States, Australian and Malaysian governments which had an interest in supporting the Army's anti-Communist mass murder and opposing President Sukarno. The IRD's information efforts helped corroborate the Indonesia Army's propaganda efforts against the PKI. In addition, the Harold Wilson Labour Government and its Australian counterpart gave the Indonesian Army leadership an assurance that British and Commonwealth forces would not step up the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation.[6]

British trade unions[edit]

In 1969 Home Secretary James Callaghan requested action that would hinder the careers of two "politically motivated" trade unionists, Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union and Hugh Scanlon of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. This issue was raised in cabinet, and further discussed with Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle. A plan for detrimental leaks to the media was placed in the IRD files, and the head of the IRD prepared a briefing paper. However information about how this was effected has not been released under the thirty-year rule under a section of the Public Records Act permitting national security exemptions.[3]


The ethical objection raised by IRD's critics was that the public did not know the source of the information and could therefore not make allowances for the possible bias. It differed thus from straightforward propaganda from the British point of view.[1] This was countered by saying that the information was given to those who were already sympathetic to democracy and the West, and who had arrived at these positions independently.

Orwell's list[edit]

Among the many lists of journalists and trade unionists, etc., kept by the department, one that came to light to much polemic more than fifty years after it was compiled was a list drawn up by novelist George Orwell, an early anti-Stalinist.

On 2 May 1949, Celia Kirwan, a close friend of Orwell's who worked for the IRD, received a list compiled by Orwell containing thirty-eight names of journalists and writers[7] who, in his opinion, "are crypto-communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists." The list, divided into three columns headed "Name" "Job" and "Remarks" included Charlie Chaplin; J. B. Priestley; the actor Michael Redgrave; the historian E. H. Carr; the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin; the New York Times's Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty; the former Trotskyist writer Isaac Deutscher; Labour MP Tom Driberg and the novelist Naomi Mitchison, as well as other lesser-known writers and journalists.

On the list was the name of Peter Smollett, who Orwell claimed " strong impression of being some kind of Russian agent. Very slimy person." Smollett had been the head of the Soviet section in the British Ministry of Information, while in fact being a Soviet agent who had been recruited by Kim Philby.


The department was said to be closed down by then Foreign Secretary, David Owen, in 1977. Its existence did not become public until 1978.[1][3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Death of the department that never was from The Guardian, 27 January 1978
  2. ^ D J Taylor (6 November 2002). "Obituary: Celia Goodman". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Cobain, Ian (24 July 2018). "Wilson government used secret unit to smear union leaders". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  4. ^ a b "Orwell's List" by Timothy Garton Ash. The New York Review of Books Volume 50, Number 14. 25 September 2003
  5. ^ Frances Stonor Saunders (12 July 1999), "How the CIA plotted against us", New Statesman., archived from the original on 10 October 2014
  6. ^ Easter, David (2005). "Keep the Indonesian Pot Boiling: Western Covert Intervention in Indonesia, October 1965—March 1966". Cold War History. 5 (1): 64–65. doi:10.1080/1468274042000283144.
  7. ^ Guardian Review, 21 June 2003

External links[edit]