Sir Basil Clarke and the Great War

Basil Clarke
Basil Clarke

   

Many accounts of the history of public relations focus almost entirely on developments in the United States.

But there were also pioneers in the United Kingdom who were blazing a similar trail in the early years of the 20th century.

One of the most significant of these was Basil (later to become Sir Basil) Clarke.

Like Phineas Barnum and Ivy Lee before him, Basil Clarke started out his professional life working in newspapers. In Clarke’s case this was firstly for the Manchester Guardian and then subsequently for the Daily Mail. It was at the Daily Mail that Clarke first made a name for himself, when he became their war correspondent during the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

Covering a war was difficult enough at the best of times, but during the early stages of the Great War British journalists were banned from the front line by the then Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.

In their place Kitchener set up an official press bureau in Charing Cross, London to issue government-approved war news. This ban was protested by all newspapers and was ignored by many, including the Daily Mail and Basil Clarke.

Undercover war reporter

Posing as a Belgian civilian, Clarke had to smuggle himself onto a train full of French soldiers to get from Calais to Dunkirk and once there had to live as a fugitive above a small cafe, evading the round ups of reporters that took place in the more comfortable hotels. Whilst at the front he reported on the destruction of Ypres and the bloody battles that took place during Christmas 1914 (Evans, 2013).

His reports were published without a byline, but even sending the copy back to London was a major obstacle. Clarke was sometimes able to use a telegraph office, but mostly he gave his articles to a French courier or even used friendly soldiers about to go home on leave. It was a dangerous existence. Some reporters were threatened with being shot by the British, never the mind the Germans, if they were caught.

When Clarke was finally forced to return home in January 1915 he was one of the last two reporters remaining at the front.

But the British government finally accepted the need for press freedom and the ban on journalists was overturned in April 1915, allowing Clarke to return to the front and report on the final stages of the battle of the Somme in 1916. Before he did that though, Clarke managed to cause a global scandal in January 1916 by accusing the British government of feeding the Germans through failing to enforce the declared naval blockade of Germany (Evans 2013).

Once the war was over Clarke left journalism, perhaps seeing more opportunity and excitement working for the government rather than criticising it from the outside.

Government propagandist

At the conclusion of the war in 1918, making good use of his experience at the frontline, Basil Clarke joined government ranks as Director of Special Intelligence at the newly formed Ministry of Reconstruction. Displaying a sense of restlessness, he then quickly moved through a number of government jobs until in March 1920 he was appointed as Director of Public Information at Dublin Castle, directing the British publicity effort against the Irish republican movement.

He had in fact been there before as a journalist, reporting for the Daily Mail on the Easter Rising of 1916. It was during this period that Clarke developed his views on ‘propaganda by news’, managing the media through the routine issue of news stories, all of which had the key quality of ‘the air of truth’ (Miller and Dinan, 2008).

Miller and Dinan argue that, with its colonial past, Britain was one of the foremost exponents of propaganda and that the government was quick to use this particular skill both during the Great War and afterwards in the battle against the Irish republican movement. They also claim that British intelligence officers pioneered the use of what they call ‘black propaganda’ in the battle against the Irish republicans during the 1920s.

This was certainly the most controversial period of Clarke’s life and it culminated, like Ivy Lee a few years before, in Clarke being implicated in the war of words surrounding a bloody massacre of civilians.

The event in question was the original Bloody Sunday shooting, by police officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary, of Gaelic football supporters at Croke Park, Dublin on 21 November 1920. In apparent retaliation for the murder that morning of 14 British officers and others by the IRA, the police opened fire on the crowd of 5,000 at the stadium, killing 14 and wounding another 65.

In his role as Director of Public Information, Clarke was charged with publicly defending this outrage and was put in the position of issuing what has subsequently been seen as a misleading and inaccurate statement about the reasons for the shooting to the press. It is not clear how much Clarke knew of the truth of what really happened that day, but it was his job to put the government’s side of the story. The British government was certainly grateful for his efforts and Clarke was later knighted for his work in Dublin (Evans, 2013).

Clarke was just one of a number of former intelligence officers and journalists who emerged from the conflicts of the Great War and the Partition of Ireland to join the ranks of the rising public relations profession. Sydney Walton, a former undercover agent turned PR consultant was another and Hugh Pollard, a former staff officer in the intelligence unit of the War Office was a third (Miller and Dinan, 2008).

Clarke quickly left his brief stint of government service in and in 1924 put his journalistic skills and contacts to good use by setting up one of the first, and foremost, public relations agencies in the UK in 1924 called Editorial Services. This was the beginning of the next chapter in Clarke’s illustrious career.

Bibliography

Richard Evans – From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke – The History Press (2013)

David Miller and William Dinan – Century of Spin – How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power – London, Pluto Press (2008)

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