Sir Thomas Basil Clarke, KBE

Sir Basil Clarke obituary Basil Clarke  

Sir Thomas Basil Clarke, KBE (12 August 1879 - 12 December 1947) was an early pioneer of public relations and British government wartime propaganda expert. He also w 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, Clarke went to Manchester Grammar School and then Oxford University, where he studied classics and music. As a young man, he was a member of the Lancashire rugby union fifteen, despite the handicap of having only one eye, the result of an accident in infancy.

His widowed mother persuaded him to take up banking, which he reputedly hated. Instead he travelled in Europe, eventuallly securing an appointment teaching English at Heidelberg University. An article on musical appreciation that he wrote for the Manchester Guardian was admired by an editor on the Sunday Times and Clarke was invited to join the Sunday Times. 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.

Even to live in the war zone without papers and credentials was hard enough, but to move about and see things, and pick up news and then to get one's written dispatches conveyed home - against all regulations - was a labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken in journalistic work. I longed sometimes to be arrested and sent home and done with it all. I evaded the authorities in France and Flanders in 1914-1915 for five months - going to the Front on average two or three times a week. I had apartments or hotel rooms in three districts, and when things became hot in one place I moved to another of my bases.

He later became an official correspondent. A green brassard is the badge of war correspondents attached to British Armies in the Field. It is worn with a khaki uniform and cap, puttees or leggings and a Sam Browne belt — practically the same dress as an officer's, except for regimental and rank badges, of which the war correspondent, of course, has none. At first the green brassard bore also the name of the wearer's newspaper or news agency, but the correspondents raised a "strafe" at being labeled in this public manner and the authorities dispensed with the names on the brassards and left them plain — a bright and pretty green, of about the same shade as a billiard-table cloth. Rules and regulations say that a. green brassard must be worn on each arm, but in practice one is generally regarded as enough.

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.

1919 Sep 5

1920 Aug. He moved to Ireland to head the British government's propaganda unit, the Public Information Department in Dublin Castle. Clarke worked closely with the head of Special Branch in London, Basil Thomson. In Dublin the propaganda apparatus pumped out a mix of false or deliberately misleading stories. 'Propaganda by news' was how they described it. The key quality that it must have, 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 half truths which gave the appearance of truth. As Major Street, another of the propagandists (Irish Office in London) 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'."

1920 Aug 30 the new Propaganda Department produced the first issue of a 'Survey of the Weeks Activities', aimed specifically at countering the impact of the 'Irish Bulletin'. The archives reveal that the work of the Department was meticulously organised, with a card index system containing possible headlines, themes and outlines of anti-Republican articles. The cards did not contain any sources for the articles, no actual documentary evidence that any of the stories were grounded in fact.

Murphy described Clarke as a 'consummate wordsmith' who pioneered the presentation of propaganda as 'News', rather than as 'Views'. Drawing on his experience as both war and political propagandist he developed the Department by ensuring that journalists became reliant on Dublin Castle as a source of news. Twenty or more journalists visited Dublin Castle daily, to be fed the 'official' news. These journalists became dependent on this source of news and they received subtly worded material, which had the appearance of truth. Special 'leaks' of papers and photographs were arranged. Great emphasis was placed on labelling the Dublin Castle sourced news as 'official', which gave it the illusion of being authoritative and truthful.

Under Basil Clarke worked three members of the Auxiliary Division; Menzies, Dowdall and Vignoles.
D.I. Menzies was responsible for collecting news from the RIC and Auxiliary Division, he reported directly to Clarke.  D.I. Menzies. Dowdall and Vignoles reported to Menzies

He left government service in the early 1920s and set up one of the first PR agencies, Editorial Services, in 1924.By the end of the 1920s he was running a significant operation with 60 staffers. The same year he was associated with "the setting up of ‘National Propaganda’, later to become ‘The Economic League’.

1923 Jan 1. Knighted in New Year Honours List

In the mid-1920s, Clarke published a small brochure to promote wallpaper, The World's Greatest Adventure - The Quest of Columbus in Mural Decoration (publisher Arthur Sanderson, London). Between 1929 and 1931, he worked as a public relations expert for the Conservative Party. He wrote a number of letters to the Times, like the one below.

1925 Feb 18

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

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," awarded him the Order of the Dannebrog. His personal life was not always smooth, as can be seen from his assault charge and also from his son's suicide.

Times 1930 Jul 17

sons death

His son committed suicide 1933 Dec 5

1947 Dec 12 Died

1969 Jan his widow died

British Intelligence at Dublin Castle