Kevin Myers and Basil Clarke

By Richard Evans

The biggest media story of the weekend was the Sunday Times column written by columnist Kevin Myers, which News UK has admitted contained “unacceptable comments both to Jewish people and to women in the workplace”.

The Sunday Times has confirmed that Myers won’t write for it again. A good thing too; these kind of things have no place in modern society, and it’s shocking that it appeared at all.

When I read the news, Myers’s name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d come across him before.

But a quick Google later, I remembered that I’d actually featured him in my biography of Basil Clarke, the father of the UK public relations industry (who led the British propaganda effort in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence).

Given Myers’s newfound noteriety, I thought it would be worth sharing the relevant passage. What follows below is a slightly adapted extract from From the Frontline:

For many years after the Irish War of Independence, Clarke’s role was largely forgotten. As much as he was mentioned at all, it was in passing, along with the other civil servants at Dublin Castle.

Then in the early 1990s, this began to change. The Irish journalist Kevin Myers wrote that Terence Macswiney, whose death by hunger strike in 1920 had helped win sympathy for Sinn Fein’s cause, had been part of a group that had planned to kidnap and possibly murder the Bishop of Cork. The allegation angered Macswiney’s family and they complained to Myers that it was untrue.

Myers agreed to write another article to make this clear and in this article, published in the Irish Times in January 1992, he blamed Clarke for the deceit:

“Terence Macswiney’s family understandably are upset that this allegation should have been printed. The least I can do is to accept willingly and fully that it was a lie, and express utter regret that I did not recognise it for what it was.

“It is one of the perils of journalism that the skilled liar is always at an advantage; and perhaps in the regions where Basil Clark [sic] currently resides he permits himself a small smile that his lies live after him; a lamentable achievement.”

It was a crass piece of journalism, but it seems to have resurrected the idea first established by the Irish Bulletin [Sinn Fein’s newspaper during the War of Independence] that Clarke was a sinister hidden hand behind the British propaganda campaign…

It is certainly true that Clarke’s department issued statements that were
factually inaccurate, but there is no real evidence to suggest that any incorrect statement issued by Clarke was done knowingly.

Indeed, Clarke’s approach, which he called “propaganda by news”, relied on building the trust of newspapers and he complained to colleagues about being given inaccurate information. He even once ran into trouble for refusing to issue a statement he doubted the veracity of.

The historian Ian Kenneally offers a more credible assessment of Clarke’s role in Ireland: “While he was not an outright deceiver, his job was to portray the Crown forces in as positive light as possible.”

Clarke was long dead by the time of Myers’s article and so was unable to defend himself, but a letter he wrote to The People newspaper in Wexford in January 1934, some 12 years after leaving Ireland, gives a good idea of what his reaction would have been.

Responding to an article that criticised the propaganda issued by his Dublin Castle Press Bureau, he wrote:

“It is a fact that I never gave, or authorised the giving, to the Press of any information that was not substantiated by official reports … That early reports, wired in code to the Castle, and handed on by me to the Press, sometimes proved inaccurate, cannot be laid at the door of my department.

“My mind is so clear of guilt on the matter that I was surprised and rather sad to see myself handed on by you to present-day Ireland as something of a scheming villain, one who had set a precedent to be avoided in official administration.”

It’s clear that Myers’s article about Clarke is part the reason he is today seen by many as having acted as a kind of sinister hidden hand in Ireland, manipulating public opinion in Ireland, England and around the world. Actually, the truth is that the story of British public relations during his time in Ireland is one of chaotic management, internal division and lack of direction. A more reasonable criticism of him is that he was unable to win support from senior colleagues for his approach. And once it became obvious that he couldn’t trust the veracity of the information he was being given, he should have resigned.

Above all, both Clarke’s time in Ireland and Myers’s reporting of it are reminders that fake news might be seen as a new phenomenon, but inaccurate journalism has been around as long as journalism itself. As Harry Truman said, the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t yet know.

Richard Evans is the author of  From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke. You can find his blog here.

Picture credit: Ben Sutherland/Flickr


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