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Should the COI make a return?

How government communications are in serious need of a reboot

Artillery Row

“A substantial number of people do not still feel sufficiently personally threatened,” as the now infamous report by the government SAGE’s committee put it, “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased.”

During the COVID crisis the state has come to occupy a central place in Britain’s media landscape. But by taking such a large role, this intervention has not only altered the feel of democracy in Britain, it’s changed something of its nature.

We don’t have to look back very far to see how big this shift in government communications has been. The current celebrations at the British Film Institute, National Archives and Imperial War Museum to mark the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Central Office of Information (COI) illustrate just how radically norms have changed.

One of the other reasons that politicians never liked the COI was because there were clear limits to how far its output could be politicised

Created in 1946 out of the ashes of the Ministry of Information, in many respects the COI was a relic of the post-war settlement. As part of its remit to promote Britain at home and overseas it commissioned films like Return to Life (1962) to mark the launch of International Refugee Year by future Conservative MPs Christopher Chataway and Tim Raison. The COI’s natural format was “the story of” story. It explained how government worked. On a good day it provided something akin to an instruction manual for civic society.

During the heyday of “public information” the COI produced internationally respected non-fiction films like Atomic Achievement (on nuclear power), Design for Today (household design) and H.M.P (criminal rehabilitation), and developed the “Tell Sid” adverts to encourage the wider take up of share ownership. Parts of its legacy, from nurturing the work of directors like Sarah Erulkar and Peter Greenaway, to innovations with animated posters and street furniture, were genuinely interesting and impressive. Its commissions also nurtured private sector experimentation: for example, Saatchi & Saatchi’s iconic “pregnant man” contraception campaign for the Health Education Council.

While for the most part apolitical, the COI was definitely “wet”, you could even make the argument that it represented the administrative arm of a kind of cultural Keynesianism. Among its early alumni were Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and John Krish. It once commissioned Ken Loach to make a film about youth unemployment. The COI was the media bureaucracy of the post-war consensus. Perhaps partly for this reason, the COI was abolished by David Cameron in 2011.

But one of the other reasons that politicians never liked the COI was because there were clear limits to how far its output could be politicised. By design it was an arms-length government agency which resisted the micromanagement of centralised party political control. Because the COI was set up with the Cold War objective to limit government intervention as much as enable it, it had no cultural heavyweight friends and represented no powerful political constituency. If anything, the COI was an exemplar of the occasionally self-defeating parsimony of the national state agencies created in the immediate post war period. 

Even the COI’s public safety output aimed at children usually reflected a degree of self-awareness. The COI expected to be accused of (at the least) lame humour as well as low-level and sometimes infective meddling. It gave us the Green Cross Code, Charley and The Tufty Club. The organisation’s imaginative place at the heart of bumbling, herbivore Britain was captured nicely by Jonathan Coe’s novel Expo 58; snobbery and national decline set against the underpowered modernism of the Brussels World Fair.

But by the turn of the millennium the COI had become answerable to Alastair Campbell. Placed under the oversight of the Cabinet Office, pressure began to be applied on the COI to coordinate its work with the day-to-day agenda of the party in power. 

At the same time, the explosion of 24-hour news pushed distinctive formats of public information to the hyper specialised margins. Instead of wide ranging holistic civic campaigns, “messages” dropped into national news feeds became the leading mode of engagement. The primacy given to “news”, reality television and commercial advertising further warped the boundaries of public information. New Labour even planned a reality show with Jeremy Kyle to demonise the “workless.”

Rather than occupy a third space between the government of the day and the commercial media, “public information” was becoming a tool for highly sectarian interests to shape the news agenda and limit the discursive space for political opposition. The “public” part of public information was gradually being furloughed and replaced by the altogether less attractive concept of government information, accompanied by the attendant tendency for state failure to be blamed on dissenting opinion.

New Labour’s “modernisation” of the COI also directed a torrent of money into the pockets of friendly commercial advertising agencies. The COI’s budget grew from £47 million in 1993 to around £530 million by 2010. Since the Cameron government abolished the COI, spending has skyrocketed further. Spending continues to go up, but as with so much else in Britain, the money doesn’t often seem to be directed into improving actual public services.

These changing norms in the organisation and delivery of public information have been placed firmly under the spotlight during the COVID crisis

Ultimately, however, the demise of the COI represents a much bigger change. The COI produced programmes about exports, ladders, and farm machinery rather than “online harms”: it was established by men of a certain era who took for granted that Britain was a manufacturing nation with a unionised workforce. The COI’s model of public information worked something like industrial arbitration, but increasingly influenced by consumer advertising, government communication in the post-industrial world instead developed a more directive and emotive nature. 

These changing norms in the organisation and delivery of public information have been placed firmly under the spotlight during the present COVID crisis. Since the COI was scrapped, impatient politicians, behavioural psychologists, and media evangelists of digital choice architecture have cheered on the abolition of many of the existing checks and balances that existed on government communication. There is now barely a pretence that the public should be addressed as “rational consumers” of information. As has been detailed by Laura Dodsworth, government advisors are now happy to frighten, shame and manipulate the public into compliance.

We’ve entered a world where the entire British population can now be addressed in the shrill and somewhat paranoid tone that the COI had previously reserved for small children playing under electric pylons in the 1980s. So much for Keep Calm and Carry On.

This change matters because the character of public information, from how it’s commissioned, to its content and its delivery, reflects something fundamental about the quality of the democracy. During the lethal first AIDS pandemic the tagline of Nicholas Roeg’s hard-hitting “monolith” advert for the COI was “don’t die of ignorance”. Facts and better access to condoms and clean needles were seen as key to the management of the disease, while a leaflet sent to millions of households attempted to dispel myths about the transmissibility of the virus. Kissing, shaking hands and sharing cutlery were safe the public were told. Today this looks an even-handed response, at the time the COI were roundly criticised for fear-mongering and pandering to the neurosis of “the worried well.”

Last year the government became the UK’s largest advertiser. The concern has to be that, if the character of public information reflects something of the nature of the democracy, we look to be moving away from a world where the role of public information is to encourage and facilitate personal responsibility. Instead of placing the agency of citizens at its centre, today’s practices suggest we are moving into a world where politicians become even less constrained in their willingness to tell the public to shut up, get out of the way, and do what they’re told.  

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