As the author of Protecting the People – The Central Office of Information and the Reshaping of Post-War Britain, 1946-2011, I have been struck by the failure of the government to remain in control of the message regarding Covid-19.
While the nature of the pandemic changes rapidly, the need for essential information and advice remains constant. The Central Office of Information (COI) was responsible for coordinating public information campaigns for over 60 years, covering a myriad of national emergencies, health campaigns and civil defence measures against a possible nuclear attack. In the 1980s, to raise public awareness of the threat posed by Aids, the COI disseminated TV, radio, newspaper, poster and leaflet propaganda. The leaflet “Aids. Don’t Die of Ignorance” was delivered to 23 million households. Some people thought the campaign demonised Aids still further by adding to existing levels of fear. But the general consensus among historians is that it was successful in saving lives.
What is needed now is a coordinated and sustained public information campaign that reinforces key messages to shape people’s behaviour and prevent the spread of the virus. Such a campaign should use the internet, but crucially should also employ the more traditional means of communication. Rather than being fronted by politicians, “celebrities” appealing to different age, gender and ethnic groups could be employed. Similar approaches proved effective in past COI campaigns such as “Don’t Drink and Drive”, anti-smoking campaigns, and the “Green Cross Code” etc. Coronavirus is of a different magnitude, but the propaganda principles remain the same. Advice that I would offer is: simplicity, repetition, and – for a British audience – occasional humour. I am sure that any number of advertising agencies could produce an effective campaign in a short period of time.
Emeritus professor of modern history, University of Kent
• After a petition, the BBC agreed to pause the proposed closure of its Red Button text service to April. This service brings together news in an easily accessible way via TV, and is especially important for people without access to the internet in these very difficult times. I urge the BBC to save this excellent service for now and for the future.