Exclusive: How Shell and BP financed Britain’s Cold War propaganda machine

Formerly top secret files show how the two oil corporations bankrolled UK covert propaganda operations during the 1950s and 60s. The goal was to secure British access to key oil supplies across the developing world.

.BP directors meet in London, 1960. (Photo: Central Press / Getty)


“Handsome” sums were provided by BP and Shell to the Information Research Department (IRD), which was Britain’s Cold War propaganda arm between 1948 and 1977, declassified files show.

The IRD used the secret subsidies to fund British covert propaganda operations during the 1950s and 1960s across the Middle East and Africa, where Britain’s oil interests were substantial. Today, the value of the payments would be in the millions of pounds.

Such operations involved setting up newspapers and magazines, funding radio and television broadcasts, and organising trade union exchanges.

The objective was to promote “stability” in these regions by countering the threat of communism and resource nationalism, while improving the “public image” of Britain’s leading oil companies.

Ultimately, the goal was to secure British access to the supply of Middle Eastern and African oil.

Oil and propaganda

During the 1950s and 1960s, the IRD met annually with Shell and BP representatives to discuss how secret oil subsidies were being used and whether the oil companies were getting value for money.

In December 1960, IRD chief Donald Hopson met Shell’s UK executive Brian Trench and senior BP executive Archie Chisholm, alongside a number of other Foreign Office officials. The name of one individual remains classified, suggesting Britain’s intelligence services were also in attendance.

At the meeting, it was noted the IRD had spent £75,500 in oil money – valued at over £1.2m today – on covert propaganda operations between April 1959 and March 1960.

Over half of this money had been spent on the Arab News Agency (ANA), a long standing British propaganda front which had strong links with MI6.

“ANA operated the most comprehensive service in English and Arabic available in the Middle East with branch offices in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Amman, and representatives in some 15 other cities, including Paris and New York”, wrote journalist Richard Fletcher.


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