The League and the Combating of “False Information”
Emil Eiby Seidenfaden (PhD Student - Aarhus University)
When one is working on a research project on early international cooperation one is occasionally pressed by family and friends to comment on “what is going on right now.” The family member or friend will be referring to the rise of national populism in the West, the withdrawal of Great Britain from the European Union, and the weaknesses these and other developments have exposed in the postwar landscape of international organization. Many of these problems do recall events that took place during the interwar years in Europe, but the question still brings frustration. Historians know that transnational political phenomena like these are difficult to compare across time in a meaningful way, and I have often been uncertain about exactly how to provide an entertaining answer without compromising my credibility.
Yet, I have found that my project’s perspective on publicity and legitimization strategies in the League of Nations, offers a look into the foundations of challenges and discussions that have developed since the beginning of postwar international settlements. On my journey through League of Nations’ archival material, I have come across the phenomenon of what would today be called ‘fake news’. Having worked with the role of the press and its sources of information in interwar European politics before, I am aware that misinformation as an element in propaganda is nothing new and certainly played a role in the political polarization in various national contexts in the interwar period. But I was not aware that incorrect or “misleading” news was acknowledged as a challenge to the integrity and reputation of the press on the level of international organization.
International Conferences of Press Experts
Deliberately misleading news surfaced from time to time in discussion fora under League of Nations auspices. Historian Heidi Tworek has laid out this story: In 1925 the Chilean delegate at the League Assembly, Mr. Yanez, proposed that the League should host an international conference of Press Experts to discuss matters of universal interest to journalists.1 Among the reasons given by the delegate for proposing such a conference was to ensure a more rapid and less costly transmission of news “with a view to reducing the risk of international misunderstanding.”2 The conference was organized by the Information Section of the League Secretariat and took place in Geneva in 1927. The ninth resolution adopted by the conference “dealt with the publication of tendentious news.”3
The success of the first conference led to two more being held under League auspices: The second was hosted by the Danish government in Copenhagen in 1932 and the third in Madrid in 1933. The conference at Copenhagen explicitly addressed the problem of news that were deliberately misleading. The meeting, fully named the “Conference of Directors of Official Press Bureaux and of Press Representatives,” adopted a resolution stating that “the campaign against the dissemination of inaccurate news is one of the necessities of international life”. Both in order to prevent the press from using tendentious sources in the first place and in terms of “rectifying it” afterwards, coordination between national press bureaux was suggested as the best weapon against such “inaccurate and sometimes tendentious” news.4 The conference’s suggestion of increased coordination led the League to request ideas from press organizations of 64 states on how to prevent the “spread of false information that may threaten to disturb the peace or the good understanding between the nations.” National as well as international press organizations were asked to respond before the final conference in Madrid in 1933.5
The fight against incorrect news played well together with the League’s desire to mobilize public opinion to the cause of peace and internationalism. It was in the League’s interest to establish some sort of international ethics code with regards to news and journalism, with the aim of countering nationalist interpretation and dissemination of news by opponents of the League. On top of visions of an “open diplomacy” and of using publicity actively in the fight for international peace, the League’s efforts to internationalize and standardize press procedures also played together with the idea of ‘moral disarmament’. Disarmament, it was thought, ought to go further than “simply” reducing the build-up of arms among the Great Powers. Especially within the League’s “Organization on Intellectual Co-operation”, the predecessor for today’s UNESCO, moral disarmament was considered an urgent matter. Here, it encompassed things like international coordination of public education in League matters, educative broadcasting, film production and academic cooperation such as student exchange and international scholarships.6 But moral disarmament also meant that the press had to play an active role as a promoter of peace and understanding among populations – and therefore that journalists had to be made to understand and fill that role. It is within this context that the conferences of press experts under League auspices must be understood.
Frontpage-cartoon from ’The Herald’, Louisiana, USA, 1919 in favour of the League of Nations.
Incorrect news was addressed at conferences of experts sponsored by the League, rather than inside the League Secretariat itself. The extent of their impact in terms of stopping the spread of misleading news is debatable. Only three conferences were held, and their call for a coordinated fight against false information was met with differing responses that showed a varying degree of recognition of the problem.7 However, their story is an essential part of the story of the League’s vision to further the cause of peace through the press - what Heidi Tworek has called “Peace through truth”.8 It demonstrates one of the ways in which the role of the League was negotiated in international life – it tried to facilitate the creation of a new and more ‘responsible press’. Even if it did not entirely succeed, the story of the conferences demonstrates an aspect of the League’s attempt to create an “epistemic community” by establishing transnational networks of journalists who spoke the internationalist language.9 Furthermore, it sparks this researcher’s curiosity about the organization of the League’s legitimization strategies and this leads to my next point.
The Greater League of Nations
We may ask whether a certain division of labor in terms of publicity and press relations took place among those whose task it was to promote the League’s brand of internationalism. Perhaps it could be said that while the Information Section itself dealt with ‘strictly neutral’ publicity like the publication of a Monthly Summary and of informative pamphlets on the various League organizations, more clear-cut pro-League publicity was nurtured indirectly. Could it have been through private organizations, experts and enthusiasts who would attend League conferences and thus help provide attention and legitimacy to the new organization? It was the Secretariat – and therefore the Information Section in the case of the conferences of press experts – that did the initial planning of the first conference. They contacted 381 groups or individuals of thirty countries on the basis of whose replies various technical committees were appointed to prepare the conference.10 Out of the many responses by national press organizations to the League’s call for suggestions on how to fight false information, the most common “was for more openness by the League and for it to allow journalists more access to diplomatic proceedings”.11 This response could be read as a criticism of the League for failing to uphold the Wilsonian principles so influential in its founding. Thus, the facilitating of conferences could work as a way for disheartened proponents of a new diplomacy within the League machinery to bring in such messages from the outside. Thomas R. Davies has shown that the League “sometimes asked INGO’s to campaign for certain proposals” and that it relied on them to legitimate its policies.12 Davies is primarily referring to organizations like the national League of Nations societies that existed to promote the League, but other organizations might have played a role as well in circulating pro-League views and proposals. INGO’s whose work and interests overlapped with the League were sometimes said to constitute “The Greater League of Nations” – a vast transnational network that worked as an extended forum for discussions about the League.13 Among important organizations present at the conferences of press experts, were the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), founded only one year before the first conference, together with the International Association of Journalists Accredited to the League of Nations.14 It is not groundbreaking news that the interests of such organizations were sometimes aligned with those of the League. Still, an important question for those of us grappling with the League’s legitimization strategies is to what extent this assumed division of labor between the League secretariat and the “Greater League” was practiced. All the more so, when considering that the League’s procedures, when it came to the use of conferences and liaison with private organizations, were highly experimental, laying down the framework for later international organizations.15 We may ask whether the fight against false information is an example of the League and its allies not only attempting to provide publicity that would legitimize its own actions, but also to go on the offensive and combat competing interpretations of news in the confrontational atmosphere of interwar Europe.
Smoke and mirrors in the legitimization of the League
Tworek, in concluding her article on the League conferences of press experts, cites an Australian journalist by the name of Charles Howard Ellis, who made some remarks on the “trans-national” value of what the League was doing in a pro-League book in 1928.16 Tworek calls Ellis a “commentator on the League.” Ellis’ role in relation to the League is in fact said to be ambiguous. Scholars have later claimed that the cited book was ghostwritten by Konni Zilliacus, a staunch internationalist and an official of the very same League Information Section that organized the conferences of press experts.17 Ellis thus becomes a demonstration in himself of the sometimes-fuzzy boundaries between the League as an institution and the transnational network of the “Greater League.” He was an independent commentator, yet he lent his position to a voice from within the League Secretariat. It seems the organization’s legitimization strategies were complex and manifold.
Left: Pierre Comert, Director of the Information Section of the League of Nations Secretariat 1919-1933.
Right: Konni Zilliacus, Member of Section in the Information Section 1920-1938 and devoted League-propagator during the interwar period.
At this point I may have lost the attention of the curious family member who asked me about what I thought of Brexit and populism and wanted to know if the international political climate is in the process of resetting itself to interwar-mode. But if I am lucky I will have utilized the historical example of “fake news”, and its reception in the international forums of the League of Nations, to illustrate a point: That at least one of those political phenomena we consider to be new are in fact only actually new in the sense that they are mass-produced and utilized on a new scale – and therefore possibly with radically different results. That, in short, history repeats itself but also that it really doesn’t.
1) Heidi J. S. Tworek, ‘Peace Through Truth’, Medien & Zeit
, 25.4 (2010), 16–28. 24.
2) League of Nations Archives (LONA), Geneva,” The League of Nations and the Press”, Information Section, League of Nations 1928. 43.
3) Ibid. 47.
4) League of Nations Archives (LONA), Geneva - R 3310 – Collaboration of the Press in the Organization of Peace, Conference of Directors of Press Bureaux and Press Representatives (January 1932).
5) Tworek. 24.
6) League of Nations, Conf. doc. 98, ’Moral Disarmament’ – Documentary material forwarded by the International Organization on Intellectual Co-operation, Geneva 24/03/1932 - digital.library.northwestern.edu/league/ (28.04.2017).
7) Tworek. 25-26.
9) Emanuel Adler and Peter M Haas, ‘Conclusion: Epistemic Communities , World Order , and the Creation of a Reflective Research Program’,International Organization, 46. 1 (1992), 367–90.
10) League of Nations Archives (LONA), Geneva, “The League of Nations and the Press”, Information Section, League of Nations 1928. 44.
11) Tworek. 26.
12) Thomas Richard Davies, ‘A “Great Experiment” of the League of Nations Era: International Nongovernmental Organizations, Global Governance, and Democracy Beyond the State’, Global Governance, 18 (2012), 405–23. 411. “INGO” is a term taken into use after the Second World War. In the interwar period, such organizations were sometimes called “private international unions” not to be confused with “public international unions.”
13) Davies. 410.
14) Tworek. 24.
15) Davies. 409.
16) Tworek. 27.
17) James Cotton, ‘The Standard Work in English on the League’ and Its Authorship: Charles Howard Ellis, an Unlikely Australian Internationalist’, History of European Ideas, 42.8 (2016), 1089–1104.
Newspaper cartoon: www.lib.lsu.edu/collections/digital/dlnp/editorial-cartoons (02.05.17).
Pierre Comert:League of Nations Photo Archive (Indiana University): www.indiana.edu/~league/photos.htm
Konni Zilliacus: spartacus-educational.com/TUzilliacus.htm (02.05.17).