Conference : The Writer as Psychological Warrior

Online conference, hosted by Durham University

12-16 July 2021


The tendency of the modern state is to wipe out the freedom of the intellect, and yet at the same time every state, especially under the pressure of war, finds itself more and more in need of an intelligentsia to do its publicity for it.

George Orwell, ‘Poetry and the Microphone’ (1943)

Writing in 1943, George Orwell reflected upon the challenges posed for both governments and intelligentsia by the rapid growth in wartime propaganda production. If the British government had begun the war ‘with the more or less openly declared intention of keeping the literary intelligentsia out of it […] after three years of war almost every writer, however undesirable his political history or opinions, has been sucked into the various Ministries or the BBC’. As Orwell recognised, the recruitment of cultural actors by government information and psychological warfare departments changed both spheres, since the ‘tone and even to some extent the content of official propaganda’ were ‘modified’ by the new entrants – a negotiation known all too well to Orwell himself due to his own role as a propagandist during the war.

At a moment when disinformation and ‘fake news’ are of pressing political concern, this conference aims to understand these debates as part of a longer history of propaganda across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, decades in which new military and media technologies raised political warfare to the status of the ‘Fourth Fighting Arm’ of the state and consequently made cultural figures integral actors in modern conflict. The conference will feature papers by leading scholars in the fields of literature and history on the following seven areas of study:

  • Evolving propaganda campaigns
  • The BBC, conflict, and propaganda
  • British cultural propaganda in the post-war era
  • The Cultural Cold War
  • The Ministry of Information
  • Wartime transnational encounters
  • Propaganda and literary style

The conference will also feature three special events – a conversation between Peter Pomerantsev, author of This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019), and propaganda historian Jo Fox; a discussion with Sir David Hare, writer and director of the 1978 BBC TV film Licking Hitler; and ‘Postcards from the Besieged City of Leningrad’ a presentation by Julie Reines Chervinsky and Polina Barskova of archival materials from the Blavatnik Archive.

The full programme will is posted on the project blog here. You can download a PDF here: Durham Propaganda Conference 2021- final programme.

The conference will take place online on Zoom Webinar – you will need to register separately for each day of the conference using the links provided in the programme.