Ministry of Information, 1918 and predecessors
During the First World War news, censorship, and propaganda work was the responsibility of a number of government departments and agencies. In 1917 several bodies were brought together to form a Department of information and in March 1918 this became the short lived Ministry of Information.
Government publicity 1918 to 1939
After the dissolution of the Ministry of Information in October 1918 the News Department of the Foreign Office continued to provide overseas information and publicity services, and the New York Bureau of the former Ministry was reconstituted in 1920 as the British Library of Information. In the 1930s worsening international relations led to greater government concern with overseas publicity and public relations and press branches were set up in a number of departments.
The planning of a department to deal with government information and publicity services in the event of war began in 1936 under the auspices of the Committee of Imperial Defence. A small planning team was formed from officials, often with specialist experience, drawn from a wide range of government departments, public bodies and, ultimately, outside organisations. The Home Office was designated the parent department of the proposed ministry, though the Foreign Office was largely responsible for planning overseas publicity and the preparation of the organisation to implement it.
In 1939 a committee under Sir Robert Vansittart, chief diplomatic adviser to the Foreign Secretary, was appointed to study the needs of overseas propaganda; and a Foreign Publicity Department was set up at the Foreign Office under Lord Reith, who was appointed Director General Designate of a future Ministry of Information to which the Department would be transferred in the event of war.
Ministry of Information 1939 to 1946
The Ministry of Information was set up on 5 September 1939 by statutory order under the Ministers of the Crown (Emergency Appointments) Act 1939. Its initial functions were threefold: news and press censorship; home publicity; and overseas publicity in allied and neutral countries. The Minister took over the powers of the Home Secretary under defence regulations in respect of press censorship and became responsible for the collection and transmission of war news.
Initially all news was released to the press through the Ministry but from 9 October 1939 government departments resumed responsibility for the release and censorship of news on subjects within their particular spheres, while central authority and the provision of common information services was committed to a Press and Censorship Bureau. A separate News Division, staffed by journalists, was established for the issue of news to the home and overseas press, the news agencies and the BBC.
After July 1941 service liaison officers were attached to the Ministry to improve co-ordination with the defence departments. In April 1940 the Ministry also absorbed the Postal and Telegraph Censorship sections previously under the War Office, which later became the Postal and Telegraph Censorship Department, and the powers of the Secretary of State for War under defence regulations were transferred to the minister.
In the field of home publicity the Ministry dealt with the planning of general government or interdepartmental information, and provided common services for public relations activities of other government departments, which remained directly in charge of their own information and publicity policy. In September 1939 the Ministry assumed certain emergency powers to control the BBC, formerly exercised by the Post Office, and in April 1940 took over the former Post Office Film Unit. The work of home publicity was co-ordinated by a Home (or Home Planning) Division which operated through the various production divisions and the ministry's regional organisation.
The Ministry also undertook, through its Home Intelligence Division, the collection of information relating to the morale of the civilian population. That division also took over, from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the Social Survey Organisation.
Overseas, in allied and neutral countries, the Ministry was responsible for information policy and output of material, absorbing the recently formed Foreign Publicity Department of the Foreign Office and much of the work of its News Department. Overseas publicity was organised geographically. American and Empire Divisions continued throughout the war, other areas being covered by a succession of different divisions. Divisions were represented overseas by bureaux and representatives, and through British missions. The Department was not, in general, responsible for propaganda in enemy and enemy-occupied countries but liaison was maintained with the Foreign Office.
The activities of the divisions dealing with these main functions of the Ministry were supported by a number of production divisions co-ordinated by a General Production Division. There were also a number of general administrative divisions. The Ministry was not intended to continue in existence after the war. In September 1945 its censorship work largely ceased. In March 1946 the Ministry was dissolved, its residual functions passing to the Central Office of Information.
Central Office of Information
When the impending dissolution of the Ministry of Information was announced in 1945, the continuing need in peacetime for a central organisation to provide common and specialist information services was stressed. On 1 April 1946 a Central Office of Information (COI) was set up to carry out common or specialist technical services for all departments at home and overseas. An interim exception was made for certain departments with highly specialised information responsibilities arising from emergency conditions, which were allowed temporarily to retain functions which should in principle have been performed by the new office. The new COI was required to undertake work at the request and under the policy direction of departmental ministers, but the Treasury ministers were responsible to Parliament until May 1972 when COI was placed under the control of the Civil Service Department.
COI was formed largely from the production divisions of the former Ministry of Information, including the Film Unit until 1952, and took over its regional organisation. The Social Survey continued as a division of COI until 1967, when it became a separate Government Social Survey Department. In Scotland COI worked through the Scottish Information Office, responsible to the Secretary of State for Scotland, in Northern Ireland through the Government Information Service, and in Wales through a Welsh Office at Cardiff.
The work of COI has maintained the previous division between home and overseas publicity. The Administrative Head and Accounting Officer is its Director General who is assisted by two Controllers, responsible for home and overseas groups of divisions respectively. The former has been concerned with the central provision of non-contentious government information and the management of persuasive campaigns. Overseas publicity is concerned with cultural, educational and trade operations and is carried out through information officers in British missions overseas, and through hospitality and services to official visitors from overseas. There are also two administrative divisions dealing with establishment and finance matters.
COI became an executive agency on 5 April 1990.