Propagandists in all ages need to deal with the problem of credibility. When the message comes from entrenched interests, it is likely to be treated suspiciously, so efforts are generally made to launder the source, that is, make it appear to come from some disinterested source or someone with respectable credentials. But great care is needed to prevent exposure, as that would bring great discredit on the message-giver.

Recently in Ottawa, Canada, a member of the mayor’s staff was caught communicating to a phone-in program using a false name. He was defending a tax initiative proposed by the mayor, but the media recognised his voice and he was outed and quickly resigned. "Astroturf," the use of phoney "grass roots" organisations that favour government or corporation initiatives, is widespread and documented by PRWatch, among others.

British propagandists in World War I recruited authors to write in defence of the war, but sought to conceal the connection with the government. Nazi Germany’s propaganda was sometimes presented to the world via seemingly neutral, but actually Nazi-owned media in Sweden.

More recently we have seen how Amnesty fell for the story that 312 babies had been tossed out of their incubators by invading Iraqi troops in Kuwait, thus adding credibility to a false story that played a large part in bringing Americans to accept the first war on Iraq in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.

Great pressure was put on Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in September 2002 when an article initially appearing in the Wall Street Journal was reprinted with great prominence in Canadian newspapers. The article tendentiously contrasted his unwillingness to join George W. Bush’s moves toward war against Iraq with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s tough stand against terrorism in Quebec in 1970. The article identified the writer as someone born and raised in Canada, and a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, but failed to mention that she was also co-chair of the Republican Party Committee that raised over $30 million for Bush. The effect of the article was powerful and a few days later Chrétien caved in and announced his support, though this became qualified in time.

The classic misuse of credentials

The granddaddy of all attempts to misrepresent credentials to my mind took place on April 17, 1917, yet few people are aware of its great significance. It has some profound lessons to teach us today.

I refer to what came to be known as the "Corpse Utilisation Plant" or "Corpse Factory" story.

There had been rumours, but no proof, that the Germans boiled down their own dead soldiers to make products like glycerine, lubricating oils, pig food, fertiliser, and suchlike. On the day in question both the London Times and the mass circulation Daily Mail carried what seemed to be irrefutable confirmation of the existence of such factories. What the papers produced was a translation from a respected German newspaper in which a reporter made reference to such a plant on his travels north of Reims.

To this "admission" was juxtaposed an account in the Belgian Daily newspaper in which an eyewitness described the actual workings of such a factory, giving minute details about the way the bodies were lifted by machinery and placed into vats. The details were gruesome, like the descriptions in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle of the slaughtering of pigs on conveyor belts.

What happened by the knitting together of the two stories was that the German account seemed to lend authority to the very repulsive Belgian story. The idea was propagated that the Germans were "ghouls," an uncivilised people of subhumans, and that civilisation itself needed to be defended against such barbarians in a "war to end all wars."

The story was officially acknowledged to have been without foundation in 1925. As Arthur Ponsonby recounts in his book, Falsehood in Wartime, Sir Austen Chamberlain stated that on behalf of His Majesty’s Government he accepted the German Chancellor’s denial of the story "and I trust that this false story will not again be revived."

But the impression left by official sources was that there had simply been a mistranslation of the German word "Kadaver" as "corpse" when it really means "carcass." Left out is the weight of evidence pointing, not just to a possibly innocent mistranslation, but a much more conniving situation where propagandists invented the Belgian story and used the German account to give it credibility. What I have found, by looking at both the Belgian newspaper (in the Royal Library in Brussels) and the German newspaper, the Lokal-Anzeiger (in the British Library in Colindale, London) is that the German reporter’s reference to the plant is buried near the end of a long description of events along the battle front.

That one paragraph is lifted and made to appear as if it is part of a much longer account, comparable to the detailed Belgian description.

The German reporter, Karl Rosner, refers to a dull vapour, like that of boiling glue, hanging over the carcass utilisation plant which he sees from a distance. This was at a time when horses were common in war, with significant use of cavalry forces.

In translating from his German, not only is the word "Kadaver" mistranslated, but also the German word for glue, which happens to be "Leim." The translation in the Times and Daily Mail read: "We pass through Evergnicourt. There is a dull smell in the air, as if lime were being burnt. We are passing through the great Corpse Exploitation Establishment (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) of this Army Group. The fat that is won here is turned into lubricating oils, and everything else is ground down in the bones mill into a powder, which is used for mixing with pigs’ food and as manure." Now lime (quicklime) is often associated with the disinfecting of human corpses when they have undergone a communicable disease. Glue on the other hand is associated in the minds, of older people at least, with knackered horses.

Furthermore, while the impression is that some Belgian eyewitness wrote about this on the spot, the impression has to be doubted on the basis of internal inconsistency. The writer describes a heavily guarded plant and great secrecy, without any indication about how he or she gained access. The story appears in the Belgian paper l’Indépendance Belge as a reprint from another daily newspaper, La Belgique, but no date is give for the appearance in the latter newspaper. (I found copies of a paper title La Belgique but they were edited in Brussels, not Leiden, and they carried no reference to the corpse factory story in the three months preceding April 10, 1917).

As I discovered when I looked at the copy of l’Indépendance Belge in question, l’Independance Belge was edited and published in London at the time. The Third Report of the British propaganda organisation located at Wellington House stated in September, 1916 that "there is constant interchange of views and information of every sort relating to actual or potential propaganda in the interests of Belgium." Writing in the two-volume Encyclopedia Britannica publication, These Eventful Years, Bertrand Russell observed that "more direct and ambitious methods" of British propaganda began under Lord Northcliffe in April, 1917 after America’s entry into the war. He then singles out the world-wide publicity given to the statement that the Germans boiled down their own war dead to extract useful substances

The role of the media baron

As it happens, Lord Northcliffe was the owner of both the Times and the Daily Mail, and it is hard to believe that he did not have a direct hand in this story, but even if he hadn’t, his staff would have know what kinds of things would please their master. Frederic William Wile, writing in The War Illustrated, May 19, 1917, identifies himself as for ten years Berlin correspondent of the Daily Mail. He writes that he and J. E. Mackenzie, writing for the Times, shared responsibility for discovering the "loathsome admission" concerning the Corpse Utilisation Establishments. In this later story he continues to translate "Leim" as "lime" and "Kadaver" as "Corpse" even though the Times corrected the mistranslation of "Leim" a few days after its appearance.

Wile, at least, shows himself to be interested in vilifying Germans, not presenting the truth

In 1925 Brigadier-General John Charteris, head of military intelligence during the war, claimed responsibility before a New York audience for getting the corpse factory story going, but then backtracked and ended by referring to Bertrand Russell’s account as the correct one. That is further evidence of Lord Northcliffe’s involvement in the story, perhaps by getting Belgian propagandists to communicate with his own reporters. But the full role of his newspapers in giving the Belgian account the fake credentials of a seeming German official admission, one which we have seen to be spurious, has gone unnoticed even after all these years

Lessons for today

Looked at from today’s perspective, the story would not seem so improbable. After all, the Germans carried out the much more horrible and gruesome Holocaust of Jews and others, so what’s so improbable about the corpse factory? An Israeli writer, Shimon Rubenstein, argues in a booklet titled German Atrocity or British Propaganda (Jerusalem 1987) that the question of corpses versus carcasses is still unresolved. He clearly thinks that Karl Rosner’s account more closely approximated the Belgian one than it did, not having seen (as he states) the issue of the Lokal-Anzeiger in question, and believing that there was more detail in Rosner’s account than the translation carried – whereas in fact the translation covered (albeit incorrectly) the whole of Rosner’s observations.

Here are some lessons I draw:

1. When you use lies and deception to treat others as ghouls, brutes and subhumans be careful as your words may cause people to become what you falsely claim about them. The harshness of the reparations demands and the economic chaos in Germany after the war helped to produce Hitler who in turn brought about the Holocaust. Applied to the present situation we should be wary against portraying Muslims in general as extremists. By creating a climate of fear in which moderate Muslims lose their civil liberties, you are likely to turn more of them into extremists. All the more so if the representations of them as irrational, murderous fanatics are deliberately contrived and without foundation.

2. We need to watch like hawks the many ways in which our mainstream media can team up with governments to foist deceptions on us that serve narrow ideological, political or commercial purposes, but threaten wider well-being and peace. Rupert Murdoch, for one, wields enormous power through his News Corporation, recently adding the Wall Street Journal to his Times of London and the Sun (a mass- circulation paper like the Daily Mail under Northcliffe). One only has to look at the video "Outfoxed" to see how his Fox News serves the interests of George W. Bush and the Republican Party in the United States.

Randal Marlin is Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and author of Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (Broadview, 2002). He is a previous contributor to MercatorNet.