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1924: The Zinoviev Letter

The 'Fake News' scandal which rocked the 1924 election

1924: The Zinoviev Letter

Almost a century before Donald Trump popularised the two-word phrase ‘fake news’, the Zinoviev letter was published by the Daily Mail in the days preceding the 1924 general election.

The 1923 general election put the Labour party into power for the first time in history, this was a minority government with support from the Liberals. However, its polices on normalising ties with the Soviet Union through Anglo-Russian treaties led to accusations that it was being controlled by the communist party. There was also unease within the Security Services as a result of these closer ties and the potential influence of communism within Great Britain. In August 1924, in part due to these accusations, the Labour government lost a motion of no confidence.

Dated 15 September 1924, a letter apparently sent to the Communist Party of Great Britain by Grigori Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, was received by the Secret Intelligence Service. The letter suggested that a Labour government would continue its plans to normalise ties with the Soviet Union, this would result in the Soviet Union profiteering economically as well as being able to spread communist influence not only within Great Britain but the wider Empire. This would result in a communist revolution by the working classes and amongst the military.

Whilst publicly the letter was widely accepted as genuine by the Security Services, it is believed that privately there were reservations about its origin. This however did not stop the Foreign Office from deciding to publish the letter, against the wishes of the Prime Minister, in The Times newspaper. At the same time the Daily Mail received two copies of the letter and decided to publish the letters content on 25 October 1924. The editor of the Daily Mail also gave the letter to other parts of the British press. This essentially distributed misinformation to the masses, suggesting that the Labour government was supportive of communism. Zinoviev immediately refuted the claims that he was responsible for writing the letter, he pointed out that not only was he on holiday at the time it was claimed to have been written but that it also referred incorrectly to the official title of his office.

The creation and publication of the Zinoviev letter, at a time when there were already public accusations about communist links in the Labour party, ensured the Conservative party of a landslide victory in the subsequent election. An investigation, following the election, by the Conservative government, found that the letter was likely to be genuine.

The letter is now however widely accepted to be a forgery, with investigations into its origins taking place up until the end of the 1990’s. Whilst there has been no definitive proof of where the letter originated from, the original has never been found, it is accepted that if the Security Services weren’t involved in producing the letter, then they were at least responsible for the narrative that it was authentic whilst internally having reservations. Whilst the publication of the letter was unlikely to have impacted the 1924 election, it is assessed to have further damaged the reputation of the Labour party.

By Stewart Carter

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