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Philip M. Taylor

Philip Taylor

Professor Philip M Taylor, Professor of International Communications, died on 6 December 2010.  Professors Nicholas Pronay and Gary Rawnsley, friends and colleagues of many years’ standing, have contributed the following obituary of Professor Taylor.

Philip M. Taylor, who has died tragically young at the age of 56, was the first Professor of International Communications in the UK. An historian by training and instinct, Phil, as he was known, had a long interest in contemporary strategic communications and led a distinguished career linking his primary passions of history and communications.

He was particularly interested in the military application of communications, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, and passionately believed that academics have a duty to make their expertise available to those involved in its practical application. He particularly enjoyed delivering his research to military communities around the world; Phil hoped and believed that the lives of soldiers could be saved if they were taught to communicate more effectively.

His interest in this subject began during his PhD research when he found a record of an encounter at the end of the First World War between Lord Northcliffe, then Director of Enemy Propaganda at Crewe House, and a general in the military. Asked what he had done during the war, Northcliffe replied: “Propaganda and that sort of thing”. The General rather disparagingly described such activities as a “filthy business” prompting Northcliffe to reply: 'While you were piling up the casualty lists, we were trying to cut them down. If I can persuade a German to throw down his rifle, I have deprived Germany of a soldier, without also having to kill the man.” These words had a profound effect on Phil and became his philosophical framework. All of those from the military who have paid tribute to him since his death have remarked on his commitment to ‘propaganda for peace’.

After the horrific events of 2001 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Phil was in much demand by American and British armed forces for his expertise in Psychological Operations (Psyops). His good friend, Stephen Badsey, recalls how, on a visit to the Tyne Cot World War One Cemetery, Phil was angered by the site of rows of white headstones. “This just shows how important Psyops are for us now,” he said.

Born on Merseyside in 1954, Phil was originally destined for a career as a goalkeeper until a knee injury confined him to bed. Bored, he started to read histories and was hooked. Reflecting, he once said: “I realised 30 years ago that I am just a goalkeeper pretending to be an academic.”  Phil’s entire academic career was spent at the University of Leeds. He graduated with a first class honours degree in History in 1975 and was awarded his PhD, supervised by David Dilks, in 1978. He then joined the School of History as a Lecturer in International History and Politics and became Senior Lecturer in 1988. He also found love at the University, meeting his future wife Sue Heward on their second day as undergraduates in the School of History.

In 1990, Phil was seconded to be Deputy Director of the University’s Institute of Communications Studies (ICS), an academic venture created by his colleague from the School of History, Nicholas Pronay. He became Reader in International Communications in 1992 and was awarded his Chair in 1998 when he became the Institute’s second Director. In many ways Phil was ICS, and it is difficult for those of us who worked closely with him to imagine the Institute without him. Generations of students – undergraduates, postgraduates and doctoral – adored Phil and were inspired by his enthusiasm and his relaxed open-door style of teaching and supervision. In and outside the lecture theatre, his knowledge and passion for his subject were unfaltering.  Similarly, Phil, an egalitarian, was popular, admired, and will be sorely missed, by colleagues at all levels throughout ICS and the University. Very much aware of his deteriorating health, Phil did note with some irony the fact that he had spent only a short time in the new ICS building that now stands proudly in the centre of the campus. After all, the refurbishment had been encouraged by Phil’s own vision and reflected the original concept of ICS – a place where students would have the opportunity to combine academic study with professional practice of the media industries.

Phil leaves behind a towering body of scholarship that casts a long shadow over all who follow in his footsteps. His first book in particular, The Projection of Britain: British Overseas Publicity and Propaganda, 1919-1939 set the benchmark for research that combined history with communications. The Projection of Britain was based on his PhD research, and its importance and contribution to the field is recognised by its re-issue in 2007. Through careful and extensive archival research Phil revealed for the first time, the whole story of British propaganda between the wars. This included the birth of the Foreign Office News Department, the British Council and the BBC’s foreign language broadcasts. These are the antecedents of Phil’s more contemporary work on public and cultural diplomacy. As a historian, Phil always made sure his students understood the historical context of the subject.

Phil had a strong passion for the cinema, and claimed he was influenced to be a historian by watching The Rise of Fall of the Roman Empire. His 1988 book, Britain and Cinema in the Second World War, is considered by film historians to be one of the finest analyses of the subject. Phil was very proud of the films he made for British Historical Studies in Film and the InterUniversity History Film Consortium.

His place in the canon was secured by his magnificent history of propaganda, Munitions of the Mind: War Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Nuclear Age. Phil not only presented a coherent and engaging history of the subject, but made a significant contribution to understanding the value-neutral approach to propaganda that is now widely accepted in the field. It was his 1992 study of War and the Media: Propaganda and Persuasion in the Gulf War which connected his contemporary interests with his historian’s approach. This brought his work to the attention of military education courses at the Defence Intelligence and Security School (DISS); Chicksands; Cranfield University; the Royal College of Defence Studies; the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London; Sandhurst and the Joint Services Command Staff College (JSCSC) at Shrivenham. He also lectured at the NATO Joint Senior Psychological Operations Course in Hurlburt Field, Florida.

 In 2008, he co-edited with Nancy Snow the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy. One can detect in Phil’s work on public diplomacy his training as an historian, and in many respects this book represented the completion of Phil’s journey from the ideas he first presented in The Projection of Britain.

All told, Phil’s rate of publication was astonishing: over one hundred articles or book chapters, fourteen books (including a biography of Steven Spielberg and a volume published in Greek), and countless other contributions to collections, series and media around the world.  One of his most valuable achievements is his website which he maintained for over fifteen years. It acts as a unique gateway to his work and displays his enthusiasm for international communications. Scholars, practitioners, media and of course students from all around the world regularly consult what is called his ‘One Stop Shop’.

In the summer of 2006 Phil was made Distinguished Visiting Professor in Communications and Media Studies at the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) in Shah Alam (Malaysia) and visited Malaysia every summer to lecture. He was also an Adjunct Professor of the Centre for Media and Information Warfare Studies at UiTM and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Diplomacy in the University of Southern California. In 2008, he was made a Visiting Professor at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom at Cranfield University as part of his duties on the Postgraduate Certificate in Information Operations now being taught there. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1982 and a member of the Public Diplomacy Council in Washington DC in 2008.

However, Phil’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly his students, some of whom view themselves as his ‘intellectual offspring’.  Indeed, on every continent there are generations of former students who are continuing Phil’s work in one form or another; he was so very proud of how each of them had taken forward the research and debates of international communications.

Phil is survived by his wife Sue, his mother Hilda and his brother Alex.

J R GAIR