British World War I media censorship


This video abouyt United States armed forces is called Censored letters WWI.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

First world war: how state and press kept truth off the front page

Threatening journalists with arrest seems unthinkable now

Not that unthinkable, unfortunately, see, eg, here and here.

– but that was just one of the obstacles they faced at the start of WW1

Roy Greenslade

Sunday 27 July 2014 19.00 BST

On this, the 100th anniversary of the day the first world war began, it is sobering to look back at the way that conflict was so badly reported. The catalogue of journalistic misdeeds is a matter of record: the willingness to publish propaganda as fact, the apparently tame acceptance of censorship and the failure to hold power to account. But a sweeping condemnation of the press coverage is unjust because journalists, as ever, were prevented from informing the public by three powerful forces – the government, the military and their own proprietors.

It is undeniable that newspapers began by demonising the German enemy. They published fabricated stories of German barbarism, which were accepted as fact. Although Belgian and French citizens were executed as reprisals by the German army in the early months of the war, many unverifiable stories – later dubbed “atrocity propaganda” – were wholly untrue. Editors and journalists were therefore guilty.

Censorship was a different matter. It was imposed from the opening of hostilities and, although gradually relaxed, it remained sufficiently strict to constrain reporters from obtaining information or, should they manage to get it, from publishing it. Rigid government control was exercised in conjunction with a complicit group of committed pro-war press proprietors.

The Defence of the Realm Act, enacted four days after hostilities began, gave the authorities power to stifle criticism of the war effort. One of its regulations stated: “No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.” Its aim was to prevent publication of anything that could be interpreted as undermining the morale of the British people, but it did not stifle all negative reporting. If it had done so, then Lord Northcliffe could not have campaigned so relentlessly against war minister Lord Kitchener through his newspapers, the Times and Daily Mail.

It was the Times’s war correspondent, Charles à Court Repington, who broke the story in May 1915 of the shortage of artillery ammunition. What became known as “the shells crisis” had explosive political results. It forced prime minister Herbert Asquith to form a coalition government, catapulted David Lloyd George into the post of munitions minister and was a precursor to Lloyd George replacing Asquith.

Northcliffe’s campaign against Kitchener, a national hero then held in high public regard, resulted in a revolt by a million Mail readers and several advertisers. He was quoted as saying at the time: “I mean to tell the people the truth and I don’t care what it costs.” He was vindicated once that truth emerged; sales and advertising returned.

Northcliffe was aware of having two advantages in being critical of the war effort. First, his patriotism was never in question because his papers published hysterical anti-German propaganda. Second, he was assured of support from Lloyd George, with whom he connived in order to oust Asquith. But Northcliffe was far from the only newspaper proprietor who supported the war. CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, was initially opposed to it, as were his senior staff. After hostilities began, they felt compelled to back it. “Once in it,” wrote Scott, “the whole future of our nation is at stake and we have no choice but do the utmost we can to secure success.”

At the war’s outbreak, Kitchener banned reporters from the front. But two determined correspondents, the Daily Chronicle’s Philip Gibbs and the Daily Mail’s Basil Clarke, risked his wrath by defying the ban and acting as “journalistic outlaws” to report from the front line. Gibbs was arrested, warned that if he was caught again he would be shot, and sent back to England. Clarke, after reporting on the devastation in Ypres following the German bombardment, returned home after a similar warning.

Three months later, the government relented by allowing five “accredited reporters” access to the front and, over the following three years, several more journalists were also given accreditation. But censorship ensured that all sorts of facts were hidden from the readers of British newspapers. British blunders went unreported, as did German victories.

Even the bloodiest defeat in British history, at the Somme in 1916, in which 600,000 Allied troops were killed, went largely unreported. The battle’s disastrous first day was reported as a victory. The Daily Mail’s William Beach Thomas later admitted he was “deeply ashamed” of what he had written, adding: “The vulgarity of enormous headlines and the enormity of one’s own name did not lessen the shame.” Gibbs defended his actions, claiming that he was attempting to “spare the feelings of men and women, who, have sons and husbands fighting in France”. He had the gall to claim that the truth was reported about the Somme “apart from the naked realism of horrors and losses, and criticism of the facts”. After the war, both men accepted knighthoods for services to journalism. Others, like Hamilton Fyfe, previously editor of the Daily Mirror and later editor of the Daily Herald, regarded the honour as a bribe to keep quiet about the inefficiency and corruption he had witnessed.

Only later did the public learn of the high casualty toll and the horrific nature of trench warfare, such as the use of poison gas and the effects of shell shock. With these appalling conditions in mind, it was no wonder that Lloyd George confided to Scott in December 1917: “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.” He was speaking after listening to Gibbs’s description – at a private meeting – of the reality on the western front. He conceded that the censors “wouldn’t pass the truth”.

Lloyd George was sufficiently concerned about sagging public morale in 1917 to encourage the creation of a propaganda body, the National War Aims Committee. He also offered Northcliffe a chance to join the cabinet. He refused that post, but accepted an appointment as director for propaganda at the ministry of information. So Britain’s most influential media tycoon became the war’s official propagandist. The prime minister extended his press control by appointing the newly-ennobled Daily Express and London Evening Standard owner, Lord Beaverbrook, as the first minister of information. Lloyd George used press proprietors as a private reporting service, with censored articles being passed on to the cabinet.

But self-censorship played a big role. As Gibbs wrote later: “We identified ourselves absolutely with the armies in the field. We wiped out of our minds all thought of personal scoops and all temptation to write one word which would make the task of officers and men more difficult or dangerous. There was no need of censorship of our despatches. We were our own censors.”

A fuller version of this article is published in the latest issue of the British Journalism Review.

The posters that sold World War I to the American public: here.

The U.S. confiscated half a billion dollars in private property during #WWI: here.

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