Trust in the press declined during the Second World War, as did its influence.
As the first shots were fired in the Second World War, the British newspaper industry was at its zenith. The country was served by 34 daily newspapers (nine of them national); there were 16 national and provincial Sundays and three London evenings were supplemented by a further 77 in towns and cities across the nation. A 1934 survey conducted by Political and Economic Planning reported that, on average, 100 British families bought between them 95 morning papers and 58 evenings a day and 130 Sunday newspapers every week. The press barons Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere formed their own political party in the 1930s and the former would serve in Churchill’s Cabinet during the war. Profits rose during the conflict and circulations increased by an average of 86.5 per cent from 1937 to 1947. It seems a golden age. But not quite.
The war saw a decline in newspapers’ influence. Paradoxically, as more people bought its editions, Fleet Street’s position as the first point for news declined from 1939 to 1945, as radio arrived in readers’ homes. By 1944 the BBC’s 9pm radio news programme was estimated to reach up to 50 per cent of the population and the BBC recorded its audience at 34 million (out of a population of 48 million). The ‘wireless’ had assumed the greatest prominence as purveyor of wartime events and retained the trust of the public that had been lost to newspapers. The First World War had eroded faith in what was being reported and this decline in trust was hastened when the public, brought into the ‘front line’ for the first time by the Blitz, could compare what was appearing on the front pages to what was happening outside their front doors. A report for Home Intelligence in 1941 noted: ‘There is much underlying scepticism about the news.’
The problems facing Fleet Street in the Second World War were practical and philosophical. Apart from the logistical difficulties of producing editions while bombs were falling – 11 incendiaries landed on the roof of the Manchester Guardian on December 23rd, 1940 – there was also the issue of transporting newspapers when roads and rail lines were damaged or destroyed. Production difficulties were compounded by reduced resources: by the end of 1943, more than a third of the nation’s 9,000 journalists had been called up by the armed forces; more were employed by the government; and only around 25 per cent of staff photographers remained in Fleet Street. Newsprint, too, was rationed and restrictions were put on circulation so that newspapers could increase sales only by reducing the number of their pages. The first Royal Commission on the Press, which assembled between 1947 and 1949, recorded that newspapers were reduced by as much as 80 per cent between 1939 and 1945, adding: ‘Much news must be “suppressed” for this reason alone and severe compression makes inaccuracy and distortion difficult to avoid. The likelihood that the Press will be subject of complaints is increased.’
Another practical difficulty was the censor. Every war-related report had to endure trial by blue pencil and an official from the Ministry of Information frequently had a desk in newspaper offices. News was also controlled because much of it stemmed from the news agencies, such as Reuters and the Press Association, and their reports were altered at source. In theory this censorship was ‘voluntary’ but, as the chief censor George Thomson noted, editors were issued with such a barrage of D-notices (an official goverment request not to publish an item) that the restrictions ‘covered nearly every conceivable human activity’. Reports on bombing were curtailed, casualty numbers distorted when they appeared at all and targets camouflaged so that raids on Bristol, for example, would be reported as a ‘South-west town’. Photographs were put into a pool for general distribution and subject to lengthy delay. Unsurprisingly, this caused frustration among journalists whose raison d’etre was to produce news as promptly and accurately as possible. The Daily Express vented its anger by reporting that Britain might soon have to drop leaflets on itself to tell its people how the war was going, although there were several instances, the imminent German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 being a prime example, when newspapers decided to suppress information of their own accord.
This suggested a mood of acquiescence. Reluctance to hand the enemy propaganda material ensured the press rarely held national or local government to account and British morale was reported as being resolutely, and unwaveringly, upbeat. When the Luftwaffe raided, emphasis was laid on the bombs that hit schools, churches, hospitals and homes while the RAF’s sorties always destroyed munitions factories, airfields and transport infrastructure. There were frequent exceptions to the smooth co-operation between Fleet Street and the authorities – the suppression of the Daily Worker and the threat by Churchill to close the Daily Mirror after a Zec cartoon in 1942 being the most blatant examples – but the threat of sanction and the potential for a wartime British Gazette, the government-sponsored newspaper published during the General Strike of 1926, ensured general compliance.
The result was that reporting of the war was distorted. Charles Lynch, of Reuters, infamously recorded that it was humiliating to revisit what journalists produced: ‘It was crap … We were a propaganda arm of our governments.’ But Cyril Dunn, a Yorkshire Post journalist who would later work for the Observer, was more specific. Visiting survivors of a bombed-out pub, he met a man who wanted only to ‘get out of here’ and a woman who said: ‘If only I could feel it was worth it.’ Evans noted their quotes in his notebook and then ignored them. ‘I wrote the usual story about the cheerful courage and determined endurance of the Manchester folk.’
Guy Hodgson is author of War Torn: Manchester, its Newspapers and the Luftwaffe’s Christmas Blitz of 1940 (University of Chester Press, 2015).