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Newspapers in the Second World War

Professor Tim Luckhurst of the University of Durham delivered a lecture about newspapers in the Second World War, drawing on his recent book Reporting the Second World War: The Press and the People 1939-45.

Lawrence Goldman

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another in our series of webinars for History Reclaimed. It’s a great pleasure to introduce Professor Tim Luckhurst, one of the founding members and supporters of History Reclaimed. Tim is the principal of South College in the University of Durham, and he has a very distinguished career both in journalism and the teaching of journalism and the history of journalism. Before Durham, he was at the University of Kent where he set up the School of Journalism in that university. But going back, he began work as a journalist and broadcaster working on Radio Fours Today program and indeed published in 2,001 a biography of today a book taking us behind the scenes into the making and the politics of the Today program. He helped design and launch Radio 5 for the BBC. He then had extensive experience of print journalism as deputy editor of the Scotsman and for a little while editor as well. And through it all, he’s been a doughty opponent of state regulation of the press and he’s made that clear as both an author and a journalist. He’s contributed to a wide array of journalistic and historical periodicals but most recently he’s brought together his experience of journalism and of history to publish earlier this year his book Reporting the Second World War, the Press and the People, 1939 to 1945 and it’s about that fascinating subject that Tim is going to talk to us today. So Tim, over to you.


Tim Luckhurst

Newspaper history has not escaped unharmed from the damage culture warriors have sought to inflict on our discipline, indeed I suggest it was an early target. The community of newspaper historians is not large, and it has been heavily influenced since the 1960s by people who actively dislike newspapers. These radical media historians have sought to deconstruct accounts on which British journalists, politicians and informed citizens have long relied. I date the growth of their modern influence to the publication in 1978 of George Boyce’s eloquent essay ‘The Fourth Estate: The Reappraisal of a Concept’. Boyce expressed contempt for the suggestion that privately owned, commercial newspapers, free of regulation by the state, such as The Times, Guardian, and Daily Mail, can serve the public sphere.

This view has been widely promoted by James Curran, whose contribution to Power without Responsibility, is often the only academic work read by students seeking a basic understanding of journalism history.  I encourage those I teach to read my retort – which I wrote as a successful contribution to the Leveson Inquiry.

As Responsibility without Power demonstrates, my research is based on liberal assumptions. It defends a more than three-hundred-year-old consensus, dating from the abolition of press licensing in 1694. I believe newspapers escaped the last remnant of official control when parliament repealed newspaper stamp duty in 1855.  I suggest that British newspapers perform a valuable service to democracy precisely because they are not regulated by the state.

Britain’s distinctive status as a democracy without a written constitution imposes on journalists duties they must perform if our representative institutions are to function efficiently. Generations of Britain’s have learned that, in the UK, checks and balances on power are exercised in the public interest by the courts and the press. They understood that this is additionally important because Britain’s executive and legislature are not legally separate as they are in the United States. In Britain, the state must not play any part in the regulation of newspapers. If it were to do so, it would create a constitutional absurdity: parliamentary scrutiny of a body the electorate depends upon to scrutinise parliament.

So, in writing Reporting the Second World War I had two main objectives. To balance accounts of British wartime journalism that assume the BBC was the sole major media player. Second to assess the performance of Britain’s national newspapers against their own professed liberal ideals.

Historians have explored extensively the BBC’s broadcast journalism during the Second World War. Those seeking helpful introductions to its wartime history should certainly read Jean Seaton’s contributions to Power without Responsibility. I find Professor Seaton’s approach helpful and balanced. David Hendy’s ‘People’s History’ deserves all the praise it has received. Ed Stourton’s ‘Auntie’s War’ makes excellent use of archives, diaries, letters and memoirs. For more recent history of the corporation, Jean Seaton’s ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ is enormous fun.

The BBC grew dramatically in scale, prestige and popularity between 1939 and 1945. Less well understood is that newspapers mattered greatly throughout the war. In May 1940, when Mass Observation produced its ‘Report on the Press’, it found that ‘almost everybody reads newspapers. Whether regularly or irregularly, thoroughly or cursorily’.

And Mass Observation’s interest was not restricted to the extent of newspaper sales. It also sought to understand why Britons bought newspapers:  the answer was that ‘newspapers provide topics for the day’s conversation: they tell what is happening …Without newspaper news there is scarcely any accepted basis for conversation except the weather. Newspapers were, MO concluded, ‘a social necessity’.

As the Second World War began, Britons were Already the world’s most avid newspaper readers, and the habit of buying one or more daily national newspapers extended to every social class. Eighty percent of British families read one of the mass circulation London dailies, the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, News Chronicle, Daily Herald or Daily Sketch. Two thirds of middle-class families shared this habit, though many also bought a sophisticated title such as The Times, Daily Telegraph, Manchester Guardian, Scotsman or Yorkshire Post. A pre-war survey by Political and Economic Planning found that sample of 100 British families bought each week: 95 morning daily newspapers, 58 daily evening titles and 130 Sunday newspapers.

So, did these newspapers do their duty according to liberal purposes? My objective in spending two years immersed in the archives both virtual and physical was to test their performance against the ‘six things news can do for democracy’ as defined by Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia University School of Journalism. To these I add that newspaper journalists also owe their readers a duty to offer eyewitness reporting of important events.  As Allan Little has explained, eyewitness reporting has the power to close down propaganda. It can challenge myth making and create a valuable first draft.

In the book I apply these tests to thirteen wartime case studies. Today, I shall focus on four that offer valuable insights. They demonstrate that while they supported the war effort, British newspapers lost neither their editorial independence nor their willingness to challenge, criticise and confront. Their conduct annoyed ministers from all three political parties in the wartime coalition.   Contrary to established orthodoxy, wartime newspapers were determined to protect their readers interests and challenge those who exercised power over their lives by speaking truth to power.

My first case study deals with newspaper reporting of air raid shelter policy during the Blitz on London and the UK’s provincial cities. As I’m sure we all recognise, many depictions of shelters in film, on television and in popular history depict Londoners sheltering in underground railway stations or in Anderson shelters built in their gardens. Of course, the government was initially determined that Londoners should NOT use the Tube and Anderson shelters required a garden, which many working people did not have.

Reporting Londoners’ first experience of intense bombing by the Luftwaffe, Ed Murrow of CBS adopted a positive tone. The British capital was taking a pounding, but Londoners were acclimatising to the danger. They had ‘become more human, less formal. There’s almost a small-town atmosphere about the place…There’s been a drawing together’.

Newspapers recognised a less harmonious reality. During the phoney war, evacuation from the cities had revealed stark misunderstanding and absence of trust between rich and poor readers. Bombing exacerbated that pressure.

Official policy, actively promoted by the Home Secretary Sir John Anderson, was to encourage Londoners who could not use private Anderson shelters or cellars to seek refuge in one of 5,000 brick and concrete surface shelters.  Many proved reluctant to use them, and these fears were exacerbated when surface shelters collapsed, crushing those inside.

A report in the popular, left-wing Daily Mirror on 14 September 1940 explained the solution chosen spontaneously by some East Enders rendered homeless by bombing. The Mirror reminded its readers that strict instructions had been issued ‘at the outbreak of war’ that tube stations ‘should not be used as shelters’. Now, it suggested, need had rendered that ruling unenforceable. Bombed-out Londoners were streaming into the tube stations ‘from bomb-torn districts of the east end’.

Equipped with excellent shorthand, and a clear awareness of his newspaper’s core demographic, The Mirror reporter gathered quotes from eyewitnesses. Mrs K. Stenner, a young mother nursing her baby son Ronnie, explained that she had seen their home ‘wiped out by bombs’. She and her family had tried sleeping in a public surface shelter, ‘but bombs dropped all around us’. A policeman had recommended the underground. ‘Why didn’t they let people use the stations before?’ asked Mrs Stenner, ‘They’ re the best shelters in London…We didn’t even know the sirens had gone until a Porter told us’.

Spontaneous flight to tube stations – and other deep underground shelters – was hard to prevent, but the government was not instantly persuaded to give it official approval. On 16 September. Sir John Anderson gave the Daily Mail an interview. He declared himself ‘unshaken in his opposition to the building of deep shelters’. They would take too long to build. They would require the use of large quantities of scarce building materials; and he was ‘very much against the practice of gathering large numbers of people together in an air raid’.

This objection to mass sheltering revealed residual suspicion that mass panic or worse might ensue. Despite a week of heavy raids on London, Sir John remained adamant that national security required people to do as they were told. He told the Daily Mail that he was ‘satisfied that brick and concrete surface shelters off the same protection’ as underground alternatives’. The surface shelters had ‘exceeded all expectations’. The government would press ahead and build more of them.

However, even as he used the mass-market Mail to encourage obedience, Sir John was exploring alternatives to the surface shelters against which Londoners were voting with their feet. The Times had the inside track. In its edition on Tuesday 17 September 1940, it revealed that the Home Secretary was ‘examining with the London Passenger Transport Board and the police authorities the possibility of making some use of the Tube railways for air raid shelters without interference with the transport system.

A Times parliamentary correspondent reported that while Sir John consulted, ‘People are already beginning to resort to underground stations having bought tickets’. There was much overcrowding in ‘the larger public shelters at night’ and considerable ‘movement of people from communal and garden shelters near their homes to larger shelters elsewhere’.

The Daily Mirror shifted rapidly to campaigning mode. It commissioned a column from Tom Wintringham, a former Communist who had fought in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil war and was now training Local Defence Volunteers. Wintringham used his column to argue for ‘the use of a number of Underground railways as permanent shelters where people can sleep quietly and fairly comfortably’. He insisted the war could not be fought on ‘Civil Service lines. We are in the front lines. It is time we organised in a front-line way’.  A news story in the same edition of the Daily Mirror added detail to what The Times had already revealed.  This explained that the Home Secretary had initiated discussions about converting a stretch of the Piccadilly Line between Aldwych and Holborn into a dep shelter. The Mirror noted that, while ministers deliberated, ‘thousands of Londoners again took the matter into their own hands last night and flocked to the tubes for shelter’. It described the scene at 4pm ‘at every station between Edgware and the Strand, families had piled rugs, blankets and pillows for an all-night tenancy’.

Newspaper concern for the fate of poorer Londoners was growing. The Daily Telegraph sent its intrepid special correspondent Leonard Marsland Gander on ‘an extensive tour of London’s public air raid shelters’. Venturing into parts of the East End that were unfamiliar to many of the Telegraph’s affluent readers, he noted that while most people chose to remain at home during raids, those who sought shelter ‘show a strong preference for deep shelters’. There was a nightly trek from much-bombed areas in Eastern London to Tube and Underground stations and to the strong basements and other big buildings in the West End’. Unfortunately, ‘congestion caused by men, women and children sleeping on the platforms’ was becoming serious. Telegraph readers who commuted to work in the City of London were finding it difficult to board and disembark from trains.

Newspaper demands for fair access to deep, underground air raid shelters, added greatly to the pressure that brought about Sir John Anderson’s replacement as Home Secretary in October 1940. Pushed hard by the Daily Worker which accused the government of treating working class lives as disposable, the mass market Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial led the way with assertive campaigning journalism. This included an exposé of top West End hotels equipped with safe and comfortable underground shelters, that denied access to non-residents even when bombs were falling in the streets outside.

Sunday Pictorial reporter Bernard Gray had frequently entertained contacts at Claridge’s, the Berkeley and The Ritz. Now, dressed in the clothes of a working man to test the hotel staff’s reaction, and accompanied by a friend, Sue, who was similarly attired, he was turned away ruthlessly. When the coupled reached Claridge’s, a heavy raid was underway. Gray approached the porter on duty at the door and asked whether he and Sue could use the shelter. The porter refused them entry, explaining ‘Our is a private shelter. There is a public shelter up the road. … I should get badly pulled over the coals if I let you in. I can’t. It isn’t allowed. It’s a shelter for residents.’

At the Berkeley, a warden standing in front of the revolving doors stepped out to block their passage, declaring: ‘There’s a public shelter in Devonshire House, Stratton Street. Go there.’

As they approached the Ritz, the anti-aircraft barrage was ferocious, and Sue ran across the road the colonnaded passage that runs along the front of the Ritz.  Immediately, a porter appeared and ordered them to go to the public shelter. As they turned to leave, a bomb fell nearby and Bernard Gray ‘threw Sue to the ground against the Ritz wall, covered her head with my hands and we waited’. The bomb exploded too far away to harm them.  Gray wrote: ‘We, refused shelter like any other people dressed like us would be, might have been killed on the doorstep of safety.’

Ritchie Calder of the Daily Herald knew Caning Town in the East End of London very well. In the fist months of the war he had written about the social conditions facing un-evacuated children there. In September 1940, he returned to see how local people were sheltering from intense bombardment. At a refugee centre located in what security censorship did not allow the Daily Herald to identify as South Hallsville School, Calder found many families who had been bombed out their homes crowded together. They were awaiting motor coaches that local officials repeatedly told them would come to evacuate them. The buses did not come.

Calder reported that he watched women and children ‘besiege’ the officials in charge of the refugee centre. Terrified of the bombing, they offered to walk to their place of evacuation if only the harassed officials would tell them where it was. The officials had nothing to offer except a cup of tea. A high explosive bomb scored a direct hit on South Hallsville School on the night of 10 September 1940. 600 refugees from Canning Town were sheltering there. Calder wrote that ‘Official blundering left these people to Hitler’s bombs -bombs that were practically certain to fall. This tragedy demands an immediate reorganisation of the control and arrangements for receiving the people of the bombed areas’. His chilling account earned space on the front and back pages of the Daily Herald’s severely restricted six-page edition of 11th September 1940. The headline was ‘This Must Not Happen Again’.

In the autumn of 1940, the Communist Daily Worker was the most direct and confrontational critic of government. It described Sir John Anderson’s commitment to surface shelters as ‘calculated class policy’. The absence of dep shelters for the poor was a consequence of ‘determination not to provide protection because profit is placed before human lives’. In a pungent editorial headlined ‘Shelters, Shelters, Shelters’ published on 17 September 1940, it accused the government of deliberate, cynical and deplorable neglect of the working class. The Government, it explained, quoting the words of Sir Alexander Rouse, chief technical adviser to the Home Office, believed that ’If we provide deep bomb-proof shelters for the whole nation, so that people have complete protection, they are going to go underground. Then we would lose the war. We cannot expect as civilians to have more protection than our soldiers and sailors’.   This the Daily Worker denounced as ‘a policy of class discrimination dressed up with patriotic frills’. It lambasted mainstream newspapers for not being sufficiently aggressive in their criticism of ministers.

In fact challenges to shelter policy published in newspapers of right, left and centre exploited the absence of policy censorship. The mass-market left wing titles infuriated Winston Churchill most. He would nurture intense dislike of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial both of which he came to regard as ‘vicious and malignant’. My conclusion is that on this crucial topic, newspapers did what the BBC could not. They informed, investigated, told readers about the plight of others less fortunate than themselves, provided a forum for debate and advocated alternative policies.  Bernard Gray, Ritchie Calder and Leonard Marsland Gander, among others, demonstrated the enduring power of eyewitness reporting.

My second case study deals with newspaper coverage of the Beveridge Report. In August 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill agreed broad principles for the organisation of post-war civilisation in the Atlantic Charter. These included enhanced labour standards and social security.  Britain’s pre-war mix of old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and health insurance did not offer comprehensive coverage. There was broad agreement on the left and centre of politics that something better was needed. This political consensus was supercharged by the wartime civil servants David Marquand elegantly describes as the ‘philosopher princes’. King amongst them was Sir William Beveridge. Beveridge had ‘learned the meaning of poverty’ as a graduate researcher in the East End of London. Now a civil servant, he initiated the work of enhancing employment and social security as chairman of the Social Insurance Committee.

To hard working people on meagre incomes, the prospect of real post-war change was enticing. And, in November 1942, expectation grew that Beveridge would produce something truly valuable. Beveridge fed such expectations in a conversation with a Daily Telegraph reporter. The latter presented their conversation as an exclusive interview. The conservative broadsheet reported that Sir William’s proposals would ‘take us halfway to Moscow’. It would not do so because Sir William had been converted to Socialism. Rather he had concluded that Britain ‘must go halfway unless we want to be landed there altogether’. A completely new system of social security was required because the British really wanted one. They would not be satisfied by mere tinkering.

Sir William Beveridge was furious about the Telegraph’s version of his plans, but despite his protestations it was clear that he had briefed their reporter. He had spoken to The Times as well. It predicted ‘A state paper of outstanding importance’.

But Beveridge’s proposals were not published immediately, and the Daily Mirror smelt conspiracy. Ever watchful on behalf of its readers, the Mirror feared that the coalition was ‘determined to be polite to itself’.  An editorial urged the Labour leadership to accept that Beveridge’s report must be discussed and debated in public: ‘It cannot be infinitely pigeon-hold on the excuse that it might disturb the national unity – or equanimity – of those who see Moscow in any proposal for social reform’. The Sunday Pictorial raised expectations with a prediction that Beveridge’s recommendations would include full employment, national planning and ‘extension of state activity in the economic sphere’.

As the nation awaited publication, the Daily Telegraph detected a socialist threat.  It urged the government to take its time and think very hard. But if the Telegraph reflected the financial and political interests of its Conservative readers and advertisers, the Times was equally aware that its readers included civil and public servants, academics and teachers. In the week before the Beveridge Report was published it offered two extended editorials. The first, headlined ‘Freedom from Idleness’, argued that private enterprise was ‘a good ship that has brought us far, but post war reform would require ‘elements of the wartime system that have limited conflict between capital and labour’. The second ‘Obligations of Victory’ recognised that victory would bring urgent demands for ‘freedom from want’. Lessons must be learned form the failure of 1919. Social progress was essential, and government must agree on it now. Anything less would ‘discredit and destroy the coalition and the parties composing it’. The coalition must have a social policy as well as a military policy.

The Beveridge Report was a wartime sensation, and not least because it was a newspaper sensation too. When the full text of Social Insurance and Allied Services was published on Tuesday 1 December 1942, popular newspapers gave it huge publicity. The Daily Mirror carried the banner headline ‘Banish Want from Cradle to Grave Plan’. In a beautifully designed edition it explained and depicted ‘What the Plan does for Everyone’ and ‘How to be Born, Bred and Buried by Beveridge’. The Daily Herald shared the Mirror’s enthusiasm. Reporter Hugh Pilcher devised an imaginary working- class family, the Johnson’s and depicted their life in ‘Beveridge Britain’. Social Security made a welcome difference to family finances, but the new health service was the icing on the cake.

The Daily Mail declared that Beveridge’s proposals would ‘create a world sensation’. They marked ‘a big step forward in the march of human progress’. Sir William’s report was ‘one of the most remarkable state documents of our time’. However, the Mail did not abandon its critical faculties. Instead, it identified a problem that would torment Aneurin Bevan when, as Secretary of State for Health in the post-war Labour Government, he worked to create the NHS. What would happen to doctors if free medical care was provided for all? Would private practice be abolished? How would doctors be paid? Beveridge was obliged to admit that he did not know. He told the Daily Mail ‘Doctors might be paid salaries; they might be paid on a panel system, or they might be paid on a mixture of the two’. He did not have the answer. It was somebody else’s job to answer this question. Beveridge believed ‘it is the next thing to be tackled’.

For the Manchester Guardian, the report heralded ‘A British Revolution’. Beveridge’s proposals should be implemented in full. In the New York Herald Tribune William Shirer described it as ‘a revolutionary document’. For The Times, Beveridge had transformed the phrase ‘Freedom from Want’ from a vague aspiration to a ‘plainly realisable project’.  Amidst the euphoria – and intense pressure on the coalition to act fast – it took the perspective of a weekly magazine to offer perspective.

The Economist recognised ambition behind this scheme to ‘meet all the contingencies of life and livelihood’. But it also understood what daily newspapers had not: this was not an insurance plan. Payments in would not meet the full costs of payments out. Beveridge had designed a tax plan that would be supplemented by general taxation. There would be a requirement for heavy expenditure form the national exchequer. Success would depend entirely on a growing economy. The Economist was also worried that Sir William might encourage the growth of a ‘class of drones’ with no ambition to rise above drone status.

The Beveridge Report was an instant best-seller. In the national press, it had support across the spectrum. But the concerns expressed vividly by the Daily Mirror were not misguided. The prime minister’s first instinct was to prevaricate. Labour ministers did not put him under immediate pressure to promise implementation. They worried that Beveridge was treading on territory that trade union were accustomed to regarding as theirs alone.

The House of Commons did not debate the proposals until 16th February 1943. Then, a three-day debate took place on a motion introduced by Sir Arthur Greenwood, Deputy leader of the Labour Party.  Greenwood himself described it as nothing more than ‘a peg’ on which to hang a debate that had already been rehearsed in countless newspaper articles, readers’ letters and BBC broadcasts.

Newspaper reporting of the Beveridge Report showcased the freedom newspapers could exercise when liberated from security concerns. Conservative titles acknowledged that economic and social reform would be essential when the fighting ended. They insisted in should not be Marxist in character. The Daily Mail identified an important omission. On the left and centre, newspapers championed Beveridge’s ambitions and put the Government under pressure to both refine and implement his proposals.

The evidence in the archives is that newspapers offered their readers detailed information about and explanation of the Beveridge Plan. They identified challenges and demanded action. They held the wartime coalition to account on behalf of their readers.

The weekly political press provided additional detailed insight and challenge. It was a role titles including The Listener, New Statesman, Tribune, Economist and Spectator would perform admirably throughout the war. Indeed, these titles for a discerning and highly educated readership came under less pressure to conform to Government wishes than mass circulation titles. I suggest that Ministers in both parties regarded them as a safe way to demonstrate Britain’s commitment to press freedom. Left free to publish and debate dissenting ideas, they helped to burnish Britain’s democratic credentials in wartime. They were read by a minority of highly intelligent, thoughtful opinion formers, but they reached a tiny readership. Ministers were much more concerned by dissent in the mass circulation titles. But they had little power to stop it and the House of Commons recognised the importance of a free press, not least as a tool with which to persuade American opinion that Britain really was a democracy, not simply an imperial power.

Next, I shall briefly outline newspaper coverage of what we now call the holocaust – a term that was not employed in wartime newspapers. British national dailies identified the brutality of Nazi race laws before the war began. The Manchester Guardian, Times and Daily Herald published accounts of lynchings and described the ruthless regime in force in the concentration camps. However, while these accounts were graphic, Stephanie Seul offers the important caveat that their reporting was ‘preconditioned by liberal thinking’ – essentially, they imagined that exposing Nazi brutality to global scrutiny and condemnation might moderate Nazi conduct.

In 1942 The Times, Daily Mail and Evening Standard reported the World Jewish Congress’s belief that half a million Jews had already died. In September 1942, the Manchester Guardian collated eyewitness accounts smuggled out of the region of Czechoslovakia then labelled the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The resulting report identified ‘a vast system of organised traffic in human beings’. It explained that ‘the fit may survive for as long as they are useful: the aged and the unfit may perish at will’.  The Guardian’s special correspondent described how young Jewish citizens were exploited as forced labour. They survived on the most meagre rations in accommodation that was ‘totally inadequate’. Sanitation was non-existent and the mortality rate was high. He described how a group of young, single Jewish men, selected for their good health and usefulness as labourers had been sent from Terezin to Upper Silesia, Nothing had been heard from them since. Three weeks later the Manchester Guardian informed its readers that Hitler had ‘reaffirmed his intention to exterminate the Jews of Europe and to encourage antisemitic feeling throughout the world’.

In late October 1942, nearly two months before Anthony Eden told the House of Commons that the final solution really was underway, the Guardian returned to the topic in a leader entitled simply: Extermination. It explained that Jews from Poland, Holland and Belgium had already been ‘rounded up, deprived of their belongings, packed together in cattle trucks and transported for many days and nights’ to the notorious concentration camps in Poland. French Jews were now suffering ‘the same brutality’.  Persecution was beginning in Italy, Hungary and Romania’.

The Daily Express, most successful of the mass market Conservative dailies, put on its frontpage Eden’s explanation that the German Government was deporting all Jews from occupied countries to Eastern Europe and putting them to death.  It included Eden’s advice that ‘The able bodied are slowly worked to death in Labour camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately murdered in mass executions’. The Daily Mail described ‘The Jews Germany is slaughtering’ and ‘history’s most infamous act’. The Daily Mirror welcomed the news that ‘Germany’s cold-blooded extermination of the Jews’ had been broadcast from London to listeners all over the world. The Sunday Pictorial described ‘The Foulest Crime on Earth’ and ‘A horror that numbs the mind’.

In the Spring of 1944, Germany began the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews, the largest Jewish community left in Europe. A leader in The Times noted that they were ‘marked for extermination’ and identified a distinction between ‘so-called concentration camps and the death camps of Poland ‘which are in fact slaughterhouses’. The Daily Telegraph published a powerful leader condemning the deportation and elimination of the last organised Jewish community in Europe. It declared that ‘Outraged humanity can but strive to rid the earth of this monstrous wickedness’. In the House of Commons, the Foreign Secretary condemned the ‘barbarous deportations’. He recorded his regret that ‘nothing Britain or its allies said about post-war punishment of the perpetrators appeared to make any difference’. The Daily Herald commended Eden’s strong words but warned that nobody could expect that they would be effective.

Brendan Bracken, Minister of information, followed Eden’s statement with a speech at the Dorchester Hotel. He explained that the Germans had set up ‘abattoirs in Europe’.  It was the biggest ‘scandal in the history of human crime’. The following morning, 8th July 1944, the Times explained that the gas chambers at Auschwitz could kill 6,000 victims every day. The Manchester Guardian added evidence sent by its special correspondent in Switzerland. 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already died at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Many had died en route in ‘the squalid cattle trains’.  The Sunday Pictorial demonstrated its preference for illustrative tales of individual suffering. It revealed that patients taken ill in the camp were ‘murdered in their beds by the injection of drugs near to the heart’.

Many if not all of you will be familiar with the controversy over the BBC’s delayed transmission of Richard Dimbleby’s report from Belsen in 1945. It deserves the admiration it attracts. However, British newspapers were able to respond to the American liberation of Buchenwald several days before they learned about Belsen. Ed Murrow of CBS entered Buchenwald on 12th April 1945. CBS broadcast his account on 15th April and it appeared in several British newspapers. The Daily Mirror told its readers that the existence of death and torture camps should come as no surprise. Noting that such camps had been a Nazi tool since before the war, it questioned whether it was really ‘possible that there is one solitary person in these islands who does not know?’. However, the Mirror also acknowledged that ‘the full enormity of Hitler’s offence against God and man is still not understood in this country’. The Mirror advised its readers that they had a ‘scared duty’ to learn the facts.

Pictures from the liberated camps helped the newspapers to describe the horror. Individual reporters and correspondents struggled to find the language with which to convey all that they saw. Many did do with great skill and sensitivity.  Christopher Buckley of the Daily Telegraph was perplexed by the contradictions between German culture and German guilt. He described the ‘fiendish cruelties and inhuman callousness’ of the camps and found it impossible to reconcile with the apparent ‘kindness of the ordinary citizens’ he met. He was utterly mystified to watch local civilians and regular German soldiers taken on a tour of Belsen. All ‘professed ignorance that anything of the sort had been going on in their country’.  In a letter to the Manchester Guardian, a ‘Jewish refugee from Nazi oppression’ suggested that ‘few knew the exact nature of the atrocities committed’ in the death camps. However, all Germans knew that ‘participation in any conspiracy against Hitler would result in them being subjected to the same atrocities’.

Close reading confirms that, from 1941 onwards, the Manchester Guardian actively sought to confirm that Hitler was pursuing the ‘absolute annihilation’ of the Jewish people in Europe. Other broadsheet newspapers, notably the Times and Daily Telegraph followed the emerging evidence of genocide and reported it honestly but without consistent prominence.  Popular titles of left and right. reported accurately evidence offered by the World Jewish Congress, the Polish Government and statements by British ministers. There was no conspiracy of silence and certainly no effort to conceal. A diligent reader, determined to understand the fate of Hitler’s Jewish victims, could know a great deal.

But context is crucial. Britain had not gone to war to defend the Jewish people. Newspapers regarded the war first as one for national survival and then as a defence of democracy against totalitarianism. For most Britons it was fought for territory and the right to live in freedom. I conclude that when the Daily Mirror asked if there was really anybody in Britain who did not know the truth about the concentration camps, it certainly protested too much. There were many who chose not to know, and their newspapers did not give the subject sufficiently consistent high profile treatment to challenge their ignorance.

Newspaper reporting of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reached clear conclusions faster, but not immediately.   Initially, newspapers were simply stunned by the technology. The Manhattan Project was an intensely guarded secret. Beyond a tiny elite, the weapon that would define the post war world was unheard of and unimagined. British newspapers responded with a combination of awe at the scientific achievement and patriotic pride in the British contribution.

The Manchester Guardian’s first report of the Hiroshima bomb described it as the result of ‘Immense Co-Operative Effort by ourselves and U.S.’. For the Daily Mail, James Brough, the newspaper’s correspondent in New York went straight to the point: Japan faced obliteration ‘by the mightiest destructive force the world has ever known – unless she surrenders unconditionally in a few days’. The Times was anxious to explain why the atomic bomb had not been built in Britain. It noted that when the new weapon was first conceived ‘Great Britain was within easy range of German bombers and the risk of raiders from the sea or air could not be ignored’. The Daily Telegraph celebrated the British contribution. Its front page carried the pictures of the men who had invented the atomic bomb. They included Sir George Thomson of Imperial College, London, Sir James Chadwick of Liverpool University, Professors Norman Cockcroft and John Feather of Cambridge University and Professor Mark Oliphant of Birmingham University.

Briefings from Britain’s Ministry of Information and the U.S. War Department informed all the initial reporting in the British press. These focused on the atomic bomb’s colossal power and the outstanding science that had devised and built it.  Such destruction was the astonishing product of an ‘Anglo-U.S. War Secret of Four Years Research’ explained The Times. But The Times also offered a clue to why controversy did not emerge immediately: ‘an impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke had covered the target area after the atom bomb had been dropped’. Pictures of the devastation and the pitiful condition of survivors did not emerge immediately. The U.S. War Department was determined that they should not.

But even in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima, concern was not entirely buried. Winston Churchill, very recently exiled from Downing Street by Labour’s victory in the General Election of 5 July 1945, recognised immediately that: “This revelation of the secrets of nature, long mercifully withheld from man, should arouse the most solemn reflections in the mind and conscience of every human capable of comprehension’. His column appeared in the Daily Mail on 7th August 1945 under the headline: ‘Most Terrifying Weapon in History’.

Two days after the bombing, the Daily Mirror sought to explain the weapon’s power by relating it to its readers’ own lives. Under the headline ‘Just Suppose it had Happened Here’ the Mirror set out explain the impact if an atomic bomb had fallen on Britain.  This it did by asking reporters around the UK to assess what complete destruction of four square miles would look like in their city. From Edinburgh The Mirror reported that ‘In a square bounded by Bonnington Toll and Comely Bank, Morningside and King Arthur’s Seat, there would be noting but destruction. All historic Edinburgh would have disappeared’. The London news desk concluded that ‘There would be a swathe of utter destruction from Kensington Church to the Mansion House, as wide as the parks and the West End, from Bayswater Road and Oxford Street, across to Piccadilly and the Strand’. In Manchester, everything between Victoria Station and Old Trafford would be levelled.

Pictures made the difference. The first official reconnaissance images were published on 9th August. The Times reflected that ‘most of Hiroshima no longer exists, and blasted corpses too numerous to count litter the ruined city…practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure engendered by the blast’.

That day (9th August) the Nagasaki bomb was dropped. It polarized opinion. For the young Communist Dorothy Thompson, writing in The Observer, the atomic bomb ‘awed and frightened its own users…If we are no longer fully at war, we are not yet at peace, the mood of mankind has altered and the constellation of power has decisively changed for all foreseeable time’. On 5th September, the Daily Mail reported that doctors in Hiroshima were seeing patients die at a rate of about one hundred per day from the continuing effects of the bomb. The Daily Express carried a searing report by the Australian William Burchett, the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima. Describing his account as ‘a warning to the world’, Burchett described a city reduced to ‘reddish rubble’ and people dying from an unknown ‘atomic plague’. This prompted a reply by Lord Cecil, joint president of the League of Nations Union. Cecil warned that Britain would be uniquely vulnerable to future attacks by atomic bombs. The ‘immense aggregations of people in its great cities’ would be sitting targets.

I have offered you four examples of wartime newspaper reporting. My book contains many more. It has been a joy to write. Complete immersion in the archives has revealed numerous examples of meticulous reporting, incisive commentary and acute analysis. Newspapers did not always oppose government. The National Government formed in 1940 meant that newspapers of all mainstream political complexions had ministers in office with whom they might expect their readers to agree, at least sometimes. Nevertheless, while promoting patriotic fervour, wartime newspapers did frequently perform their duty by investigating policy, explaining complex issues and enabling informed debate.

Lawrence Goldman:

Well, thank you very much indeed, Tim, that was most enjoyable and very educational. I learned an enormous amount in short compass so thank you so much. My first question, if I might, Tim, is this: Many historians have argued, looking at different conflicts in the modern period that democratic societies, because they can mobilise opinion and because they are open and can motivate their populations are perhaps counterintuitively better at fighting wars than autocratic societies. And we may be seeing that in the Ukraine at present, where clearly an open society is much more motivated than Russian conscripts who don’t really know why they’re there and so far have not put up a very good show. This argument has been used in the American Civil War where a Democratic North fights a South without an open and democratic culture. It’s true of the First World War. It’s true of the Second World War as you’re telling us. So I wonder if I can just expand a bit. You’ve made a wonderful defence of the usefulness and the brilliance of newspapers during the Second World War. But do you think what you’re saying is that helps to explain why ultimately our home front didn’t crack and why we were ultimately victorious?

Tim Luckhurst

I think it’s a very important point and one which I recognise and agree with almost entirely Lawrence. Indeed, I would suggest that amongst the reasons that Britons were so committed to the war effort was because they understood what that war effort was for and had it encapsulated in terms which resonated with them by newspapers with which they were ideologically friendly. They trusted those titles to tell them a version of the war justification story which made it relevant to them and their loved ones. The mirror is a particularly good example. In the sense that throughout the war it recognises that an overwhelming majority of its readers are either serving in the armed forces or are the families of people who are, and therefore felt the need to make the case for war in language which could justify it to them and that included in the mirror’s case the argument that a just and civilised war in defence of democracy, both would result in a in a fairer society. So yes, I think that argument about the extent to which liberty engages and the newspapers act as a mechanism of transmission in which engagement is achieved in democracies at war is emphatically the case and having a son who has worked the BBC in Ukraine during this war I can see that happening there, although the censorship is perhaps a little more rigid than it was even in Britain between in 1940.

Lawrence Goldman

Well Tim we share something else, because I have a daughter in the British Embassy in Kiev. She has been there for a year organising Britain’s humanitarian aid package to Ukraine. We’re very proud although sometimes rather worried. Picking up on something you just said about the Daily Mirror, I thought you were almost too critical of the press in regard to the Holocaust. In some ways the testimony that you provided shows that all the press, left and right, was aware of what was going on and did try to inform their readers. But you can understand it from both the newspapers point of view and the readership’s point of view. What they cared about were their sons, their brothers, their husbands overseas, and that Britain should come through this. And that this was another dimension of the war, which was almost unimaginably difficult to get one’s head round, but it wasn’t what was in a sense absolutely crucial to the millions of people reading newspapers daily. And I have some understanding and sympathy for that really. I wouldn’t be perhaps as critical as you in the way you’ve presented that.

Tim Luckhurst

That’s intriguing. My criticism really extends simply to the assertion made by the Daily Mirror that there could be nobody who didn’t know. I think that the word genuinely many who didn’t because it wasn’t rammed down their throats on the front pages in the way that really high-profile news was consistently. So for example, during the Blitz, there would be front page news about the bombing day after day after day. Illustrated with newly identified human interest stories to ensure that this story was made relevant to the readers. None of the newspapers attempted to do that with the news of the Holocaust, for many of the reasons that you very accurately identify, but also because they didn’t perceive it as being a Casus Belli, which their readers would I would appreciate or even think about particularly hard. It was a subject which engaged the liberal readers of the Guardian with much greater intensity that it engaged the readers of the Mirror, the Express, the Mail or indeed the Daily Herald. And again, you see that nuanced coverage, where the truly liberal title recognises the sophisticated graduate readers will take and understand and regard this as a crucial issue, one which will endure a long beyond victory. Whereas for the Mirror it was about getting the boys home safe and getting to Berlin first, absolutely.

Lawrence Goldman

We have an interesting question that has just come in. Someone is asking about advertisements in newspapers during war time. Did they reflect military positions or political positions? To what extent were they influenced by the war and to what extent do advertisements perhaps add to the kind of democratic culture that you’re suggesting?

Tim Luckhurst

It’s an intriguing question. I’m afraid there is a rather pedestrian but nevertheless significant answer. Newspapers experienced dramatic reductions in pagination during the Second World War. The tabloid papers at the peak of the news print shortage in the early months of 1943 were down to only 4 pages. Throughout the war they were between 4 and a maximum of 8 pages, from titles which had 32 pages before the war. The broadsheet newspapers maintained slightly larger newspapers, often 10 or 12 pages in the Guardian and Times by virtue of restricting their circulation ie. they relied on selling to a reduced number of readers but keeping a larger pagination. As a result, there was not as much space for advertising. And yes, of course, newspapers did take advertising. Rationing meant that many of the products which were most worth advertising were simply not available and therefore there was an extent to which advertising was about maintaining the presence of a brand until after the war. And many advertising executives described it in those terms that they would keep their product on the front page of an expensive newspaper because one day people might be able to buy chocolate cream again and they would therefore be able to remember that it existed. But really there wasn’t a great deal around and if you didn’t have the ration coupons you weren’t going to get any of it.

Lawrence Goldman

Well, I’m old enough to remember fry’s chocolate cream. I’m not sure you can get it anymore, but I remember it. That leads then to another question about newspaper finance. If they are not getting advertising revenue in at all, they’re dependent almost entirely on the readership buying the newspaper. Was there any state funding or any private funding of newspapers to keep them going through, obviously what must have been a lean period for them.

Tim Luckhurst

These were, when the war began, colossally profitable newspapers. There were subsidies in some cases. The Daily Herald for example had subsidies from the TUC which of course was a 50% shareholder in the Daily Herald. The Daily Worker was paid for by the Communist Party of Great Britain via its friends in Moscow. So direct subsidy there. Did Beaverbrook subsidise the Express? He didn’t need to. It was less profitable because there wasn’t the advertising revenue. But there was colossal circulation. There was a diminished staff. There was diminished pagination. So the availability of newsprint reduced cost as well because you were printing fewer copies in in smaller quantities and candidly there was also help with the transports facility during the war and that probably reduced cost substantially. I haven’t looked at that particular aspect of the economics of the newspaper industry, particularly closely. But essentially, advertising continues. It’s smaller. People are paying almost out of sentiment, but also to keep their products in public eye. The papers are smaller, the staffs are smaller. And they are reaching colossal circulations which grow throughout the war. So actually newspapers which were profitable in 1939 were equally profitable by the end of war, in some cases more so.

Lawrence Goldman

You have given us four fascinating case studies but one of the things we haven’t touched on is the question of disaffection at home. I’m thinking of things like strikes for example and industrial action. As well as perhaps wider disaffection, not just to the Blitz, but to rationing and so forth. I mean, particularly where labour relations were concerned and there were strikes in the coal mines and so forth. Did that affect the way the newspapers dealt with this thing? Did they feel under an obligation to take a kind of pro-government anti-worker line or were they very open in the way they presented things like the Kent Minors Strike.

Tim Luckhurst

No they weren’t very open in the way that they depicted strikes. And in that sense there is a genuine impression that the united pressure of a coalition consisting of both Ernest Bevin and Winston Churchill was able to persuade the mainstream papers to behave themselves. Of Course the Daily Worker could not be persuaded and was a constant thorn in the side. Indeed, I would suggest that the banning of the Daily Worker was a distinct mistake by the wartime government in the sense that the Worker achieved such tiny circulation that it was only of interest to those who were already loyal to the course. But in its particular coverage, which I look at in the book of the Clyde Bank bombing, the Worker was the one paper that was willing to recognise that there was a strike at John Brown’s shipyard, that that strike involved its shop stewards. The government was absolutely determined to break that strike and to look at that in great care. But no, the mainstream press were willing to abide by what the Ministry of Information and the census wanted them to do over industrial action at home.

And it’s a legitimate criticism of those titles. Does it undermine the argument I make that they were essentially serving their readers? The overwhelming evidence from what I’ve looked at was that most readers thought strikes in wartime were utterly unacceptable. And I suspect that that helped to persuade both the Herald and the Mirror that there was this was not of course worth fighting. They will work with many courses that they did see is worth fighting and they fought for them with great zeal and infuriated Churchill by doing so. Indeed, as I am sure you’re aware, he was determined to ban both the Sunday Pictorial and the Daily Mirror and had their editors sent off to fight at the front because he couldn’t quite persuade the House of Commons that this was a great idea. But no, they were not good at reporting industrial action.

Lawrence Goldman

That leads to the question of military reversal. One can imagine how after 1943 when the war turns the Press is able to present very optimistic and positive reports from the field, but until 1942 that was not the case and I wonder how they deal with those awful defeats, be it Dunkirk although we know that can be turned into a heroic kind of story and was so. But things like Singapore, for example, later on in early 42, how that was done. How honest were they with the British people about the military situation, at least until America’s entry into the war, for example.

Tim Luckhurst

They were honest about the facts, they were honest about the reverses. They did not have a great deal of colour in many cases. There is one absolutely stark exception and that is in the coverage of the Royal Navy. I should take a step back. One of the great challenges newspapers faced with any information about the activities of the Armed Forces or about British versus abroad was that their sole source of information was government, Ministry of Information and the Service departments. They did not have reporters on the scene or when they did those reporters did not have the capacity to report without going through government wires, government radio services, which would enable censorship. Indeed, that was a major mechanism by which censorship could be applied. But no, the government itself recognised and the newspapers recognized that being honest about defeats was essential or one would not be believed if one reported victories.

And there was a legacy memory of the First World War, still very vividly alive in many newsrooms. These 2 conflicts were after all not that long apart. Young men who had been junior reporters at the end of the First World War were certainly in senior positions in newspapers in 1940. And they knew that propaganda of the most blatant kind had left a long and very difficult distrust of the newspaper paper industry. The servicemen returning from the front had been appalled by the way that their struggles on the front in 1914-18 had been depicted. So there was a much much more realistic approach to reporting this, to reporting casualties in the RAF, when it began night bombing of Germany to reporting the losses even of the Dambuster raids which of course was presented with great glee and with great national pride but there is no attempt to hide the fact that of those planes that have gone out, only just over half have returned and the crew is 7 in every one of them. So there is not concealment. The big story which perhaps was transformative in the way that we see that event is Dunkirk. The problem with Dunkirk was that wasn’t a single correspondent on the beaches who could actually file to his newspaper. They had no mechanism of reporting back. So although some journalists did fall back with the British Expeditionary Force and the French forces, they couldn’t file. Everything that was written was written by correspondence on the docks as the boats came back in and they were being briefed with great effect by the Royal Navy, which was very proud of its successes. And which limited information to those who behaved themselves. If you want to read a glowing account of Dunkirk, I recommend the Guardian’s front page story on Dunkirk which makes it sound utterly glorious.

Lawrence Goldman

Reflecting on the way the British press, leaving aside the BBC, have covered the Ukraine war, do you see any parallels? Do you see any weaknesses? Any differences?

Tim Luckhurst

What would you say?

I bring to this experience of having covered several walls with the BBC and newspapers as well as being written about it. I think that what I see in coverage of the Ukraine is a very clear ideological commitment to the Ukrainian course, which of course I share. And one which perhaps colours some of the journalists sceptical approach to power. I know how difficult that is. I think it’s very difficult to resist going native when you’re covering a war which you know to be just against a power that you know to be in the wrong. And I think that most of us will acknowledge that we are sympathetic with Ukraine as a flawed but nevertheless democratic society invaded by Russia, which is neither of those things. So I see a tendency to see the best in Ukraine. I see a slight reluctance to look for the blemishes. I’m conscious that until Ukraine was invaded, we were all aware that there were deep seated problems of corruption in the Ukrainian system of government and in relations between government and industry. Whilst we see it mentioned in some of our more intelligent titles and again there is a parallel with my analysis of the Second World War. The Economist will look at this, the FT will look at this, but the mainstream papers on the whole are in the cheerleading mode. I understand that. We’re getting some great colour reporting. We’re great getting some great by witness reporting. We’re getting some very brave reporting from correspondents who are risking their lives to bring the news. We shouldn’t exaggerate their courage but it is dangerous and it is something that as a young reporter I was proud to do and sometimes very frightened to do.

So I see a tendency towards championing rather than scrutinising and I think some of that scrutiny would perhaps be healthy.

Lawrence Goldman

But in line with what you said brilliantly in your talk, in a sense also, the press and broadcasting is reflecting back to readers and viewers what readers and viewers believe as well. There’s a sense from what you said in the Second World War and now that it’s not just the way journalists see the problem or see the conflict. They know that their readership also sees it in a certain way and they and they’re influenced by that as well. And I imagine that was strongly felt among journalists in the Second World War also.

Tim Luckhurst

Absolutely. It’s a crucial point in all analysis of the press that newspapers are commercial products which sell because they achieve the loyalty of their readers and they cannot achieve the loyalty of their readers by challenging their readers deeply held beliefs or only very occasionally and on issues about which editors feel particularly passionately and that’s rare. So of course newspapers reflect the views and the sympathies of their readers. But it’s why a plurality in diversity of newspapers is important. It’s also why those weekly political titles, those very high-minded, intelligent, analytical titles are a particular adornment to our democracy now as they were then. They understand that their readers are willing to read something which challenges their beliefs, they’re prepared to consider the counterintuitive, they are prepared to think hard about the alternative perspective. And I’m proud and delighted to say we still have that in the New Statesman, we still have it in the Spectator. We still have an economist, we still have it, I think, in the Financial Times. We have got some fantastic weekly publications. We’ve got some fantastic coverage on the BBC and also now in broadcasting., challenging newcomers such as Times Radio, which are into our media scape, a new and intelligent alternative to the great national broadcaster. So things are healthy, but newspapers are not flawless. But as a market, as a diverse range of titles with different ideological stances at different levels of intelligence and analysis, they still serve an extraordinarily valuable purpose and they are serving their readers interests and that is where you are absolutely spot on.

Lawrence Goldman

Well, thank you very much indeed, Tim. You talked about that Friday’s adornment of democracy and I think actually your book sounds to me as if it’s an adornment of democracy in so far as it studies, a crucial phase in the development of our democratic media. You’ve done us all a very great service. I look forward to reading the book myself. This has been a wonderful taster of what’s in it and a fascinating discussion.

About the author

Professor Tim Luckhurst

Professor Tim Luckhurst