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Reporting the Second World War

Reporting the Second World War
Jeremy Black
Written by Jeremy Black

The publication of a new book on the British press during the Second World War by Professor Tim Luckhurst of the University of Durham is a reminder of the daily dilemmas facing a free media in a prolonged conflict that often required self-censorship and compromise, over what could be reported and how it should be presented. In this review, Professor Jeremy Black assesses the balance newspapers had to strike in wartime between satiating their readers’ desire to be informed, and respecting the government’s need to control the flow and nature of information reaching the public.

Reporting the Second World War: The Press and the People, 1939-1945, Tim Luckhurst, 2023. Pp. viii+256.

A punchy and well-put-together book on the British press during World War Two, Tim Luckhurst’s engaging study finds that newspapers during the conflict were unsure about two great issues: how best to adapt to the challenges of a total war that deeply affected people at home as well as in the services overseas, and how to present alliance politics with both the United States as well as the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, these were dilemmas not only for the press, but for the government, the censors, and many of the readers of newspapers.

Luckhurst draws attention, of course, to the many compromises made by the press in order to support the war effort. Yet, as was the case with the British press of the French Revolutionary era, there is a very clear and marked contrast to be made between the degree of freedom enjoyed by British newspapers and the degree allowed by Britain’s leading opponents. British papers were free to pursue stories of racial injustice in American courts martial held in England, for example: it is difficult to imagine the equivalent being allowed in Revolutionary France or Nazi Germany.

On the one hand, the press was expected to report accurately; on the other hand, it was subject to wartime regulation to boost morale and not assist the enemy, disparate goals that reflected the wishes of both readers and the government. All this had to be achieved while responding rapidly to a continual volley of events. Under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, the British press did not wish to be accused of fostering defeatism or to be seen to publish falsehoods. Lies were the province of Axis journalists and newspapers, or so ran the standard charge in Britain.

Luckhurst presents a story of measured independence, one in which there was caution in some areas, but a willingness to criticise in others: for example, distinctions on the grounds of social class, as occurred in the evacuation of children to safety, incited the ire of the press. The Blitz saw the press exaggerate the strength of British air defences. It also created press hostility to what was presented as a stubborn and inflexible bureaucracy: the ‘Man in Whitehall’ did not know best as the bombs fell.

There was unity behind the war effort, with the notable exception of the Daily Worker which threw its support behind striking workers. It was banned by the Cabinet on 27 December 1940 at the behest of the Labour Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, in part to protect Labour’s flank. This then led, as Luckhurst notes, to pressure on the Daily Mirror, although, with a much larger and more mainstream readership, and less extreme opinions, it evaded proscription. Philip Zec’s cartoon attack on profiteers on 6 March 1942 led Churchill to consider closing down the paper, but he was dissuaded by Morrison, though both the latter and Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, were also angered by the cartoon. Perhaps ironically the Daily Mirror benefitted from a marked wartime rise in its circulation.

The changing attitude toward Stalin and British communism following the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 receives due attention from Luckhurst. As he concludes, British newspaper opinion was too easily persuaded to portray the Soviet Union as a flawless saviour of mankind.

Some of the more informed writers could be censored. J.F.C. Fuller, a retired Major-General and leading military thinker – indeed, the most prominent past-protagonist of armoured warfare – was censored not for his markedly right-wing views, but for his criticism of the government, which was expressed in pieces in the Sunday Pictorial and the Evening Standard. For the former on 27 April 1941, Fuller argued that it was mistaken for the British to confront the German ‘mechanised hordes’ in the Balkans, and that ‘to plunge into the Balkan bog before we can fully be supported by America is the height of folly’.

Fuller also suggested that there had been a serious violation of the concept of concentration of force, adding, on Rommel’s advance: ‘like a ladder in a girl’s stocking, our splendid desert campaign is running backwards up our strategical leg from its ankle to its knee’. This was deemed unacceptable, as was his piece in the Sunday Pictorial of 8 June: ‘Because we could not think cubically we expected a caterpillar crawl and got a dragonfly assault.’

Other topics covered by Luckhurst include the bombing of Germany, the reception of the Beveridge Report, the 1945 general election, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused far more moral concern in the press than had the air assault on Germany. Of the Holocaust, Luckhurst notes that popular titles covered it in very little detail, making it possible for their readers to dismiss, or fail to register, the reality of genocide.

A good book, therefore, but a brief one and, perforce, there are elements that require more attention. This reader was disappointed that, although a few local papers, such as the Kent Messenger, were discussed, this very important component of the British press, in an age when many more people read local newspapers and saw news as essentially ‘local’ in character, is barely covered. The North-Eastern press, close to Luckhurst’s base at the University of Durham, would have made a fascinating case study of regional attitudes to the war.

More space might have been devoted too to a comparison of the press and the BBC. And it would have been both interesting and instructive to have included an assessment of foreign responses to the way the British press presented the war, drawn not only from coverage of Britain in the foreign press of say, America, the Commonwealth, or a part of occupied Europe, but also from diplomatic archives. Perhaps Tim Luckhurst can be encouraged to look at these questions in a second edition of his fine book.

Professor Jeremy Black is the author of The English Press: A History (Bloomsbury, 2019)

About the author

Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black, MBE, is Emeritus Professor of History, University of Exeter, and the author of numerous works on British and international history.