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Still raucous and impertinent – British newspapers in WWII

uk newspaper ww2

Though British newspapers supported the war effort, they lost neither their editorial independence nor their willingness to challenge, criticise and confront. Their conduct annoyed ministers from all three major political parties in the wartime coalition.

The BBC’s importance as a source of news during the Second World War is widely acknowledged. Less well understood is the popularity and role of newspapers. In May 1940, the social research organisation Mass Observation (MO) found that ‘almost everybody reads newspapers’.[1] MO was right. When war began, eighty per cent of British families read one of the mass circulation dailies, the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, News Chronicle or Daily Herald. Two-thirds of middle-class families shared this habit and many also bought a sophisticated title such as The Times, Daily Telegraph or Manchester Guardian. Indeed, newspapers may have been more popular than formal religion. A wartime survey found that 60 per cent of men and 80 per cent of women professed faith, but most admitted they did not attend church.

The BBC remained formally independent from the Ministry of Information only because the Government wanted it to appear autonomous. Newspapers profited from genuine independence. They were subject to security censorship but not policy censorship. On issues of concern to their readers, the mass market newspapers used this freedom. With the exception of the communist Daily Worker during the period of the Nazi/Soviet non-aggression pact, newspapers did not oppose the war effort. They did speak truth to power when policy affected their readers or created injustice to which their readers objected. My work in newspaper archives has revealed several intriguing examples of such accountability journalism.

Sir William Beveridge learned about poverty as a young graduate working at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End. As a wartime civil servant, he chaired the Social Insurance Committee charged with giving meaning to the Atlantic Charter promise of social security. To hard working families on meagre incomes, the prospect of real post-war change was enticing. And, in the winter of 1942, expectation grew that Beveridge would produce something truly innovative.

In early November, Sir William, a man of great intellect unmatched by tact, fed this expectation by telling a Daily Telegraph reporter that his report would be published on or about the 26 November. The date helps to explain why suspicion and concern soon emerged in the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial. Determined to promote their readers’ interests, these mass circulation titles of the left suspected dark forces were working to prevent publication and discussion of Beveridge’s proposals.  In the 20 November edition of the Daily Mirror, columnist Bill Greig lamented that publication was slipping ‘back and back’ and that hostile MPs were determined to prevent debate about social reform.[2] The Mirror reported that Tom Driberg MP, a former communist now sitting as an independent, believed ‘powerful interests’ were ‘trying to prejudge and sabotage the Beveridge Report’.[3]

The Mirror believed Labour members of the War Cabinet cared too much for coalition unity and too little for its readers. The coalition was too ‘determined to be polite to itself’. Labour must support publication, discussion and debate. Beveridge’s plan must not ‘be indefinitely pigeon-holed on the excuse that it might disturb the national unity – or equanimity – of those who see Moscow in any proposal for social reform’.[4] The Sunday Pictorial reported and promoted speculation that Herbert Morrison was to be granted membership of the War Cabinet. It explained that Morrison was one of the few ministers who recognised and promoted ‘the need for a new social system after the war’. This, it gloated, ‘would not amuse the Tories’.[5] The Sunday Pictorial explained that Beveridge’s plan would include full employment and a system of national planning for industrial production.

Despite its popularity among conservative voters, The Times agreed. In one of two extended leaders published in anticipation of the Beveridge Report, the establishment broadsheet insisted that the coalition should promise post-war reform.  Commitments to full employment and social change now would ‘infuse fresh enthusiasm into the war effort’. The coalition must have a social policy as well as a military policy.[6]

Beveridge’s plan was published on 1 December and newspapers of right and left responded with comprehensive coverage and creative flair. The Daily Mail praised Sir William for proposing ‘a plan to insure us all from cradle to grave with shilling benefits for threepenny premiums’.[7] It carried a drawing by its star cartoonist, Illingworth (Leslie Gilbert Illingworth 1902-79). He depicted a British soldier raising a foaming jug of beer with ‘Social Security’ written on its head. The caption declared ‘Here’s to the brave new world, O rare and refreshing Beveridge’.[8]

Publication of the Beveridge plan saw newspapers uniting to put pressure on the wartime cabinet. It was not the only example of such campaigning journalism, nor was it the earliest.

In June 1940, as the British Expeditionary Force escaped from Dunkirk, a perception of grave social injustice smouldered at home, stimulated by the private evacuation to the United States and Canada of the children of wealthy and influential parents. Resentful critics condemned them as cowardly, unpatriotic and privileged. Those sent to safety across the Atlantic included children with elite, establishment surnames including Mountbatten, Bowes Lyon, Guinness and Hambro. Transmitting to Britain from Germany, English-speaking Nazi broadcasters such as the Irish American William Joyce exploited the notion that Britain’s richest were getting their children away from danger at the expense of the poor.

At home, J.B. Priestley used his immensely popular Postscript transmission on the BBC Home Service to make the same case. Priestley supported inclusive overseas evacuation as a reflection of his socialist beliefs and because he thought men would fight better if their families were safe.[9] The Government responded with the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), a scheme to send children to safety in the Dominions at public expense. Now popular newspapers of left and right waded in.

The market-leading conservative Daily Express set the tone in a leader column headlined ‘To Go – or Not to Go? The Rich Go First’.[10] It lamented the shortage of space on ships for poorer children. While the government was working to arrange evacuation, the Express explained, ‘there is another kind of evacuation. It is carried out by well-to-do parents who can pay their children’s passage and arrange for them to be supported by relatives or friends overseas. Poorer parents whose children are left behind feel a grievance and a just grievance, at the children of the rich who are being sent to safety.’ The Daily Express urged the minister responsible for the CORB scheme to ensure that children evacuated overseas by the state got priority on ships.

From the left, the Daily Mirror warned that the American Committee in London for the evacuation of children was worried that only the children of rich Britons were securing berths. It believed British bureaucracy hampered efforts to help the poor.[11] A week later, the Mirror hammered home its complaint in a report from New York. This identified British children who had just arrived on the luxury liner S.S. Washington. They included ‘Viscount Bayham, son of the Earl of Brecknock and grandson of the Marquis of Camden, and the two daughters of Lord and Lady Mountbatten’. The Mirror declared ‘Only the Rich Go’.[12]

The Daily Mail was equally determined to promote fairness, but it understood how difficult the decision could be. It sent columnist Ann Temple to meet a couple who were divided about whether to send their four children abroad. Mr Smith was adamant that his offspring would be safer and better fed if they could get to the USA or Canada. Mrs Smith was not persuaded that ‘packing them off across the world over dangerous seas to live with strangers for an unpredictable length of time’ was a good idea. For Ann Temple, the issue was settled when the children rushed in for the garden ‘ravenously hungry’. Evacuation would ensure a better supply of food.[13]

Its architects in Parliament depicted CORB as a practical antidote to class bias, although their own motives included a desire to strengthen links between Britain and its Dominions. The Manchester Guardian emphasised its ambition to create fairness, noting that ‘Salford parents of children between the ages of five and fourteen’ were signing up in large numbers.[14] The communist Daily Worker complained angrily about class discrimination and demanded greater support for poor evacuees.

In fact, while they were raucous in support of their readers, the newspapers may have misjudged the level of demand. Home Intelligence reports found poor families reluctant to send their children abroad and anxious that children might be ‘whisked away without their consent’.the CORB scheme was abandoned after the City of Benares was torpedoed on 17 September 1940 600 miles out from Liverpool and carrying 90 CORB evacuees and ten private evacuees. Thirteen of the CORB evacuees survived the sinking alongside six of the private evacuee children. The private evacuees were accommodated on upper decks closer to the lifeboats.

On 10 October 1940 the answer to a parliamentary question revealed that the newspapers’ complaints about injustice had been justified. A total of 6,196 British children had been evacuated overseas at private expense. The CORB scheme had evacuated only 2,666.[16]

During the Blitz, 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 a bold 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.[17] 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 towards the entrance. Immediately, a porter appeared and ordered them to go to the public shelter. Gray wrote: ‘We, refused shelter like any other people dressed like us would be, might have been killed on the doorstep of safety.’[18]   

The Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial were bold and persistent on behalf of their working-class readers. Leading Conservative titles such as the Daily Express, Daily Mail, The Times and Daily Telegraph challenged ministers directly when their readers’ interests were at stake. Such journalism exploited the absence of policy censorship and infuriated Winston Churchill who described the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial as ‘vicious and malignant’.[19]

As Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison worked diligently to defend the newspapers’ right to express trenchant criticism of policy and policymakers. Only when he was incensed by the caption accompanying Phillip Zec’s March 1942 drawing of a torpedoed sailor clinging to a raft in a furious sea did Morrison finally support Churchill’s view that the Daily Mirror should be suppressed. But Morrison misunderstood Zec’s cartoon grievously, and Parliament proved unwilling to ban mass circulation newspapers for daring to upset the War Cabinet.

The Times reminded the Home Secretary that Defence Regulation 2D gave him a very specific and limited power to suppress a publication that ‘was calculated to foment opposition to the successful prosecution of the war’.[20] Newspapers were entitled to criticise ministers for the way in which they fought it, and they did not hesitate to defend their readers.

While writing Reporting the Second World War: The Press and the People 1939-1945, I have immersed myself in the archives and collected many telling examples. British newspapers supported the war effort. They relied on the Ministry of Information and the service ministries for news of the fighting. Once Russia became an ally, they embraced a delusionally sympathetic depiction of Josef Stalin. They lost neither their editorial independence nor their willingness to challenge, criticise and confront. Their conduct annoyed ministers from all three major political parties in the wartime coalition.

Tim Luckhurst is Principal of South College, Durham University.  Reporting the Second World War: The Press and the People 1939-1945 is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

[1] Mass Observation Archive (MOA) ‘Report on the Press’, File Report (FR) 126 (May 1940), S. 3, p. 1.

[2] Bill Greig, ‘Inequality’, Daily Mirror, 20 November 1942, p. 2.

[3] Daily Mirror, ‘Beveridge Mystery’, 21 November 1942, p. 2.

[4] Daily Mirror, ‘Beveridge Mystery’, 21 November 1942, p. 2.

[5] Sunday Pictorial, ‘Morrison Going Up’, 22 November 1942, p. 1.

[6] The Times, ‘Obligations of Victory’, 26 November 1942, p. 5.

[7] Daily Mail, ‘£2 a Week for All – New Status for Housewives’, 2 December 1942, p. 1.

[8] Leslie Illingworth, cartoon, ‘Here’s to the brave new world’, Daily Mail, 2 December 1942, p. 2.

[9] J.B. Priestley, Postscript, 16 June 1940.

[10] Daily Express, ‘To Go – or Not to Go? The Rich Go First’, 3 July 1940, p. 4.

[11] Daily Mirror, ‘Let children into America’, 8 July 1940, p. 2.

[12] Daily Mirror,Refugee Limit Dropped, 15 July 1940, p. 7.

[13] Daily Mail, ‘Look at It in This Way, Mrs Smith, Says Ann Temple’, 3 July 1940, p. 4.

[14] Manchester Guardian, ‘Sending Children Overseas’, 25 June 1940, p. 2.

[15] Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang (eds), Listening to Britain, Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour (London: Vintage Books, 2011), p. 183.

[16] Hansard, H.C. Debates, Vol. 365, cols 476-77, 10 October 1940.

[17] Sunday Pictorial, ‘Rich Hotels Turn People Away During Air Raids’, 22 September 1940, p. 4.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hugh Cudlipp, Publish and Be Damned! The Astonishing Story of the Daily Mirror (London: Andrew Dakers Ltd, 1953), p. 143.

[20] The Times, Regulation 2D’, 20 March 1942, p. 5.


Two “in fact”s in very quick succession….

About the author

Professor Tim Luckhurst

Professor Tim Luckhurst