Academic journal article Journalism History

Press Freedom in Britain during World War II

Academic journal article Journalism History

Press Freedom in Britain during World War II

Article excerpt

The Daily Mirror, a tabloid newspaper published in London, was a favorite with the working classes and rank and file troops in the British armed forces during World War II. It was less popular with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his government. Irreverent and brash, the Daily Mirror attacked Churchill for retaining some of the old politicians in his wartime cabinet, and the army for being staffed with incompetent "brass hats." When the generals complained to the war office that the paper's campaigns were undermining morale among the troops, the office passed on the criticism to the cabinet. Churchill demanded an inquiry. Who owned the Mirror? he asked, and preposterous as it now seems, legend has it that government investigators examined the list of shareholders to determine if it included Goebbels, Himmler, Hess, or even Hitler.

Whatever hackles the Daily Mirror raised, it managed to avoid censorship during the war, but other newspapers were not so fortunate in spite of the fact that the press in Britain has long been one of the freest and most vigorous in the world. During World War I, several papers were temporarily suppressed while others were censored. Even the venerable The Times incurred a prosecution under the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA). Otherwise the British press operated more or less normally under voluntary censorship guidelines.2 When war engulfed Europe in 1939, the government again turned to a system of voluntary censorship.

In May 1940, Churchill's government proposed broad regulations on the press. The matter was taken up by the Home Policy Committee which agreed that before any action was begun it would meet and consult with representative M.P.'s. Out of this emerged Defense Regulation 2C which allowed the government to bar any material calculated to foment opposition to the war. The mechanism was simple: the Home Secretary would warn perceived violators; if this warning was ignored, he could prosecute in the courts and, if successful, shut down publication. A month later, another restriction on the press, Defense Regulation 2D, gave the Home Secretary the power to suppress any newspaper that systematically aroused such opposition. Churchill's cabinet approved 2D without consultation with Members of Parliament.3

Regulation 2D was issued in June 1940 when invasion seemed imminent, and it was soon used against two left-wing publications, The Week and the Daily Worker. In addition, the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial felt the pressure of the government and received warnings; both barely managed to avoid being banned. The actions against the newspapers touched off a debate in the country which revolved around two fundamental questions: How much press freedom can or should a democratic society provide for its people when it is engaged in a struggle for its survival? If basic freedoms are scaled back, will the cause for which the country is fighting be undermined?

As Britain fought on in the spring and summer of 1940, government concern about press criticism increased. Bothered by the Daily Worker's attacks on the government, Home Secretary Sir John Anderson called for special powers to deal with dissident newspapers, which he described as subversive.4 A few days later, Lord President of the Council Neville Chamberlain complained about the Evening Standard's printing of secret military information concerning targets for enemy bombing, and the government asked M.P.'s not to raise questions in Parliament which conveyed such information to the enemy.5 War Minister Anthony Eden criticized the press for carrying out what he called "inquests," which encouraged doubts about British strength.6 The government was so concerned that it set up a committee to consider compulsory press censorship.7 However, this committee never functioned. Because the British press as a whole supported the war, the voluntary system was considered sufficient to prevent publication of secret military information. …

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