Read all about it! The story of how Britain’s newspapers played a crucial role in helping to defeat Hitler and win the Second World War
- The Press understood World War II was a war for national survival, a good war
- Professor Tim Luckhurst tells the story of how the newspapers reported the war
Reporting The Second World War by Tim Luckhurst (Bloomsbury £24.99, 255pp)
BOOK OF THE WEEK
REPORTING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
by Tim Luckhurst (Bloomsbury £24.99, 255pp)
Winston Churchill described it as Britain’s secret weapon during the long and bloody years of World War II. But he wasn’t talking about any whizz-bangery on the battlefield.
He was referring to a cartoon strip in the Daily Mirror, one of the most successful of Britain’s wartime popular papers. Artist Norman Pett’s Jane ran every day: she was a scantily dressed girl about town and her exploits entertained Britain’s fighting men and their families throughout the war.
She was a powerful symbol of Britons’ cheerfulness and robust sense of humour, though much of it would be unlikely to survive in these more timorous days.
For his strip on VE Day, May 8, 1945, Pett took the radical step of showing Jane naked. It begins with Jane in full army uniform, a glass of champagne in one hand.
In the other is the flag of the Soviet Union, a nod towards Mirror readers’ admiration for the courage (and huge casualties) of the Red Army.
A male pal stands in the doorway carrying a Union Jack. Jane raises her glass and says: ‘Victory at last, Smiler. I shall soon be out of my uniform now.’
In the next frame, Jane is mobbed by a bunch of squaddies, all demanding a souvenir of their favourite pin-up. Jane emerges from the crush naked except for a strategically placed Union Jack.
Smiler jokes: ‘You’ve said it, Jane — you’ve been demobbed already.’ It might not go down too well today, but, by golly, it kept people going in the war.
The dedication to the war effort of Jane and her undies is just one of the many fascinating insights in this engrossing study, the first about the British Press in World War II.
Professor Tim Luckhurst of Durham University is that increasing rarity among media academics: he actually likes the Press.
Artist Norman Pett’s Jane ran every day: she was a scantily dressed girl about town and her exploits entertained Britain’s fighting men and their families throughout the war
Which he should do really, because, after a distinguished career as a news journalist at the BBC, he edited the Scotsman newspaper.
The Press has not always been the vivid, raucous, robust institution it is today. Its behaviour in 1936 over the abdication crisis had been pretty supine, colluding with ministers to keep news of Edward Vlll’s affair with Wallis Simpson, a U.S. divorcee, out of the papers.
Similarly, the Press failed to be especially critical of appeasement, despite what was clearly Hitler’s willingness to expand without any regard for international deals.
Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times and a close friend of Neville Chamberlain, was an arch appeaser and his paper fawned over the Munich Agreement.
The Press came to World War II understanding that this was a war for national survival, a good war, a just war, perhaps the last one.
So no newspaper, apart from the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, wanted to undermine the war effort.
The Press came to World War II understanding that this was a war for national survival, a good war, a just war, perhaps the last one. Pictured: Newspaper stand in 1940
One of a set of “British Official Photographs’ distributed by the MOD during the war is praise of Britain’s free and independent press
But nor did they lose their editorial independence or their willingness to challenge, criticise and confront.
This annoyed ministers from all parties, which is as it should be, despite the best efforts of some to bring the Press under state control.
Circulations were huge: four out of every five British families read a newspaper. The Press were guardians of democracy and fierce defenders of their readers’ interests. Papers were far more popular than radio as a source of news.
The BBC, which was slow and ponderous, was commonly regarded as a branch of the Ministry of Information.
It didn’t emerge with much credit over the relief of Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, reported by Richard Dimbleby.
His account of the abominable scenes within the camp is even now regarded as a model of journalism: meticulous and factual, Dimbleby combined humanity and authority to convey to his audience the full horrors of the Nazi regime.
Circulations were huge: four out of every five British families read a newspaper. The Press were guardians of democracy and fierce defenders of their readers’ interests. Pictured: Actresses at Revudeville theatre reading the morning paper
But senior BBC staff found what he described quite literally incredible and refused to broadcast it. Dimbleby had to threaten to resign before the BBC relented.
The Press was still able to do what it does best, though — running vigorous campaigns on a range of ills. In the aftermath of the retreat from Dunkirk, it became clear the children of the rich and powerful were being evacuated to the U.S. and Canada. With powerful headlines from the conservative Express — ‘To Go Or Not To Go? The Rich Go First’, and the Left-leaning Mirror, ‘Only The Rich Go’ — the practice soon ended.
In the early days of the Blitz in autumn 1940, there was growing controversy over the lack of fair access to deep underground air raid shelters in poorer neighbourhoods and readers reported that, even under intense bombing, they were being turned away from London’s grand hotels during air raids.
The Sunday Pictorial’s intrepid and stylish war reporter, Bernard Gray, had often entertained contacts at Claridge’s, The Ritz and The Berkeley. Now dressed in the rough clothes of the working man, he tested the hotels’ reaction.
As the bombs started to fall, he was turned away from all the hotels, nearly getting blown up outside The Ritz.
What the story proved was that snobbery and division did exist, despite the very specific guidance on posters throughout Britain: ‘Open your door to passers-by. They need shelter, too.’
At the end, winning the war and readers’ interests were the same. The papers, with all their variety had kept democracy going. Pictured: People in London Reading Newspapers, ca. 1943
Eventually the rows over the lack of deep shelters would lead to resignation of the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson.
Luckhurst is not uncritical of the Press. He points out it was reluctant to explore what was happening to Jews across Europe, although the brutality of Nazi race laws had been identified long before the war began.
He also feels it could have done more to expose the full horror of the RAF’s ruthless carpet-bombing of German cities such as Dresden, wiping out hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Bomber Command’s claims that all the raids were precision-bombing were clearly preposterous, but editors concluded that any criticism might be seen to undermine the war effort, and not respect the enormous bravery of aircrew, as well as the hideous casualties they suffered.
At the end, winning the war and readers’ interests were the same. The papers, with all their variety — the horoscopes, cartoons, lifestyle tips and gossip, as well as the news — had kept democracy going.
What this book, a gripping study of journalistic history, shows above all is that any attempts to control the Press, then as now, would do a grave disservice to the brave men and women who kept the written media going through World War II.
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