THE present British Government has been frequently accused of deliberate assaults upon the liberty of the press and other organs of public opinion. Now the most obvious of all political platitudes is that freedom to report, criticize and suggest is the breath of life to democracy. Shackle the newspapers, the radio, the film and the platform, and you have travelled far towards the totalitarian State. The gravity of the charge, then, need not be labored.

Undoubtedly the National Government has been heavy-handed in its treatment of the British news machine, especially since Mr. Chamberlain became Prime Minister. Its latest spectacular lapse was at the beginning of April, when the nerves of Europe were just about as tense as they could be in consequence of Signor Mussolini's piracy in Albania. At a naval meeting in Portsmouth, Lord Stanhope, the Minister in charge of the Admiralty, explained some empty benches by saying that "unfortunately, shortly before I left the Admiralty it became necessary to give orders to man anti-aircraft guns." This sensational announcement, based, it was afterwards explained, upon nothing more substantial than a standing order that certain men should be at their stations at moments of tension, was at once flashed round the world by the news agencies and put on the air by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Nevertheless, when the Prime Minister heard of it later in the evening, he caused to be sent out to the British press the most emphatic official appeal which can be issued against the publication of an item of news, what is called a "D" notice. His belated and arbitrary action caused confusion and irritation and was the subject a few days later of a unanimous resolution of protest by the annual meeting of the National Union of Journalists. The mover of the resolution said that "the censorship mind" dominates at Whitehall.

The Stanhope incident would not have created the stir it did had there not been earlier deeds and words which could plausibly be attributed to a "censorship mind." These words and deeds are on record in the press on both sides of the Atlantic and in Hansard, the British equivalent of the Congressional Record. Hansard quotes Mr. Chamberlain as chiding his critics last autumn for describing Munich as a defeat for the democracies. It is not, he said, "one of the characteristics of the totalitarian States . . . that they are accustomed to foul their own nests." This remark quickened the fear that having obstinately misjudged the minds of Berlin and Rome in his foreign policy, he was gravitating towards an equally arbitrary blunder in his domestic policy.

Other things contributing to that fear have been announcements that this or that film has been censored because it collided with British policy; stories of allegedly unusual pressure brought to bear, especially after Munich, upon editors and proprietors not to criticize the Chamberlain diplomacy; stories of efforts to damp down criticism of Herr Hitler; and stories that the Prime Minister had taken publicity on foreign affairs away from the well-equipped Foreign Office in order to run it himself. And in the background has been the report, published soon after Munich, of the Parliamentary committee entrusted with the investigation of the so-called Sandys case of the summer of 1938.

The essentials of the Sandys case are as follows. A young Member of Parliament, son-in-law of Mr. Winston Churchill, and an officer in the Territorial Army, learnt from a fellow officer of serious deficiencies in the British air defenses, which at that time the Government was still pretending were adequately advanced. He submitted his information confidentially to Mr. Hore-Belisha, the Minister of War, telling him that he would like to raise the matter in Parliament. Mr. Hore-Belisha informed the Prime Minister that Mr. Sandys possessed confidential information he could have acquired only from an official source. The Prime Minister advised the Minister of War to see the Attorney-General. The Attorney-General talked to Mr. Sandys in such terms that Mr. Sandys took very seriously the possibility that the Official Secrets Act might be used against him. In Parliament and outside the Sandys affair has been resented as a clumsy and unjustifiable effort to compromise the right of Members of Parliament to criticize administrative inefficiencies.

Nor is it only those at the head of affairs who are accused of possessing the "censorship mind." Minor minions of government have been getting themselves into the press on account of the arbitrary use they have tried to make of their authority against the freedom of news and of political propaganda.

What does it all mean? Appeasement, Munich, the backing of the wrong horse in Spain, the cold-shouldering of Russia for so long -- all these are widely attributed to the tendency of British Conservatives to be more afraid of the Reds than of the Fascists and therefore to cling, till the ultimate disillusionment, to the hope of making a deal with the dictators. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some such consideration has, anyhow till lately, been an important ingredient in Mr. Chamberlain's foreign policy. Do reactionary prejudices and predilections account for the efforts of the National Government to control opinion? When the Prime Minister envied the way in which the nests of totalitarian rulers are kept "clean" from criticism, was he merely an elderly politician in a huff or was he giving us a glimpse into his real mind? Is the freedom of the press and all that that phrase connotes in these days really in danger in England, especially if the National Government stays indefinitely in office and under the thumb of the Conservatives?

Let us first glance at the powers which a British Government has over the dissemination of news and views. "The liberty of the press," wrote the great eighteenth century lawyer, Blackstone, "is indeed essential to the nature of a free State, but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publication and not in freedom from censure for criminal matters when published." In other words, the untrammelled dissemination of news and views depends not upon any constitutional guarantee but, first, upon keeping within the laws which in one way or another may limit it and, secondly, upon the generosity of the authorities in interpreting and applying those laws. Like other countries, Britain has certain laws of social censorship -- against the publication of blasphemy, obscenity or of moral, medical and physiological indecencies. On these we need not dwell: they do not enter the political field. The law against sedition, on the other hand, does.

The Incitement to Disaffection Act was passed by the National Government in 1934, as a result of the so-called Invergordon Mutiny, to strengthen a previous law passed after the far more serious naval mutiny at the Nore in 1797. It makes it a crime to seduce a member of the forces from his duty or allegiance and also to possess documents, which, if published, would constitute an offense against the Act. It has been invoked only once in a minor case two years ago. But its existence can cramp criticism of the Government. There are, indeed, three cases on record of printers refusing to print passages in periodicals for fear of the Act.

The law of libel, stronger and more ruthlessly applied in Great Britain than in the United States, has the same deterrent effect. True, it functions mainly in non-political fields. But there have been various decisions lately that do curtail the scope of what used to be considered safe and reasonable criticism of public men. Thus in 1936 a jury gave an inconspicuous peer £2,000 damages against a London newspaper which had described him as " an unwitting tool of others who needed a not too sophisticated agent for their ends" after he had attacked it for the headline "Italy climbs down." The law governing contempt of court also functions deterrently, mainly in non-political fields. Yet it can be politically restrictive. In 1931 members of the staff of the Daily Worker, a Leftist organ, were fined and imprisoned for describing a judge as "a bewigged puppet and former Tory Member of Parliament chosen to put Communists away."

Last but not least come the two Official Secrets Acts of 1911 and of 1920. The primary and professed objects of these Acts are to prevent espionage and to punish officials who disclose confidential information contrary to the national interest. The 1920 Act contains, however, a much-criticized clause which compels people, on the pain of being guilty of a misdemeanor if they refuse, to give to the police information relating to an offense under the Act. This clause has been used against the press. During the last two years two newspaper men have been prosecuted under it for receiving alleged confidential information from officials, though there was nothing whatever prejudicial to the national interest in the publication of the information. In one of these cases the newspaper employing the journalist was compelled, under protest, to reveal his identity to the police, and the journalist was fined for refusing in turn to divulge the source of his information. The Government cannot, however, be seriously blamed for this. Both cases were intrinsically unimportant products of local officialdom. At least one other effort of the local police to make a newspaper reveal its sources of information was quashed as soon as London heard of it; and just the other day the Government agreed that the Act of 1920 should be amended to make it inoperative as a lever for that purpose.

Though a considerable victory for the press, this amendment does not mean that the Official Secrets Act has now no restrictive effect upon the publication of news and views. It hampers the use of official documents or information which might be considered confidential. Two writers of books have been prosecuted since 1920 for publishing confidential documents or information and at least one reporter has run foul of the Act on that account. The possibility that the editor or printer of a newspaper might be caught in the same net cannot be dismissed, especially after the Government's behavior towards such a privileged person as a Member of Parliament. But it can fairly be said that, except in this Sandys case and perhaps in prosecuting the two authors just referred to, the Government has shown no marked dictatorial tendencies against the freedom of news and views in its use, or threatened use, of the Official Secrets Acts, of the law against sedition, or of the other legal restraints at its disposal.

The position of the radio is a case in point. In Great Britain this immensely important instrument for the formation of opinion is in the hands of a single agency, the British Broadcasting Corporation. The B.B.C. functions under a parliamentary charter which gives the Government considerable authority over it. The Postmaster-General can require the Corporation to refrain from sending any broadcast matter, either particular or general, that he may specify by a notice in writing. Actually this power has never been exercised. The only general restriction under which the B.B.C. operates today is that it may not air its own opinions on current matters. "In case of emergency" the Government can take over the radio stations. Whether it would do this if war came cannot be said, though it is reasonable to suppose that the radio might, for obvious practical reasons, be under closer control than the newspapers.

In peacetime, anyhow, the B.B.C. manages its day-to-day work with a free hand. Except during the week of the Munich crisis, it has been immune for a long time past from Government interference with its programs. At that time at least two talks on foreign affairs were cancelled. There has so far been no supervision of its news bulletins, even at moments of acute crisis. The power which Government departments are given under the charter to require the B.B.C. to broadcast their announcements is gently exercised. Requests are made informally and are often the subject of discussion between the B.B.C. and the department concerned, with the result that they are modified or even abandoned. It is, however, the B.B.C.'s policy to consult freely with the departments and especially with the Foreign Office.

The moderation with which the Government has used its legal opportunities to interfere with freedom of expression was implicitly recognized in Commons on December 7, 1938. The debate flowed from an Opposition resolution in support of the maintenance of "British democratic traditions of the liberty of expression of opinion, both in the Press and in public meetings and also in other media such as cinema films." It pivoted upon the Prime Minister's efforts to secure a favorable opinion for appeasement. One of his most censorious critics afterwards commented upon the debate as follows:[i]

"While the law remains as it is, censorship can only be effectively carried out by indirect intervention and the use of cajolery and threats behind the scenes. Clearly, in a country where the Press is mainly in the hands of a few rich men, and the cinema controlled by a board of people friendly to the Government, this may prove a very effective censorship. The Government propaganda organization was, in fact, able to arrange that films supporting the Government's policy were widely shown everywhere and that films that challenged this policy were stopped. As regards the Press, unusual efforts were made to see to it that national organs of opinion were brought into line, and there is no doubt at all that Sir Samuel Hoare and other members of the Government took great pains to 'nobble' proprietors and other influential persons in the Press world."

What is there in these accusations of indirect intervention? Regarding the films, there is a good deal. There has, as I have already indicated, been considerable interference with them. It has been indirect interference because there is no Government cinema censorship in Great Britain. The British Board of Film Censors is a trade organization. There is no legal obligation that films shall be submitted to it. But the word of the Board is, in effect, law because the vast majority of local licensing bodies automatically authorize films bearing its imprimatur and reject films which lack it. A list of films vetoed for political reasons was given in the House of Commons on December 7. It has been increased since. "Professor Mamlock," a Russian film unkind to Nazi Germany, is just reported to have been banned in Britain. Like the majority of its fellow-victims it has been shown in the United States. There can be no reasonable doubt but that the Government is essentially responsible for this interference, that in fact the "Government propaganda organization" has been exercising something tantamount to a political censorship over the cinema, which for technical reasons is more susceptible to such interference than the press and other publicity organs.

Next comes the contention that cajolery and threats are practised upon the press and that the contacts between the Government and the press are misused. These contacts are much the same in Great Britain as they are in the United States or France. There are those for which the politicians are primarily responsible and those which are conducted by the officials of the governmental departments. The Prime Minister can summon a press conference like those which are held at the White House. The difference is that such conferences are infinitely less frequent in London and that, since Mr. Lloyd George left Downing Street, the capacity of British Prime Ministers to conduct them has averaged much lower than that of American Presidents. Other Ministers hold similar press conferences, but again much more rarely than their colleagues in Washington. Like the Prime Minister, they see journalists separately. Here they share an advantage which the President and his Cabinet lack. They also sit in Parliament, and thus have copious opportunities for informal intercourse with the press in the lobbies. Their opportunities of meeting newspaper proprietors and editors are also better, for London contains more of the principal elements of the national newspaper direction than Washington does.

Behind the politicians are the publicity machines of their party and the press bureaus of their departments. The party publicity machines are run partly by the Parliamentary Chief Whips and partly by the central party organizations. They throw their nets wide. In one way or another they reach, or ought to reach, the whole press, from the press galleries at Westminster to the local provincial newspapers. The Prime Minister has in addition his own press officer, a much less important official, however, than the press secretary at the White House.

The departmental press bureaus are a postwar development. The largest of them, and to a great extent the pattern of the rest, is that of the Foreign Office. It was directed for a long time by a journalist and the diplomats now in charge of it still have Fleet Street men with them. It has daily conferences for press agency and other newspaper men who care to attend. Its members further make a point of seeing separately anybody of any nationality who wishes to be so received. Its responsibilities are greater than those of the equivalent bureau of the State Department. It is virtually the only link between the heads of the Foreign Office and the press. That is because, instead of seeing the press all the time as the American Secretary of State and his chief assistants do, the British Foreign Minister and his Permanent Under-Secretary do so only once in a blue moon.

The press and public relations divisions of the other departments deal mainly with the technical avocations of their Ministries and thus avoid the glare of controversy. As the Stanhope and Sandys cases show, the service departments must now be excepted from this generalization. But even their restrictions work pretty well as long as ignorant or over-zealous Ministers refrain from interfering. In these days there are constant movements of troops, etc., which are just as well not published. This is understood by the newspapers, and news about them is willingly suppressed on request. The suppression is voluntary. Even the famous "D" notice has no legal sanction behind it, unless it concerns something patently covered by the Official Secrets Act. Nor do the newspapers dislike its use on proper occasions. On the contrary, they coöperated in its invention. It usually takes the form of a message sent to newspaper offices by the press agencies to the effect that they are asked by this or that Ministry to issue a "D" notice that in the national interests a certain item should not be published. It is only resented when it is used irresponsibly, as the Prime Minister used it in the Stanhope affair, or as another member of the National Government did when he invoked it to prevent the publication of a harmless piece of news in order that he might have the kudos of announcing it himself.

In the event of war, there will, of course, be a censorship over military matters with sanctions behind it as there was in the Great War. How far freedom of political comment and controversy, which was left practically intact in those days, will be abridged cannot be said. The Government's press plans in case of war are being kept secret in a melodramatic and unnecessary manner (unless those are right who aver that mystery is needed as a cloak for muddle). But it may be presumed that all political publicity will be consolidated in a Ministry of Information, which will also be responsible for propaganda at home and abroad. Some such centralization would obviously be necessary. It has its advocates even for peacetime, though it is open to question whether, except perhaps in a time of tension such as the present, a standing Ministry of Information is compatible with the processes of democracy. It could so easily become an adjunct of the publicity machine of the party in power, kept up by the taxpayer. Even as it is, the departmental press bureaus cannot, in the nature of their work, keep entirely aloof from politics. They must inevitably be committed to some slight grinding of the political axes of their Ministers. A wise press officer will always give out actual news with impartiality. But in a general discussion he must take account of the politics of his interlocutor. He will naturally tend to discuss the plans of his chief more freely, and therefore more helpfully, with a representative of a newspaper supporting the Government than with one of its enemies.

One damaging affirmative must be made to the allegation that the Ministers have abused the contacts between the Government and the press. The ponderous and disingenuous publicity which characterized the Prime Minister's experiment in appeasement was undoubtedly due to the fact that, after Mr. Eden had been eliminated and the Foreign Office demoted from its constitutional position of expert adviser on foreign policy, publicity on that policy was also largely transferred to unskilled hands. To that extent, the Prime Minister can be accused of having tried to follow totalitarian technique.

The attack on the Prime Minister for developing, as part of this technique, a system of direct approaches to newspaper notabilities -- either himself or through Sir Samuel Hoare -- seems to have less justification. Well authenticated stories are current of people being approached and having this or that policy suggested to them. But it is difficult to follow the argument that this procedure constitutes an experiment in Fascism or is objectionable to journalists. Every press officer wants his chief to have relations with the big newspaper men, and newspaper men are not prone to resent the approaches of Ministers. Nor has there been any suggestion of undue pressure, unless the "my-country-right-or-wrong" argument be such. There have, for instance, been no threats to withhold Government advertising from recalcitrant newspapers. Stories, it is true, are current that after Munich commercial advertisers tried to persuade newspapers that, in the interests of "prosperity," the Prime Minister should be proclaimed the Great Pacificator; but those actions cannot be laid at the Government's door.

The truth is that the complaint of personal pressure comes from the Left and is mainly actuated by the fact that most of the big newspapers and newspaper groups belong to the Right and are usually, but by no means invariably, susceptible to the arguments of a Conservative Prime Minister. The forays of the National Government into Fleet Street would, indeed, have passed almost unnoticed at home had controversy been running less high. Hence it is not perhaps unfair to suggest that the significance attached to them abroad is yet another example of the tendency of foreigners to impute to British Governments an aptitude for Machiavellian propaganda which in point of fact they are far from possessing. Of this tendency the abdication crisis of Edward VIII affords the classic example. It still seems to be widely believed overseas that the silence of the British press during the weeks before the abdication was due to some deep Government intention. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Government gave the newspapers no instructions and no hints. The newspapers, without even coördinated consultation among themselves, followed the unwritten law that the less said about the private affairs of the Monarchy when things go wrong, the better. Even after a provincial bishop had blurted out the truth, nothing passed between the Government and the press. The newspapers simply decided that the time had come when the facts must be printed.

It would, in short, be unfair to saddle Mr. Chamberlain with the accusation of entertaining deliberate designs upon the freedom of news and views, however reactionary and obscurantist his leanings may be in some directions. The repressiveness of the National Government is the result less of calculation than of "nerves" and of ignorance regarding the right technique of publicity. A weak government under the stress of chronic crisis is apt to react tactlessly to criticism, as the Prime Minister did when he betrayed his envy of the dictatorial power of censorship. It will also be fussy and arbitrary along lines of least resistance, as the National Government is over the cinema. It will slash and blunder as the Prime Minister did over the Stanhope indiscretion, or as Mr. Hore-Belisha and the Attorney-General did in the Sandys case. It will do so all the more when the Parliamentary Opposition is weak.

As I have just suggested, the idea that we British are good at propaganda is one of the most curious of contemporary myths. We were not bad at it towards the end of the Great War. But that effort was the ephemeral result of external pressure and of having a great Prime Minister and a few good men, notably Lord Northcliffe, in the right places. We soon slipped back into our normal state of indifference and timidity about the large-scale education of public opinion. During my fourteen years at the Foreign Office, I worked with only one Secretary of State, Arthur Henderson, and with one Permanent Under-Secretary, Lord Tyrrell, who really understood publicity. One of my great difficulties with politicians in general was to persuade them to do anything about the press. An important American newspaper man would arrive after having been hospitably and helpfully entertained by half the potentates of Europe. To get a British Minister to receive him often called for more pertinacity than I possessed -- that is to say, in London. For abroad, the same men would sometimes be galvanized by unaccustomed surroundings into an amateurish garrulity which could be more embarrassing than their reclusiveness at home. Things are slowly improving, especially among the permanent officials. But our machinery for national advertisement, and above all for counter-propaganda, remains far too small. We make no effective effort to counter the barrage of bluff and bluster with which the dictators prepare the ground for their stratego-diplomatic offensives. We have so far given them a virtual monopoly in the deadly weapon of intimidation. The same unimaginative inefficiency has been noticeable in connection with both material and psychological "preparedness" at home. The drive in those matters has so far been coming from the governed rather than from the Government.

Too little and too bad rather than too much and too efficient management of opinion is really the charge against Mr. Chamberlain and his colleagues. Petty and negative efforts to stifle criticism, the futile suppression of news which has already encircled the globe -- that sort of thing justifies irritation with the "censorship mind." But it does not reveal the "dictatorial mind" which really can destroy the liberties of life and thought. And even if the National Government really desired to anæsthetize public opinion by laws and regulations, it could not do so. The patient would have something to say in the matter. The British democracy would discover, not for the first time, means of protecting an essential privilege. It may be doubted indeed whether, even in wartime, a British Government could go very far towards a downright political censorship.

[i] Kingsley Martin in the Political Luarterly, January 1939.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now