Reporters in the First World War, as Ernest Hemingway had it, either “wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought”.
That war provided an important lesson for governments. If they could put reporters into uniform as ‘War Correspondents’ they could appeal to their patriotism to produce heavily censored, upbeat copy designed to boost morale — in other words, propaganda. (The initial idea of a ‘WC’ patch was abandoned in favour of ‘C’ for Correspondent.)
In doing so, the conflict ushered in “the modern epoch of government press controls and spin”, as Paul Moorcraft and Philip Taylor put it in their book, Shooting the Messenger.
The 100-year anniversary of the war’s end is a chance to assess its disastrous legacy for journalists: trading access to military operations for independent oversight of them. And to reflect that a plethora of inconvenient but accurate facts now emerging on social media offer a real alternative for journalists keen to uncover the truth.
What is striking about the First World War is the extent to which journalists and the owners of the main British newspapers colluded with the government to keep up the morale of the nation and help it win the war. The leading accredited British journalists on the Western Front were all knighted for their services, but later some admitted that their published work, despised by the men in the trenches, was far from the truth.
Sir William Beach Thomas of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail wrote in 1925: “I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the good reason that it was untrue.” Another of the official reporters, Sir Phillip Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Chronicle, wrote several books after the war to justify his partial, misleading reporting of events at the front.
The horrifying stories war reporters told were not to their readers but politicians and proprietors, often at private dinners back in London. Lord Rothermere, who co-owned the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, admitted: “We’re telling lies, we daren’t tell the public the truth, that we’re losing more officers than the Germans, and that it’s impossible to get through on the Western Front. You’ve seen the war correspondents [. . .] They don’t know the truth, they don’t speak the truth, and we know that they don’t”.
At another private dinner in London, Lord Northcliffe, who owned the Times, admitted that he suppressed news of military incompetence in the Dardanelles: “It is not wise to discuss this disastrous expedition in my newspaper, though the Germans are intimately informed of our impending catastrophe,” he said.
This approach was shared by other proprietors. Staff at the Manchester Guardian became outraged when they discovered how much newsworthy information was being discussed behind closed doors between C. P. Scott, its proprietor and editor — today best remembered as the man who wrote in an editorial, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred” — and his close confidante, the Prime Minister Lloyd George. Scott’s own staff were outraged when they realised more than once that their own boss had failed to share with them newsworthy information he had received from Lloyd George days before.
Over the 100 years since the end of World War One, the British military and government, like the war-fighting institutions of other liberal democracies, notably the United States, have framed the reporting of the wars as a patriotic responsibility for journalists. It’s the war reporters’ eternal dilemma when covering a conflict in which their own country’s armed forces are participants: are they official eyewitnesses or independent critics?
It is possible to draw a direct line from official manipulation of the media in World War One to that of World War Two. When the British Empire declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, the British government reinstated World War One’s Ministry of Information in order to sustain civilian morale, censor the media and promote propaganda.
The government saw the BBC as a vehicle to transmit government propaganda. The first Director General, John Reith, had no illusions that the government wanted the BBC to be independent. Reith wrote in his diary: “[The government] know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”
Nor were British reporters in World War Two impartial: they believed they should help the military beat Hitler. However the two world wars were national endeavours – the wars of choice the British government has fought since, were not. Nonethless, access to the battlefield has usually been on the military’s terms and a heavy public relations spin is normally attached.
Why does this matter? News organisations have frequently presented misleading versions of events on the ground, from the supposedly bloodless air bombing campaign in the First Gulf War of 1990-91, to the one-sided depiction — mostly told by reporters from the soldier’s point of view — of the gruelling British campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Access is the main mechanism by which governments have curtailed journalists’ ability to tell the truth. Not all notable foreign correspondents go along with officially organised reporting, of course: the BBC reporters Allan Little and John Simpson don’t sign up for officially sanctioned access. Many more reporters have decided that military sanctioned access is better than none at all. They have, with varying degrees of success, done their best to negotiate with media managers in the field.
Now, however, reporters have alternative ‘access’ to areas of conflict. Social media platforms give modern journalists — and indeed the public — powerful new mechanisms for uncovering and checking facts. All over the world, officials are less able to hide difficult news.
Online investigators Bellingcat, who teamed up with professional reporters on the ground in Russia to identify the would-be assassins of the Skripals in Salisbury, are the clearest example of this. Members of the online collective have also used freely available software and crowdsourced amateur investigators to attribute responsibility for shooting down the Malaysian Airlines MH17 plane in Ukraine in 2014 (Russia) and the Sarin gas attacks in Damascus in 2013 (it was the Syrian army).
In this way, professional journalists have enlisted non-professionals to sidestep controls imposed by the men with guns on the ground. And the quality of the material produced in this way is of the highest standard, as shown by the adoption of Bellingcat’s evidence by the police detectives investigating MH17. Significantly, the steps by which this information was verified have also been published.
It is the antithesis of the cosy communication networks operating in elite circles during World War One. Channel 4 News’ chief reporter Alex Thomson describes the inevitability of pesky facts appearing online– as he puts it, they “push up through the cracks in the pavement”. The result is that many of the important facts from modern news events are less easily contained and controlled. The hundredth anniversary of the “war to end all wars” has provided the opportunity to recognise both its toxic legacy for journalism and, thankfully, that there now exists an alternative.