April 17, 2013

FINEST HOUR 152, AUTUMN 2011

BY REAR-ADMIRAL G.P, THOMSON

George P. Thomson CB CBE (1887-1965) was chief censor in the World War II Ministry of Information, and later Secretary of the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry Press Committee. He died the same day as Churchill. Though on friendly terms with both government and media, Thomson was often faced with impatient reporters demanding advance copies of a Churchill speech, which WSC often withheld to the last minute, polishing and correcting. A more serious problem was Churchill’s habit of divulging in a speech news on the “stop” list. This article is excerpted from Thomson’s “Churchill and the Censorship,” published in Charles Eade, editor, Churchill by His Contemporaries (London: Hutchinson, 1953).

==================

National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City

2022 International Churchill Conference

Join us at the National WWI Museum for the 39th International Churchill Conference. Kansas City, October 6-8, 2022

ABSTRACT
Churchill’s press relations were markedly affected by the war and its restrictions on information. Nonetheless, his chief censor was able to record telling observations about his attitude toward the media.

==================

Churchill’s press relations were markedly affected by the war and its restrictions on information. Nonetheless, his chief censor was able to record telling observations about his attitude toward the media.

During the war I was given authority to allow news to be attributed to the Prime Minister or other ministers if I considered it sufficiently important. But during the Blitz, to prevent the enemy from knowing when exactly Parliament was sitting, I was not permitted to divulge that an announcement had been made in Parliament. One example of the latitude given me was in December 1941, when the evening newspaper lunch editions and the 1pm BBC news were allowed to report that the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, announced in Parliament by Churchill (see “Churchill Proceedings,” FH 141). Incidentally, questions and debates in Parliament provided the only two occasions I can remember when the Prime Minister himself was censored. Twice he accidentally referred to bomb damage to the House of Commons—a rigid censorship “stop”; but the Speaker asked parliamentary journalists not to quote these references and they were taken out of Hansard. Churchill unfortunately never had time to come over to the Ministry of Information and talk to the Press about the war. It is probably not generally realised how much trust was placed in editors during those years.

To enable them to have the correct background to comment on war events—particularly on news broadcast by Germany or by neutral countries giving enemy versions of events, which of course could be freely published in Britain—press conferences were held from time to time at the Ministry. Ministers, Admirals, Generals, Air Marshals and others in authority came over to talk to editors and other Press representatives, providing a true account for their own information, and sometimes also an appreciation of the war situation in various theatres.

The monthly conferences for the editors of provincial journals held by Brendan Bracken, Minister of Information, were particularly popular, because the Press knew that he had been the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary and was his close friend. They regarded information or comment from Bracken as coming “straight from the horse’s mouth.” Much of what he told them was not for publication, but there were always “tit-bits” which could be published, provided the material had been submitted to censorship. To assist editors in not wasting time submitting items which would not pass the censor, an appropriate censorship adviser was always present at these conferences. I personally attended Bracken’s meetings. The adviser’s duty was to read out at the end of the conference all the items mentioned by the speaker which were censorship “stops.”

I well remember how annoyed Churchill was as the result of one of these conferences. It was held by one of our foremost Generals to give editors an appreciation of the North African campaign in 1940-41. The sequel was another proof of the Prime Minister’s complete grasp of the military situation in every theatre of war. The speaker had referred to the likelihood of our attacking Benghazi, adding that the coastal road would not be used. This information was included among the list of “stops” read out by the military adviser to the censorship at the end of the conference. Unfortunately the editor of a national newspaper who had an important engagement could not stay until the end and was thus unaware of the “stop.” He submitted his article that evening before publication, and it was of course referred to the censorship military adviser on duty.

Unfortunately, however, the military adviser did not exercise his usual care—possibly because he knew one of his colleagues had attended the conference the same morning— and allowed this important item of news to pass. Churchill, who somehow found time to read the first editions of the newspapers which appeared soon after midnight, was aghast. What happened to the military adviser is irrelevant to this story, but the Prime Minister was not content with the censorship inquest. He saw the General next day and asked him how he could possibly have given information of that kind at a press conference. “These gentlemen of the press,” said Churchill, “were listening carefully to every word you said—all eagerly anxious for a tiny morsel of cheese which they could publish. And you go and give them a whole ruddy Stilton.”

Although the Prime Minister constantly visited areas under heavy air bombardment, we had to include him, for the country’s sake, among the very few VIPs whose movements had censorship protection. The press were forbidden to publish that the King and Queen and Princesses, Queen Mary, the Prime Minister and the heads of Allied States were in a particular place until fifteen minutes after they had left it. Mention of their movements was always banned. The censors, for example, would not pass the statement, “The Prime Minister will visit Portsmouth on Tuesday.” Similarly a confidential letter was sent to all editors in 1940: “Please do not mention where the Prime Minister’s grandchild was born.” It would have been obvious to the Germans that he was likely to be paying visits to that place.

It was often thought that Churchill and other Ministers flying to the Middle East or other foreign destinations had heavy fighter escort. In fact, over most of the route they had none—secrecy was their defence. Hence it was usually forbidden to say whether Churchill travelled by sea or air. And in 1943 the censors had to “stop!” anything about the kind of plane he used, including the fact that he no longer flew in the Liberator in which his earlier journeys had been made (see “Getting There,” FH 148).

I well remember also when Inspector Walter Thompson, Churchill’s bodyguard, had an accident with a revolver in 1943, and was taken to hospital with leg wounds. The Press were asked not to refer to the mishap. This was on the—to me unintelligible—ground that the nature of the inspector’s duties made it very undesirable to give publicity to the accident. The ban on publicity about the mishap was removed two days later, but I had to ask editors not to refer to the inspector’s duties. I never quite saw the reason for this, as the fact that he was Churchill’s bodyguard had been published previously.

I do not believe there was any secret which I found more difficult to guard than the date and place of a “Big Three” conference. The whole world wanted this information in advance, but nothing was to be published about it until the conference was over. All sorts of pieces of alleged information about it were broadcast from enemy and neutral radio stations, often originating from enemy agents in the hope of confirmation or denial leaking out from London. To make matters more difficult, it was generally known in Fleet Street some days before Churchill left the country that he was going somewhere overseas to confer with President Roosevelt or with the President and Stalin. Indeed it would be announced in Parliament that it was his intention to do so, but not even an approximate date was given. There was, of course, no security reason why the Press should not publish news that the Prime Minister was expected to leave England shortly to confer with President Roosevelt—and this was great news value to the public—so long as there was no mention of the date and place of his departure or of his destination. Nor could we prevent correspondents reporting that he might be going to the United States, Canada or North Africa. The Germans could not possibly take any action on information of that kind.

But I had to be very careful about reports from parliamentary correspondents round about the time he was leaving the country. For if Churchill was not present in Parliament, the report would at once be telegraphed: “It was noted that Mr. Eden answered questions on behalf of the Prime Minister today.” It was necessary to examine these messages very closely. If one of them contained a hint which afterwards proved to be correct, this was regarded as a brilliant scoop. The press sometimes submitted stories about these conferences which were very amusing and produced some cutting comments by Churchill. They did not usually reach the censorship until long after a conference was over, and were probably picked up at a private dinner party.

One of these stories involved a “Big Three” session that had just finished and the principals were leaning back in their chairs. Marshal Stalin leant over to the Prime Minister and said, through his interpreter, “You know, you’ve said many unkind things about me in your time.” Churchill replied: “Ah, yes, quite true. But you weren’t on our side then.” The Marshal appreciated the point.

If it is asked how the Press got hold the stories of that sort, the answer is, of course, that the newspapers seem to manage to get hold of anything that is not locked up in a steel safe. Churchill himself did not like that kind of publicity, and I would not have been popular if I had submitted such stories to him for approval. In any event he was too busy to bother reading stories—real or imaginary—about himself. And I was not anxious to add to his burdens.

A tribute, join us

#thinkchurchill

Subscribe

WANT MORE?

Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.