This blog post by Dr Henry Irving argues that the appointment of Sir John Reith as Minister of Information on 5 January 1940 was one of the most important moments in the Ministry’s history.

On the 5 January 1940 the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Sir John Reith as Minister of Information. He would be unceremoniously removed from office just four months later following Chamberlain’s own replacement by Winston Churchill. Reith’s brief tenure has been underplayed by historians due to the persistence of difficulties which had marred the Ministry of Information (MOI) since its establishment (as explained in this earlier post). Ian McLaine argued that he appeared ‘curiously reluctant’ to force change, while Reith himself admitted to feeling ‘depressed and disgusted’ by his task. But, while little was realised during his time in office, Reith’s appointment was arguably one of the most important events in the MOI’s history.

A depiction of Reith during his time as Minister (TNA, INF 3/49) 

John Reith had a distinguished background in the field of communication. He had been appointed the BBC’s first Director General in 1924 and had overseen the corporation’s rapid growth. He had also been involved in plans for the MOI since 1935, had signed the agreement which defined its relationship with the BBC, and had advised the Home Office when it became responsible for the MOI in spring 1939. It was for these reasons that Reith expected to be appointed Minister at the outbreak of the Second World War. And that he viewed Chamberlain’s decision to overlook him in favour of Lord Macmillan, an untested Law Lord, as a reason for the MOI’s early difficulties.

John Reith’s main aim in January 1940 was reverse earlier decisions to remove the MOI’s responsibilities for the issue and censorship of news (which had been spun out to an independent Press and Censorship Bureau) and for propaganda in enemy territories (which had been transferred to the Foreign Office). He simply did not accept that the MOI could exist without these functions. In his words, the decision to remove them in October 1939 had been ‘ridiculous and wrong’. The vast majority of Reith’s short time in office was spent working to rebuild the MOI in line with a pre-war plan for which he had been partly responsible. His intentions were announced to Parliament on 16 January.

The task of rebuilding the MOI was aided by the assistance of key officials and the qualified support of Chamberlain (who nevertheless warned against proceeding too quickly). Reith benefitted particularly from cooperation with the head of the Press and Censorship Bureau, the well-liked lawyer Walter Monckton, who was similarly convinced that news functions should be brought back into the MOI. But he faced opposition from other departments and was continually frustrated by the attitudes of Ministers representing the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force. The relationship between Reith and Churchill (the First Lord of the Admiralty) was particularly terse, a fact which contributed to his sacking on 11 May 1940.

Very few of the changes begun in January 1940 were completed during John Reith’s time in office. It was announced that the Press and Censorship Bureau had been brought back into the MOI on the 24 April, but the new system took another two months to become fully operational and plans for the re-integration of enemy propaganda had stalled. Duff Cooper, who replaced Reith, faced many of the same problems. In fact he resigned in July 1941 when questions over the MOI’s relationship with the service departments and its desire to take fully responsibility for enemy propaganda reached a point of crisis. But this is not to say that Reith’s tenure had been a total failure.

Indeed, although the MOI never fully established authority over other departments, it did eventually confirm itself as an expert body whose advice should be heeded. Its press and censorship functions were consolidated after 1941, with the MOI increasingly able to extract and present news from the armed forces. It was also given primary responsibility for enemy publicity in March 1942 when the ‘Political Warfare Executive’ was brought under its administrative control. These developments are associated with Brendan Bracken (who was Minister from 1941 to 1945) and were certainly helped by the stability provided by his leadership. However, they were also a result of the rebuilding which had begun on 5 January 1940. John Reith had been frustrated by the MOI during his short time in office. But – perhaps without ever knowing it – he had also laid the groundwork for its later success.