A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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25th July, 1942


As the result of a discussion during the last R.I.O's conference (3rd July 1942) on the public's confusion about official and unofficial news, an enquiry was sent to Regional Information Officers asking them to find out:

1) Whether there is widespread confusion between official and unofficial news.

2) What is generally thought to be meant by “official news”.

3) To what extent it is thought that all news is censored.

Replies were received from all the Regions, and may be conveniently summarised under the above headings. One or two general observations should, however, be made first, as applying to the whole question of the public attitude towards the presentation of news.


(a) The public do not think much about the question

It is clear that, while the whole question of news is one about which the public is ready to complain and criticise, the majority make little conscious attempt to distinguish between the reliability of different sources of news, and are “not much interested in the subject”. As one report points out: “A large number of correspondents consciously found answers, because they were being asked definite questions”, but checking suggests that the percentage of ignorant or indifferent people is really very high. It should be borne in mind, therefore, that this report is based, not on spontaneous comment, but on the results of direct enquiry, and that this tends inevitably to make people put their thoughts in order.

(b) Distinction between majority and minority opinions

Several reports indicate that ability to distinguish between official and unofficial news seems to depend largely on “the educational and cultural attainments of the individual”; a clear differentiation is made between “the mass” or the “man in the street” on one hand, and the minority of “intelligent and thinking people”, and “the business and professional classes”, on the other. But it does not appear that the greater powers of discrimination attributed to the minority make them on the whole less critical than the majority.

(c) Deterioration in the public's belief in the news

Five reports indicate that “the public regard for news has deteriorated very much since the Libyan Campaign and the fall of Tobruk”. There is said to be “a cynical attitude towards the news, whether official or unofficial, in view of the suppression of items which have already been announced from enemy sources, and published here, and also because of examples where such items have been later confirmed by us”. A similar attitude has, however, been noticeable in the past whenever news has been bad.

1. Is there widespread confusion between official and unofficial news ?

All reports indicate that, on the part of the great majority, “there is considerable confusion ... between official communiqués, semi-official communiqués such as Dimbleby's broadcast reports, and despatches from newspaper correspondents”. It seems clear that, with few exceptions, the public do not differentiate between official and unofficial news. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that they attempt to discriminate or see any need for doing so.

Apart from the “intelligent minority” everywhere, who are thought to be aware of the distinction, the only exceptions are reported from Northern Ireland - where “there is no marked evidence of confusion between official and unofficial news” - and Liverpool, where, out of fifty people questioned, thirty-two were described as being “quite clear in their minds”.

2. What is generally thought to be meant by “official news” ?

On this question a great variety of opinion is expressed. Here again the intelligent minority is said to know, their opinion being that “B.B.C. news bulletins, statements on behalf of Government departments or Service Headquarters, and statements by Cabinet Ministers in their official capacity” are official. The majority, however, appear to be extremely uncertain and their various beliefs may be summarised under the following headings:

(a) Everything is official : There appears to be a vague but very widespread feeling that “all news is so carefully censored that it is tantamount to official communiqués”. (This point of view will be discussed more fully in Section 3, on the censorship of news). Several reports stress the view that “official news is the truth, nothing but the truth, but not always the whole truth”, that it is, in effect, “what the Government wants us to know”.

(b) The B.B.C. is official : The B.B.C. seems to be regarded by most people as official, as semi-official, or as at least more official than the Press. There is some belief that “the B.B.C. is a Government Department” or, at any rate, “the mouthpiece of the Government”. As a result of this belief the B.B.C. news bulletins are regarded as more reliable and accurate than the Press and, at the same time, as more tendentious. It is also felt that “the B.B.C. always puts the good news first and the bad news last”, that as it “gives so much less news than the Press”, it may present “only half the truth”.

(c) What is Richard Dimbleby ? While it is said that “a minority believe that Dimbleby is not official news”, it appears that “few people differentiate between official communiqués and other reports broadcast - like Dimbleby's dispatches” which are regarded as being “on the same footing as official announcements in the ordinary news bulletins”. Even where Dimbleby's official status is not assumed, he is hardly thought to be in the same category as newspaper special correspondents, though a few people regard him as “just a reporter who is more cautious, and whose material is carefully cut by a sub-editor after it has passed the censor”. Even the minority, who do not regard him as being either official or semi-official, consider him as “specially authoritative”. Again, some people ask: “Is Richard Dimbleby's communiqué part of the news bulletin or is he a sort of feature programme”[Text Missing]

To sum up, Dimbleby is looked on as official or semi-official by the great majority, but this is something about which few people seem to feel certain, and there appears to be some desire for enlightenment.

(d) Official communiqués read only by a minority : There is some indication that official communiqués are read by a minority only, owing to:-

  1. Their terseness and dryness : one report suggests that “if these communiqués were fuller, more descriptive and more ‘alive’, people would find them easier to absorb”.

  2. Their lateness , dispatches from correspondents and enemy broadcasts being preferred because they give the news sooner than official communiqués.

  3. Their being given insufficient prominence in the Press[Text Missing] It is said that “headlines give the major impression and that only careful reading reveals the official statements; the papers are thought to give pride of place to their own correspondents”.

(e) “Anything in print is true” : Three reports suggest that ‘It was in the papers and therefore must be true’, is still a widely held view. Two other reports give what seems to be a slightly more reasoned version of the same sentiment, which is that “all the war news reported in the papers has been passed by the censor and is therefore ‘official’”. This “tendency to take everything in print as gospel” appears to be largely unconscious and unreasoned, and by no means precludes the cynical attitude to the presentation of news referred to in the General section above (paragraph c.)

It is pointed out, in three reports, that “there is frequently great similarity between the accounts printed in all the newspapers, often identical phrases being used, which suggests to people that these are based on information handed out through official channels”. Some people are said to “go even further and believe that everything printed in the papers at the present time comes through Government channels, and is either inspired or approved”.

Two reports refer to “an understanding...that the presentation of news by the press is liable to be influenced by the general policy of the particular paper”.

(f) Special war correspondents' dispatches are “official”, because censored : “It is generally believed that all news from a war front, such as Libya-Egypt, is censored, and this tends to give the impression that even war correspondents' dispatches have official approval. In other words, it is not generally understood that war correspondents have considerable freedom to express their own views of a situation”.

(g) Unofficial news as an official means of preparing the public for bad news : Three reports mention a minority's belief that “unofficial news is considered as the official method of preparing the public for ill news to follow”. The same belief is mentioned in connection with B.B.C. or Press references to German claims. It is sometimes said, “that will probably be in our news in a few days”, though there seems to be some realisation that “facts cannot immediately be given by the British departments for security reasons”.

3. To what extent is it thought that all news is censored ?

“Nearly everyone believes that all news is censored”, sums up the sense of all reports. There is an impression, too, that the B.B.C. is more rigidly censored than the Press. As a result of the belief that everything has to pass the censor, it is fairly widely concluded that:

  1. All news must therefore be official.

  2. The Government thereby determines to a large extent the character of all news.

Four reports suggest that there is some distinction in people's minds between the censorship of news from the war fronts and censorship of news about the home front, production, etc., and that there is a feeling that, in the case of the home front, censorship is less rigid, a larger amount of “fair comment” being allowed. Some apprehension is, in fact, expressed at the degree of latitude allowed, and instances of what are considered as in the nature of indiscretions include publication of the particulars of the American naval base in Northern Ireland, J.L. Hodson's broadcast talks about work in the shipyards, speeches of certain M.P.s, and references in the Daily Mail to a new weapon.

The following points are made in a number of reports:-

  1. Suggested reasons for censorship : Various reasons are suggested as to why news is censored, and may be summarised as follows:-

    1. “To withhold helpful information from the enemy”.

    2. “To suppress bad news”.

    3. “To ensure accuracy”.

    4. “To let the public have only the news which the Government consider is good for it”.

  2. Function and scope of Press Censorship not properly understood : “Ignorance as to the functions of the censor” is said to be “generally prevalent”. Only one report suggests that “it is fairly clear that a number of the public understand that the Press are free to interpret the news as they will, within broad limits”, and there is nothing in any of the others to indicate that the general public have any understanding of the position. The need for publicity of the purpose and function of the Press Censorship is stressed. In particular it is thought that some explanation should be given of “the working of the Press Censorship Division of the Ministry of Information”, because of “adverse comment” on the part of an apparently small minority to the effect that “it is a waste of money to keep a large staff of Press censors if editors need not submit news to them”. Two reports mention an impression that all news “is handed out by the Ministry of Information”.

  3. Censorship delays lead to reliance on Axis news : Delays in issuing official communiqués - thought to be due to the censorship - are held responsible for a reliance on enemy news, whether in the form of communiqués reproduced without comment in the British Press, or enemy broadcasts. It is felt that “German interpretations of our losses (e.g. shipping) should not be repeated before our own official statement, as is so frequently done by Press and B.B.C.”, but that they should be withheld “until they can be published side by side with our own official straightforward statements”.

4. Summary of conclusions

  1. With the exception of a small intelligent minority, the public do not differentiate between official and unofficial news , and there is considerable confusion between official communiqués, semi-official communiqués and newspaper correspondents' dispatches. The B.B.C., including Richard Dimbleby, is considered more official than the Press and - on the whole - more reliable.

  2. Nearly everyone believes that all news is censored and may therefore be regarded as more or less official ; but the reasons for censorship are only partly understood, and there is only the most rudimentary idea of the functions and scope of the censorship.

5. Suggestions

A number of suggestions from sections of the public are mentioned in several of the reports; among them are the following:-

  1. News bulletins should be “plain, straightforward and as simply worded as possible, whether the news be good or bad”. A suggested example is: “On the 13th June, the Eighth Army sustained a severe defeat in the Western Desert. It has now retreated. It is not yet known when or where it will be in a position to make another stand”.

  2. “Some more definite indication or distinction should be made at the time of broadcasting or publication as to how ‘official’ or otherwise any news is”. One report suggests that “it would clarify matters if Dimbleby's news could be prefaced with a statement that the opinions expressed are those of Dimbleby personally and not of the Government”.

  3. “There should be a talk on the wireless clarifying the position”, particularly “news from the war fronts”. (One report refers to “an excellent broadcast a year or so ago by the present Director General of the Ministry of Information on the subject”.)

  4. “In every newspaper there should be an official news column giving the bare facts and nothing but the facts, and this column should be the same for every paper: in this way people would know that all other comments were entirely editorial interpretation or speculation”. Failing this, it is suggested that “black type should be used to indicate official communiqués”.

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