A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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During this war Government Departments have made use of existing publicity media on a large scale in order to keep the population informed of the progress of the war and of the regulations and orders which affected daily life.

Amongst these publicity media have been the books issued by the Publications Division of the Ministry of Information.

The books produced are varied in subject matter, although they all deal with one or other aspect of the war effort. They are well produced and their price is kept low. The text in all cases is unsensational, although the matter may be exciting, and they are written for an adult audience. Frequent illustrations, mainly photographic, are used to assist the narrative.

The object of this inquiry was to find out how such books were received by the public; how many and what sort of people saw them, bought them and read them; whether those who had not seen them would like to have seen them and why they had not; what first brought the books to people’s notice; what they thought about them, what they got out of them and whether they approved of Government money being spent on the production of such books.

A sample of 5895 men and women, representative of the adult civilian population, being selected proportionately from different regions and occupation groups, were interviewed between 17th June and 10th July 1943. Details of the sample are given at the end of this report.

For the purpose of this inquiry attention was concentrated on six books:

Date Of publication Sales up to time of inquiry
Combined Operations 18.5.43 1,370,000
East of Malta, West of Suez 19.3.43 1,093,000
Battle of Egypt 28.1.43 1,507,000
Coastal Command 14.1.43 1,167,000
Front Line 30.11.42 1,917,000
Bomber Command 7.10.41 1,360,000
Bomber Command Continues 25.8.42 505,000

Although there does not appear to be any obvious relationship between sales figures and dates of publication, the possibility of such a relationship existing should be noted. There has been more time during which people might buy the books published earlier. At the same time sales figures may be affected by the supply position.

The last two books were treated as one publication as both deal with the same subject at different periods, and it was not possible to distinguish between them in interviewing.

The best seller amongst Ministry of Information publications, Battle of Britain , has purposely been excluded. However, all the books considered have sold over a million copies, whilst some Ministry of Information publications have sold many fewer than this. The inquiry is concerned, therefore, with books that have reached medium to large size audiences.

Informants were asked whether they had seen each of the six books considered, and copies of the books were shown to them as an aid to memory. The first section of this report, “The Audience” shows which groups of the population had and had not seen books and the frequencies with which different numbers of books had been seen (none, one or two, three or four, five or all) indicating the extent to which the books had reached different groups.

In Section III, “Preferences”, the books are dealt with individually, whilst Section II, “Reception,” deals with opinions about the publication of such books, and the reasons why the books were appreciated by the public.

Summary and Conclusions

I. The Audience

The books had reached a substantial proportion of the public. 56 % of those interviewed had seen one or more of them, and 26% had seen three or more.

The audience for the books does not, however, represent all sections of the population proportionately. Whereas 63% of the men interviewed had seen at least one, only 50% of the women had seen any.

Groups well represented Groups under-represented
Men Women
The young and middle aged The old
The higher economic groups The lower economic groups
Those with higher education Those with elementary education
Managerial and professional workers Agricultural workers
Clerical workers Miners
Munitions workers Housewives
Retired and unoccupied
Skilled factory workers Unskilled factory workers
London, the South and Scotland Wales, Northern England

These results suggest:

(a). That some of the larger sections of the population, e.g. the lower economic groups and those who left school at the age of 14, are not seeing the books in the proportions that might be desired.

(b). Certain groups of workers important to the war effort, e.g. agricultural workers and miners, are to some extent being missed in the audience.

Substantial proportions of those who had not seen individual books said they would like to have seen them when shown copies, and about a quarter of the sample said they had not seen one or more of the books they would like to have seen because they were unaware of their publication or because the books were unobtainable. This suggests that the potential audience for the books is larger than the actual numbers being reached.

The number of persons seeing books is about five times as great as the number of books sold, copies being passed on to friends or shared between families.

The reason most frequently given for buying books is “general interest”, that is to say the war itself is the most potent sales factor.

Books were frequently seen first in bookshops or stalls. 28% heard about the books on the wireless and 19% read about them in newspapers. Conversation was another medium by which the books were brought to people’s notice.

The proportions hearing of the books through the wireless and newspapers are relatively small, and this suggests that other methods of publicity as well as these might be used with advantage. Displays in book-shops attracted the greater number and possibly displays in other shops or in factories would be a successful method of publicity.

The audience for M.O.I. books is to some extent the same as the audiences for illustrated magazines about matters of public interest and small topical books of the Penguin non-fiction type. However, about one-tenth of the population said they bought M.O.I. books but did not buy the other sorts of publications.

II. Reception

The majority of those interviewed approved of the Government’s spending money and time on the publication of books. 74% thought the money was put to good purpose, 16% could give no opinion and only 7% thought the money would have been spent better in other ways.

Those who had seen books before being interviewed approved more frequently than those who had not. Of the latter, a higher proportion gave no opinion.

In answer to a question “What was the chief thing you got from the books”, 31% of those asked said that the books made them realise the events of the war more sharply, 29% answered “The way the Services work together” or “The development of 4 the war effort”, and 11% said “The way the British people faced it”, 12% said they got better information from the books than from the press.

In giving their reasons for liking the books, of those asked found the explanation of technical points particularly interesting, 17% liked the photographs and diagrams most, and others mentioned the good production of the books and the interest of the subject matter, 7% said they were interested because relatives or friends were involved in the events described.

Men, the upper economic groups, the more highly educated, and in general those groups which gave the biggest audiences to the books, were more frequently interested in technical matters and “The way the Services work together”. Women, and in general those groups which were under-represented in the audience, more frequently mentioned the pictures and the idea that the books made the war more real to them.

III. Preferences

Amongst the more enthusiastic section who had seen two or more of the books. Front Line was much more frequently preferred than was any other book. Bomber Command and Combined Operations were also preferred frequently.

In reasons for preference the fact that relatives were taking part in the events ranked high. This was particularly marked in the case of Front Line preferences. The explanation of technicalities was also given frequently as a reason for preference. This reason was most prominent in the case of preferences for Combined Operations .

Amongst the general audience, considering the proportions who had seen different books as an indication of their relative popularity, Front Line was again shown to be the favourite. Bomber Command was very nearly as popular, and Coastal Command came third.

Further analyses showed that Front Line was the most generally popular since it ranked highest, or nearly highest, with almost every section of the population. This book was also particularly popular with women, the lower economic groups and those with elementary education only. Amongst men, the upper economic groups and the more highly educated, Bom ber Comman d and Combined Operations were particularly popular. Coastal Command had a good audience amongst all groups.

East of Malta, West of Suez seems to have been the least popular of the books, and the Battle of Egypt had relatively small audiences except in a few groups.

These preferences suggest that if a wider audience is desired for future publications, and particularly if some of those groups which are at present underrepresented in the audience are to be attracted, the sort of appeal that is made by Front Line is likely to be most successful. The fact that civilians were much involved in the events described in this book made it particularly popular amongst civilians. The exciting manner of presentation and adventurous quality of the book also contributed towards its widespread popularity.

However, it must also be remembered that the explanation, of technical points was a very strong attraction of the books, and appealed particularly to their most enthusiastic readers.

Explanatory Notes

The Six Books Cost
1. Combined Operations is about the Commandos, their training, with pictures of landings in Norway and Europe 1/-d.
2. East of Malta, West of Suez is about convoys going through the Mediterranean 1/-d.
5 3. Battle of Egypt is about the battle at El Alamein 7d.
4. Coastal Command is about the activities of the section of the Air Force which defends the sea approaches of the British Isles, and the air-war against U-boats 2/-d.
5. Front Line is about A.R.P. and the Civil Defence Services 2/-d.
6. Bomber Command is about the activities of heavy bombers over Europe 1/6d.

Throughout the tables in this report the books have been arranged in order of date of publication. The date and cost of the books have been referred to in the text occasionally, where they seemed to be relevant, and have not been included in the tables.

(2). Analysis of Results

As a general rule detailed analyses have only been given where significant differences are shown between the results for different groups.

In the case of most of the main questions results have been analysed by sex and age, region, economic group, education and occupation. Other analyses made by size of town, married or single, and urban and rural areas were in most cases non-productive and have not been given.

(3). Occupation Groups

In giving the sample figures for different occupation groups, light munitions workers and other light factory workers have been bracketed together because the statistics on which the proportion of munitions workers included is based are secret and confidential.

(4). The Population

It should be noted again that the sample represents the civilian population only. Details of the sample are given on page 38.

(5). The Questionnaire

The questionnaire included questions on newspapers and M.O.I. films as well as M.O.I. publications. The results of the first two sections are to be dealt with in separate reports. The section of the questionnaire concerned with M.O.I. publications is given on page 36.

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