Time for Several Whiskies
- Auntie’s War: The BBC during the Second World War by Edward Stourton
Doubleday, 422 pp, £20.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 85752 332 7
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries made ‘post-truth’ their word of the year, defining it as an adjective that described circumstances ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. This hardly seems up to the job: if that’s all the word means, the wonder is that we have waited so long for it. When has our understanding of public life not been shaped more by emotion than by ‘objective facts’? When was this golden age of objectivity? Surely not in the time when press lords such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook liked to attest to it, along with the retired army sergeant next door who had been East and seen a thing or two. George Orwell offers a sharper insight into the meaning of ‘post-truth’ in his reflections on the success of pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. ‘I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,’ he wrote in 1942. ‘I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.’
Orwell was experiencing his own difficulties with truth-telling at the time. As a talks producer at the BBC, working in the Indian section of the Eastern Service, his job was to show Britain’s intentions towards its proudest imperial possession in the kindest of lights. India’s growing demand for independence made it a focus of Axis propaganda: why should Indians die for the nation that denied their political freedom? In March 1942, the war cabinet’s emissary, Stafford Cripps, promised the Congress Party leadership that India would be granted self-government and dominion status after the war if it would continue to help the Allies win it. His mission failed – Gandhi called the offer a ‘postdated cheque drawn on a crashing bank’ – but Orwell did his best to soften the truth. In his broadcast news commentary, he conceded the failure but added that reports from across the world showed that only supporters of fascism were pleased by it. According to the BBC broadcast, the claim made by Axis broadcasters that Indians wanted to be ruled by Japan was a ‘direct lie’, made possible only by ignoring anti-Japanese passages in the speeches of Congress leaders such as Nehru. The BBC, however, was ignoring anti-British passages in the same speeches. Orwell noted in his diary that Nehru had complained ‘quite justly’ that he’d been misrepresented.
But what’s a little misrepresentation between friends? We were trying to win a war. ‘As to the ethics of broadcasting and in general letting oneself be used by the British governing class,’ Orwell wrote in Partisan Review that year, ‘it’s of little value to argue about it, it is chiefly a question of whether one considers it more important to down the Nazis first or whether one believes doing this is meaningless unless one achieves one’s own [socialist] revolution first.’ A subsidiary point, he added, was that by working inside the BBC ‘one can perhaps deodorise it to a certain extent,’ the ambiguous ‘it’ referring either to the institution or the propaganda it necessarily produced. By comparison with other propaganda streams, particularly though not exclusively those of the Axis powers, he felt he had kept ‘our little corner fairly clean’.
The BBC entered the war as a popular but not particularly revered institution. By 1939, nine million households had radio licences, which meant the BBC had an audience of around 34 million who listened at home and several million more who listened in neighbours’ houses or in pubs and clubs. In a UK population that then stood at 48 million, almost everyone had access to a radio, though not in the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall and St James, where they were banned, or in the Palace of Westminster, where MPs needed to gather around an MP’s car parked outside if they wanted to hear a horse race or a cup tie. Under the Presbyterian influence of its first director general, Lord Reith, until 1938 the BBC broadcast nothing on Sunday mornings apart from a church service.
The BBC was keen on music and drama. News was not its forte. For a decade after its foundation in 1922, it thought that news was best left to newspapers: the role of the radio news bulletin was to encourage people to buy them. Edward Stourton recounts that one broadcast began: ‘Good evening, today is Good Friday. There is no news.’ By the mid-1930s, however, the BBC had set up a small news department as part of its burgeoning bureaucracy. It employed no reporters – news items were prepared from Reuter’s agency copy – until Richard Dimbleby, a reporter on Southampton’s evening newspaper, applied for a job with a bold letter suggesting that some members of the news staff might be called ‘BBC reporters or BBC correspondents’ and ‘held in readiness, just as are the evening paper men, to cover unexpected news of the day … a big fire, strike … railway accidents, pit accidents, or any other major catastrophes in which the public, I fear, is deeply interested.’
Two years later, on 30 September 1938, it was Dimbleby who in a live broadcast covered Chamberlain waving his famous piece of paper at Heston aerodrome after the prime minister’s return from Munich and what turned out to be his last meeting with Hitler. An address to the nation followed, leading the BBC magazine, the now defunct Listener, to contrast German and British broadcasting techniques: while German radio relayed ‘the fiery oratory delivered [by Hitler] before cheering masses of followers’, the BBC was content to let Chamberlain deliver a ‘calm talk from [his] quiet room in Downing Street addressed to small groups of listeners round the family hearth’. This fitted popular British ideas of the two countries, and in Stourton’s view foreshadowed ‘the way broadcasting would itself become a battleground, the forum for a clash of values that would help define what the war was about when it came’.
In Britain during the first months of the war this was far from obvious. If the BBC, as Stourton says, was marked in the 1930s by ‘a certain innocence’, then Germany was at the other end of the scale. It understood radio’s importance as a tool of national propaganda, both to boost the domestic mood and to wage psychological war against an enemy; in Mein Kampf Hitler had noted how ‘brilliantly’ Britain had used propaganda to damage the morale of German troops in the last year of the First World War. When the Nazi government came to power in 1933, it quickly established a Ministry for National Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, who set about establishing control over the BBC’s German equivalent, the ReichsRundfunkGesellschaft (RRG), and put into production a cheap radio, the ‘people’s receiver’ – broadcasting’s equivalent of the Volkswagen. Radio, according to the RRG’s new director of programmes, was ‘the most powerful and most revolutionary weapon which we possess in the struggle for the new Third Reich’.
An unlikely consequence of this belief – as far from the Listener’s notion of Nazi broadcasting as it was possible to get – was first heard soon after war broke out in September 1939. William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, delivered his commentaries on the progress of the war from a studio in Hamburg with a brio that made him, in Stourton’s words, a ‘genuine star at a time when the BBC was still dominated by the cult of anonymous authority, by turns funny and sinister, brilliant and strange’. In the postwar decades, it became convenient to imagine that British listeners treated Joyce simply as a source of amusement, to be scorned rather than believed, but contemporary evidence suggests a different story. A BBC report on Christmas Eve 1939 estimated that some of his broadcasts were drawing as big an audience as the nine o’clock news on the Home Service.
Consternation was widespread. The head of anti-aircraft command, General Frederick Pile, noted anxiously to the War Office that when the BBC news was broadcast in an army canteen ‘no soldier takes any notice of it, he continues to play his game of darts or draughts or whatever it may be. When, on the other hand, someone tunes into Lord Haw-Haw, the whole room gets up and gathers round the wireless.’ The War Office wrote to Frederick Ogilvie, who had succeeded Reith as the BBC’s director-general, worrying that Joyce’s ‘ingenious’ transmissions were having a bad effect on public morale. Newspapers and magazines wanted the broadcasts jammed, to silence what Everybody’s Weekly called ‘that English-speaking cur with the persuasive voice of a confidence trickster’. Others thought satire was the answer: the War Office proposed P.G. Wodehouse as Lord Haw-Haw’s antidote, a large irony given Wodehouse’s career after being captured by the Germans in France (where he’d been living when war broke out) as a colleague of Joyce’s on the German side.
A good part of Joyce’s appeal lay in an on-air personality that projected a dangerous sense of fun: ‘And where is the Ark Royal?’ he would regularly ask, aware that the Royal Navy’s most modern aircraft-carrier had withdrawn from U-boat patrols after a near miss from a torpedo. His diagnosis of the problems of British society – he’d lived in England for nearly twenty years – also appealed. In the words of his biographer Mary Kenny, he mocked ‘swells’ in a way that hadn’t been heard on British airwaves before. One of his most memorable phrases, ‘the upper nation’, described the rich: ‘The upper nation of the Mayfair type of snob feeds on the lower nation whom it robs. How long is this going to last?’ A farmer in Yorkshire wrote to the BBC to protest that ‘with over forty years’ close contact with the working classes I am appalled at the accumulating and increasing interest taken by them in this swine’s broadcasting.’
Joyce’s biggest attraction, however, was that he gave a different account of the war’s progress (what little there had been of it by the spring of 1940) from the BBC’s. One legacy of the First World War was a public suspicion of the official version. Another point of view was always welcome: the listener could weigh up one kind of ‘fake news’ against another – provided a version was available on the BBC, which in the early months of the war was notoriously slow and tight-lipped, thanks to a system of censorship that was more complicated than the simple diktats Goebbels’s ministry handed down to the RRG.
In London, the Ministry of Information delegated responsibility for censorship to the BBC, where the controller of programmes became chief censor and setter of overall guidelines, while a team of ‘switch censors’ monitored every programme, ready to shut down transmission if they thought the rules were being infringed. As the ministry believed it would supply most of the news – the BBC still had only two reporters on staff, one of them Dimbleby – it didn’t expect the broadcaster to give it much trouble. In any case the BBC’s editorial freedom was further constricted by the fact that the three armed services could step in to block any news item they considered helpful to the enemy. When Germany bombed the Royal Navy’s anchorage at Scapa Flow in March 1940, for example, the Admiralty made the BBC sit on the story for six hours, with the unfortunate result that American newspapers got their version of the story, exaggerating the damage, from German radio without any rebuttal from London.
Lord Haw-Haw and the end of the Phoney War forced the BBC to consider questions of trust and believability, and with them the need for immediacy. Staff numbers – 3500 in 1937 – rose to nine thousand by the summer of 1941, with a particular expansion in news and foreign broadcasting. Whether the news became ‘truer’ as a result is a different question, given that the BBC was charged with keeping up the nation’s morale as well as reporting the facts. As First Lord of the Admiralty in the months before he became prime minister, Churchill believed it was for the armed services ‘to purvey to the Ministry [of Information] the raw meat and vegetables and for the ministry to cook and serve the dish to the public’. At a cabinet meeting, he deplored ‘the unrelieved pessimism’ of BBC bulletins and their ‘long account of ships sunk’.
Reporters soon understood they had to be cheerful. Dimbleby’s BBC colleague Charles Gardner was attached to the RAF in France when British forces were falling back to the Channel in the late spring of 1940. His diary records that an officer told the press corps they should ‘go around with bright smiling faces’. Gardner added sarcastically later the same day: ‘Cambrai has fallen. Excuse me while I have a good laugh.’ Nevertheless, he adjusted his reports to spare his listeners the grimmer details. When an RAF pilot bailed out at five hundred feet, Gardner told his listeners that he ‘got away with an injured shoulder’, when we know from his diary that the pilot was also badly burned. Gardner later reasoned that the lie was forgivable: his country faced ‘the most disastrous loss in its history, and was badly shaken’.
At Dunkirk, the British government used the same argument in more epic circumstances. The evacuation began on the evening of 26 May but it wasn’t until 30 May that the BBC told its audience there was ‘a battle now raging’ near the French coast, and that the Royal Navy had helped to evacuate troops who were ‘not immediately engaged’. Even during the four or five days of the operation that remained, there was almost no first-hand reporting. One freelance journalist, David Divine, made three trips in a small boat that was rescuing British troops, and the Royal Navy took a Pathé newsreel reporter-cum-cameraman; otherwise the BBC (and British newspapers) relied on the Ministry of Information.
The consequences were a mixture of the intended and unintended. The French had been kept in the dark for a little longer about their ally’s intention to retreat across the Channel, and therefore continued providing helpful protection, while in Britain the blank canvas of an event that would soon be known as ‘Dunkirk’ waited to be filled. The operation had been an astonishing success. The Admiralty had hoped that 45,000 British troops might be taken off the beaches in two days, ‘at the end of which it is probable that evacuation will be terminated by enemy action’. Instead, over eight days, 220,000 British and 110,000 French troops made the passage to England. The German assault had prevaricated – a tactical mistake that allowed Britain to transform an abject retreat into a feat of everyday British pluck, which the writer and broadcaster Nicholas Harman later called ‘the necessary myth’.
Reports of the fighting at Dunkirk, when they eventually began to emerge, often described a situation unrecognisable to the men who were there. A BBC commentary accused German broadcasting of perpetrating a ‘fantastic libel’ when it described the British retreat as disorderly, but that was perhaps a mild characterisation of a terrifying reality in which British soldiers were ordered to shoot (and did shoot) their brothers-in-arms who were retreating too fast. As for the battle in the air, even the officer in charge of the evacuation, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, couldn’t resist noting the ‘feelings of disgust’ of the men on the beaches when they heard the BBC speak of the RAF’s successes, when the planes and smoke trails above them told the opposite story.
But these facts were unknown to the wider public and did nothing to stem the tide of myth-making. Stourton credits the BBC with the central role in Dunkirk’s metamorphosis from military disaster to glorious escape, and rates the men who helped achieve it, Churchill and J.B. Priestley, as two of the greatest broadcasters in history. Churchill’s Victorian oratory seemed unsuited to the microphone age, yet somehow it worked and survives still as a favourite British way to remember the war, so much so that it has its own dedicated group of false memory victims, who imagine they heard Churchill make his Dunkirk speech (‘We shall fight on the beaches’) on the radio on 4 June 1940, when in fact only those in the House of Commons heard it that day; Churchill’s first recording of it was made in 1949. Those with false recollections of listening to it nine years before included the broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy (‘When we heard it, we knew in an instant that everything would be all right’) and a chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey.
The day after Churchill didn’t make his speech on the radio, J.B. Priestley did make one. On 5 June, the Home Service broadcast the first of the popular novelist and playwright’s ten-minute Postscripts, which were scheduled in what was then a prime slot, after the news on a Sunday evening. Lord Haw-Haw was still attracting large audiences. Priestley, Stourton writes, was brought in ‘to meet the Haw-Haw challenge’. In a piece written for the News Chronicle the previous autumn he had noted the influence of Nazi propaganda and criticised the officials at the Ministry of Information as people who ‘do not know much about the public mind … What is wanted in that ministry is a little less Lincoln’s Inn Fields and a little more Gracie Fields.’
It was clever of the BBC to hire Priestley and not really its fault that it lost him – a more complicated story as Stourton tells it than the traditional version that he was fired for being too left-wing. His first Postscript established an interpretation of the recent events at Dunkirk that has never been overturned in the popular imagination. Yes, Priestley conceded, Britain had blundered in France, but
let’s do ourselves the justice of admitting that this Dunkirk affair was also very English (and when I say English I really mean British) in the way in which, when apparently all was lost, so much was gloriously retrieved … We have a queer habit – and you can see it running through our history – of conjuring up such transformations. Out of a black gulf of humiliation and despair, rises a sun of blazing glory.
And then he moved from the grand statement to the homely detail – a trick of his – by turning to the small craft and pleasure steamers that had taken some of the troops from the beaches (though the navy took by far the most). The steamers always had
something old-fashioned, a Dickens touch, a mid-Victorian air, about them. They seemed to belong to the same ridiculous holiday world as pierrots and piers, sandcastles, ham and egg teas, palmists … and crowded, sweating promenades. But they were called out of that … innocent, foolish world of theirs – to sail into the inferno, to defy bombs, shells, magnetic mines, torpedoes, machine-gun fire – to rescue our soldiers.
On the way out of Broadcasting House after this performance, Priestley bumped into someone he called ‘a very prominent broadcaster’ and noticed that he was weeping. That summer, Priestley’s weekly broadcasts drew audiences of between 30 and 40 per cent of the population. Graham Greene, no admirer of Priestley as a novelist, declared him second only to Churchill as a national leader. His success made him vain and hard to manage, but the BBC hired him for a second series early in 1941. His demands in these broadcasts that a declared war objective should be a new and fairer Britain began to swell the number of his right-wing critics, including Churchill and the Ministry of Information. The BBC censors became sensitive to pressure. One script in the BBC’s archives shows that many ‘softening’ adjustments were made to a broadcast praising the heroism of the merchant navy. Out went: ‘We owe these men decent social justice.’ In came: ‘We owe these men a square deal.’ The censor also suggested adding a couple of lines from Kipling. It was hardly surprising that Priestley complained in the Sunday Express that he was treated like ‘a naughty child’ and that his texts were ‘absurdly mutilated’. He felt ‘weary and exasperated’, like a man ‘compelled to walk across a field of glue’. The more surprising thing – heartening evidence, perhaps, of Britain’s relatively open wartime society – was that the Sunday Express chose to publish his complaints.
Stourton writes that a diary kept by Marjorie Redman, a BBC employee, is striking for its ‘reflex-like doubt about the veracity of anything she was told by official sources, including much of what was said by her own employer’. According to Redman, a confidential memo to BBC producers warned that ‘fascists, communists, conscientious objectors and pacifists’ were not to be allowed near a microphone. Clergymen were considered particularly dangerous. One of them, the Methodist pastor Henry Carter, had his broadcast interrupted by a switch censor who feared (wrongly, since the offending passage had been cut) that the reverend was about to tell his Empire Service audience that 1.5 per cent of the British population held 25 per cent of the country’s wealth. There were many comic absurdities: recordings of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture were banned for security reasons because they contained peals of bells that might be mistaken for an invasion alert – a toll was permissible but not a peal. But often news was shaped towards more ambitious purposes: when Churchill had hopes of wooing Stalin from his pact with Hitler, the BBC obeyed the Foreign Office’s request to broadcast nothing that might prejudice British-Soviet relations.
Penelope Fitzgerald, who worked at Broadcasting House during the war, described the social and moral atmosphere of the corporation’s headquarters in notes she made for her novel Human Voices, published forty years later. Broadcasting House in wartime was, she wrote, ‘improbably dedicated to putting out the truth. It also keeps its old character – patriarchal & in that sense democratic: the lowest of the tribe may speak to the king.’ It had dawned on the government by this time that credible news broadcasting – to the world as well as the domestic audience – was a hugely important weapon. Plans were made for the Overseas Services to triple its programming output to 150 hours a day and to move its growing staff to a new home, Bush House on Aldwych, where the BBC based its foreign operations for the next seventy years. Latterly, these became a prime example of a new phrase, ‘soft power’ – an item of British cultural policy with roughly the same intention as a touring production of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1941, their purpose was harder: ‘to convey to all parts of the world truthful news and a prompt, clear and insistent exposition of British policy’; to ‘counter and discredit the enemy cause within enemy countries and among populations subject to enemy occupation’, and to ‘bring Britain closer to various parts of the Empire, to British forces serving abroad, to British ships at sea and to the United States’.
The US, of course, had its own radio correspondents in Britain, notably Edward Murrow of CBS, but in Stourton’s words, ‘the BBC was central to everything Murrow did.’ His CBS office was just over the road from Broadcasting House – he lived only a short walk away – and all CBS broadcasts were made live from a BBC studio and subjected, in theory, to the same system of censorship. The BBC censors had oversight of the scripts written by Murrow and his colleagues, and when they were broadcast a switch censor sat ready to turn off the Americans if they strayed into dangerous territory. In fact, they had far greater freedom than British broadcasters. America was the keystone of British foreign policy: Churchill needed to draw Roosevelt as quickly as possible into the war. A memo encouraged the switch censors to use their switches only as a last resort: ‘It is difficult to conceive of any inadvertent indiscretion which could be more disastrous to the interests of this country than the deliberate cutting off of one of the American speakers in the middle of a talk.’ This and other kinds of indulgence allowed American reporters to deliver vivid eyewitness accounts of the Blitz that established London’s reputation in America and elsewhere as bombed and beleaguered but always cheerful and defiant, and therefore worthy of support as well as sympathy.
Churchill made a great fuss of Murrow and their wives became friends. (Stourton quotes a story in which Murrow turns up at Downing Street to collect Mrs Murrow, to be greeted by the prime minister, ‘Good to see you, Mr Murrow. Have you time for several whiskies?’) By contrast, Churchill’s approach to the BBC was rarely less than hostile. Stourton describes a ‘visceral antipathy to the corporation’ of a kind that still flourishes today in the Tory Party and the Tory press. The ‘well-meaning gentlemen’ of the BBC had absolutely no qualifications and no claim whatsoever to represent British public opinion, he told the Commons in 1933; they produced a ‘copious stream of pontifical anonymous mugwumpery’. In 1940, finding the name of an announcer in a draft honours list, he’s said to have exclaimed (today it might prompt applause): ‘An OBE for an announcer? … I’ll see this never happens as long as there is an England.’ In the same year, he urged his minister of information, Duff Cooper, to find a way of ‘establishing more effective control over the BBC’. Finding Cooper’s solutions unsatisfactory, Churchill in a memo of June 1941 stated flatly that the ministry ‘will take full day-to-day editorial control of the BBC and will be responsible for both initiative and censorship’.
Cooper resigned a few days later and his successor, Churchill’s friend Brendan Bracken, proved surprisingly good at keeping his master’s crude instincts at bay. Churchill tended to evaluate news only in terms of its usefulness as propaganda, but the BBC had reached the conclusion that news, even if in wartime it could never be divorced from propaganda, should try to lie as little as possible. Its staff developed a pragmatic belief in the truth. In his attempts to placate Churchill, Cooper had recruited an experienced diplomat, Ivone Kirkpatrick, to a new post as the BBC’s ‘foreign adviser’. Kirkpatrick had been wounded at Gallipoli. ‘This country,’ he said, ‘must be careful not to sacrifice long-term credibility unless the advantage was considerable – say the equivalent of the destruction of a division.’ In other words, to broadcast a lie would be permissible if it saved the lives of between ten and thirty thousand men.
But say a great many lives had already been lost? The Dieppe Raid of August 1942 was a bloody disaster: out of the five thousand Canadian troops who led the assault, 3400 were killed, wounded or captured, as well as several hundred more in the RAF and Royal Navy. Nothing was achieved – the raiders spent seven terrifying hours being massacred on the beaches by German artillery fire before they retreated – but listeners to the BBC’s news bulletins got a different version of events. In a commentary for the Eastern Service, Orwell wrote that German artillery batteries had been destroyed and tanks successfully landed, with aircraft losses much more serious for the Germans than the British. Reports from journalists on the ground were at first held up and then heavily censored. The radio reporter Frank Gillard remembered ‘with shame and disgrace that I was there as the BBC’s one and only eyewitness and I could not tell the story as I ought to have told it’. News from the frontline was rarely as misleading after that, but then, as Stourton says, ‘it is much easier to tell the truth when that truth reflects victories, not defeats.’
In his autobiography, Paper Chase, the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans recounts a formative event of his childhood. It was the summer of 1940. He was 12 and on holiday from Manchester in the North Wales seaside resort of Rhyl. One morning he and his father took a walk along the beach and discovered a scattering of men lying on the sand: ‘a forlorn group’, Evans writes, ‘unshaven, some in remnants of uniform, some in makeshift outfits of pyjamas and sweaters, not a hat between them, lying apart from the rows of deckchairs and the Punch and Judy show and the pier and the ice-cream stands’. They turned out to be soldiers from the Royal Corps of Signals who had recently been plucked from another beach – at Dunkirk – and sent to recuperate at a nearby barracks. His father crouched to talk to them, offering a cigarette here and there, and found them bitter and bewildered, with stories of how the RAF and the French army had let them down. ‘They said they had nothing to fight with,’ Evans recalls his father telling other guests at their boarding house, which had the Daily Mirror’s Dunkirk front page – ‘Bloody Marvellous!’ – pinned to a wall. Every man, according to the newspaper, was cheerful and keen to get back across the Channel and finish the job.
The young Evans was struck by the contrast between the unhappy men on the beach at Rhyl and their heroic versions in the newspapers. It prompted in him ‘the first vague stirring of doubt about my untutored trust in newspapers’ in an age when, if Richard Hoggart is to be believed, working-class people would say without irony ‘Oh, but it was in the papers’ to settle an argument. But did people really trust newspapers in that way – or the BBC? Perhaps the second more than the first; radio was largely untested as a truth-teller, whereas newspaper accounts of the First World War, especially to the troops who served in it, had done nothing for the reputation of the printed word.
In the introduction to his highly readable history, Stourton warns the reader against the myth of an organisation whose values of ‘impartiality’ and ‘independence’ survived the war. ‘The BBC of the 1940s was not – not even remotely – either of those things in the sense we use the terms now,’ Stourton writes, meaning that when the national interest came knocking, the BBC obliged by omitting, distorting or repressing whatever the government decided would harm the war effort. How could it be otherwise? Still, to use Orwell’s phrase, we might decide that it had kept its little corner fairly clean.