Britain's Deadly Peril/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V


THE PERIL OF THE PRESS BUREAU


It is one of the curses of our Parliamentary system that every piece of criticism is immediately ascribed to either party or personal motives, and politicians whose conduct or methods are impugned, for whatever reason, promptly assume, and try to make others believe, that their opponents are actuated by the usual party or personal methods.

At the present moment, happily, we have, for the first time within our memory, no politics; the nation stands as one man in its resolve to make an end of the Teutonic aggression against the peace of the world. In the recent discussion in the House of Commons, however, Sir Stanley Buckmaster, head of the Press Bureau, upon whom has fallen the rather ruffled and uncomfortable mantle discarded by Mr. F. E. Smith, seems to have interpreted the very unanimous criticism of the censorship as a personal attack upon himself. As a brilliant lawyer, of course he had no difficulty in making a brilliant reply to a fallacy originated entirely in his own brain.

In very truth the personality of Sir Stanley Buckmaster concerns us not at all. He is a loyal Englishman. He does not originate the news which the Press Bureau deals out with such belated parsimony. No one blames him for the fact that the nation is kept so completely in the dark on the subject of the war. If it were possible for Sir Stanley Buckmaster, personally, to censor every piece of news submitted to the Press Bureau, there would, I venture to think, be a speedy end to the system—or want of system—which permits an item of intelligence to be published in Edinburgh or Liverpool, but not in London; and that the speeches of Cabinet Ministers, reported in our papers verbatim, would be allowed free passage to the United States or to the Colonies. I wish here to do the head of the Press Bureau the justice to say that he is an Englishman who knows his own mind, and has the courage of his own convictions. Yet that does not alter the fact that the Press censorship as a system has worked unevenly, with very little apparent method, and with an amazing disregard of the best foreign and colonial opinion which, all along, it has been our interest to keep fully informed of the British side of the case.

When the subject was last before the House of Commons, some very caustic things were said. Mr. Joseph King, the Radical member for North Somerset, moved, and Sir William Byles, the Radical member for North Salford, seconded, the following rather terse motion:

"That the action of the Press Bureau in restricting the freedom of the Press, and in withholding information about the war, has been actuated by no clear principle and has been calculated to cause suspicion and discontent."

Now it will be noted that there is, in the first place, no possibility of attributing this motion to political hostility. Both the mover and the seconder are supporters of the Government, not merely at the present moment, as of course all Englishmen are, but in the ordinary course of nightly political warfare. Mr. King did not mince matters. He roundly charged the Press Bureau with exercising inequality, particularly in denying the publication in London of news permitted to be published in the provinces and on the Continent. He pressed, too, for the issue of an official statement two or three times a week. This, of course, has since been granted, and it is a very decided improvement. Mr. Joynson-Hicks, from the Conservative benches, very truly emphasised the fact that the people of this country want the truth, even if it meant bad news, and added that they also wanted to hear about the heroism of our troops and the valorous deeds of any individual regiments.

Sir Stanley Buckmaster, in reply, denied somewhat vehemently that he had ever withheld, for five minutes, any information he had about the war, and asserted that nothing had ever been issued from his office that was not literally and absolutely true.

Now, as I have said, Sir Stanley Buckmaster's hide-bound department does not originate news, and cannot be held responsible for either the fullness or the accuracy of the official statements. When Sir Stanley Buckmaster tells us that he has never delayed news I accept his word without demur. But when he says nothing has been issued from his department which is not "literally and absolutely true," then I ask him what he means by "literally and absolutely true"? If he means that the news which his department has issued has contained no actual misstatements on a point of fact, I believe his claim to be fully justified. If he means, on the other hand, that the Press Bureau, or those behind it, have told the nation the whole truth, he makes an assertion which the nation with its gritted teeth to-day will decline, and with very good reason, to accept. To quote Mr. Bonar Law's words again: "from the beginning of the war as much information has not been given as might have been given without damage to national interests." To such full information as may be given without damage to national interests the nation is entitled, and no amount of official sophistry and hair-splitting can alter that plain and demonstrable fact.

Mr. King, in the resolution I have quoted, charged the head of the Bureau with exercising inequality as between different newspapers. Now this amounts to a charge of deliberate unfairness which it is very difficult indeed to accept. The House of Commons, in fact, did not accept it. None the less, the fact remains that not once or twice, but over and over again, news has been allowed publication in one paper and refused in another, not merely as between London and the provinces, but as between London newspapers which are, necessarily, keen rivals. In support of this assertion I will quote one of the strongest supporters of the Government among the London newspapers—the Daily Chronicle. There will be no question of political partisanship about this.

After quoting the views of the Times and two Liberal papers—the Star and the Westminster Gazette—the Daily Chronicle said:

"The methods of the Censor are, certainly, a little difficult to understand. There reached this office yesterday afternoon, from our correspondent at South Shields, a long story of the sinking of vessels in the North Sea. It was submitted to us by the Censor, who made a number of excisions in it. The telegram was returned to us with the following note by our representative at the Press Bureau:

"'The Censor particularly requests that South Shields be not mentioned, though we can state "from our East Coast correspondent."'

"In the meantime the evening newspapers appeared with accounts of some occurrences in which most of the deletions made by the Censor in the Daily Chronicle report were given! The Censor made the following remarks and excisions in the 'copy' submitted to him by the Daily Chronicle representative at the Press Bureau:
Excisions in "Daily Chronicle" Report Where the Forbidden Passages appeared
"Please do not mention that this came from South Shields." (Note by the Censor.) Shields occurred in the reports in the Star (three times), Evening News (once), Pall Mall Gazette (three times), Globe (three times), Evening Standard (three times), Westminster Gazette (once).
"Within twenty miles of the mouth of Shields harbour"—(passage eliminated). Star report stated: "The trawler was sunk thirty miles E.N.E. of the Tyne."
"Landed a cargo of fish at Grimsby." ("At Grimsby" was eliminated.) This identical phrase, or its effect, appeared in the Star, Pall Mall Gazette, Globe, Evening Standard, Westminster Gazette.
"Landed by North Shields fishing steamer." ("North Shields" eliminated.) The North Shields trawler was mentioned by the Star, Pall Mall Gazette, Globe, Evening Standard.
"Bound for Blyth." ("Blyth" eliminated.) This phrase appeared in the Star, Pall Mall Gazette, Globe, and Evening Standard.

From the Daily Chronicle Special Correspondent. A Central News telegram from Paris ran as follows (passed by Cable Censor):

Paris, August 27th.

The Ministry of War issued this afternoon the following note: "In the region between ——" (here the Censor has cut out a short passage) "our troops continue to progress."

Paris, Thursday

The following official communiqué is issued to the Press at 2.15 this afternoon: "In the region between the Vosges and Nancy our troops continue to progress."

"Thus we were free to mention the offending passage on the authority of the Central News Agency, but not on that of 'our own correspondent'! What can be more ridiculous than this?"

The importance of the last portion of the Daily Chronicle article lies in the fact that we have here a clear case of mutilation of the French official despatch, which the French papers even were free to publish!

The Daily Chronicle also mentioned another case in which its special correspondent in Paris sent a long despatch giving, on the authority of M. Clemenceau, a statement published in Paris, that the 15th Army Corps gave way in a moment of panic. The Censor refused permission to publish it, but another journal published a quotation under the heading: "French Soldiers who wavered: Officers and Men punished by Death."

I ought, in fairness, to say, in passing, that the instances quoted above took place before Sir Stanley Buckmaster assumed control of the Press Bureau, and that no responsibility attaches to him in respect of any of them.

Now, bad as has been the effect of the censorship on public opinion at home, it has been even worse abroad, and particularly in the United States, where the German propaganda had full play, while the British case was sternly withheld. The American Press has not hesitated to say that our censors were incompetent and discriminated unfairly between one paper and another. This was untrue in the sense in which it was meant, but it was certainly unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the news of the declaration of war was allowed to be issued by one New York journal, and withheld for seven hours from the Associated Press, which represents 9,000 American and Canadian newspapers. It was, perhaps, still more unfortunate that even the speeches of Mr. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey on the subject of the declaration of war should have been similarly delayed. Why? Telegraphic reports of these speeches were held up for four days by the censors at cable offices and were then "censored" before they were despatched. I ask, could mischievous and bungling stupidity go farther than this?

Here is another case. In one of his speeches, Mr. Asquith, on a Friday night in Dublin, announced that the Indian troops were, that day, landing at Marseilles. The speech, and the statement, were reported next day in the London newspapers. After the publication of this, the Press Bureau forbade any mention of the landing of the Indian troops!

In the House of Commons, on September 10th, Mr. Sherwell exposed another instance of the ridiculous vagaries of the unequal censorship. In the Daily Chronicle, he said, there was published a brilliant article by Mr. Philip Gibbs—who was with me during the first Balkan campaign—describing the actual operations of Sir John French's army up to the last few days. That article was published without comment and without criticism in the Daily Chronicle, yet the cable censor refused to allow it to be sent to the New York Times. Again why?

It is, or should be, the function of the Press Bureau not merely to supply the public with accurate news, but to make sure that false or misleading reports are promptly suppressed. The reason for this is obvious. We do not wish to be depressed by unfounded stories of disaster, nor do we wish to experience the inevitable reaction which follows when we learn that we have been deluded by false news of a great victory. Whatever may be the raison d'être of the Press Bureau, it is assuredly not maintained for the purpose of assisting in the circulation of utterly futile fiction about the progress of the campaign.

Again: Are we told the truth?

Early in January a report—passed of course by the Censor—appeared in practically every newspaper in the country, and probably in thousands of papers in all parts of the British Empire, announcing the capture by the British troops of a very important German position at La Bassée. The engagement was described as a brilliant one, in which the enemy lost heavily; circumstantial details were added, and on the face of it the news bore every indication of being based on trustworthy reports from the fighting line. It is true that it was not official, but the circumstances made it so important that, inasmuch as it had been passed by the Censor, it was naturally assumed by every newspaper editor to be accurate. A few days later every one was amazed to learn, from official sources, that there was not a word of truth in the whole story! Yet the Censor had actually passed it for publication. And so the public pay their halfpennies to be gulled!

I say, without hesitation, that this incident casts the very gravest reflection on the discretion and efficiency of the whole censorship. To permit the publication of an utterly baseless story of this nature, is simply to assist in hoaxing the public and the crying of false news. We await the next hoax. We may have it to-morrow. Who knows? The Censors in the matter are on the threshold of a dilemma. If the story in question were true, it ought to have been published on official authority without delay: as it was untrue, its publication should have on no account been permitted.

Consider the circumstances. Sir John French, on November 20th, stated that throughout the battle of Ypres-Armentières, the position at La Bassée had defied all efforts at capture, and naturally the most intense anxiety had been felt for news of a definite success in this region. Yet the public, after hearing, by official sanction, the news of a success which would clearly have resulted in the Germans being driven pell-mell out of La Bassée, were calmly told, a few days later, that the entire story was a lie. To my mind, and I think the reader will agree with me, we could have no stronger illustration of the utter futilities and farcical eccentricities of the censorship as it to-day exists. Are we told the truth about the war? No, I declare—We are not!

I will go a step farther. The suppression of news by the censorship is bad enough, but what are we to think of a deliberate attempt to stifle perfectly legitimate criticisms of Ministers and their methods?

As those who read these pages are aware, I have taken a prominent part in the effort to bring home to the public the dire peril to which we are exposed through the presence in our midst of hordes of uncontrolled enemy aliens. I deal with this subject elsewhere, and I should not mention it here except that it is connected in a very special way with an attempt on the part of the Press Bureau to stifle public discussion on a matter of the gravest importance.

The Globe, newspaper has, with commendable patriotism, devoted much attention to the question of the presence of alien spies in our midst, and, on many occasions, its correspondence and editorial columns have contained valuable information and comments. On September 10th last the Globe published the following letter:

 

"Press Bureau,
"40, Charing Cross.
"September 7th, 1914.

"Dear Sir,

"Mr. F. E. Smith desires me to draw your attention to a letter headed 'A German's Outburst,' which appeared in your issue of the 2nd instant, and a facsimile of which appeared in your issue of the 4th instant. This letter has received the notice of the Home Secretary, who expresses the view that 'the articles and letters in the Globe are causing something in the nature of a panic in the matter of spies' and desires that they should be suppressed at once. In view of this expression of opinion by the Home Secretary, Mr. Smith has no doubt that you will refrain, in the future, from publishing articles or letters of a similar description.

"Yours very truly,

"Harold Smith, Secretary."

Very properly, the Globe pointed out that, in this matter, " nothing less is at stake than the liberty of the Press to defend the public interest and criticise the administrative acts of a Minister of the Crown." The unwarrantable attempt of the Home Secretary, through the Press Bureau, to suppress criticism of this nature, to stop the mouths of those who insisted on warning the public of a peril which he has, all along, blindly refused to see, raises a constitutional issue of the very gravest kind. The Globe promptly asked the Press Bureau under what authority it claimed the "power to suppress the free expression of opinion in the English press on subjects wholly unconnected with military or naval movements." Mr. Harold Smith's reply was the amazing assertion that such powers were conferred by the Defence of the Realm Acts. He wrote:

 

"Press Bureau,
"40, Charing Cross.
"September 8th, 1914.

"Dear Sir,

"I am instructed by Mr. F. E. Smith to acknowledge your letter of to-day's date. On Mr. Smith's direction, I wrote you a letter, which, on re-reading, you will perceive was intended to convey to you the opinion of the Home Office, rather than an expressed intention of censorship in this Bureau. You will, of course, use your own discretion in the matter, but Mr. Smith thinks that a consideration of the terms of the Defence of the Realm Acts (Nos. 1 and 2), and the regulations made thereunder, will satisfy you that the Secretary of State is not without the legal powers necessary to make his desire for supervision effective.

"Yours faithfully,

"Harold Smith, Secretary."

This reads very much like a threat to try the editor of the Globe by court-martial for the heinous offence of suggesting that Mr. McKenna's handling of the spy-peril was not exactly what was required by the exigencies of the public safety. I must say that when I read the correspondence I was inclined to tremble for my own head! So far, however, it is still safe upon my shoulders. I, as a patriotic Englishman who has dared to speak his mind, have no intention of desisting—even at the risk of being court-martialled—from the efforts I have continued for so long to arouse my countrymen to a realisation of the dangers to which we are exposed by the obstinate refusal of the Government to face facts.

The privilege of the Press to criticise Ministers was boldly asserted by the Globe, which, in a leading article, said:

"That correspondence … raises issues directly affecting the independence of the Press and its right to frank and unfettered criticism. At the time when we are receiving from our ever-increasing circle of readers many gratifying tributes to the sanity of our views, and the informing character of our columns, we are accused of publishing matter calculated to induce panic, and we have been called upon to suppress at once the articles and letters directing attention to the dangers arising from the lax methods of the Home Secretary in dealing with the alien enemy in our midst."

After referring to a statement made by Mr. McKenna in the House of Commons the previous day as likely "to do something to allay public anxiety " on the subject, the Globe proceeded:

"We are content with the knowledge that the attitude of the Globe has done something to convince the Government of the widespread feeling that the danger from the alien enemy we harbour is real, and the fear justified. Here we should be content to leave the question for the present, but for the attitude of the Home Secretary in seeking to prevent comment and criticism on his administrative acts, coupled with the veiled suggestion from the Press Bureau of power possessed under an Emergency Act. This attempt at pressure is made through a department set up for quite other and legitimate purposes. … If a Government Department, under cover of an Order in Council made for a wholly different purpose, is to shield itself from an exposure of its inefficiency, a dangerous precedent is set up, dangerous alike to the community and the Press."
We have to bear in mind, in this connection, that the Press Bureau had just been reorganised. Mr. F. E. Smith had resigned, on leaving for the front, and the Home Secretary was the Minister responsible to Parliament for its conduct. At his request the Press Bureau endeavoured to prevent the Globe continuing to criticise his action, or rather inaction. Well indeed might the Globe say: "We must reserve to ourselves the right, at all times, to give expression to views on Ministerial policy and even to dare to criticise the action of the Home Secretary." And I venture to say that, but for the jealousy inherent among British newspapers, the Globe would have had the unanimous support of every metropolitan and provincial journal, every single one of which was vitally affected by the Home Secretary's preposterous claim.

The claim of the country for fuller information has been expressed in many ways, and by many people, and it has been admitted by no less a personage than Mr. Asquith himself. In the House of Commons early in September Mr. Asquith said the Government felt "that the public is entitled to prompt and authentic information of what has happened at the front, and they are making arrangements which they hope will be more adequate."

That was months ago, and, up to the present, very few signs of the "prompt and authentic information" have been perceptible.

Even more significant is the following passage from the latest despatches of Sir John French, which covered the period from November 20th to the beginning of February:

"I regard it as most unfortunate that circumstances have prevented any account of many splendid instances of courage and endurance, in the face of almost unparalleled hardship and fatigue of war, coming regularly to the knowledge of the public."

Now I do not want to read into Sir John French's words a meaning that he did not intend to convey, but this passage certainly strikes me, as it has struck many others, as a very definite plea for the presence at the front of duly accredited and responsible war correspondents.

And why not? News could be still censored so that no information of value could reach the enemy. We should not be prejudiced one iota, but, on the other hand, should get prompt and trustworthy news, written by skilled journalists in a fashion that would make an irresistible appeal to the manhood of Britain. And we should be far nearer than we are to-day to learning "the truth about the war."

It has been urged, on behalf of the Press Bureau, that of late matters have been very much improved. My journalistic friends tell me that so far as the actual working is concerned this is a fact. There has undoubtedly been less of the haphazard methods which were characteristic of the early days. But there is still too much of what the Times very properly calls the "throttling" of permissible news, and, in spite of the fact that two despatches a week are now published from Sir John French, we are still in the dark as to the real story of the great campaign. Neither our successes nor our failures are adequately described. We are still not told "the truth about the war."

And I cannot help saying that the deficiencies of the official information are not made up by the tactics of certain sections of the Press. There is too much of a tendency to magnify the good and minimise the bad. There are too many "Great Victories" to be altogether convincing. As the Morning Post put it:

"There seems to be a large section of the public which takes its news as an old charwoman takes her penn'orth of gin, 'for comfort.' And some of our contemporaries seem to cater for this little weakness. Every day there is a 'great advance' or a 'brilliant victory,' and if a corporal's guard is captured or surrenders we have a flaming announcement on all the posters."

It is very true. From the fiercest critics of the Press Bureau's methods we do not to-day get "the truth about the war," even so far as they know it. Even the Daily News has been moved to raise a protest against the present state of affairs, and as recently as March 15th declared that the mind of authority "is being fed on selected facts that convey a wholly false impression of things."