What challenges did propaganda present for journalism in the 20th century and were they overcome?


From the late nineteenth century onwards, war and the mass media have ‘enjoyed a long, intricate relationship’ which only intensified with the growth of technology during the twentieth century.[1] Information from overseas correspondents could be relayed faster than ever before and the variety of mediums over which it was presented increased, allowing reporters to address the high thirst for news that developed during wartime.[2]

In this essay, I will be discussing the issues propaganda presented for journalists during the First and Second World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945 respectively), in addition to discussing how these were overcome by the end of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). These three conflicts are arguably the most significant conflicts of the twentieth century which used propaganda in order to maintain the support of the Home Front. The First World War is particularly significant as it is the first total war that involves civilians as well as soldiers; it also marks the first time the public were concerned with the way the press worked. These three wars collectively provide a fair scope of the twentieth century in which to draw reasonable conclusions. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that with each conflict a new form of media was properly established. Radio became the centre of information for the Second World War whilst the Vietnam War was labelled the ‘Living Room War’ with the arrival of the colour television. It is television in particular which allowed journalists to overcome the challenges propaganda presented to their profession and moral obligations. For the purpose of this essay, the term journalist does not exclusively refer to those working on newspapers, but also includes radio broadcasters and TV broadcasters who also distributed news for a living.

Propaganda is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as being ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view; the dissemination of propaganda as a political strategy’.[3] As censorship is employed by governments during war to eliminate damaging information from reports in order to make the Home Front believe that the war was going well when this may not be the truth, censorship will feature heavily in my argument.

I firstly explain how propaganda (in the form of censorship) prevented journalists during the First and Second World Wars from being independent of the government and acting as the Fourth Estate on behalf of public interest, as they held back facts which may have otherwise made the public turn against the war if given the opportunity to fully understand the conflict. The press intended to act as a point of communication between the humble member of society and the supreme leaders, making all feel as though they were participating in matters of national importance (such as war), however this communication link was not always effective during times of war.[4] Furthermore, the media were supposed to act as the ‘Fourth Estate’, a concept which developed during the mid-nineteenth century which described newspapers as being ‘a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law making’.[5] This did not mean that the press were just a voice of the Third Estate (the government).[6] In the words of  the pioneer of investigative journalism W. T. Stead,  the press were to act as the ‘eyes’, ‘ears’, and ‘tongue’ of the people, meaning that journalists were to serve society’s best interests by checking ‘the tendency of the powerful to conceal’ the truth and responding on behalf of the public once the truth of the matter had been published by the press.[7] The public particularly looked to war correspondents to tell them about wars in order to make an informed decision about the conduct of the conflict.[8] However, the ideal of the Fourth Estate was often sacrificed during times of national crisis as the press was largely utilised by the government to distribute propaganda in order to sustain morale on the Home Front which was necessary to ensure success in foreign affairs. This became problematic for journalists as they could not always be the Fourth Estate and remain patriotic. I proceed to show that this barrier was overcome by journalists in Vietnam, who were not subject to the same rules of censorship, and who had the ability to convey ‘the truth’ through the means of television.[9] This ultimately let the public decide for themselves whether or not to continue to support the war effort, rather than blindly supporting it because the government and the press said that every battle was a success.

Secondly, with a focus on the Second World War, I will explain how propaganda produced by both the Allies and the Germans posed a threat to the credibility and reputation of British journalism in the form of radio broadcasting. Finally, I will explore how the presence of propaganda during World War One made readers and listeners more wary of believing journalists when they would later attempt to convey the truth of the Holocaust to their audiences.

Main Text

For the most part, propaganda fundamentally challenged journalist’s role as the Fourth Estate by preventing them from being able to relay the truth of war back to the Home Front. Censorship, which was employed by states at war to prevent damaging information reaching the enemy, was also a way in which the government could eliminate criticism of how the war was being waged and prevent potentially morale-damaging information from reaching the home front.[10] Where there is censorship, the media can no longer claim to be autonomous as this is not the way a truly independent organisation operates.[11]

By the start of the First World War, Britain already had a sanction in place for tight control over the publication of information within the flourishing news industry, though there was a sense that ‘patriotically minded’ editors could – for the most part – be left to censor themselves out of a sense of duty.[12] Whilst the Manchester Guardian had initially warned its readers that the war would ‘risk everything of which we are proud’, and the Daily News gave reasons ‘why we must not fight’, both adopted patriotic support of the conflict as soon as it was in motion.[13] This immediately suggests that journalists’ role as the Fourth Estate would be temporarily sacrificed in the name of patriotic duty. Historian of Journalism and propaganda, Philip Knightley, condemns the journalists of the First World War for telling ‘more deliberate lies…than in any other period of history’, making it the most ‘discreditable period in the history of journalism’.[14] Instead of exposing what the government was trying to conceal from the public in order to help the masses reach a sound decision based on the truth, journalists merely projected what the government was outwardly saying.[15] Political leaders were particularly concerned that the spirit of the Home Front would shatter if people were aware of the brutal realities of trench warfare. The sensitive – yet inevitable – subject of casualties was a chief concern for wartime leaders, as they feared that the publication of the true scale of military casualties would likely agitate anti-war sentiment.[16] Kitchener initially banned photographers on the Front as he was concerned that images of wounded and dead men would ignite pacifist protest; in 1915 the War Office sanctioned the presence of two photographers arguing the contrary, that the loss of life would justify why the country must keep fighting.[17] Media historian, Susan L Carruthers, refers to a conversation between Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the editor of the Manchester Guardian, in which Lloyd George states that ‘if people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship would not pass the truth’.[18] This highlights, firstly, that the government and newspaper editors were working closely together to prevent information – such as unadulterated casualty statistics – being published which might have turned public opinion against the war effort, which would in turn decrease the change of victory; victory was only certain if everyone enthusiastically joined up and did their bit for the war effort.[19] It was for this reason the number of deaths from the Battle of the Somme was omitted from news articles.[20] Lloyd George’s statement also suggests that journalists themselves were choosing not to write about the horrors of war. Philip Gibbs, one of five official reporters of the First World War, recalls in his book Adventures in Journalism (1923) that ‘during the course of the battles it was not possible to tell all the truth, to reveal the full measure of slaughter on our side, and we had no right of criticism’.[21] Gibbs’ testimony confirms that news correspondents self-censored their work to shield the Home Front from the horror; it also implies that Gibbs felt that, as a journalist, warfare was not his field of expertise, therefore he could not properly evaluate or criticise those who did have the experience. Finally, Lloyd George’s statement implies that Britain would have to leave the war if its people knew what the correspondents were not saying. Taking this a step further, Carruthers questions whether the war would have even occurred without the press if the

newspapers [had] reported events following Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in less frenzied terms, conflict would have been averted. And had reporters, photographers and film-makers but shown the war’s fatalities and futility, it would never have lasted as long as it did.[22]

Carruthers, like Knight, is also being critical of journalists during the First World War by suggesting that if they had maintained their role as the Fourth Estate and not given in to propaganda, the public would have been more aware of the conduct of war, giving them reason and opportunity to adopt an anti-war stance if they desired. As late as Summer 1918, British newspapers were still continuing to reflect the government’s main propaganda themes: holding out on the Home Front and the importance of Imperial effort.[23] Furthermore, they continued to show indifference to the actual fighting on the Western Front and the role of the British Army, under-reporting the Battle of Amiens and the hundred day advance.[24]

Censorship was just as rigorously enforced during World War Two. Each news report required a stamp of approval – on each page – from the British Military Censor, the British Naval Censor, the Royal Air Force Censor (RAF), the Egyptian Civil Censor, the British Civil Censors and the Telegraph Office Censors.[25] Despite Robert St. John writing that ‘the evacuation from Greece [in 1941] had not been another Dunkirk; the Greek evacuation had been much worse’, the censor struck out the second clause to make the statement mean the complete opposite.[26] Whether this would have meant much to the general public regardless is debateable, as the BBC were not much help as truth tellers with regards to the evacuation of Dunkirk either.[27] J. B. Priestly’s broadcast on the 5June 1940 romanticises the grandeur and gallantry of the ‘little pleasure steamers’ rescuing the British troops, including holiday imagery of sandcastles, beers, peppermint rock and pork pies. He speaks of battleships never returning from the rescue mission, but does not address the French they left holding the Front Line as the British scrambled to safety of the ships, nor does he refer to any human casualties.[28] This broadcast is misleading as it makes the audience at home believe that the British had fought bravely and all is well enough to be able to think about holidays and relaxation; it is also more descriptive and reminiscent than it is informative about current news.

Furthermore, St. John and his colleagues calculated around 20,000 Allied casualties after interviewing combatants and observing for themselves; the censor diminished this to a mere 3,000. When he wrote of an ambulance driver who was shot and burned to death, the censors simply changed this to just shot, explaining that ‘correspondents should try their hardest not to make war seem horrible and that death by being burned alive was not very pleasant to read about, was it?’[29] In addition, the worst casualty statistics of the Battle of the Atlantic were also never divulged, although the British Air Ministry exaggerated German losses in an attempt to boost morale by making the public think that Britain were not just marginally successful, but extremely successful in their campaigns.[30] This reinforces historian Z. A. B. Zemen’s observation that ‘military success is the best propaganda in a war’.[31] Whilst this may be true, it ultimately highlights that journalistic freedom was not compatible with  wartime propaganda and the need to keep the Home Front stable; either they did not have access to uncensored information themselves, or it would be censored out later on. This was challenging for journalists during World War Two as it meant that, however much they tried, they were still unable to convey the truth of matters without risking their prestige and job. This applied to BBC radio Broadcasts also, as Priestly was taken off air for criticising leaders for their ineptitude, after ignoring warnings from Minister of Information Brendan Bracken ‘to say more of Dickens and less about the government’.[32]

The challenge propaganda posed to journalists acting as the Fourth Estate was largely eroded during the Vietnam War. Initially the media played the patriot with reporters accepted and regurgitated what American leaders said without question. Tom Wicker explains that

we were told that this was Communist aggression…The secretary of state tells me that, and who am I to argue with him… we had not yet been taught to question the President…we had not been taught by bitter experience that our government like any other in extremis will lie and cheat to protect itself.[33]

From this we can assume firstly, that much like Gibbs, reporters like Wicker did not feel they had the expertise to criticise their leaders on matters of foreign policy that they knew little about. Secondly, this shows us that the possibility that the government was feeding the papers – and thus the people – propaganda, was unconceivable to journalists at the time. However, as consensus on the war broke down both within Washington and across the country, journalists began to re-examine the deference they showed to political authorities.[34] Journalists were able to do this more so than their predecessors as not only were they the first war reporters accredited to the forces but not subject to censorship or government controls, but the conflict had an entirely different context.[35] Instead of being a World War in which America must fight for her country and had to prevent strategical information from reaching the enemy, America was only assisting Vietnam in a civil war; censorship therefore wasn’t necessary from  a military point of view meaning journalists were able to range freely and report at liberty.[36]

Today journalists often portray the Vietnam era as the time when the media ‘came of age’ as journalists undermined authority and are ultimately accredited with the blame for America losing the war being waged in Vietnam.[37] Whilst this appears fairly negative from an ‘official’ point of view, we must remember that the media does not serve the government but the people; from this perspective it abandoned propaganda for the sake of the public’s interest to end the war. The Vietnam war was the first war to receive sustained television news coverage; the development communication satellites allowed footage to be aired quicker than it had previously been when it relied upon transportation.[38] In the early 1950s, one third of American homes possessed a television.[39] By the 1960s, there were around 78 million television sets being used across the country which now had a population of 202 million. The television had overtaken newspapers and the radio by becoming the principle source of news for the majority of Americans in 1968.[40] Arguably, it is the development of technology and the introduction of colour television, combined with the lack of censorship that allowed journalists to be able to move away from propaganda and act as the Fourth Estate more efficiently, as they could literally record the sounds and sights of war for their audience to view at home and act as their eyes and ears.

Television, as a visual medium, was able to show the horrors of war in a way that print could not. Broadcasters were able to record and commentate examples of terrible human sacrifice and suffering of the war, allowing the public to see these injustices for themselves.[41] Perhaps one of the most pivotal broadcasts was the execution of the Vietcong terrorist Nguyen Van Lem, by the head of the Vietnam police Colonel Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, in Saigon, aired on the 2 February 1968 at 18:30 (US).[42]

Figure 1: Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Vietcong fighter, Nguyen Van Lem

The visual of the execution, including film footage and still photographs sparked many public debates about the conduct of the war being waged in Vietnam. Richard Bernstein of the New York Times captioned the still image taken by Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer (Fig.1): “This execution is credited with turning public opinion against the war.”[43] However, whilst this is undoubtedly a powerful image, the video footage of the execution was arguably more significant in changing public opinion due to the shock of actually seeing it happen with their own eyes. It was the ‘uncensored’ broadcasting of violence episodes such as this, that in journalist Robert McGill Thomas Jr.’s opinion, created an ‘immediate revulsion at seemingly gratuitous acts of savagery’.[44] The notion of unwarranted barbarity is apparent in the testimony of Professor Bruce Southand who was a graduate student at the time. Southand recalls having prepared a modest hamburger dinner which he was eating whilst watching the news when

General Loan pulled his gun and shot the man, and at first I could not believe that it was happening. It was unlike anything that I had seen before, and then I saw the blood coming out of the guy’s head…It really turned my stomach…After that I decided what we were doing in Vietnam was wrong. I could not conceive the callousness with which one person executed another with no pretense, with no trial, with no evidence…After that I became active in the anti-war movement.[45]

The fact that Southand was so repulsed by what he saw with his own eyes on the news that he became active in the anti-war movement, proves that journalists had truly abandoned patriotic propaganda for the sake of keeping the Home Front supportive of the war (unlike what journalists were doing during the First and Second World Wars). Instead, they were showing the people what they thought they needed to see in order to reach a sound conclusion on whether they should be supportive of their leader’s decision to support the Vietnam conflict. This is what Morley Safer was trying to achieve with his broadcast in August 1965 on the village of Cam Ne which had been burned down by the Marines’ Zippo lighters in relation to firepower. He reported live from the scene that

the day’s operation [had] burned down one-hundred and fifty houses, wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one marine and netted these four prisoners. Four old men could not answer questions put to them in English. Four old men who had no idea what an ID card was.

Rather critically he declared that ‘it [would] take more than presidential promise to convince [the Vietnamese peasant] that we are on his side’.[46] The fact that Safer highlights the vulnerability of the people the American Marines had supposedly ‘retaliated’ against, suggests that he does not think the people at home will agree that their retaliation was justified given that there appears to be no one young or able enough in the village to have sniped at the Marines. Despite this, the elderly have had their lives work (their homes) destroyed by people who are in theory aiming to improve their lives – the ironic counterproductivity between what the President is saying he wants to achieve in Vietnam and what is actually happening is what Safer is aiming to convey back to the public. Ultimately, Safer is exposing unjust abuse of the Vietnam people by the American troops and backing this up with visual evidence, showing the people at home exactly who has been affected – the non-combatant elderly.[47]

These ‘uncensored’ television broadcasts, along with many others, are held accountable for America’s defeat in Vietnam as they ‘poisoned’ the population against the war with their negativity. As a result, America withdrew their support of the conflict, without which it was impossible to prosecute a successful conclusion.[48] In the April 1970 issue of Encounter Magazine, television and radio broadcaster Robin Day, questioned whether a war – however just – would ever be waged if every home had accessed to uncensored television reportage, due to blood looking ‘very red on the television screen’.[49] Day is acknowledging the fact that popular opinion turned against the Vietnam war once their eyes were exposed to the brutal and seemingly unjust nature of warfare. The reference to the colour of blood is Day simply saying that death is what people would see and focus on whilst watching uncensored footage live from the scene; death would be an inescapable fact but it would undoubtedly stir negative emotions at home.

It is debateable whether the media were merely reinforcing public opinion which had turned sour, or whether they were in fact serving an anti-war agenda – in which case they were still utilising propaganda methods which would sacrifice their duty to remain objective. On the one hand, the media were condemned by Westmoreland for showing almost exclusively showing violent and controversial scenes including huts burning, refugees fleeing and women wailing. In his opinion, ‘only scant attention was paid to pacification, civic action [and] medical assistance’.[50] Television critics also believed that the war had consistently been depicted ‘in all its blood-stained viciousness, ignoring some of the more optimistic portents’.[51] On the other hand, it can be said that the media ‘simply held a mirror to unpleasant wartime truths’, serving righteously as a check the abuse of power and ignorance on behalf of the people.[52]  Vietnam had entered the sphere of legitimate controversy with growing divisions in Washington, troops with low morale and anti-war movements; in other words, the majority were no longer supportive of the conflict.[53] As a result, consensus journalism was pointless.[54] Instead, the media reinforced and explored existing opinions, though this is not to say that it had become exclusively anti-war as it had to remain unbiased.[55]

Regardless, by the end of the Vietnam war, journalists had escaped the restrictions of censorship for the sake of preserving morale on the Home Front. Instead of ignoring casualty statistics – and any other information that the public may object to – as had been done in the First and Second World Wars, journalists now stimulated informed debate on the war being waged by satisfying the public’s ‘right to know’ if things were not going as well as the government had promised.[56]

During the Second World War, British radio broadcasters were challenged by propaganda coming from the Germans and from the Allies which questioned their credibility and capabilities respectively. As early as 1933, Hitler believed that the psychological dislocation of the enemy could be achieved through dissemination of revolutionary propaganda, stating that ‘the enemy must be demoralised and driven to passivity’. He aimed to ‘destroy the enemy from within, [and] conquer him through himself’.[57] Here Hitler acknowledges the possibility that war does not have to be restricted to the use of conventional weapons. Instead, propaganda can take down the enemy by telling them repeatedly that they will not win. This is similar to what the German Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels, wrote in his diary almost ten years later in May 1942 that ‘news policy is a weapon of war’, a commodity to be dispensed, withheld and manipulated in pursuit of victory. This was even more achievable with the new range of media which was on offer, such as film and radio which were not dependent on literacy.[58] With at least 50% of the adult population listening to the radio by 1941, it became the centre for this ‘information war’.[59]  Radio was, in Goebbels opinion, the ‘most powerful and most revolutionary weapon’.[60] He believed that ‘in modern warfare, the opponent does not only use military means but also methods which influence national morale and are intended to undermine it.’[61] In all of these statements, Goebbels is declaring that Germany is no longer keeping their fighting to the battlefield, and will use whatever resources are at their disposal – in this case the radio – in order to wear down the enemy. This would be achieved by disseminating propaganda which would undermine the opponent’s own broadcasts and thus lower morale on the Home Front. Goebbels, as the Minister of Propaganda, understood that ‘every word which the opponent broadcasts is of course a lie and intended to damage the German people’, however the general British public would not necessarily understand this immediately.[62]  Although the British government also realised that the press was as much of a resource of war as the artillery gun and tank, Winston Churchill – who was an expert propagandist – rather pessimistically declared during a broadcast in 1939 that ‘if words could kill we would all be dead already’.[63] This highlights the inferiority of British propaganda in comparison to that of Germany, and also acknowledges the fact that Germany’s words, in the form of propaganda broadcasts, were having their desired effect.

William Joyce, also known as Lord Haw Haw, was a British voice airing on the German Propaganda station. His voice had a ‘curious and slightly camp nasal quality, addressing his listeners with ‘Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling’.[64] Lord Haw Haw enjoyed taunting Churchill, particularly about the SS Athenia which torpedoed and sank within hours of war being declared.[65] However, more damagingly for Britain, on the 21 January 1940, Lord Haw Haw broadcasted that Britain had been spreading

false and misleading rumours about alleged intentions from Germany in the Balkans, to create trouble and panic in that area, which has so far been kept out of the war. These allegations against Germany are entirely unfounded because every German interest favours the maintenance of peace in the Balkans, whereas only England and France could be interested in causing trouble in this region, which is so important for German supplies.[66]

Ultimately, this broadcast aimed to make the British public and English-speaking allies believe, not only that Britain is lying, but that she is lying to project herself and shift the blame unfairly on to Germany. Lord Haw Haw achieved this by justifying why German would not do such a thing and explaining why interference in the Balkans would instead be in Britain’s interest. A similar broadcast made several months later, on the 8April, also portrays Britain in a negative light for

ordering mines to be laid in Norwegian territorial waters with the object of stopping all shipping within Norwegian waters. And British war ships are keeping guard in these areas. The Norwegian government are most solemnly protesting against this open breach of international law and this brutal violation of Norwegian neutrality and sovereignty.[67]

The accusatory and condemning nature of Lord Haw Haw’s propaganda broadcasts presented a challenge for British broadcasters, particularly as he spoke with an easily understandable English voice as this made him most convincing to a British audience. The broadcasts collectively aimed to undermine British reports – either in the newspaper or the radio – in order to make the Home Front feel that they were being lied to by their own reporters and their own government. This challenge was largely overcome by introducing broadcasters’ names with the onset of war (radio broadcasters were previously anonymous) which reduced the risk of audiences unwittingly receiving orders from the enemy.[68] However, it soon became clear that this would not be enough in the face of Lord Haw Haw. There was a suggestion of putting P. G Wodenhouse on air to mock Haw Haw, however this remedy was not implemented.[69] Instead, the Ministry of Information published a simple poster with the words

what do I do if I come across German or Italian broadcasts when turning my wireless? I say to myself: “Now this blighter wants me to listen to him. Am I going to do what he wants? I remember that German lies over the air are like parachute troops dropping on Britain – they are all part of the plan to get us down – which they won’t. I remember that nobody can trust a word of what the Haw-Haws say. So, just to make them waste their time, I switch ‘em off or tune ‘em out”.[70]

The Ministry of Information make it very clear in this poster that the British public should just ignore everything they hear on enemy broadcasts as they are designed purely to dispirit Britain and contain no element of truth. This order seemed to be effective as interviews and surveys sent to the Ministry at the end of January 1940 showed that one in six adults were regularly listening to Lord Haw Haw (four in six were listening to the BBC), but by the end of the following month, his audience had decreased by a third.[71] This diminished the possibility of German propaganda broadcasts undermining broadcasts and newspaper reports by the British, and prevented morale on the Home Front from collapse.

In addition to competing with propaganda broadcasts that aimed to discredit British reporters and wear down the Home Front, British Broadcasters also faced competition from the Allies who were far superior at presenting propaganda. The British lagged behind both allied and enemy broadcasts as they only provided retrospective eyewitness accounts.[72] Part-timers including Godfrey Talbot, Frank Phillips and Robin Duff described the aftermaths of air raids and interviewed families who had been bombed out or were hiding in their shelters.[73] Their reports therefore, were nowhere near as powerful and emotive as American broadcasts, whose Networks allowed them to broadcast live sounds of the war every night of the week.  Ed Murrow, an American correspondent recording in London, broadcast live from Trafalgar Square during a night raid on 24 August 1940, galvanised public sympathies among listeners in the US and Canada.[74]

This is Trafalgar Square [air raid siren in the background]. The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air raid sirens. I’m standing here just on the steps of St Martins in the Fields. A searchlight just bursts into action in the distance, one single beam sweeping the sky above me now. People are walking along quite quietly. We’re just at the entrance of an air raid shelter and I must move this cable over just a bit so that people can walk in… I’ll just let you listen to the traffic and the sound of the siren for a moment.[75]

The fact that the audience could hear the sounds of the Blitz, live, trumped any BBC broadcasts. Not only this, but Murrow possesses the authority of ‘the man on the spot’; his proximity to the scene he describes highlighted by his making way for civilians to pass into the air raid shelter. The vision being projected is one of the city functioning and surviving despite the onslaught.

The British were originally opposed to recording the sounds of war. When the Radio Times published that Richard Dimbleby had accompanied the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and had managed to record some battle sounds from French lines, newspapers condemned the BBC’s plans to install microphones. This prompted the BBC to reassure the general public that ‘there will be no awful sound – glimpses of the battlefields where those we love are perhaps giving up their lives…The bulk of recordings…will be made with troops resting or at headquarters.’[76] The public’s reaction to the prospect of hearing battle sounds and the BBC’s swift response implies that the British public were not ready to be exposed to the truths of war, or imagine their loved ones in the potential life or death situation they were tuned into on the radio. This is emphasised by the BBC reassuring its audience that recordings will largely be made during rest periods when troops are safe. However, by continuing to air broadcasts which were conducted far from the action, it became clear that the BBC still lagged behind its American counterparts with regards to its propaganda, particularly in terms of its immediacy and ability to stir emotions. The BBC’s Director General Sir Cecil Graves was particularly concerned that people in Britain, the Empire and overseas would turn to the American Networks for their News (or worse – the enemy) if BBC war coverage remained this weak.[77] In an attempt to improve Britain’s radio output, Graves argued with the Ministry of Information that they must ‘put on our national propaganda on a modern war-time basis’, and stressed that if the BBC did not receive the same government backing as the press then there would be a real danger of the ‘British prowess [being] swamped by American stories’.[78] In order to combat this and boost British propaganda efforts, the BBC demanded an entirely new set up, including teams of multi-skilled broadcasters and access to scenes of action, complete with facilities that would enable new and improved broadcasting to take place. This new team system was tested in early March 1943 during exercise Spartan where the ‘2nd British Army’ were against the ‘German 6th Army’. The exercise proved the BBC to be careful and reliable, earning the War Office’s permission to extend the experiment to actual operations. On the 14th May 1943, the BBC’s Front Line reporting unit was Christened the ‘War Reporting Unit’ (WRU). The WRU had collected over ninety recordings including news updates, live action, commentaries, interviews and topical talks, mixing both ‘straight reporting and colourful fantasy’.[79] The fact that the facts are complemented with propaganda elements suggests that this was considered the most effective way to not only gain the audience’s attention, but to establish themselves as trusted observers, which is what Dimbleby believed was their role as broadcasters.[80] The WRU proved to be a success during the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 Oct 1942 – 11 Nov 1942) as Geoffrey Talbot, who was now based in the Middle East, recorded a commentary of a tank advancing through enemy lines during the night of the 1-2 November. The recording was described as ‘one of the greatest sound coups of the war thus far’.[81] Wynford Vaughn-Thomas, a Welsh newspaper journalist and radio and television broadcaster, considers the recordings obtained at the Second Battle of Alamein to be the defining moment when ‘the whole climate of war reporting changed’ as the sounds of war were brought to ‘families clustered around their [radio] sets’.[82] This was pivotal as the BBC had confirmed their suspicions of the importance of Front Line sound reportage and the huge impact this would have on listeners.[83] In doing this, the BBC managed to close the gap between their propaganda broadcasts and those coming from America, ultimately sustaining its credibility and interest.

The final issue I wish to discuss is the hinderance propaganda subsequently caused for journalists when they tried to tell inconceivable truths. As modern historian Siân Nicholas explains, propagandists had ‘systematically undermined the meaning and value of words’; as a result, men no longer blindly trusted newspapers, propagandists or politicians, instead they were regarded with scepticism.[84] The largely censored and misleading coverage of the First and Second World War’s had eroded the trust the public had in the press, as they had taken journalists at their word without a second thought.[85] The Germans had been a target of British propaganda since the First World War, with the government and propagandists believing the German army to be ‘the perfect enemy’ as ‘their conduct throughout the war seemed almost designed to offend British liberal sensibilities and to galvanize public opinion in support of the war effort.[86] However, when it came to exposing the atrocity that was the Holocaust, journalists such as Martha Gellhorn struggled to convey its truth to readers; this was largely because the concentration camps were just beyond the correspondent’s ability to fully convey them to their readers.[87] Journalism during the First World War in particular had created an atmosphere of cynicism, with New Yorker correspondent Molly Panter-Downes providing us with the insight that people thought this to be another act of propaganda, partly because of its extreme unbelievability, but also because it was reminiscent of German atrocity stories from the previous war ‘but with different details’.[88]

In March 1944, Gellhorn wrote of the Germans coming for the men and boys to send them away as slave labour and the girls to use in brothels on the Eastern Front.[89] She further states that the Jews were denied the right to go outside the wall and work and were not allowed doctors or medicine when they were in need of it.[90] Rather than just listing facts that would seem fabricated to some readers, Gellhorn includes statements from a Jewish man who has experienced these atrocities, who explained that they ‘have seen everything…the cattle trains where they kill the Jews, the executing of the Jews in village squares. The Germans never hid any of this; they wanted to terrorize us with their murders’.[91] ‘The Germans also organised shooting parties…they never killed many that way…but it amused them’.[92] Whilst the man’s testimony should give the article more weight, readers could still be sceptical of the validity of this unknown witness, particularly when German atrocities have been used as propaganda in the past. Despite this, the BBC managed to maintain its credibility, with Nicholas describing it as being the ‘last refuge of truth in a world that had lost its standards and values’.[93] The authority of Dimbleby as the man who had just returned from Bergen-Belsen, presenting radio listeners with the unadorned facts, was one way in which the BBC gained the public’s trust. This trust is built up by him telling his listeners the precise length of time that he spent there, providing them with small details such as the car that he was in. Dimbleby builds on this further by explaining that he waited a day before going to the camp in order to digest and understand the available facts and admitting that the scenes he witnessed were hard for him to describe.[94] In doing this, Dimbleby explicitly told his audience that he has thoroughly checked that the information he is giving them is correct, whilst also admitting that his delivery may not be perfect. This display of modesty would ultimately persuade the listener that this is not a propaganda broadcast as that would be aired in a much more confident way and would not be so concerned as to whether the ‘facts’ were true as long as they suited their propaganda aims. The BBC therefore overcame the scepticism over the potential renewal of propaganda stories by telling the audience small, seemingly-insignificant details that prove that the broadcaster was really at the scene and by creating a humble personality to deliver the facts which he states had been thoroughly checked before broadcasting.


In conclusion, propaganda during wartime fundamentally challenged the journalists’ ability to function as the Fourth Estate as censorship prevented morale damaging information from reaching the Home Front, regardless of how hard they may have tried to describe horrible deaths. The media, for the most part, temporarily lost their autonomy during war and instead became the mere voice of the Third Estate. However, because of the number of deliberate lies told, particularly during the First World War, journalists themselves condemned this discreditable period of journalism upon reflection. This is largely because they are aware that they effectively deprived people from adopting an anti-war stance as they were not made aware of the true conduct of war. This may not wholly be down to censorship however, as journalists simply did not feel that they could criticise military leaders when they had no experience of being a war leader themselves, therefore perhaps even journalists were unsure about how to evaluate the conflict. We can however, assume that if the people had known the truth about the likes of casualty statistics and failed operations, then the First World War would likely have ended sooner than it did, which is essentially what we see happen with Vietnam as a result of the ‘uncensored’ reporting. Journalists of the Second World War largely followed suit with the previous conflict; negative casualty statistics on the British side were reduced to make them appear more positive whilst the enemy’s statistics were exaggerated, making it look like the British were more successful in operations than they were in reality. Whilst the Home Front were initially shielded from the truth of the Vietnam conflict, journalists were beginning to re-examine the deference they had shown to politicians, particularly when consensus broke down within Washington. Journalists during this period were aided by television which allowed them to act as the Fourth Estate more effectively as it provided them with a means of allowing the public to see and hear for themselves how America was behaving in Vietnam, as opposed to them being reliant upon a single reporter’s description of events that may be embellished; the camera was at least unadulterated. As a result of the media being accredited with bringing an end to America’s involvement in Vietnam, this raises questions about whether future conflicts will even be viable if the horrors of war are broadcast visually from the beginning, as this would likely ignite immediate anti-war sentiment as people sympathise with the victims on the screen in their living rooms.

It is important to note that propaganda was also used as a weapon by the enemy, which aimed to not only decrease the credibility of the BBC, but also wear down morale on the Home Front by saying that the British were lying about German intentions in an attempt to cover up their own motives. The British immediately overcame this issue by introducing security measures such as introducing their broadcasters by name when they had previously been anonymous voices. Furthermore, they simply yet effectively explained to the British public that broadcasts by the enemy carried no truth and only intended to dishearten them. The British were also successful in overcoming competition with American propaganda broadcasts by introducing a new team system and increasing the variety of content in broadcasts to include interviews, commentary and live action, keeping listeners interested in their own nation’s reports as opposed to those by the Allies.

Ultimately, propaganda undermined the truth, causing the public to be sceptical of future reports, particularly when they seem extreme in the case of the Holocaust. However, once again the BBC were able to overcome this by including minor details about how the reporter obtained their information and by creating a trustworthy persona.

Overall, whilst propaganda largely threatened the credibility of during the three conflicts I have discussed, journalists did not let this phase them; instead they were adaptable and found solutions to the threat of propaganda from abroad. Journalists did not serve the public well during the First and Second World Wars by submitting to censorship procedures and misleading the Home Front. However, by the end of the Vietnam war, they had regained their autonomy and re-established themselves as the Fourth Estate; they had communicated to the people the negative side of war, which allowed them to make an informed decision which ultimately brought about the end to an unpopular conflict, thus they can be considered largely successful in overcoming the issues propaganda presented to their profession, although it did take several decades for them to achieve this.




Carruthers, Susan L., The Media at War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Connelly, Mark and Welch, David (eds.), War and The Media: Reportage & Propaganda, 1900-2003 (London: I. B Tauris and Co. Ltd., 2005).

Curran, James and Seaton, Jean, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (London: Routledge, 1988).

Gellhorn, Martha, The Face of War: Writings from the Frontline, 1937-1985 (London: Eland, 2016).

Gorman, Lyn and McLean, David, Media and Society in the Twentieth Century: A Historical Introduction (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

Hallin, Daniel C., The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Knightley, Philip, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Iraq (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

Stourton, Edward, Auntie’s War (London: Doubleday, 2017).

Articles and Chapters:

Boyce, George, ‘The Fourth Estate: The Reappraisal of a Concept’ in Newspaper History from The Seventeenth Century to The Present Day, ed. by George Boyce, James Curran and Pauline Wingate (London: Constable, 1978), 19-40.

Loughlin, James, ‘Constructing the Political Spectacle: Parnell, the Press and National Leadership, 1879—86’ in Parnell in Perspective ed. by David George Boyce and Alan O’Day [London, New York: Routledge, 1991] 221-242.

Mellor, Leo, ‘War Journalism in English’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of World War II, ed. by Marina MacKay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 67-80.

Walsh, Maurice, ‘The Education of the War Correspondents’ in Maurice Walsh, The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution (London: I. B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., 2008), 21-38.


Astor, Maggie, ‘A Photo That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War’, The New York Times (February 1 2018), available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/world/asia/vietnam-execution-photo.html [accessed: 22/04/19].

BBC, ‘Richard Dimbleby Describes Belsen’, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5115.shtml [accessed: 25/04/19].

BBC, ‘British and French plans to lay mines in Norwegian waters are brutal.’, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hawhaw/8905.shtml [accessed: 24/04/19].

BBC, ‘Germany does not intend to attack the Balkans.’, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hawhaw/8901.shtml [accessed: 24/04/19].

CBSN, ‘50 years ago: CBS News report from Vietnam sparked U.S. outrage’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0AmOw06lA0 [accessed: 23/04/19].

KD, ‘The London Blitz described by Edward R. Murrow’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clKaP5YCB8k&list=PLUWV7YeicjR1V-NqBfCYM5XW_f0xN2Spc&index=3&t=0s [accessed 24/04/19].

OED, ‘Propaganda, n.1’ , Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/propaganda [accessed: 18/04/19].

World War II Radio, ‘June 5, 1940 – J.B. Priestley Comments on the Dunkirk Evacuation’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVyKY6xhyXw [accessed 22/04/19].

[1] Susan L. Carruthers, The Media at War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) p. 1

[2] Lyn Gorman and David McLean, Media and Society in the Twentieth Century: A Historical Introduction (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 17

[3] OED, ‘Propaganda, n.1’ , Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/propaganda [accessed: 18/04/19].

[4] James Loughlin, ‘Constructing the Political Spectacle: Parnell, the Press and National Leadership, 1879—86’ in Parnell in Perspective ed. by David George Boyce and Alan O’Day [London, New York: Routledge, 1991] 221-242 (p. 225).

[5] George Boyce, ‘The Fourth Estate: The Reappraisal of a Concept’ in Newspaper History from The Seventeenth Century to The Present Day, ed. by George Boyce, James Curran and Pauline Wingate (London: Constable, 1978), 19-40 (p. 19).

[6] Boyce, p. 24.

[7] Daniel C. Hallin, The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 5; Boyce, p. 25.

[8] Siân Nicholas, ‘War Report (BBC 1994-5), and the Birth of the BBC War Correspondent’ in War and The Media: Reportage & Propaganda, 1900-2003, ed. by Mark Connelly and David Welch (London: I. B Tauris and Co. Ltd., 2005) 139-161 (p. 139).

[9] Hallin, p. 6.

[10] Carruthers, p. 49.

[11] Edward Stourton, Auntie’s War (London: Doubleday, 2017), p. 9.

[12] Carruthers, p. 48, p. 50.

[13] Carruthers, p. 63.

[14] Carruthers, p. 47.

[15] Boyce, p. 37; Carruthers, p. 100.

[16] Carruthers, p. 8.

[17] Carruthers, p. 59.

[18] Carruthers, p. 46.

[19] Carruthers, p. 45.

[20] Maurice Walsh, ‘The Education of the War Correspondents’ in Maurice Walsh, The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution (London: I. B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., 2008), 21-38 (p. 25).

[21] Carruthers, p. 55.

[22] Carruthers, p. 63.

[23] Stephen Badsey, ‘The Missing Western Front’: British Politics, Strategy and Propaganda in 1918’ in War and The Media: Reportage & Propaganda, 1900-2003, ed. by Mark Connelly and David Welch (London: I. B Tauris and Co. Ltd., 2005), 47-64 (p. 56).

[24] Badsey, p. 58.

[25] Philip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Iraq (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 335.

[26] Knightley, p. 335.

[27] Stourton, p.12

[28] World War II Radio, ‘June 5, 1940 – J.B. Priestley Comments on the Dunkirk Evacuation’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVyKY6xhyXw [accessed 22/04/19]; Stourton, p. 12.

[29] Knightley, p. 335.

[30] Carruthers, p. 81.

[31] Carruthers, p. 91.

[32] James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 135.

[33] Hallin, p. 63.

[34] Hallin, p. 63.

[35] Hallin, p. 6.

[36] Carruthers, p. 98.

[37] Hallin, p. 9.

[38] Carruthers, p. 96.

[39] Carruthers, p. 96.

[40] David Culbert, ‘American Television Coverage of the Vietnam War’ in War and The Media: Reportage and Propaganda, 1900-2003, ed. by Mark Connelly and David Welch (London: I. B Tauris and Co. Ltd., 2005), 204-214 (pp. 205-206).

[41] Hallin, p. 109.

[42] Culbert, p. 205.

[43] Culbert, p. 207; Maggie Astor, ‘A Photo That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War’, The New York Times (February 1 2018), available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/world/asia/vietnam-execution-photo.html [accessed: 22/04/19].

[44] Culbert, p. 207.

[45] Culbert, p. 206.

[46] Hallin, p. 132; CBSN, ‘50 years ago: CBS News report from Vietnam sparked U.S. outrage’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0AmOw06lA0 [accessed: 23/04/19].

[47] Hallin, p. 132.

[48] Carruthers, p. 4.

[49] Carruthers, p. 97.

[50] Carruthers, p. 102.

[51] Carruthers, p. 4.

[52] Carruthers, p. 100; Hallin, p. 118

[53] Knightley, pp. 162-163.

[54] Hallin, p. 174.

[55] Hallin, p. 106.

[56] Carruthers, p. 9.

[57] Stourton, p. 21.

[58] Carruthers, p. 72.

[59]Curran and Seaton, p. 133; Carruthers, p. 72.

[60] Stourton, p. 20.

[61] Stourton, p. 72.

[62] Stourton, p. 72.

[63] Curran and Seaton, p. 133

[64] Stourton, p.75.

[65] Stourton, p.76.

[66] BBC, ‘Germany does not intend to attack the Balkans.’, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hawhaw/8901.shtml [accessed: 24/04/19].

[67] BBC, ‘British and French plans to lay mines in Norwegian waters are brutal.’, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hawhaw/8905.shtml [accessed: 24/04/19].

[68] Curran and Seaton, p. 138.    

[69] Stourton, p. 80.

[70] Stourton, p. 78.

[71] Stourton, p. 84.

[72] Nicholas, p. 145.

[73] Nicholas, p. 144.

[74] Nicholas, p. 145.

[75] KD, ‘The London Blitz described by Edward R. Murrow’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clKaP5YCB8k&list=PLUWV7YeicjR1V-NqBfCYM5XW_f0xN2Spc&index=3&t=0s [accessed 24/04/19].

[76] Nicholas, p. 142.

[77] Nicholas, p. 146.

[78] Nicholas, p. 146.

[79] Nicholas, p. 147.

[80] Nicholas, p. 142.

[81] Nicholas, p. 146.

[82] Curran and Seaton, p. 133.

[83] Nicholas, p. 147.

[84] Nicholas, p. 149.

[85] Walsh, p. 37.

[86] Badsey, p. 48.

[87] Knightley, p. 361.

[88] Leo Mellor, ‘War Journalism in English’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of World War II, ed. by Marina MacKay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 67-80 (p. 77).

[89] Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War: Writings from the Frontline, 1937-1985 (London: Eland, 2016), p. 90.

[90] Gellhorn, p. 95.

[91] Gellhorn, p. 91.

[92] Gellhorn, p. 95.

[93] Nicholas, p. 149.

[94] BBC, ‘Richard Dimbleby Describes Belsen’, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5115.shtml [accessed: 25/04/19].

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