Douglas & McIntyre
The Fog of War

Book details:

August 2011
ISBN 978-1-55365-949-5
5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
336 pages
32 b&w photographs
History / Military / World War Ii HIS027100
$32.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

The Fog of War

Censorship of Canada's Media in World War Two

Excerpt / Additional Content

Prelude: “You Can’t Talk about That!”

At the beginning of 2009, people in many Western countries tossed the word censorship around, aiming their accusation at the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which refused to allow war correspondents to tour areas along the Israeli–Gaza frontier attacked by the Israelis in response to rocket fire coming from Gaza. The tiny Palestinian territory, a mixture of crowded towns and some scraps of farmland, was ruled by Hamas, seen by the Israelis and most of the Western media as the more extremist of the mainstream Palestinian political parties. Hamas had allowed some sympathetic Western reporters and a few pro-Palestinian foreign VIPs to watch the fighting (mostly Israeli artillery bombardments and air strikes) from its side of the battle lines. The Israelis had refused to allow any media into its section of the war zone. However, they supplied TV networks with edited video of footage shot by its air force, and, in a hat tip to the sea changes in modern media, posted highlights on the Internet, along with commentary and analysis by the IDF. The Israeli military didn’t cut the stories filed from Israel by the foreign press, but it has imposed military censorship in the past, including times when Israel was being bombarded with Scud missiles fired from Iraq during both the first Gulf War and when Israel made incursions into Lebanon.

Like Israel, Hamas did not allow journalists to range freely. Instead, they were taken to bombed areas of Gaza and spoon-fed the Hamas version of events.

What Israel and Hamas were engaging in, however, was not censorship. It was manipulation of news coverage by controlling access to the battlefield, knowing journalists would, out of necessity, accept handouts and, if taken to the front, would show some gratitude for the favour. Except for the technologies involved, nothing in war reporting had changed since the time of Napoleon. Journalists have no absolute right to be on any battlefield, nor are soldiers obliged to allow reporters to tag along with them. Reporters who travel with armies and report on what they see always do it on sufferance. On the home front, journalists’ freedom to write on war strategy, tactics, and the morality of the conflict without official or unofficial censure by the government or public pressure tends to exist in inverse proportion to the enemy’s real threat to the survival of the state. The press in 1940 France was ruthlessly censored and the country fell into the hands of the Nazis. In England, heavy censorship killed most of the coverage of preparations for defence from a German invasion and kept Hitler’s v1 and v2 weapons out of the media. Canada had a relatively benign censorship program. The United States, which was never seriously threatened, had the lightest censorship of the major Allies.

The Napoleonic Wars, which saw the first appearance of people we would recognize as war correspondents, also comprised the first “total” war. In those days, newspapers had very little freedom, but there were a few journalists who were willing to ask serious questions about the battles. Two generations later, during the American Civil War, the governments on both sides exerted strong controls on the press. In the South, the Confederates took advantage of paper shortages to decide which newspapers could live or die. In the North, Lincoln’s government suspended many of the country’s civil rights, jailed journalists, and intimidated publishers.

The British military began serious study of media manipulation during the First and Second Boer Wars. The Boers, portrayed in the foreign press as farmers fighting for their land (when, in fact, the land had fairly recently been taken from Africans), lost the military fight but won the propaganda war when the British resorted to rounding up civilians and starving them in concentration camps to deny Boer fighters the civilian support they needed. As a reaction to the Boer mess, the British developed concepts of propaganda and censorship that would impress both friend and foe during World War One.

Beginning in 1904, Canada was brought into the British plans for the control of news from naval bases at Halifax and Esquimalt, British Columbia. The British kept control over Canadian censorship until 1915. During the opening days of World War One, editors and reporters were caught in a conflict between the public’s hunger for news and the military’s demand for secrecy. The issue came to a head on August 12, 1914, at a meeting in Ottawa between senior military staff and the editors of most of Canada’s major newspapers. The editors pledged their co-operation with a new censorship system as long as there was no interference with what they termed “safe and legitimate news” and no attempt to interfere with the debate of purely political issues. Journalists were expected to shy away from stories that would deter recruitment and publish articles that instilled confidence in the Allied effort. The government and newspaper executives settled on a voluntary press censorship system that placed the onus on publishers to ensure their papers did not cross the lines, wherever the government determined them to be.

The postmaster general, acting as deputy press censor for the British chief press censor, could ban any publication or writing and publishing of information respecting the war or its causes, contrary to the government’s version of the facts. The maximum penalty for writing, publishing, circulating, or possessing anything banned by the postmaster general was a fine of $5,000 and/or five years in prison. The owner of the print shop where the material was published, along with the directors and officers of the corporation that controlled the premises, were each subject to the same fines and jail terms. The printer could be shut down indefinitely and the presses could be seized along with all copies of the offending publication.

The agreement was enshrined in the War Measures Act, passed on August 22, 1914, but made retroactive to August 4. Five days later, the secretary of state invited leading editors and publishers to a second conference in Ottawa to discuss the types of news and commentary that should be censored. A four-member committee was struck to help the under-secretary of state and a military officer appointed by the postmaster general write the main regulations of the new censorship service. The committee worked very quickly. The next day, delegates were presented with the draft of a schedule of rules and regulations for the press censorship system. These rules were printed in a pamphlet and mailed to newspaper offices, publishing firms, advertising and public-relations agencies, government departments, police departments, intelligence officers, and Allied governments.

The rules and regulations dealt mainly with two types of news: domestic stories from Canada and wire copy from the United States, which was still neutral. The government had no worries about coverage from the front. There wasn’t any. The British and French controlled all access to the fighting zone. “War correspondence” from France came mostly from Britain’s official “eyewitness” who was, through most of the war, Canadian Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook). Aitken was eyewitness to very little. He rarely went near the front, and simply wrote press releases based on memos from military intelligence agents.

Censorship was more concerned with public opinion, as the war could not be won unless the public gave its full support. As the battles dragged on, the Canadian censorship system became increasingly invasive and powerful. An order-in-council (a Canadian cabinet order) passed September 12, 1914, similar to one issued in Great Britain under the Defence of the Realm Act, was aimed at suppressing spies. Anyone who transmitted information “with respect to the movement or any disposition of the armed forces of His Majesty or His Majesty’s Allies” was guilty under the War Measures Act. This law could also be used against the press. Less than two months later, cabinet passed a second order-in-council which outlawed publications “calculated to be, or that might be, directly or indirectly useful to the enemy, or containing articles bearing on the war and not in accordance with the facts.”

These orders-in-council remained the legal underpinnings for the press-censorship system until the spring of 1915, when the government created the post of chief censor. Ernest J. Chambers (1862–1921), a former journalist and militia officer who served as Gentle- man Usher of the Black Rod of the Canadian Senate (the upper house’s head of security), was appointed chief censor. Month after month, Chambers tightened the screws. Films and plays fell under censorship. In the last months of the war, the censors began poking through record stores and demanded catalogues from the major U.S. record companies. Thirty-four records were banned, all of them foreign-language songs, including a version of “Deutschland Über Alles.” Just a few weeks before the end of the war, the government banned all printed material in the languages of the enemy powers, a large swath of publications when one considers the ethnic mixture of the Austrian Empire.

No one could publicly criticize the army or navy. People were not allowed to advocate a negotiated peace and, eventually, could not even discuss the reasons for the war or suggest the Allies were partly to blame for it. The government, along with most newspaper and magazine owners, flooded propaganda into the marketplace of ideas. Censorship created the illusion that these official ideas were the only version of reality.

People might have expected the censorship to end when the Germans surrendered. But the Russian Revolution of 1917 had created a whole new set of villains to fear, and those villains had supporters in Canada. At their first postwar cabinet meeting, held on November 13, 1918, federal ministers passed an order-in-council to try to outlaw seditious talk. They banned the printing of anything advocating socialist revolution or criticizing capitalism. It was the only time in Canadian history that the media were officially prohibited from spreading political ideas in peacetime.

The postwar attack on Communists was no surprise to anyone who followed the work of Chambers. The censorship system had been, throughout the war, a mechanism for rooting out subversives and non-conformists. Its focus was on German and Slavic ethnic groups, pacifists, defeatists, or people who just doubted the sense of the war. It also worked hard to kill any mention of troop movements. The system survived, with a few tweaks, until December 20, 1919, when all of the orders-in-council dealing with press censorship were repealed.

Chambers didn’t spend his workdays breaking up print shops. Instead, press censorship during World War One operated as a voluntary system, with editors and publishers often silencing themselves. Except for the Victoria Week, the Sault Ste. Marie Express, Le Bulletin of Montreal, and Quebec City’s La Croix, all of which were banned, editors of commercial newspapers toed the line. They chose to discuss political issues from positions that did not reflect overly negatively on Canada’s war effort and did not, like the Sault Ste. Marie Express, question the reasons for sending more Canadian soldiers to the front.

For an organization that wielded such power, the censorship program was remarkably small. Its Ottawa head office was staffed by the chief press censor; two press censors (one each for French- and English-language papers); an office manager; a German translator who was also an assistant censor; and a messenger. The department employed translators in thirty-one languages on a freelance basis. The department also had branch offices in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, where the editors of the Canadian Press wire service were paid honoraria to advise their colleagues at newspapers and magazines. A very similar system of organization was established during World War Two but on a slightly larger scale and with a much gentler guiding hand.

During World War One, censorship authorities banned 253 publications, approximately 90 per cent of which were U.S.-based and almost 70 per cent written in a foreign language. Ninety-three of the publications were Marxist-oriented. During World War Two, the censors banned a similar number and similar types of publications but were more selective about the foreign-language press. The censors of that later era would agonize over whether small ethnic papers might be breaking the law, whereas Chambers shut them all down in the early days.

It was rare for English-Canadian journalists to be “unpatriotic,” especially during the Great War. Most of them were first- or second-generation young male immigrants from Britain and Ireland, the same demographic groups that made up the bulk of the early enlistments. Ernest Chambers could win most arguments over media gag orders by appealing to the loyalty of the journalists. The same held true in World War Two: no mainstream journalist, even among those Quebec journalists who supported Vichy France, publicly beat the drum for Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. In English Canada, debate during both wars usually started from the premise that Canada was engaged in a righteous struggle but could do a better job of killing Germans.

Chambers was thwarted in his attempts to rein in the Québécois press. The World War Two censors would be thwarted too. Over the course of both world wars, the censors were vexed with Le Devoir and other Quebec-nationalist papers, which were largely isolationist, not pro-German. The situation did grow worse during World War Two, with a large block of the Quebec media opposing the war from the beginning and some publications evolving into Pétainist organs after the fall of France.

Media outlets in the United States posed problems for the Canadian censors during both wars. Stateside media reports, which flowed effortlessly across the border, could, until April 1917, carry whatever information editors saw fit to print, and many papers sided openly with Kaiser Wilhelm. (H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun was one of the U.S. journalists who toured the fighting fronts from the German side and wrote approvingly of what they saw.) During World War One, some English-Canadian publications criticized the United States for not siding with the Allies (a theme that would be picked up by Canadian journalists after World War Two broke out), thus endangering diplomatic efforts to pull the Americans into the war. The chief press censor issued instructions to Canadian editors that asked them to refrain from publishing material “likely to cause irritation” in the States and other neutral countries, with the hope that they could be brought over to the Allied side. Chambers, though, was able to apply enough pressure on border-city newspapers that some U.S. editors and publishers asked the censors for guidance on the acceptability of literature for circulation in Canada.

When Chambers saw Canadian news stories he disagreed with, he issued press releases to set the record straight or demanded editors insert his version of the “facts” into news-wire copy. He also planted propaganda, handing out press releases and military photographs. The chief censor eventually allowed a press agency in Montreal to distribute authorized military and naval pictures, once they were received from the British Admiralty, its War Office, or the Canadian military. On November 9, 1917, the federal government appointed a director of public information, whose job was described as “furnishing to the Press and the public the fullest possible information concerning the progress of the war and measures adopted by the Government for the prosecution of the same.” Still, the censorship bureau continued to be the official channel for communicating all information coming from cable and telegraph “through military and naval secret channels, such as news respecting purely naval and military matters, the movements of troops and shipping of all sorts, casualty lists, etc.”

To Chambers, censorship was a recruiting tool, morale booster, and instrument for cleansing the news of inconvenient ideas. But the two world wars were very dissimilar conflicts. In 1914, despite twenty years of friction between Berlin and London, Germany (and Prussia) was a traditional ally of Britain and the two countries had never gone to war against each other. Kaiser Wilhelm, whatever his failings, was, at the outset, difficult to accept in the role of a war criminal and enemy of the West. In 1939, the memories of the agonies of the Great War were still visceral. This time, the Allies were fighting an ideology, fascism, which fomented a movement that really did seek to dominate the world. Hitler’s regime was more militaristic than even the kaiser’s, and much more aggressive. The Nazis had already seized two central European countries before the war began, and the Allies suffered one setback after another until the summer of 1942. Losing the war was a real possibility when the Germans were governing most of mainland Europe and U-boats were sinking ships within sight of the banks of the St. Lawrence River. There usually was no need to use a stick to keep the English-Canadian press in line during the fight against the Nazis. Everyone in the media was on the “team.” When, however, the goal of censorship seemed to be to make the Canadian government look good, the newspapers rebelled, providing drama that the World War One censors never faced.

In the years after the 1918 Armistice, as Europe fell into one economic crisis after another, people in English-speaking countries realized how they had been manipulated over the course of the war years. During the months of the Paris Peace Conference, Americans started to soul-search about how they had been drawn—some critics said tricked—into World War One. In 1922, Walter Lippmann opened a debate on British news manipulation during the Great War with the publication of the book Public Opinion. In it, he argued Britain had used the most sophisticated media manipulation the world had yet seen to draw the United States into the war. German generals rushed their own analyses into print, with Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff ’s memoirs reaching the bookstores, in both German and English, before the end of 1919. Ludendorff argued the Wilhelmine regime’s rough censorship and clumsy propaganda had hampered the German war effort. Sir Edward Cook’s description of his career as Britain’s chief press censor was printed in 1920. In it, and in other books by censors and journalists—including Sir Douglas Brownrigg’s The Indiscretions of a Naval Censor (1919), Sir Philip Gibbs’s Realities of War (1920), Neville Lytton’s The Press and the General Staff (1920), and Major General Charles Callwell’s The Experiences of a Dug-Out 1914–1918 (1920)—were candid discussions of the new press-manipulation techniques used on U.S. newspapers. Often, the authors crossed the line into bragging about their propaganda coups. A decade later, Henry Hamilton Fyfe covered the wartime propaganda role of London Times owner Lord Northcliffe in Northcliffe, an Intimate Biography (1930), as had the extremely well connected Lord Beaverbrook in Politicians and the War, 1914–1916 (1928). Beaverbrook, who had worked as Canada’s unofficial delegate at the British War Office, then as “eyewitness,” was intrigued by the power of wartime news manipulation. In the interwar years, he studied the subject of media manipulation intensely and wrote glowingly of Britain’s success in this domain, and during World War Two stepped into Northcliffe’s shoes as one of Britain’s most successful propagandists.

In the 1930s, U.S. isolationists, after analyzing British propaganda and censorship, concluded the United States had been tricked into declaring war on Germany in 1917. Their arguments convinced many people. Throughout the Great Depression, social scientists in the former Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey), the Allied countries, and the Soviet Union expanded this literature and drew from the World War One experience. New theories on propaganda and censorship were developed and even applied by totalitarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In these cases, the ruling party also directly controlled the newspapers.

The Canadian government’s main war planner, Maurice Pope, had to take those attitudes into account during the Depression, when he developed what would be the Canadian press-censorship system for World War Two. Fortunately for Canada’s next generation of censors, the Japanese and Germans were a far less scrupulous enemy than Wilhelmine Germany and the decrepit Austrian Empire. Still, the censors were never able to dominate the media the way Chambers had during the Great War.