The work of the documentary film movement during the Second World War has attracted much more attention from film historians than the newsreels. Those divisions of the Ministry of Information which were engaged in the conduct of positive propaganda have also received more attention, so far, than those in charge of negative propaganda: censorship or ‘control’,1 The reasons for this emphasis are not hard to find. Documentary films like the posters, books, pamphlets and other tools of positive propaganda are artefacts which museums and archives have collected ready for the historian. Moreover, since they were designed in the first place to be noticed by the public, there is a good deal of contemporary discussion of them to be found in the press and elsewhere. By contrast, secrecy and not publicity is the essential mode of operation for news-control and censorship. The more it relies on informal means invisible to the public, and the less on using its legal and police powers, the more effectively it is done. Its aim is to persuade through affecting the balance of information which reaches the public through omissions and the better its work is done altogether the less it is noticed and discussed by contemporaries.


News Medium News Agency Select Committee Horne Front British Council 
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  1. 1.
    This was written originally in 1974. However neither Dr Ian McLaine’s The Ministry of Morale (London, 1979),Google Scholar
  2. nor Professor M. L. Balfour’s Propaganda in War, 1939–1945 (London, 1979) deals with British newsreels at all and only deal with censorship in broad generalisations, in a few pages. Both books in fact concentrate almost totally on the work of the production divisions, including of course the BBC, but hardly at all with the operation of newscontrol.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now (London, 1967) p. 400.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I. C. W. Reith, Into the Wind (London, 1949) p. 341.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The point was also grasped by Goebbels: he compared it to an orchestra, in which instruments played different notes but all followed the same score and beat. The difference was that Hitler detested the Press as a remnant of the liberal age and would not back Goebbels against the more flat-footed Dietrich, the Reich Press Chief. See Balfour, op. cit., pp. 34–5 and the excellent discussion of the work, organisation and problems of the German press and newscontrol in R. E. Herzstein, The War That Hitler Won (London, 1979) chap. 4, which largely supersedes O. J. Halé’s The Captive Press in the Third Reich (Princeton, 1973).Google Scholar
  6. chap. 4, which largely supersedes O. J. Halé’s The Captive Press in the Third Reich (Princeton, 1973).Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    On the remarkably effective work of the News Department of the Foreign Office in preparing for propaganda needs of the next war, see P. M. Taylor, The Projection of Britain, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Leeds 1978. Pt. 3 ‘Psychological Rearmament: Preparations for War’.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    For British use of cable-communications for penetrating into the American, neutral and even German, press, see J. D. Squires, British Propaganda at Home and in the United States (Cambridge, Mass., 1935);Google Scholar
  9. H. C. Peterson, Propaganda, For War (New York, 1939). Already, seeing the operations of cable-control and Reuters during the Boer War, the French took the view that, ‘Britain owes her influence in the world today more to her control of cable communications than to her Navy’ — preamble to the French Telegraph Act of 1904.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    For the development of news agencies and the co-operation of the Post Office as well as the Admiralty in their strategic use, see G. Storey, Reuters’ Century 1851–1951 (London, 1951);Google Scholar
  11. Sir Roderick Jones, A Lifetime in Reuters (London, 1951);Google Scholar
  12. C. E. Cook, The Press in Wartime (London, 1920).Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Admiral George P. Thomson, Blue Pencil Admiral (London, 1949) p. 165. See also chap. V for an excellent summary of the working of the ‘voluntary’ system and the role of the news agency cable network within it. The working rule for the censors concerning information originating from abroad, thus constituting no security risk in itself, perhaps best explains the extensive and complex criteria applied by the censors: ‘Agency messages received from overseas (including Germany) and submitted to censorship (the reader will remember that all the newsagencies serving the British press had agreed to submit such news to censorship) were to be passed unless they were completely untrue and would at the same time have a depressing effect on the morale of our people’. (Thomson’s italics) op cit., p. 45.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    Nigel Nicolson (ed.), Harold Nicolson Diaries and Letters 1939–1945 (London, 1967) p. 32. It should be added, that the Censor did refer the matter higher-up.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    Lord Norwich, Old Men Forget (London, 1953) p. 285.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See, Raymond Fielding, The March of Time (New York, 1976) — a highly sympathetic accountlGoogle Scholar
  17. 23.
    On the question of newsreels versus documentary films and the debate about why the cinema-managers so steadfastly refused documentaries, see my Introduction to F. Thorpe and N. Pronay, British Official Films in the Second World War (Oxford, 1980).Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    David Dilks (ed.), The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, 1938–1945, (London, 1971) p. 344.Google Scholar
  19. 44.
    Ronnie Noble, Shoot First, Assignments of a Cameraman, (rev. ed.), (London, 1957) pp. 30–2.Google Scholar

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© Nicholas Pronay and D.W. Spring 1982

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  • Nicholas Pronay

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