Winston Churchill and Brendan BrackenChurchill and the Press

When the Ministry Of Information was first formed in 1939, Churchill pressed the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to appoint as its first Minister Brendan Bracken, his Parliamentary Private Secretary (pictured here with Churchill). Chamberlain refused and instead appointed Lord Macmillan who was a member of the BBC Advisory Council and so was familiar with the senior faces at Broadcasting house personally. Macmillan was replaced within a few months by John Reith who had founded the BBC. This suggests that Chamberlain saw radio broadcasting as being the most important medium of government communication in the war.

When Churchill came to power in May 1940, he dismissed Reith and instead appointed Duff Cooper, a fellow hawk who Churchill used to intimidate the press through threats of state control.  When Cooper tired of fighting the service ministries for control of news he resigned and Churchill finally got his wish and appointed Bracken in 1941.

For the rest of the war, Churchill took little interest in government propaganda from a strategic point of view, since he believed that Hitler could be beaten only by armed force, not by words.  However, he took an intense interest in how the press was depicting the government and him personally, that amounted to an obsession.  According to Francis Williams, Churchill would often phone the Ministry at midnight and demand that copies of the next day’s newspapers be sent over to Downing Street or Chequers for him to read in bed.  He would scour each page for reporting that he considered disloyal and complain bitterly to Bracken who would then have to smooth things over with editors.

zec cartoonChurchill shared this dislike of the press with other members of his coalition War Cabinet, including Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Home Secretary Herbert Morrison. One notorious incident shows how fine a line the media had to tread. In March 1942, at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic the Mirror ran a cartoon by Philip Zec, showing a merchant seaman clinging to the wreckage of his torpedoed vessel with the caption, ‘The price of petrol has been increased by one penny – Official.’

The Daily Mirror intended the cartoon to highlight the cost of petrol in human lives and that wasting fuel had serious consequences for merchant sailors bringing it to the country. The image was so graphic and its impact so great that the Ministry Of Information considered using it as the basis for a campaign to persuade the public not to waste fuel.  But Churchill and Herbert Morrison interpreted it as another attack on their conduct of the war and believed it would undermine the morale of the merchant navy.  Churchill demanded that Morrison use his powers as Home Secretary to close down the Mirror.  Brendan Bracken intervened yet again to urge restraint, and the matter was referred to a Cabinet committee under Sir John Anderson.  The committee decided that a public warning should be given to the editor of the Mirror that the paper would be suppressed if there was any repetition on ‘unwarranted and malignant attacks on those in authority.’

One legacy of the Ministry Of Information and its relationship with the War Cabinet was that Herbert Morrison became the most experienced minister in the post-war Attlee government at disseminating official information – experience he used to the full in publicising Labour’s policies.

To read how Herbert Morrison used the MOI’s powers in peacetime click here.