The usual story of Army-press relations in 1914 is that all newspaper correspondents were banned from the fighting zone, and the only stories allowed out were those concocted by ‘Eyewitness’ (Maj-Gen Ernest Swinton), which were unremittingly positive and inaccurate.
I don’t think the story is actually quite as simple as that, however. The ban on newspaper correspondents was not imposed by the British Army, but by the French, and Kitchener was simply complying with Joffre’s wishes.
The problem was that journalists who could not find accurate stories, however, simply wrote speculative ones.
According to Swinton’s autobiography:
On Sunday 30th August appeared an article by a correspondent who had succeeded in getting in touch with our retreating Expeditionary Force. The article, couched in lurid language, pictured the British Army in a rout rather than a retreat. So alarming was it that that same afternoon the Official Press Bureau in London issued a counterblast calculated to comfort and raise the confidence of the public.
A second counterblast, he claims, was ‘the joint production of Lord Kitchener, Mr Churchill, Mr F.E. Smith and Lord Percy.’
The French policy of blanket silence was clearly not working, and only encouraged rumours. Therefore the Army decided to appoint an official correspondent, who would feed stories to the Press.The choice of Swinton is interesting. Under his other pseudonym (Ole Luk-Oie) Swinton was a noted writer of military fiction, mainly for Blackwood’s Magazine.
His most famous tale (and the title story of his 1909 collection) was The Green Curve which is, among other things, an impassioned plea for telling the truth in wartime; one of the characters argues:
Why not tell the Public the truth and act? Lead them, don’t follow. Of course they will acquiesque, once they realise the position.
The politicians want to avoid a panic, however, and this advice is ignored so that the population of a city is kept in ignorance of the dangers of a siege. Swinton’s story shows the disastrous results of this failure to keep the public informed.
Since this story was well-known, it is surely likely that Swinton was at first appointed as much for his commitment to truth-telling as for his writing skills.
Once installed as official correspondent, Swinton wrote lively copy. That which I have seen of it seems very similar to that produced by other journalists later in the War.
Swinton says frankly that ‘the principle which guided me was above all to avoid helping the enemy. This appeared to me more important even than the purveyance of news to our own people.’ He says:
I essayed to tell as much of the truth as was compatible with safety, to guard against depression and pessimism, and to check unjustified optimism which might lead to a relaxation of effort.
Despite having appointed a man who should have been trustworthy, the Army was clearly nervous. Swinton’s articles had to be vetted in turn by the Military Secretary, by the Sub-Chief and the Head of Intelligence, by the Secretary of the War Office, and by Kitchener himself, to ensure that nothing of potential use to the enemy leaked through. With such a degree of vetting, it is surprising that the articles are as lively as they are.
The Press did not like the system, of course, and wanted their own men near the Front. Eventually this was conceded, and Swinton stopped being Eye-Witness, and went on to invent the tank (or that’s what he claims in his autobiography).
What interests me is the evidence of divided aims – to combat lies with the truth, but at the same time to try to regulate that truth, and keep it under control.