In anticipation of his presentation at the Institute of English Studies' 'Forbidden Access' Conference on 6 November 2014, this post by Dr Henry Irving examines one very practical issue raised by censorship.
The Ministry of Information (MOI) undertook difficult and sometimes conflicting tasks. Its dual responsibility for censorship and the maintenance of morale makes it a fascinating subject for research. However we are determined not to overlook more practical matters.
Such questions were among the most important faced by the MOI’s pre-war planners. They knew that the MOI would need to be within easy reach of both Whitehall and Fleet Street; be large enough to accommodate up to 100 journalists and at least 500 staff; and would require the most up-to-date facilities for communication.
The Imperial Institute, South Kensington, London (public domain)
Plans to requisition a hotel in Northumberland Avenue were abandoned on the grounds of size. The idea that the MOI could move into the Imperial Institute in South Kensington was rejected because it was seen to be too far removed from the centre of power. And a suggestion that the department could take over the Air Ministry’s offices at Ariel House stalled as the building was unavailable.
It was only after the last of these options had been ruled out in July 1939 that the MOI’s planners settled on the University of London’s Senate House. This left very little time to ensure that all of the other details were worked out. In fact, with a European war seen to be inevitable following the Nazi-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939, the move began just three and a half weeks after the accommodation was confirmed.
A remarkable amount was achieved in that time. This feat can be seen most clearly in the facilities that were made available to ensure the smooth running of the MOI’s news and censorship divisions.
Inside News and Censorship
The provision and censorship of war news was integral to the plan which had been agreed before 1939. It was believed that centralisation was the only way of ensuring co-ordination between the issue and the control of information concerning the war.
The Newsroom at the Ministry of Information (© University of London)
The News division was housed on the ground floor of Senate House. At its heart was a vibrant newsroom housed in the cavernous Beveridge Hall. The room was filled with rows of bespoke wooden desks, each with a lockable cupboard, and surrounded on three sides by telephone kiosks. Its stage was converted to add a wooden platform from where public announcements could be made and a large bell which signalled the release of a new press release.
Across Senate House’s ceremonial foyer, the smaller Macmillan Hall, which had been designed as a conferencing venue, was used for larger press conferences and briefings. Its dining facilities were initially retained for the Press when it was not being used for such purposes (they were replaced by a purpose-built canteen in 1940).
Offices on the corridor which snaked around the Beveridge Hall housed Press Officers representing various government departments. Selected journalists would be invited here for more detailed briefings on particular stories. Top officials from the Censorship Division also had rooms at one end of the corridor so that specific details could be checked in advance of drafting.
The main body of the Censorship division started work in the basement. Any story covered by defence regulations was passed to them by the journalists who worked in the press room via a system of pneumatic tubes. Two drafts would be sent for scrutiny, with one copy kept on file and the second returned bearing an official stamp and any changes marked in blue pencil. The stories would then be sent back to Fleet Street from the press room.
Additional facilities were provided to allow foreign correspondents to cable stories to their home countries. This involved even more rigorous censorship, with all telecommunications intercepted by the censors.
A Saving Grace?
Of course these facilities were not enough to guarantee the MOI’s smooth running. Its News and Censorship divisions soon came under intense criticism in the press and were accused of being heavy-handed by a public which was increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of the ‘phoney war’. This situation brought the MOI to the brink of collapse at the end of September 1939.
However the quality of the accommodation within Senate House was enough to stop it being entirely disbanded Indeed it was journalists – not civil servants or politicians – who petitioned most effectively when the MOI’s future was put at stake. A committee representing those reporters who worked in Senate House spoke for many when it warned the Prime Minister against risking ‘greater difficulty in obtaining news’ through de-centralisation.
Even critics, like the journalist Norman Riley, conceded that the facilities had been ‘a real triumph of organisation for one section of the Ministry.’
The fact that responsibility for the issue and control of news was ultimately passed to a ‘Press and Censorship Bureau’ housed in the same suite of rooms as the old News and Censorship divisions is evidence of just how significant such practical considerations can be.