History of the Press

Did the Feminist Challenge Actually Shake Up the Print Press in 1969? Press Representations of Women in the Run-up to Women’s Lib

Women’s_March_London_(32993174595) (1)

The late 1960s were a turbulent time of rapid change; the mini skirt was the height of fashion, affluence was on the up yet women fighting for their liberation were criticised and mothers who worked were regarded with contempt.[1] Similar themes persist today and, despite progress, over half a century later full equality has not been achieved. Women still do not have equal pay in many professions and the press and media continue to treat men and women differently.

The Way, July 1969. Courtesy of the TUC Library Collections ©. (Accessed 15 March 2020).

1969 was a decisive year for second-wave feminism; protests were beginning and women were claiming political and social agency in Britain. These years laid the key groundwork for the historically influential feminism of the 1970s. The print press, although now competing with TV, continued to have high levels of readership, and thus heavily influenced and manipulated public opinion. This made the press vital in shaping responses to early feminism.

On the 18 May 1969, one thousand men and women assembled and marched for equal pay in Trafalgar Square. The newspaper reports on this were hugely varied. The Daily Mirror covered it in detail, describing placards labelled ‘Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value’, but it certainly did not express outward support for the marchers.[2] The elite press typically published short, disengaged reports, ignoring the issues behind the protests.

The Observer neglected to even comment on the 18 May demonstration. Meanwhile the Daily Mail criticised the women for not carrying their own banners, commenting that ‘it takes MEN to carry those banners’. It went on to mock the women who retreated inside ‘to sort matters out in a more traditionally feminine way – over a cup of tea.’[3] Feminist activism like this seldom made the front pages and was rarely taken seriously. There was undoubtedly variety between publications and even within them, but these publications had substantial impact on popular perceptions of feminism.

The British press not only tended to reject this early second-wave feminism but also outlined conflicting notions of femininity. On one hand women were expected to exemplify the perfect sexless housewife and thus were relegated to the domestic sphere. Meanwhile Page Three sexualised and objectified the female body, often disguising itself behind female sexual liberation, not dissimilar to the “sexual liberation” found in the underground press. All the while the newsrooms and the hard news reports remained male dominated.

The maternal, domestic, sexless woman was isolated to the ‘Woman’s Page’ of the elite press and popular press; bombarded by adverts for domestic appliances, makeup and all things intrinsically ‘feminine’. The national press presumed women to have no interest in the hard news stories and excluded them from the “serious” business of the public and political realms. Many of the elite papers virtually disregarded women’s issues and neglected to report on women’s news stories.

Female protests were often demeaned or not reported on at all. For example, when reporting on a strike in January 1969, the Guardian published a very small article titled ‘Another strike by women’.[4] In this vein, female activism was perceived as an inconvenience, a nuisance, a phase that would pass. This sort of reporting trivialised the women’s movement in Britain and diminished the prominence of their activism.

Articles that did question women’s position in society were limited to one-off opinion pieces written by women rather than a sustained effort to support feminist policies. In broadsheets such as The Times, where almost half of the paper was dedicated to ‘Times Business News’ and a singular page was aimed at women, it is hard to see any truly positive responses to women’s liberation. Even in a Times article, endorsing women’s work, it was assumed this work could only be part-time so as to allow women to maintain their ‘domestic commitments’.[5]

The popular press encouraged the domestic woman but also flaunted young women or ‘girls’ for the male gaze. The Daily Mail encouraged sexual rivalry amongst women, describing the ‘jungle warfare of sexual cut and thrust’ they competed in.[6] Their reporting supported the idea that women existed to please men; a notion that was replicated across student papers and the underground press. Once the 1970s and the sexual revolution hit the sexualisation of women continued to rise, now under the guise of sexual freedom. Page Three emerged and the Sun even published a long statement addressing their portrayal of women: ‘The Sun, like most of its readers, likes pretty girls. And if they’re as pretty as today’s Birthday Suit girl, 20-year-old Stephanie Rahn of Munich, who cares whether they’re dressed or not?’.

Degrading, though not explicit language, plastered the pages of the tabloids, and women remained subordinate in the newsrooms too. Women were typically limited to writing soft news articles, women’s pages and advice columns, perhaps the odd opinion piece if they were lucky! The underground press defined themselves as liberal spaces but their newsrooms were certainly not. Marsha Rowe worked for Oz and recalled women being limited in the newsrooms; ‘however alternative our life style might be, we still did the domestic duties for men and children at home.’[7] Almost all news publications, bar the feminist press, were male dominated and thus many sexist attitudes remained. In fact this did not change for many years; the Sun did not get its first female editor until 2003 and even then she did very little to change reporting on women and did not touch Page Three.

Oz Magazine, no. 31, November 1970, p. 2. (Accessed 15 March 2020).

Undoubtedly second-wave feminism and all of its work was successful; it saw huge political progress and encouraged women to observe their own oppression. However we cannot disregard the importance of the national press. It is typical for historians to seek transformations, particularly within gender studies, but perhaps identifying the continuities is just as important. Our battle has certainly not been won and there is still much continuity in press representations of women. The growth of social media has seen a continued obsession with female appearance and women’s sexuality remains a fairly taboo subject. Equal Pay remains a prominent issue, even fifty years after it was brought to the forefront of the political agenda and feminism is regularly considered a dirty word. The powers of the press can never be underestimated and the new social media giants are not all that dissimilar from the 1960s press. It may be a different decade but many of the issues women faced then persist today.

Izzy Larsen is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationship between women and the press. She focused on 1969 as a decisive year for the feminist movement in Britain and explored how the national press responded to this emerging movement. Her research also considers how many of these issues persist for contemporary women in Britain and across the globe.

Cover Image: Women’s March, London, 21 January 2017. Courtesy of Nessie Spencer – Freaks&Gigs Photographie.’s_March_London_(32993174595).jpg (Accessed 18 March 2020).

[1] Birmingham Daily Post, 23 April 1969, p. 25.

[2]Daily Mirror, 19 May 1969, p. 32.

[3] Daily Mail, 19 May 1969, p. 11.

[4] The Guardian, 10 January 1969, p. 18.

[5] The Times, 1 January 1969, p. 5.

[6] Daily Mail, 2 January 1969, p. 6.

[7] M. Rowe, ‘Spare Rib and the Underground Press’, The British Library. (Accessed 15 March 2020).


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Mr. Jones: Rediscovering the Remarkable Journalism of Gareth Jones


‘I don’t have an agenda, unless you call truth an agenda.’  So says James Norton as the titular character in the trailer for the new film Mr. Jones.  A line that might seem to connote dramatic hyperbole is actually admirable testament to the extraordinary career of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist whose life was tragically cut short in August 1935 on a reporting visit to China.

After serving as private secretary to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Jones became a reporter at the Western Mail in Cardiff.  A talented linguist, in early 1933 he was on hand in Germany to record Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship, and the story of Mr. Jones focuses on his travels in the Soviet Union in March 1933, where he discovered the extent of famine conditions in the Ukraine that resulted in an estimated death toll of between five and seven million.[1]

Western eyes had been opened to the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 by the reports of Malcolm Muggeridge that were published in the Manchester Guardian on 25, 27 and 28 March.  Jones himself returned to Berlin on 29 March and issued his own press release.  His depiction of life in the Ukraine was bleak: ‘Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread; we are dying.”’[2]

Jones went further by attacking the complicity of the Soviet regime, recounting a train journey where he gave short shrift to the denials of a local Communist:  ‘I flung into the spittoon a crust of bread I had been eating from my own supply.  The peasant, my fellow-passenger, fished it out and ravenously ate it.  I threw orange peel into the spittoon.  The peasant again grabbed and devoured it.  The Communist subsided.’[3]

In making his case – he reported that the Soviet state had brought Russia ‘to the worst catastrophe since the famine of 1921’ – Jones refused to play the game that underpinned the work of Western journalists in Moscow.   Shockingly, however, this marked Jones out as a target for these same journalists.

Jones’s exposé occurred at the same time as the Metropolitan-Vickers trial, where six British engineers were arrested on inflated charges of espionage.  Eager for the story, Western journalists dared not jeopardise the favour of the Soviet regime.  Walter Duranty, played as a servile character in the film by Peter Sarsgaard, was English by birth and the doyenne of the press community as the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, and he led efforts to discredit Jones.  His own report, ‘Russians Hungry But Not Starving’, shrugged off the scale of death and deprivation, claiming with semantic sophistry, ‘There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition’.[4]

The attacks on Jones were a combination of ideological apologia, journalistic self-interest, and unfortunate timing.  The Metropolitan-Vickers trial provided short-term leverage for the Soviets that was exploited by Konstantin Umansky, head of the Press Department of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.  At a celebration for Eugene Lyons, United Press correspondent in Moscow, a collective decision was taken over snacks and a ready supply of vodka to hang Jones out to dry.[5]

Jones’s revelations were somewhat dwarfed by this weight of denial.  He replied to Duranty directly in the New York Times on 13 May 1933, calling his fellow journalists ‘masters of euphemism and understatement’.[6]  But in this situation, Duranty’s seniority was a trump card; after all, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 1932 for his Soviet coverage.  The citation commended his reports as ‘marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgement and exceptional clarity’.[7]

Mystery surrounded Jones’s death in China on the day before his thirtieth birthday, with some suggestions that the Soviet state was implicated.  This tragedy has been extended by the relative loss of Jones to posterity.  He may have featured in Muggeridge’s satire on ‘fellow travellers’ and Western press correspondents, Winter in Moscow, as Wilfred Pye – Jones’s report about the orange peel is replicated almost verbatim – but it is more likely that Muggeridge simply fleshed out Pye’s narrative with Jones’s experiences.

It is fitting that, some eighty-five years since his death, Mr. Jones presents a wider audience with the story of Gareth Jones.  In an age of ‘fake news’ and when we doubt (often with just cause) the press’ role as the Fourth Estate, we could do with a few more reminders of the bravery of journalists for whom truth is their only agenda.

Dr David Vessey is Teaching Associate in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. David’s research focuses on modern British political history, specifically the corresponding fortunes of the Labour and Liberal parties, and newspaper history in the twentieth century. He has recently finished a project on political engagement, the press and the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain, which will result in two journal articles in 2020. He is currently researching British press narratives of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. You can find David on Twitter @DavidCVessey.

Cover image: A memory plaque at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, erected in 2006 by Ukrainian organizations to commemorate Jones’s deeds., [Accessed 27 January 2020].

[1] Stephen Oleskiw, The Agony of a Nation: The Great Man-Made Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (London: The National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933, 1983), pp. 54-5.

[2] Manchester Guardian, 30 March 1933, p. 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] S. J. Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow (Oxford, 1990), p. 207.

[5] Marco Carynnyk, ‘Making the News Fit to Print: Walter Duranty, the New York Times and the Ukrainian Famine of 1933’ in Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko (eds.), Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (Edmonton, 1986), pp. 76-7.

[6] Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, p. 208.

[7] Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (London, 1986), p. 320.

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French fascists against Jewish women (1930s-1940s)

antoine 8

Image: A female section of the PPF marching through the streets of Paris on 8 August 1943

This is an extract from a paper given by Antoine Godet at the Gender and Antisemitism workshop at the University of Sheffield which was held on June 18, 2019. It dealt with the representation of Jewish women, French or not, by French fascist men, through their texts and drawings in the 30s and the 40s, and the antisemitism of French fascist women. For this blog, Antoine focuses only on the misogynistic antisemitism of French fascist men. They belonged to movements such as the Parti Populaire Français (PPF), the Francisme or the Milice, and were journalists and drawers in the fascist press (Je suis partout, L’Émancipation Nationale, Au Pilori, etc.)

In their writings and iconography, French fascists say little about Jewish women. They prefer to denounce Jewish men, or rather “Jews” in general. Nevertheless, for the Fascists the “Jew” then is devoid of manhood and embodies the counter-model of their nationalist ideal manly man. Above all, the Jewish people in general are feminised and, at the end of the 30s, the racist ethnologist George Montandon, who was later a PPF activist, spoke of the “ethnie putain“, “the whore ethnic group”. According to him, this “scientific name” is justified by the “lust” of the “Jewish ethnic group” and “the fact that this community, instead of serving a country, puts itself, like a streetwalker, at the service of all countries” [1]. For French fascists, this global Jewish femininity weakens and soils the French race, to the point of speaking of France enjuivée (“Jewified France”).

George Montandon, How to recognize a Jew – with ten photographs, Paris, Nouvelle Éditions Françaises, 1940.

In fact, especially from the late 30s onwards, French fascists warn against the danger of interbreeding between Jews and non-Jews, an idea directly inspired by Nazism. For example, in 1938 in the pamphlet L’Emprise juive (The Jews hold), Marcel Bucard, the leader of the Francisme, expresses this fear of racial mixing by taking the example of “Jacob”, who prostitutes his daughter “Esther-Isabelle” with a count, in order to invade high society and voluntarily soil the French race. Bucard concludes that, in a hundred years’ time, “all the countesses and marquises will have eyes in the shape of coffee beans, and the hooked nose of the Rebecca from the rue des Rosiers“, a Jewish street in Paris. In May 1941, Doriot, the leader of the PPF, says it again: “A Jew has no right to marry a French woman. Let him marry with Rachel!”[2].

A drawing from Une histoire vraie, 1941

Moreover, from the 30s onwards, French antisemites tend to abandon the stereotype and the fantasy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of the Belle Juive, to represent these women as hags with hooked noses and frizzy hair, which have now lost all their seduction capacities; or as insolent members of the bourgeoisie covered with jewels. In October 1938, in an article entitled “Jewish Fauna” published in Je suis partout, the writer and journalist Lucien Rebatet attacks “the thick Jewesses with pearls and furs, who try to imitate the charming and voluptuous walk of Christian women and are nothing more than a caricature of obscenity”[3].

Vidi, L’Union Française, 21 November 1942


Ralph Soupault, Le Petit Parisien, 19 December 1941

From 1940, this kind of physical description of Jewish women can be found mainly in the drawings of the collaborationist press representing the “Jewish Republic”. A Republic which, for them, continues to be embodied in “Jewified Vichy” and does not want to die once for all. By contrast, France, or rather the “National Revolution”, is personified by a nice woman, usually a blonde one, who delays aligning with other fascist countries in Europe. However, the myth of the Belle Juive has not totally disappeared and George Montandon, obsessed with the “Jewish nose”, recommends in 1938 and after to “disfigure nice Jewish women by cutting off their nasal ends, because there is nothing uglier than removing the tip of their nose”[4].

‘To save France… we need new blood – I’m the blood-donor’ Hubert, Au Pilori, 21 January 1943


Raph Soupault, Je suis partout, 20 December 1941

Finally, morally and psychologically, the Jewish woman is also the one who embodies or inspires feminine intellectualism and feminism. She is in particular the dangerously modern and left-wing woman, like Cécile Brunschvicg or Louise Weiss, the black beast of Je suis partout[5]. The Jewish woman is also an artist, and often a “greedy artist”, who relies on her fellows to succeed, like the actress Rachel according to the same newspaper. Under the Occupation, she necessarily belongs to the Zazous, this carefree youth vomited by the Nazi collaborationists. At last, under the pen of the collaborationists, the generic Jewish woman is called Sarah, Dalila, Rebecca or Rachel. For example, the writer Céline nicknamed England “Lady Sara Marmelade” to imply that this country is controlled by Jews. In the same line, Sara Roosevelt, the American president’s mother, is suspicious for the collaborationists because of her first name. Once again, she embodies this idea that the United States, and the Allies in general, are controlled by the Jews and devoid of manhood[6].

‘Military purposes: For a swinging France in a zazou Europe…’ Ralph Soupault, Je suis partout, 6 June 1942

Antoine Godet has a PhD in Contemporary History at Angers University, France. His thesis (2017) dealt with “The political and social symbolism of fascist and fascistic movements in France and Great-Britain in the 1930s through the comparative study of the Parti Populaire Français and the British Union of Fascists”. His research themes focus on Fascism, Nazism, extreme right, representations, political symbolism, rites, liturgy, identities, communities.

Related Stories: The Gender and Antisemitism Series

Challenging Heterosexist Readings Of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies by Roseanna Ramsden

George Montandon, “Détermination psychologique de l’ethnie judaïque : “l’ethnie putain”, La Difesa della Razza, 5 November 1939, p. 18-23 ; “Les Juifs démasqués par un savant ethnologue”, La France au travail, 2 July 1940.

[2] Marcel Bucard, L’Emprise juive, Paris, C.D.F., 1938, p. 69, 86, 87 ; Jacques Doriot, Réalités, Paris, Les Éditions de France, 1942, p. 114.

[3] Lucien Rebatet, “Que devient la Roumanie ?”, Je suis partout, 28 October 1938, p. 8.

[4] George Montandon, “L’Ethnie juive devant la science”, Cahiers du Centre d’examen des tendances nouvelles, n° 1, September 1938, p. 22 ; Revivre – Le Cahier jaune. Le grand magazine illustré de la race, 5 April 1943.

[5] For example “La dame aux gants verts”, Je suis partout, 2 May 1936, p. 8.

[6] For example, Je suis partout, 23 May 1942

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Watchdog or Attack Dog? Jeremy Corbyn and the myth of the ‘free press’


According to a recent study, Jeremy Corbyn has been subjected to sustained abuse by the British press and denied a fair platform from which to air his views, contrary to what the leader of the main opposition party in an open, democratic system might expect. 1 The authors argue that although traditional liberal conceptions of the media portray it as a watchdog, holding the powerful to account, in this instance it has acted more as an ‘attack dog’, relentlessly pursuing him. Is this a new phenomenon? Or does it have historical precedents?

It is striking that even an event of the magnitude of Brexit has failed to shift the troubles of the Labour Party from the headlines, even as the Government went through its own leadership crisis. The question of Corbyn’s suitability as party leader and potential Prime Minister has remained ever present. Political opponents have even claimed he has made Labour a ‘threat to national security’.

Corbyn’s supporters have bemoaned what they see as a concerted political and media campaign to undermine him. 2 The report supports this claim to some extent, arguing that he has been delegitimised in a number of ways. Over half of all news articles and two-thirds of editorial and opinion pieces in the sample had an antagonistic tone. Corbyn’s own voice was often missing, or else sometimes presented in a distorted form. 3 His character, personal life and image were often ridiculed. And, most damagingly, he was usually linked to ‘loony’ or ‘outdated ideas’, and dangerous groups. 4

The British press has always been deeply intertwined with politics, and the composition of those producing the news has consistently resulted in certain political figures and movements being denigrated. The emergence of a radical press in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries gave outsiders a platform, with titles such as the Chartist Northern Star amassing huge readerships. However, they disappeared following the repeal of the stamp duty in 1855. Production costs rose, and advertising revenue was needed to break even as a result.

The trend throughout the remainder of the century was for newspapers to be linked to the parties that dominated Westminster – the Conservatives and Liberals – or factions and individuals within the parties which could give them financial backing.

This situation unravelled during the interwar period due to new commercial considerations and the emergence of Press Barons. Although newspaper owners such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook challenged Conservative leaders, they remained ‘small-c conservatives’ and hostile to left wing politics. Rothermere was most ardent, and it is no surprise that it was in his Daily Mail that the Zinoviev Letter, a fraudulent document linking the Labour Party with the Soviet Union, was printed prior to the 1924 general election. 5 By the 1950s commercial success freed newspapers from relying on formal links to political benefactors, though papers still generally backed certain parties or positions, usually of a right-wing nature.

Rupert Murdoch is often portrayed as some kind of bogey man, but it is undeniable that he signalled a renewal of a more partisan press. Spearheaded by his paper, The Sun, the 1980s saw Labour leader Michael Foot face a slew of personal insults, and use of the term ‘The Loony Left’ to describe various left-wing figures, including Corbyn himself. This culminated in the notorious 1992 election result headline: ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’. 6 More recently UKIP gained press and financial support from Richard Desmond and his Express titles.

The media has always policed the status quo, helping inform the range of acceptable policies at any particular moment. 7 It’s also right that public political discourse should be monitored by the media, and difficult questions asked of politicians. The fact that certain views are deemed legitimate and sensible is inevitable. Yet it’s clear that, in many cases, figures and policies that could easily be questioned don’t face same level of scrutiny across the press – George Osborne’s economic policy being just one example. 8

Historically, the British press has ferociously attacked politicians regarded as against the interests of business, and, compared with the electorate, has disproportionately backed the Conservative party. The market may cater to many people’s individual appetites, but it has failed to provide a suitable watchdog.

Of course, recent events also explain coverage of Corbyn, especially longstanding tensions within the Labour Party. Corbyn and McDonnell have made bad decisions and shown naivety, playing into the hands of eager journalists. This is inexcusable. They and their press team must be aware of the historical precedents. They personally experienced similar press reactions in the 1980s, and saw the long-lasting hostility endured by Corbyn’s political hero, Tony Benn. The way events unfolded, intensified by the media, has led to a siege mentality on both sides, resulting in a vicious cycle. It remains to be seen if Corbyn can succeed. If replaced, it will be interesting to see if another politician with radical policies fares differently.

There is no simple remedy. Ideally, the public should demand more from those that supposedly monitor the political world on their behalf. Regulation is tricky, and political views must not be censored. A press standards organisation with more licence and willingness to act against inaccuracies would help. After the press largely escaped repercussions following Leveson, this is another warning sign that we need to think about ways to temper its worst excesses, especially as the myth of the free press continues to be spun.

Aaron Ackerley is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Sheffield. His research examines economic knowledge and ideas as cultural constructions, and charts how economic narratives were constructed in the newsroom, presented in print and consumed by readers during the interwar period. You can find Aaron on twitter @AaronAckerley and @RaidersFilmBlog.

Image: Jeremy Corbyn speaking outside parliament about Bahrain, September 2013. [Wikicommons].


  1. The study is from the LSE Department of Media and Communications. It charts coverage of Corbyn across eight national newspapers between 1 September and 1 November 2015, from his rise as a candidate, to the early days of his leadership.
  2. Straying into the realms of conspiracy theory; but that’s not to dismiss the possibility that nefarious activities may have occurred.
  3. This is odd as, historically, elite voices in important positions have been given far more space to express their views, while certain types of voices, such as union leaders, have not been given much of a platform. The LSE study found that once again union leaders were largely ignored, and when they did feature it was often when they were disparaging Corbyn (p. 5).
  4. Such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA. Frequently linking him to Communists and Marxists repeats rhetoric which Labour leaders have faced for a century.
  5. One counterweight during this time period was the Daily Herald, the official paper of the Trade Union Congress which achieved a truly mass readership. More recently the Daily Mirror has supported the Labour Party, but does not reach as big an audience.
  6. It is also telling that although The Sun did back New Labour in 1997, it was only after Tony Blair had re-situated the party as a more centrist, pro-business entity, and abolished Clause IV.
  7. Chomsky and Hermann famously theorised that the liberal media play a role in delineating the permissible, in effect saying: “Thus far and no further”. Thus, The Guardian has been accused of a concerted campaign to undermine Corbyn, despite its reputation as one of the more left-leaning British newspapers. A former Guardian readers’ editor responded to the accusations.
  8. It was contrary to most expert opinion and failed to meet his own targets. Another infamous example was the failure of the media to properly interrogate Tony Blair’s justifications for the Iraq War. There is now a whole cottage industry that has sprung up online which attempts to track the media’s failure to question such decisions and the hypocrisy of the media.
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‘Don’t throw away our history’? Churchill, Leveson and the ‘freedom of the press’


You can always tell that journalists are getting worried about regulation when they start dredging up stirring quotations about the ‘freedom of the press’. There are plenty of famous historical figures to cite – John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville and many more – to add weight to any argument about protecting newspapers from the claws of the state. The Sun’s front page today 1 provides one of the best examples yet of this tendency. Under the dramatic headline ‘D-Day’, a grave-looking Winston Churchill is displayed alongside lines he penned in 1949:

‘A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty, the Press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.’

To reinforce the point, the Sun gives MPs voting on a ‘press law’ a stark warning: ‘Don’t throw away our history’.

Rousing words indeed – even if they are slightly undercut by the smaller photograph at the top of the same page showing the Duchess of Cambridge catching her shoe in a grate, inadvertently suggesting that the press is more likely to be vigilant in watching celebrities then in guarding the ‘rights of the ordinary citizen’. The D-Day rhetoric also fell rather flat as soon as it was announced that the main political parties had reached agreement on a compromise system of regulation, forestalling the need for a grand parliamentary battle. Deploying Churchill in this way, though, is a tendentious use of history. The former Prime Minister was by no means an unfailing supporter of the ‘freedom of the press’. During the Second World War, Churchill threatened the Daily Mirror with suppression when it printed what he regarded as critical comments about the war effort. When he suffered a stroke in June 1953, while serving as Prime Minister for the second time, he conspired with sympathetic newspaper proprietors to hide the seriousness of his illness from the press. And when, the following year, cabinet discussed the spate of press reporting of ‘homosexual offences’, Churchill suggested that an amenable backbencher be encouraged to introduce into the House of Commons a bill preventing the publication of details from prosecutions of this kind. He was eventually dissuaded by a memorandum pointing out that this was a serious encroachment on the principles of open justice and press freedom.

More importantly, perhaps, the Sun’s suggestion that ‘press laws’ and ‘statutory regulation’ are the main threats to the vibrancy of British journalism is to misread the evidence from recent decades. Since the Second World War, politicians have been falling over themselves not to set up a system of statutory regulation, and direct parliamentary intervention is certainly not what Leveson or his supporters are demanding. The main threats to press freedom and transparency in public life come from elsewhere. It is here, indeed, that the example of Churchill is instructive. Churchill’s warnings to the Mirror were part of a long and continuing tradition of state attempts to use the Official Secrets Act and ‘Defence Notices’ (now known as ‘Defence-Advisory Notices’) to limit discussion of matters impinging on ‘national security’. The hushing-up of Churchill’s stroke was typical of ways in which information can be manipulated, distorted, leaked or restricted in the course of informal contacts and briefings between ministers, proprietors and journalists. And if the publicity given to ‘homosexual offences’ is no longer an issue, current proposals for secret or closed courts pose a challenge to the principle of ‘open justice’. The intense focus on the ‘statutory underpinning’ of the proposed new regulatory body is serving to distract attention from a range of vital issues relating to the relationships between the press, politicians and the public.

When in doubt, the tabloid press routinely reaches for wartime analogies and the big book of Churchill quotations. More often than not, these comparisons do more to obscure than illuminate the real issues. In this case, Churchill’s actions, rather than his words, can help us see where the true dangers lie.

Adrian Bingham is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. His research was quoted in volume 1 of the Leveson Report and he is the author of Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press 1918-1978 (Oxford, 2009).

You can see Adrian’s blog on the original Leveson Report here:

You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.


  1. Originally accessed at on 18 March 2013
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No more reports, please: Lord Leveson and the uses of history

No More Reports Please: Lord Leveson and the uses of History

It is clear that Lord Justice Leveson knows his history; more interesting, in many ways, is the way that he is prepared to use it as a rhetorical weapon against his critics. The Executive Summary of his weighty volume opens with the eye-catching statement that ‘For the seventh time in less than 70 years, a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press.’ In his concluding remarks he adds that ‘No-one can think it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth.’ The message – repeated again in his press conference, and frequently picked up in the outpouring of opinion on his findings – is clear: we must not repeat the mistakes of the past, but instead establish a new set of relationships between the press, politicians, police, and the public. History has indicated that ‘last chance saloons’ simply don’t work with customers as resourceful and well-connected as national newspapers.

The report itself contains an impressively detailed 24-page section on the history of press regulation based not only on the evidence of the many witnesses but also on the research of academics in the field, including myself. Leveson identifies several ‘strongly recurring themes’ since the 1940s. Recommendations for a rigorous system of self-regulation have repeatedly been watered down or evaded altogether. ‘The historical lessons’, Leveson notes, ‘are clear enough’, most notably ‘the inability of “self-regulation” to address the underlying problem sufficiently’ and the ‘distinct and enduring resistance to change from within the press.’

The press was not regulated until the Royal Commission on the Press, reporting in 1949, recommend that a body be established ‘to foster those tendencies which make for integrity and for a sense of responsibility to the public’. Editors and proprietors came up with a system so tame it is amazing they got away with it. Writing to one of his directors in December 1950, Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Express newspapers and a determined opponent of regulation, was surprised to find the proposed General Council of the Press ‘innocuous’. ‘The Council has no authority at all,’ he continued. ‘I can see that there is no means of imposing penalties. Am I right in all that? If I am right in all that we might possibly change our attitude to it.’ He was right: there were no penalties other than the publication by the Council of critical judgements, and that is the way the system has remained to the present. Fleet Street has consistently taken advantage of the fact that politicians, especially Conservatives, have rarely exerted much pressure on the industry to clean up its act. As negotiations on the Press Council dragged on past the Conservative election victory of 1951, Beaverbrook suggested speeding up the process: ‘I advise you to get on with the Press Council while the Tory Government is in power… It might be a good plan to batten down your Press Council in some form that would be useful but not obstructive.’ Spotting, and utilising, any signs of weakness or disunity among the supporters of reform, the press has dragged its feet so effectively that it has remained subject only to the minimum of oversight.

But there are other, less explicit, lessons that shape Leveson’s report and its recommendations. One is the need for realism when taking on the press. The failure to establish a more stringent regulatory regime in the early 1990s, when the newly-established Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was struggling to rein in tabloid excesses, was partly because Sir David Calcutt’s recommendations for reform were easily portrayed as too draconian. Calcutt’s Review of Press Self-Regulation, published in January 1993, called for the establishment of a statutory Press Tribunal, in which a judge would sit with two lay assessors to adjudicate on complaints, as well as for the introduction of three new laws against intrusion. ‘Sir David’s proposals’, Leveson notes wryly, ‘were seen as a step too far by even the most adamantine critics of the press’. As a result, it became very difficult to achieve a consensus about the way forward.

Leveson has not made the same mistake of over-playing his hand. His knowledge of history means that he is acutely aware that ‘freedom of the press’ is a potent rallying cry, and that there is a deep-seated anxiety at Westminster about anything that can be portrayed as state ‘censorship’. Leveson has gone out of his way to argue that his proposals do not amount to ‘statutory regulation’, even though they will be characterised as such; instead, he defines his solution as ‘independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process’. His recommendations are, in essence, a historically-informed balancing act: statutory underpinning to ensure compliance from a perennially backsliding press, but with sufficient safeguards to prevent Parliament or the Government directly restricting the publication of material or intervening in the regulatory process.

Even this compromise position seems too much for the Prime Minister, who resorted to the well-worn ‘slippery slope’ argument and cautioned against ‘crossing the Rubicon’ of state control. Leveson himself will be under few illusions about the difficulties of maintaining the political momentum to implement his recommendations. Another historical lesson he highlights is that the ‘window of opportunity for reform’ is short. What is different this time, though, is that the campaign for reform is more organised and media savvy, than ever before. It has shrewdly engaged the public through the involvement of ‘victims’ of the press, such as the Dowlers and the McCanns, as well as celebrities, such as Hugh Grant. Mr Cameron’s immediate declaration of opposition to a statutory underpinning for the regulatory regime is a serious blow to Leveson and his supporters, but it will be difficult to kick this report into the long grass. A tougher form of regulation is undoubtedly coming, but it would be foolish to underestimate the press’s ability to wriggle out of its responsibilities. I wouldn’t yet bet against that eighth report.

This opinion piece originally appeared at History & Policy (December 2012),

Adrian Bingham is a Senior Editor of History & Policy. His research was quoted in volume 1 of the Leveson report.

You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.

Image: NS Newsflash

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