The rise of populism and subsequent ‘crisis of democracy’ in recent years has led to discussions regarding the detrimental effects of fake news and media-friendly politics. Within this narrative, ordinary citizens are portrayed as passive bystanders manipulated by a highly mediatized political culture.
However, this need not always be the case. Indeed, from the late 1950s, newspapers became increasingly preoccupied with providing a platform through which ‘ordinary’ citizens’ perceptions of democracy could be articulated. These ‘voices’ were then utilised by newspapers in their construction of new forms of political reporting, consequently redefining public opinion as a less elitist category that was accessible to a broader demographic.
The Daily Mirror provides a particularly good example. Initiated by its change of ownership in the 1930s, in order to appeal to their new, working-class readership, the Mirror became increasingly focused on providing an outlet through which their constructions of the ‘voice of the people’ could be articulated. This was particularly the case with the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb).
In April 1954, the Mirror published a double-page spread on the new H-bomb. Alongside the Mirror’sfirst depiction of ‘The Monster’, the public were invited to respond to two questions regarding their opinion on H-bomb testing. The H-bomb enquiry revealed that 92% of participants were in favour of a ‘suspension of the test explosions’. The Mirror then used the results from the public polls to inform its own discourse.
William Connor (Cassandra), a columnist at the Mirror known for his anti-establishment rhetoric, was commissioned to write an article reflecting public distaste for the bomb.He used graphic and emotive language to present the H-bomb as an apocalyptic threat. ‘Children dear, I’m afraid it’s those grown-ups again’, Cassandra wrote before going on to explain the bomb in a patronising manner, as if talking to a child.
As a newspaper’s intention is not to alienate its readership, we can assume that this article was written as an ‘in-joke’ between the Mirror and its readers as, at least from what the public poll had revealed, both shared the same opinion of the bomb.
On the 2nd March 1955, the Mirror published an article revealing that Britain had ‘started to make the H-Bomb’. In contrast to the apocalyptic account of horror depicted in 1954, by March 1955, the H-bomb became a part of daily life. We see the normalisation of the H-bomb not only in the Mirror’s reporting style, but also within the ‘voice of the people’ constructed in their ‘Live Letters’ newspaper segment.
‘I read some time ago that if an atom bomb were dropped in the polar regions, the ice barrier would be broken and that this would allow a warm current to flow round Britain and so give us a tropical climate. If this is so, why do we not have the atomic tests there instead of in Australia and this reap the benefit in climate?’
Instead of a sense of horror, we see a blasé approach to the H-bomb – the implication being that the public accepted the necessity of the H-bomb and desired to make the best of a bad situation.
By 1957, the Mirror’s coverage of the H-Bomb changed again. Whereas previously the H-bomb was presented as either apocalyptic or everyday, by 1957 the apocalyptic had become the everyday. This was also echoed in the nature of public opinion the newspaper published.
‘After constantly reading about the horrible hydrogen bomb, I wish that someone would invent another bomb – the H for Happiness bomb’ wrote one reader.
The following week, another member of the public wrote a response:
‘I suggest that everybody in this world today could, if he wished, explode his own miniature bomb… In this day and age, however, I have found that any act of kindness… is taken for a sign of weakness’.
These sentiments were echoed in another letter entitled ‘If Angels Weep’:
‘I have my own theory about the rainy weather we’ve been having… Could it be that the angels are weeping now – not from laughter, but with bitter tears for us poor so-and-so’s who could be so happy but are being led on to the brink of misery and destruction by the big ‘eads?’
On top of a clear sense of sadness and an acknowledgement that it was a part of everyday life, there is also a sense of disappointment in their political leaders and an acceptance of the inevitability that the H-bomb would bring destruction and misery to Britain – a far cry from seeing the H-bomb as an opportunity to improve the British climate.
Through analysis of the Mirror’s shifting communicative practices and constructions of the ‘voice of the people’, it is reasonable to suggest that the way people related to the H-bomb changed over time. Tracing shifts such as these will allow us to enrich current study of popular opinion conveyed through mass media by historically contextualising the current, presentist narrative of a ‘crisis in democracy’.
By accessing the mediated perceptions of ‘ordinary’ people through analysis of the outlets that constructed their voices in the public sphere, we can move away from the top-down approach that dominates the study of postwar political culture whilst critically reflecting on the role new media plays in shaping our current political climate.
These concerns will be explored in the ‘Voice of the People’ project, which aims to put the voices of the ordinary citizen centre stage in the discussion of postwar political culture, by deconstructing the ways in which journalists brought the ‘voice of the people’ into the public sphere. From this, we will be able to provide insight into the changing notions of public opinion, whilst tracing the impact that has upon both journalistic and political culture.
Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie
Cover image: Photo of ‘Ivy Mike’ (yield 10.4 mt) – an atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the U.S. at Enewetak Atoll on 1 November 1952. It was the world’s first successful hydrogen bomb.
 ‘The Monster’, Daily Mirror, April 2nd 1954, p.1.
 ‘The People’s Verdict – Churchill Must Act’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1954, p. 1
 M. Conboy, ‘How The War Made the Mirror’, Media History: Newspapers, War and Society 23.3-4 (2017), p. 455.
 Cassandra, ‘A child’s guide to the bomb’, Daily Mirror, 6th April 1954, p. 9
 ‘Churchill: Another ‘Farewell’ Performance’, Daily Mirror, Wednesday 2nd March 1955 pp.1-3.
 ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 15th November 1956, p. 18.
 This personalisation of the H-bomb was a common theme within Mirror articles at the time. This was reiterated by their frequent use of a map of the UK depicting the scale of the potential destruction. The public were able to visualise the impact of the H-bomb on a national level, whilst also placing themselves as individuals on the map. Therefore, by 1957 the public was no longer relating to the bomb as a potential threat, but rather as an actuality.
 ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 24th February 1958, p. 14.
 ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 6th March 1958, p. 18
 ‘Live Letters’ Daily Mirror, 10th October, p. 18.