How Journalism Was Banned In WW1

British reporters risked their lives to cover the Great War – but much of the threat came from their own side.

The frontline cameramen


As the continent was engulfed in the mechanised slaughter of World War One, the British government took swift action to police how the story of the conflict was told to ordinary people. The Defence of the Realm Act was rushed through parliament, giving the government incredible powers to control the public's everyday lives - buying binoculars was banned, as was feeding animals bread. The Act also allowed for sweeping censorship of the media, stating that "no person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty's forces or among the civilian population". The stage was set for a new phenomenon: the outlaw journalist.


Lord Kitchener, the "face" of the Great War whose pointing finger was emblazoned on recruitment posters throughout the land, was unashamedly hostile to journalists, regarding them as a subversive force who would destroy British morale. Empowered by the new laws, he banned reporters from the front lines. Instead, a new Press Bureau was set up, to feed officially-approved accounts of the war to newspapers. This was swiftly dubbed the "Suppress Bureau" by disgruntled reporters.

One such reporter was Basil Clarke, who brazenly defied the new regulations and risked actual arrest by his own side by heading straight into the action. Wearing his trademark bowler hat and smart coat, he cut a surreal figure in the muck and horror of the front lines. "It proved my best disguise in the war zone," he later said. "For whoever thought of looking for a newspaper man under a bowler hat?"


The risks of official punishment for Clarke and other outlaw journalists were very real. As war correspondent Hamilton Fyfe put it, Kitchener "talked wildly about having the reporters shot if they could be caught". One reporter was Philip Gibbs, who refused to leave the war zone despite being arrested more than once. His dispatches were smuggled back to London, with Gibbs bribing officials to get his stories into the right hands.

Gibbs was eventually arrested again and detained for 10 days by the British military, simply for reporting what was really going on in the war. One official then told him in no uncertain terms that he would be put up against a wall "with unpleasant consequences" if he returned to France. As Gibbs put it, "It was the most astounding thing in modern history, the secrecy behind which great armies were moving and fighting. To be quite plain, we were outlaws, subject to immediate arrest by any officer, French or British, who discovered us in the war zone."


Today, the Battle of the Somme is synonymous with apocalyptic bloodshed. Indeed, the first date of the battle remains the single worst day in British military history. And yet, shocking as it seems now, the widespread blockade on news meant it was initially reported as a success. One official dispatch confidently declared that "as far as can be ascertained our casualties have not been heavy" - this, on the day that well over 19,000 British men were slaughtered.

Communities in the UK were left in the dark about what had happened to their lads, and it was a slow, agonising process for the truth to become clear. It's little wonder that Daily Mail reporter William Beach Thomas later wrote: "A great part of the information supplied to us by British Army Intelligence was utterly wrong and misleading... I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the very good reason that it was untrue."


The Great War also saw the rise of "atrocity propaganda" - stylised accounts of horrific acts by German soldiers, particularly during the invasion of Belgium. While atrocities against civilians certainly did occur, the reporting of the acts was deliberately written in charged, emotive language to whip up hatred for the enemy. Exaggerated stories abounded of Germans mutilating children, torturing priests and even rendering down corpses to make soap. Some historians believe that the post-war scepticism about some of these reports helped the Nazis to get away with very real horrors during the next world war.