Pictures We Would Like To Publish, 1939

A newspaper that tells only part of the truth is a million times preferable to one that tells the truth to harm its country, once wrote The Sun. The Picture Post would have disagreed. “Responsibly Awkward” had been the motto of the Post, Britain’s answer to Life magazine, throughout the Second World War.

With the nation engulfed in the greatest conflagration it had ever seen, humour was in low supply but the Post steadfastly provided it with pictures of dozing soldiers, sleeping people in underground shelters, and amusing street graffitti. When the Germans were preparing to invade Britain in the darkest days of the war, the paper calmly produced an 8-page feature titled, “How to Invade Britain”, an account of Napoleon’s grandiose but scuttled plans. Paper-restrictions reduced it to mere 28 pages (from 104 pages before the war), but its patriotism was never in doubt: the paper set up a training school for the Home Guard while its manufacturing units were alloted to create cheap mortar. 

The issue Picture Post was confronted again and again was that of censorship. The magazine’s founder, Stefan Lorant used his “Diary of War” series to comment on Britain’s censorship policies.

Early in the war, in November 4, 1939 edition (vol. 5, no.5), the magazine published a photograph of a sign on a pitch-black background of bushes and trees, with the following statement printed in black letters on the sign’s white background:

“KEEP OUT! This is a private war. The War Office, The Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Information are engaged in a war against the Nazis. They are on no account to be disturbed. Nothing is to be photographed. No one is to come near.”

The accompanying caption read: “BLACK OUT: A Symbol of the War Which Mustn’t Be Photographed,” called out the harsh censorship the government had imposed upon the press.

In the double page of five photographs, four of them were black squares representing censored images, and one “real” photograph of three members of the department of censorship. The captions read:

“Some of the Leaflets our Airmen Dropped on Germany: Our country has at least done something in propaganda. Our planes have dropped leaflets over Germany. But the leaflets are a dead secret. Only Germans may read them. Britons may not. We asked to be allowed to show them to you. Permission refused.”

“British Airmen Shoot Down German Planes: A German raider crashes into a hillside — only one of dozens of pictures we should like to publish. We cannot. we can see the need of a reasonable censorship. We can’t see the need of a black-out. Can you?”

“British Troops Are in Comfort in the Front Line: So well-built are the lines which British troops have occupied in France that even in recent floods they are bone-dry. You see troops enjoying lunch — or would if we are allowed to send a cameraman. Repeated requests to War Office produce nothing but courteous acknowledgments.”

Only picture printed on that page was scathingly captioned:

“Our Thanks are due to them for the pictures on these pages: the picture censorship department of the Ministry of Information. Lord Raglan (centre) and two colleagues in the department of the Ministry of Information, which decides which pictures the press may have and which it may not. WIthout their cooperation and far-seeing initiative, we could never have presented these exciting pictures of Britain at war.

The following pages contrasted this tight censorship with the French and the Nazi use of photos as propaganda.

The public and authorities were able to laugh these censorships off with typical British “Mustn’t Grumble”. The censorship situation in Britain didn’t much improve, partly because the censors were overworked. A five-page report on the working of the Photographic Section from May 1941 noted that four censors each worked eight-hour shifts and reviewed on average 140 photographs, making an hourly average turnover of seventy photographs. One note for the publication of air raid damage photographs, the chief censor, Admiral George Thomson, wrote: “We work on a 50% basis, i.e. if the photograph shows two damaged houses, it must also shows two undamaged.”

The Post‘s publication peaked at 2 million copies a week in 1943, but it eventually overstepped itself. The government cancelled its subsidies the Post after it questioned the quality of some military equipment in the Middle East. Its last crusade was to release the photos of the destruction of the Farringdon Market by one of the last German V2 raids (March 8 1945), which didn’t happen until 1948.


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0 thoughts on “Pictures We Would Like To Publish, 1939

  1. So how much different is the freedom today then it was back then? Back then you couldn’t post a photo but you could write the the descripion of what was in the BLACK photo.
    Today you can post a photo of a bombing and the authorities tell you that the dead people were “terrorists” which you promptly write as the caption. But later it turns out that the dead are civilians…

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