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Censorship in the newsreels

movietone poster

Throughout their fifty-year operating period, Movietonews was never censored.  In fact, no newsreel was censored from the time of their introduction in the early years of the twentieth century.

This did not mean that they were not subject to criticism for the contents of the reels. The newsreels seemed to have had a dissenting voice against them and almost anything they did.

At an early stage, Movietone were accused of “censoring” their own reel by the exclusion of an important story.

At that time, Gerald Sanger making a statement countering some of his critics (in the) ”…campaign for better and brighter newsreels, considers that newsreel editors should censor their own work by eliminating anything which, in their opinion, is not in the public interest”.

It must have been obvious from the beginning that newsreels could not operate a system of censorship by an outside body, while producing either one issue per week or, even less, while producing two issues per week.

The only practical way of some kind of censorship would have been before the editing stage.  Issues of Movietonews were completed on Tuesdays and Fridays.  On completion, the cut negative and the re-recorded sound track were handed over to the laboratories for them to produce several Fine Grain Duping Positives (Lavenders) prior to printing the required number of copies.

Had censorship been in force, it would have required the production staff to remain at work while a first positive print was made to be shown to the censor.  If the censor required that a scene, or even a whole story, was cut the staff would have had to, in the first case, do remedial work on the sound track and in the second case, provide a completely new story.  This would almost certainly have meant that they would not be able to issue the newsreel until one day later.

It should be noted that many of the staff of Movietone were not paid overtime.  They were paid above average wages and were expected to work when the circumstances required.  Waiting around for a censor to make a decision would have been too much.

Gerald Sanger, in his November 1932 comment, cited the case of the Hunger Marchers.

The marchers who had set off for London in September and October had come from the poverty stricken areas of South Wales, Scotland and the north of England.  The marching culminated in a mass rally at Hyde Park involving 100,000 people.  There were clashes with the police whose numbers had been increased to 70,000 to quell the demonstrators and prevent them from reaching the Houses of Parliament.

Apparently the whole affair received little coverage from the press, but the newsreels did not cover the event at all.

Sanger wrote: ”The exhibition of the pictures showing the clashes which took place in Hyde Park will undoubtedly exacerbate the situation, and it is for this reason that the editors of British Newsreels either forebore to cover or to release pictures as they obtained”.

The principal critic at this time was one John Gammie who said that he disagreed with this “patriotic idea behind this form of self-censorship”.  He went on “Newsreel censorship, in my opinion, should be applied mainly to gruesome and revolting subjects”.

Tommy Cummins, then Editor of Paramount News confirmed the problem of delay by censorship.  He asked: “…how any form of increased control could do otherwise than hopelessly slow down the publication of screen news”.

In March of 1934 a gentleman by the name of Vernon Bartlett produced a “talk item” named “Europe in Ferment”.  In the Kinematograph Weekly they had an item called “What is a newsreel ? Hold-up at Movietone News Theatre”.

British Board of Film Censors certificate

British Board of Film Censors certificate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film was held back from screening to the public until it had been seen by the London County Council Entertainments Committee and Edward Shortt, Chairman of the British Board of Film Censors.  The screening was at their request.  Mr. Shortt was asked to rule whether the film was in the category of topical newsreels (which were exempt from censorship).  Mr. Shortt refused to give a ruling, but said that if the item was subject to censorship, he would have no hesitation in passing it.  However, he did suggest that the title was changed to “Europe Today”.  The film was only screened once and that screening was attended by representatives of the Foreign Office and various European Ambassadors.

It seems that the subject was thought to be likely to upset some European Governments.

In July of 1934, Gerald Sanger, speaking at a dinner, said: “It is up to us to correct any disposition to impose any form of censorship on newsreels.  Newsreels should be as free as the Press and the discretion of editors of newsreels, who are experienced people should be trusted, neither to outrage the feelings of the public or to attach to the film any commentary that was likely to inflame the public.  There have been attempts recently to put a certain amount of pressure upon newsreels and to restrict our activities and functions, that we must resist’.

In November 1936, N.J. Hulbert M.P., giving a lecture on the production and showing of newsreels said: “There is no censorship of newsreels and I hope there never will be because newsreels are talking newspapers”

The meeting was told that there was no Government control, although, sometimes, a hint might be given that it is not desirable to publish a certain item, and it was usual to respect their wishes on such occasions.

In June of 1937, the American Motion Picture Herald ran an article which was about the screening of the wedding of the Duke of Windsor pointing to the fact that a film of the wedding was not going to be released in the United Kingdom.

Coronation dress of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

Coronation dress of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British newsreel editors had been led to believe that as the British public was still enraptured by the newsreel coverage of the Coronation of George VI, they would not care for pictures of the Duke’s wedding.  The Daily Express, alone among the British Press, commented that “You will have to go to France or America, or maybe Russia, to see them, thereby proving that, though a large-sized piece of humbug is talked over here about freedom from censorship and from what not, the Imperial British people are still treated as a mentally deficient race”.

Gerald Sanger, Editor of Movietonews, speaking on behalf of the newsreels stated “It was felt that to release films of the wedding might reawaken painful emotions and even lead to invidious demonstrations in the theatres”.

United Press reported that the newsreels had received strong but indirect hints from official quarters that it would be “good policy” not to include pictures of the wedding in releases for the Empire.

John Grierson, renowned producer of documentary films, mounted a strong attack on the newsreels for their performance in the previous year.  He called his attack “Historic Mistakes”.  He said “The newsreel is rushing breathlessly to oblivion”. He continued “World events of the past year seemed to have conspired to show up the British newsreels at their most cowardly, most incompetent”.

He claimed that, at a meeting of the heads of all the five newsreels, a decision was made to bar the Duke’s wedding from every screen in Britain.

“Britain’s cinema addicts had lost the year’s biggest story after the Coronation.  The trade had lost the chance to pack every movie house in the country solid, for days on end.  So quickly did the newsreel’s ‘big five’ make their decision, that at first there were rumours of hands being forced by Government pressure or interference from powerful vested interests.  Late information showed that they had acted off their own bat.  What underlying reasons led to the anti-Windsor policy ? The newsreels’ official statement that ‘they were respecting the Duke of Windsor’s desire for privacy’ was plainly ridiculous, then every newspaper was screaming headlines round the world”.

On 22nd September, 1938, British Paramount News showed an item on the Munich Crisis.  The title was “Europe’s Fateful Hour”.  The following day, the item was withdrawn.

Paramount sent a telegram to each of its theatres saying:

Please delete Wickham Steed and A.J. Cummings’ speeches from to-day’s Paramount News.  We have been officially requested to do so”.

Later, the British Government approached the American Hays Office, responsible for censorship in American cinemas) asking that they withdraw the item from Paramount News in the U.S.A.

The item in question featured a discussion between Wickham Steed (a former editor of The Times) journalist A.J. Cummings and B.B.C. commentator, taxi-driver Herbert Hodge.   Their comments were critical of the Government’s appeasement policy.

The matter was raised in the House of Commons two months later by Liberal M.P. Mr. Geoffrey Mander and then again on December 1st and December 7th.

Mr. Mander was complaining that the Government had censored the Paramount item because they did not agree with the views expressed in it.

Here are some of the comments within the film story issued by Paramount:

Mr. Wickham Steed:

Has England surrendered ?  Who is “England” ? – the Government or Parliament of the people ?  The British Parliament has not surrendered for it has not been convened, and still less have the British people.  Our Government, together with that of France, is trying to make a present to Hitler – for use against us when he thinks the time has come…….

Herbert Hodge and A.J. Cummings in conversation:

Hodge: Well, Mr. Cummings what do you think of the news ?  Everybody’s saying to me that England has surrendered to Hitler.  Do you think that’s right ?

Cummings: Well, beyond a doubt, Hitler has won an overwhelming diplomatic triumph for German domination in Europe.  Nothing in future will stop him but a mass war.

Later Cummings says: The fact is our statesmen have been guilty of what I think is a piece of yellow diplomacy.

Later Hodge says: What worries me about it all, Mr. Cummings is whether we’ve simply postponed war for another year or two against a much stronger Hitler of the future.

Chamberlain arrives at Munich, 29 September 1938.

Chamberlain arrives at Munich, 29 September 1938. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that that is what Neville Chamberlain had done.

In the debate in the House Mr. Mander, speaking about the decision to remove the item from Paramount News said “Later on they denied that they had been officially requested to do so and said they had done it at their own discretion, but, unfortunately for them, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had given the whole show away ………..”

The Home Secretary, the Government’s spokesman, acknowledged that they had spoken to the Hays Office but claimed to know nothing of any other cases where the Government had intervened on that particular subject.

Mr. Mander: “There you get a perfectly clear and open case of political censorship by the Government of the day in the interests of foreign policy that they were pursuing, and it was a foreign policy which was detested by probably half the nation.  It is not as if you were dealing with a case where you had national unity and 95 per cent of the people thinking one thing.  That would be very different.

The Honourable Members together “ WHY “ ?

Mr. Mander: If honourable member say “Why”  I will agree that is not desirable to have any censorship at all, under such circumstances, but I submit that you must have a sense of proportion”

I have always believed that Chamberlain bought Britain and her Allies a year in which to prepare for war.  Two months before the Munich crisis, the R.A.F. were still taking delivery of Gloucester Gladiator bi-planes as front-line fighters.  Indeed, the Gladiators were in combat in Norway and Africa during the early years of the war.

One month before, the first Spitfire had been delivered to an R.A.F, unit.  Hawker Hurricanes were not delivered to an R.A.F. unit until two months after Munich.

By October 1938, the German forces, consisting of 31 Divisions, were close to full mobilisation with Meschermitt 109s, Stukas, Dorniers and Heinkels.

I believe that, had we gone to war in 1938, we would have lost.

In November 1937, it was noted in an article in World Film News that “Paramount had shown ‘uncensored pictures of the Shanghai bombing horror, and in particular for scooping all its rivals by being the only newsreel to send cameramen to cover Sir Oswald Mosley taking his fascists down to London’s East End again on October 10th when there was renewed rioting’ ”.

In January 1939 Gerald Sanger states that “the veiled threat of the censorship of newsreels has again cropped up with varying intensity”.The freedom of the Newsreel. is a principle well established by now but it is not an absolute and arbitrary thing.  It recognises certain practical limitations.  In the same way, newsreels avoid controversial subjects.  In fact, Freedom of the Newsreel rides along with its impartiality.  And as newsreels have enshrined the principle of impartiality, so they claim to interprêt it in their own way according to the tradition of free and unfettered Democratic Journalism”

George Elvin was the extreme left-wing leader of the Association of Cine Technicians (ACT) and in 1939, he wrote in the union journal about censorship and bias in the film industry. He states that while the censor has no control over the newsreels, it is obvious that indirectly, if not directly, very great pressure is sometimes exercised.  Further he states that part of the trouble is with the newsreel companies themselves because as the majority of their executives are government supporters, their newsreels tend to reflect that fact.  He reminds newsreel companies that they are news  reels and not propaganda sheets.  George Elvin spent many years thumping this drum, but was seldom able to produce a story that would back his argument convincingly.

At the same time, others cited examples of newsreel partiality when they claim that the newsreels failed to show film of the return of the British Battalion of the International Brigade from the Spanish Civil War.  This, they said, showed that the newsreels had a pro-fascist bias.

It is probably true that the managements of all the newsreels were True Blue Tory Voters, but they bent over backwards to avoid allowing this to show in their newsreels.  Although Elvin has a go about censorship, he was also suggesting bias.  Bias in the newsreels is the subject of a separate article.

John Grierson

John Grierson (Photo credit: miaoulx)

In a letter, dated October 1939,  from the Assignment Editor of Paramount News in the U.S.A. to John Grierson, he complains about the lack of war material from London and Paris.  He states that the material from England has been “so weak as to be practically useless”.  What is coming from England is “composed of trivialities” at a time when “the best was newsreel pictures that have ever been made” are coming from Germany.

This is only one month after the commencement of hostilities.  A time when the British and French were involved in a stalemate situation behind the Maginot Line and the Belgian border.  On the other hand, the Germans had invaded Poland, which was in no condition to defend itself.  There were ample pictures of dive bombing, advancing tanks and infantry.  Of course, the Germans were producing good news pictures, but none of these latter events were taking place in France.

The Assignments Editor goes on to say that he is not getting film from England and has no way of knowing whether this is due to a shortage of manpower or censorship.

Up to that point, there would have been nothing to censor.

The truth was that the cameramen from the five newsreels did not even travel to France until the first week in October 1939.  They were controlled by the War Office and told that all their material would be censored.  So was this is the commencement of censorship for the British newsreels ?

October 15th 1939, the film critic of The Observer wrote “….The men left London early last week with all the equipment necessary for taking silent films. A Movietone sound van will follow later to serve the five cameramen jointly.  Expenses to be paid by the newsreels themselves….” “…Film will be sent back to individual companies a and then shared out among the various newsreels.  Censorship will be done promptly by the War Office or the Air Ministry, according to the material shot”. He went on to say that the newsreels are not to blame for the lack of first-hand reports of the War from Allied sources.  “What they could not, and did not, forecast was the effect of official ukases as soon as hostilities should break out. Immediately on the outbreak of war in Britain, secret defence notices were issued in connection with the newsreels.  These were amplified on September 10 by an act known as \the Control of Photography Order. This new act, as one authority put it ‘wiped out everything the Defence people hadn’t thought of … ‘ almost anything, it seemed, might give information to the enemy.  Several cameramen were arrested.  In the absence of any other urgent news than war news, the newsreel people almost saw their functions at an end”.

So, for a while, what was shown on the newsreels was very tightly controlled by the various Government departments.  The newsreels were getting the blame for the lack of genuine war material.

It is also interesting to note that the first censorship was done by the War Office and the Air Ministry before it was centralised at the Ministry of Information which was formed in 1940.

So consistently, over many years, newsreels had been attacked for not showing what their critics thought they should show.  There would be fewer criticisms while the war was on.

Éamon de Valera

Éamon de Valera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Irish Republic, the government of Eamon de Valera, not wishing to appear to be taking sides in the War, said that all newsreels must delete any reference to the War in their issues.  Soon after the war started, the newsreels were providing reels with 85% of the reel made up of war stories.  As a result of this, they were obliged to stop sending any copies to Ireland.

In the House of Lords in January 1940, Lord Denman opened a debate proposing ”In the opinion of this house, careful censorship of news films in wartime is necessary”. He thought that Paramount’s coverage of the return to England of Unity Mitford was an error of judgement magnifying the event into a matter of national importance.  Unity Valkyrie Mitford was the “friend” of Adolf Hitler who, she thought, was the greatest man in the world.  There was even a rumour that she had borne his “love child”.

In August 1940, an article published in Film News in the United States commented” Despite the limitations in coverage which prevent the newsreel from showing many phases of the war, the films now reaching the American public do perform a useful function in giving a visual sense of war conditions.  And although much good spot news is held back by censorship offices, this war is getting unprecedented film coverage.  When it is all over we shall probably have the opportunity of seeing it in detail on the screen – shot by shot”.   I, for one, am still waiting.

In the summer of 1941, Gerald Sanger once again defended the newsreels.  It had been said that  “the only effective film propaganda being done by the government is the news reels”.

Sanger replied by denying that the statement was true and went on to say that the newsreels, despite censorship, is still an independent purveyor of news and not an official propagandist and, as such, its contribution to the maintenance of public confidence is much more effective than if it were known to be Government controlled.  He further stated that the newsreels believe that misrepresentation defeats its own object, even if it be labelled ‘propaganda’.

Soon after the outbreak of war the Ministry of Information had set up a formal system of censorship of film destined to be used by the newsreels.   The film in particular was that which was to be filmed in war zones and including the actions of the Armed Services.

I have described the system in another article, however, in short, this was the situation:  Most of the cameramen working for the newsreels on a permanent basis were made War Correspondents and issued with officer-class uniforms.  They were to be given every assistance at the front and their film returned to London by military aircraft or vehicles.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film would be taken to a laboratory and from there the film went to the Ministry of Information.  At the Ministry, Senate House of the University of London, it was screened and the censors removed any scenes they thought warranted censorship.  The remaining film was then printed and screened for representatives of the five newsreels who attended regular viewing sessions, on  Monday and Thursday mornings, at the Ministry.

One can imagine some of the scenes deleted from the rushes.  Shots of Allied dead or even close-ups of German and Japanese dead, any gruesome scenes that might give offence to the newsreel audiences and any scenes that might give away the exact location of a military operation.  Also scenes showing new weapons that might be useful to the enemy.

Scenes of the bombing of British cities would show complete devastation and many dead. These stories were not subject to censorship, but I am sure that the newsreels had received some guidelines as to what was acceptable and what was not.  This was probably unnecessary because the newsreel editors would have known anyway.

At this time, there were hints that the Government might set up its own newsreel for the duration of the war, at the expense of the five newsreels.

After the war, Gerald Sanger, Movietone’s Editor, wrote: “….in the early days, incompetence at the Ministry of Information made it manifestly impractical, and the project was only mentioned as a talking point.

On the other hand, actual production of newsreels was done under great and cloying embarrassments a ‘Security Censorship’ had been clapped on us with the first signal of war.  Its operations were at first weird  and unintelligible.  Our cameramen seemed to be prevented from taking any shot  which had any bearing on the war.  This impression grew not only from our own incomprehension of them, but also the censor’s hesitating interpretation of them.  Amazing restrictions  appeared to emanate from the R.A.F.’s desire not to give the enemy  any hint about Britain’s weather.  Ten days had to elapse after the first snowfall before you might show any picture with snow in it.  And this, although the dreaded German spy might be walking into the cinema out of a street mushy with trodden snow !  So anxious was the War Office not reveal to the enemy our Order of Battle that we were not allowed to take any shots of soldiers anywhere unless there was literally no background in the picture and unless their regimental badges were not visible.

Things got better when some common sense came into play. This system prevailed throughout the War and for quite some time afterwards.

I have written that, on my arrival at Movietonews in October 1945, the first item to be shown was concerning the story of “Radar” which had only been released from censorship shortly beforehand.  This was four months after the end of the war in Europe and two months after the end of the war in the Pacific.

After the war censorship ended as an official action by the Government, but sometimes showed itself in other ways.  Secret establishments were out of bounds to newsreels, as were secret manoeuvres.   Sensitive actions by the military were off limits to the newsreels.  Secret weapons were not filmed until the Government decided they were no longer secret.

In January 1945 as the war was drawing to a close in Europe,. Freddie Watts, Production Manager at Pathe Gazette foresaw “…that the question of controls will be one of the problems that the newsreels will have to face in the post-war period.  With the ending of the war there can be little or no justification for many of the restrictions on the gathering of news, and filming of countless events and ceremonies”.

This statement implies that there were other restrictions apart from direct censorship.

In April 1945, the British Army came across the Concentration Camp at Belsen.  The first scenes were covered by members of the Army Film and Photographic Unit.   The AFPU were among the first arrivals at Belsen, arriving before the gates were unlocked. A few days later, Paul Wyand and Martin Gray, of Movietone, arrived with their sound camera.  They were asked immediately to record interviews and statements with some of the camp guards which were later used at their trials. The scenes were, of course, horrific.  The AFPU cameramen were rotated every two days because that was as much as they could stand.

The film from these sources were pooled among the newsreels and the scenes are now well know to much of the populace.  I mention this story because one imagines that the horrific scenes would, at any other time, be too bad to pass the censor.   This time they allowed the scenes to be used.  It was deliberate because of the barbarity found at Belsen, and later elsewhere, it was thought necessary for the public to see for themselves, and to know what their enemy was capable of.

The Cinema Exhibitors Association advised its members showing this reel to make an announcement immediately prior to the showing of the newsreel to the effect that “the newsreel about to follow depicts gruesome scenes of German atrocities in prison camps”.

The following year the Allied Governments decided that no filming or photography would be allowed of the executions arising from the Nuremberg Trials.  This was, probably, one of the last signs of censorship resulting from the war.

However, it seems that the American Army shot film of the executions and offered the material to the British newsreels.  J. Arthur Rank said” no film of the hanging of the Nuremburg criminals will be shown in any cinema under my control and I hope that all other British exhibitors will follow my lead”.

For some years after the war Movietonews produced a documentary film, as a sales aid, for the British Society of Aircraft Manufacturers.  These documentaries included the very latest in fighter and bomber aircraft (as well as commercial aircraft), but they would not be included until the manufacturers and, presumably, the Government thought it fit to do so.

Movietone did film the very early stages of the “flying bedstead” which was an experimental vertical take-off aircraft.  But, maybe, at that stage, there was no obvious military application for it.  It was a novelty.

The rocket range at Woomera was covered, but the cameramen were limited in what they could do.

It is not the same kind of censorship as prevailed during the war, but there were many examples of events not being covered because the newsreels were barred from doing so. The method had now shifted to one where coverage was either forbidden or if not, the cameramen were restricted in what they could do.

The Korean War was not the subject of censorship, but there it plenty of evidence that cameramen were sometimes restricted in where they could go to get their pictures.

Of course, the newsreels continued with self censorship.   One case in point was the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race.  Fox Movietone of Paris had a sizeable crew at the course.  The crash, the worst in the history of motor racing, resulted in the death of over 80 people with another 120 injured.  Movietone had a cameraman directly opposite the crash scene, they had another some hundred yards further along the track.

When the rushes were screened in the theatre in Soho Square we could see that the cameraman opposite the crash had covered every horrific moment of the incident.

Sir Gordon Craig said that we would not use the film from that camera, although I am sure that the Make-up Editor Tommy Scales would have omitted it anyway.  Even from the other camera the scene is awful, but because of the distance involved it was deemed acceptable.

There are some unanswered questions concerning wartime censorship:

  1. When did censorship actually start ? Was it in place before the war started ?
  2. Who were recruited to act as censors ?
  3. What instruction were given to the censors ?  Is there a historical document showing these instructions ?
  4. What happened to the censored, deleted, scenes or stories ?  Were they destroyed or were they held ?  If they were held, who is holding them ?
  5. If the scenes or whole stories were withheld, have they ever been released ?.

In 1960, in the United Kingdom, the arrival of a U2 aircraft was the subject of censorship in that cameras were not allowed on the airfield where it was based and the newsreels had to shoot what they could from the perimeter fence.  This was in spite of the fact that the Gary Powers incident was already news and a U2 had been on public display in the United States some months earlier.

As late as 1973 Mr. Anthony Aldgate in “Film and History” claims that the newsreels had been subjected to censorship during the Spanish Civil War and to some extent during the War in Abyssinia.  He says that, although not officially subject to censorship, this did not mean that they were exempt from pressures of the public or government varieties.

In conclusion, the newsreels have been attacked  for being censored at times when there was no censorship.  During the history of newsreels, they were attacked for just about everything.

© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2012.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For more articles on Newsreels click here.

Sources: Researcher’s Guide To British Newsreels, published  by British Universities Film and Video Council 1983 and 1988.

Yesterday’s News Published by BUFVC and edited by Luke McKernan.

“A Chronology of Anecdotes” – Memoirs of T.M. Gallacher.

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