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Criticism of the Newsreels

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The newsreels have been criticised from the day they started until the present day. Over the years, they have been accused of being flippant, incompetent and right wing biased, among other things.

The following is not a chronology of all the complaints, but a selection of the most notable.

As early as 1914, Lester Rueh, a prominent figure in the film and theatre world, wrote an article for the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly.  He took a swipe at all the “gazettes, budgets, chronicles etc”., first of all complaining that some of the news stories were too short, “which are flashed off just as one is becoming interested in the subject”.

His targets were the newsreels of the period which included: Gaumont Graphic, Pathe Animated Gazette, Éclair Animated Journal and Topical Budget. 

He then criticises the sub-titles. He writes “The average person does not need a minute to read fifteen words, of which half might easily be left out.

He then launches into his main attack “We are shown long and drawn out pictures of the extremely unimportant doings of some village big-wigs in whom we have not the slightest interest whatever.  We are shown a dreary back yard or Dulltown Market Place, review of boy scouts and old age pensioners by puffed-up local nonentities; boring views of stone-layings and ship-launchings, with the greater part of the space allotted to the item occupied by self-important grocer councillors or brewery-mayors in their speech-making and hat-wagging – interesting enough, perhaps, for a local topical budget out of place in a newsreel shown all over the country”.

He writes that many of the subjects in the gazettes are not news.  He states that these items are included to give a longer life to the newsreel which, in some cases, may be screened in a cinema up to eight weeks after the original release.  He accuses the gazettes of all being the same :

There is seldom anything specially noteworthy about any one which would single it out from the others.

These particular charges would be repeated many times over the next sixty years.”

news theatreHe then asks if the newsreels would replace the newspapers.  His conclusion is that they would not, but he did look forward to the possibility that there might, one day, be a daily newsreel.

That came forty years later. Representatives of the newsreels he attacked came back with their replies.

Alec J. Braid, Editor of Gaumont Graphic replied:

He starts off calling Lester Ruah a “theorist”.  The letter is dated March 1914, the end of the winter.  Braid argues that no one is more conscious of the problems created by poor weather than the newsreel editor.  In those days, the cameramen would be using Orthochromatic film with a low speed rating.  Events taking place in a hall would have to be lit at great expense and it was not always permitted.  Even stories shot out in the open were sometimes rejected because of the poor quality of the negative.  Come the summer and there was plenty of light and the variety of stories was expanded.

He defends his use of titles which, he claimed were written with the fewest words they could use to give all the required information.  A complaint about the length of some stories was countered by saying “It must be an event of exceptional interest to be worth more that 80 feet”.  “It is, however, impossible to exclude the subject which is not worth more than 30 or 40 feet”

He was, of course, speaking about 35mm silent film which ran at 16 frames a second.  Eighty feet would translate to 120 feet in modern film which, for the cinema, runs at 24 frames a second.   So he was talking about one minute twenty second for his 80 feet.

Braid also points out that some stories which might be found on the front pages of a newspaper will not, necessarily, be suitable as a newsreel story because of the lack of meaningful pictures.

Val Steer, Editor, Éclair Animated Journal replied:

In general he agreed with Ruah, but claimed that the news-film “is still in its infancy, and we are all learning things as we go along”

He writes that, as an old journalist,  stories he would have thought a great ‘scoop’ for the journal would be quite unsuitable for kinematograph purposes.

He makes an interesting point that, although he accepts the complaint that some stories are “scrappy”, he lays the blame on the exhibitor.

“The responsibility is again with the exhibitor.  I feel perfectly sure that the public would welcome a good news-film of 800 or even 1,000 feet (1,200 and 1,500 feet in modern terms). But the exhibitor will not pay for more than 500-600 feet and he wants it at a rock-bottom price which leaves practically no margin of profit to the manufacturer.  In other countries firms are turning out these long newsfilms at 4 pence and more per foot, but at present the topical department in Great Britain is the Cinderella of the industry, and has to be run on the cheap”.

It seems incredible that, in those days, exhibitors purchased their newsreel paying by the foot.

Mr. E.H. Montagu of a company called Selig replied.  One might deduce that Montagu was in charge of a filming operation in Great Britain and Europe to supply the needs of the newly founded Hearst-Selig Pictorial which was launched in the United States a month before Lester Ruah’s letter appeared.

He wrote: It may be news to your readers that at the present time, we are selling to the United States more topicals than any other firm, as we have an arrangement with the Hearst Newspapers, by which their reporters are furnished with cameras and obtain real news items for the Hearst-Selig Pictorial.  We find it, however, the hardest thing possible to obtain from England and the ‘Continent real news items to make this pictorial complete, because of the cheap, price at which it is sold.  I believe a good many are sold at 2d a foot, less 10 per cent and how on earth anybody expects to be able to secure real good news at this price, I do not know.  I can assure you that as long as the prices remain like this, you will never see a Hearst-Selig Pictorial over here.”

The editor of the Topical Budget wrote in reply and tells the story of how difficult it can be to obtain a news story.  He wrote: “To quote a case in point (one of many similar experiences) one of our operators was sent to cover the Royal Maundy ceremony at Westminster, and although he was in possession of a permit from the Abbey authorities, he was forbidden to take a picture under pain of arrest by a police inspector on duty, this in spite of having a permit, which was shown to the inspector.  The cameraman was not a novice but an old press photographer with seven years Fleet Street experience before taking up kinematography”.

In May of 1929, a writer under the pseudonym of “Benn” called for a Socialist Newsreel.  He criticised the contents of the newsreel which he listed and then summarised as follows: “Six items – three devoted to sport, three showing the movement of royalty.  No mention of the General Election of May 30, 1929, (perhaps it is not considered an item of news value at such a time as this), no mention of the industrial troubles in Yorkshire and Lancashire, no hint that there is a mill strike in Bombay, or a strike in North Carolina, no pictures of the Russian trade delegation.  Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

In the Spectator of 22nd February 1930, Celia Simpson compared the contents of British Movietonews with American newsreels.   She wrote of Stanley Baldwin (then Prime Minister) appearing on Movietone and giving out a political message.  She would prefer to see stories like “an eruption of Krakatoa” or “Admiral Byrd in New America”:

I wonder who was supposed to fund an expedition to Krakatoa and then wait, possibly months, for something spectacular to happen.  As for Richard Byrd, all his expeditions were funded by Rockefeller, mostly in secret.  There is no way they would have allowed a newsreel camera to accompany them.

Celia Simpson would prefer these stories to that of “personalities in the public eye”.  She stated that there were too many stories of people laying foundation stones, mayoral functions and drilling troops.

In 1931, C.A. Lejeune (Caroline Alice) while working as a correspondent for The Observer, wrote an article in Cinema.

“It shows that the industry has grasped, at last, the overwhelming force of the movie as a modern narrator and propagandist …. But the very fact that such theatres (News Theatres) are coming into existence suggest that the news-reels and short film programmes will have to be chosen with much greater care and intelligence, and arranged with much finer sensibility, than they have been in the past”.

In 1932, film critic Andrew Buchanan Films: the way of the cinema, published by Pitman:

He queries whether the news-reel editors have truly discovered what does and does not constitute news in the screen sense of the word.

He writes “The newsreel in its present form satisfies the public, and consequently there is no sound reason for altering its policy unless an urge is felt to mould it more carefully to the requirements of the screen, and take advantage of the opportunities which the medium of the film offers.  This would necessitate news-reel editors revising their wh9ole method of approach, firstly by realising that there is no similarity between Fleet Street and Wardour \Street.

In October 1932, John Gammie wrote an article for Film Weekly.

In it he offers three essentials for a good news-reel:  topicality, variety and originality of viewpoint.  He wrote: Few of the items released at the beginning of that week fulfilled more than one of these conditions.  He advises the news-reels to avoid “with monotonous regularity” such items as ships being launched, troops being reviewed, charters being presented; wreaths being laid, anniversaries being celebrated and Swiss cavalry performing manoeuvres”

In his  articles, he invited readers to write in with their observations on newsreels.

He stated that more than half those who wrote in response were women.  He summarised the three things in newsreels that women object to most were: “Impersonal subjects, such as aeroplane experiments and demonstrations of uninteresting machines of various, pictures of pugilists in training, prize fights, wrestling matches and sport in general scenes of tragedies and fatal accidents”.

At this stage, the newsreel editors must have wondered what they could cover that would not offend most of their audience.

In the 1934 autumn edition of “Sight and Sound”, David Ritchie wrote an article under the title “That newsreel villainy”.

Based on a “quick” survey of 296 stories viewed that had been includes in the newsreels during February of 1933, he produced the following results:

“30% dealt with sports, 13% with military matters, 3% with activities of Royalty, 3% with other ceremonials, 30% with travel and political, social, commercial or industrial interest and 21% of miscellaneous items”

He wonders what effect the problems of the newsreel editors and of censorship would have on the future of the newsreel as historical records.  Well, that is another subject.

In 1935, Andrew Buchanan wrote an article in Film Art in which he asked “What is the matter with the commercial newsreel ?” He claimed that the newsreels were identical with a conventional form of presentation that indicated a lack of originality.  He called for more analytical comment as exemplified by “The March of Time” which had been introduced into Great Britain that year.

Later and elsewhere he carried on his comparison with The March of Time. He thought that there was no doubt that it had considerable influence on other documentary films. The extent of its influence on newsreels, however, was debatable.

marchoftimeDuring the following year, 1936, Andrew Buchanan enthusiastically found signs that news films would ultimately be made “which shall be so intelligent, absorbingly interesting and completely different … that, in time … we shall go to see a news-reel with the same thrill we experience when about to view a production by Grierson, Pudovkin or Rotha. The most significant of such signs is “The March of Time.”

He was obviously a fan.  Many cinemagoers of the day thought it was too long.

An anonymous writer had an article in the Kinematograph Weekly of 28th March 1935.

He praised the newsreels saying that they provide a ‘patronage builder’ for the cinemas “A reputation for the presentation of news when it is news has provide a definite financial asset top many a kinema”

He believed that the organisation and production of the modern reel had made great advances, however “progress on these lines has not been accompanied with similar developments in make-up of the general editorial presentation of the various news items”.

He goes on ”….there has been a return to the straightforward screening of world happenings which follow the usual cycle of royal progresses, sporting events, and the aftermath of disaster, linked together with a few bars of musical introduction or the wisecracks of a commentator”. “Presentation of news should be invested with more imagination”.

All the critics seemed to have had it in for the Royals.

He concludes by praising The March of Time saying “….this method of presenting contemporary history at least does provide the basis of a fresh formula for news treatment on the screen”

One of the problems with “The March of Time” was that it was always produced from an American point of view and as someone observed at the time they showed whole episodes on places that were unknown and of no interest to the British public.

In the “Kinematograph Weekly” of 28th March 1935, Mr. C.O. Davis, an exhibitor who had cut newsreels from his programmes at one theatre, wrote:

“….there is so little opportunity of bringing in any extra money at the box office with a newsreel that many exhibitors have ceased to include it in their programmes.  Firstly, the cost is fairly prohibitive, as the renter has a very strong objection to making any allowance for the news, as a general rule, when renting a programme on percentage. Secondly, so much magazine matter is included that, compared with items of actual news value, it is not usually worth the price asked for it, especially as the exhibitor has to book it for a period, being in the dark as to whether he will receive any worthwhile news items during this period”.

He concludes by asking why the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association does not produce its own newsreel.

It seems that everyone thought they could do better than the newsreels.

21st June 1935. An anonymous contributor to The Journal of the Association of Cine-Technicians complains that: “conditions of employment, salaries, allowances and expenses have been drastically cut to allow for excessive spending on exclusive rights – an expenditure of £2,000 on rights not unusual”.

There is no record of salary cuts during this period and, without the expenses, the camera crews would have stopped work.  Paul Wyand used to say “If you knew that you had done a good job, you could charge what you liked in expenses.  If you had done a bad job, you would only reclaim expenditure”.

On the same day, another anonymous contributor to Film Weekly complains about a Universal cameraman filming the execution of a Cuban rebel.  He wrote: “I cannot see any possible justification for taking pictures of the death of an unimportant Cuban rebel.  It isn’t ‘news’ being of purely local significance.  To the outside world it is just a piece of meaningless horror – and the exhibition of such things in cinemas dedicated to entertainment is not to be encouraged.”

It was not the cameraman who decided that it was shown in the cinemas.  He should have asked the editor to explain his reasons for showing the film.

In November 1935, another anonymous contributor wrote in the News Reel and Shorts Supplement of the Kinematograph Weekly.  Using the pseudonym “Kinevox” he starts by saying that the man in the street is no longer satisfied with his newspaper; he wants the news in moving pictures as well.

He goes on: “Newsreels are far from perfection. Often there is a lack of continuity.  A reel is the newspaper of the screen and should be produced as such by people who have an instinctive knowledge and training in news, pictorial values of news.  News editing inn newsreels today is a joke. The core of the edition – news – is woefully badly handled and selected.

He then has a swipe at the commentaries and their “facetiousness” and then calls for better titling and better quality prints.

In 1936, Andrew Buchanan wrote a book, published by Pitman. The book is still available and is entitled The Art of Film Production.  Within the book is a chapter titled “News-reel or real news”.

He complains that the news-reels are identical both in the items they include and in their presentation. He writes that there is a lack of originality.  The annual stories such as Ascot, the Cup Final, the Armistice ceremony are such that the majority of people would be no wiser if last year’s events were shown next year.  He adds: “Abbreviated versions of football matches are illogical, and extremely uninteresting”.

I would have thought that “most people” would be able to tell if the wrong teams were playing at Wembley. He further criticises the newsreels: “The army, navy and air force are forever being given pictorial praise, and rarely do editors reveal any signs of enlightenment, or that they can see beyond a waving flag”

Of course, these were the great days of the disarmament movement supported by most left-wing politicians and followers.

January 1937 yet another anonymous correspondent wrote in World Film News .

He mentions the Abdication of King Edward  VIII.  He found “…that, with the entire British Press ‘ostriching’, it was too much to expect the infinitely more cowardly newsreels to take an independent line”

He concludes that the Crisis had demonstrated that the newsreels were dependent upon, and fearful of, the magic word “authority “ and that they were unable to fulfil their responsibility to the public on an issue of domestic importance.

It is true that the newsreels virtually ignored the Abdication story, however, the government tried to keep the whole affair under wraps for as long as they could.  They did not have to tell the newsreels what to do, they would have guessed.

September 1937 an one Glen Norris writes in World Film News.

He first writes about British Movietone News and the company’s advantages which include the financial backing of Movietonews of America and Twentieth Century Fox.  He adds that “the American parent company…..also largely controls production policy of the British reel…”.

I would have thought that “The Daily Mail” would have had something to say about that.  Apart from the exchange of news stories, I don’t think there was a great deal of communication between the two companies.

Glen Norris then introduces what I regard as a bizarre concept. “The British reels sticks to the old fashioned system of writing commentaries to fit previously cut pictures instead of adopting the American technique of using a fast moving commentary illustrated by exciting shots”.

This is unbelievable.  What did the Americans do, write the commentary before the cameraman shot a foot ?   How could they write a commentary without reference to the pictures available.  He concludes by writing: “Solutions to lack of speed in British Movietone News, 1) adopt a more unified control over the various departments and 2) find a place in the organisation for one man who would combine something of the work of chief cutter with that of a scriptwriter”.

Movietone House

Movietone House

What happened at Movietone was that the rushes were screened in front of Tommy Scales, make-up editor, Cecil Burge, commentary writer and Sid Wiggins, head cutter. After each story was screened, they conferred.  Tommy Scales would say what length they should give the story, Cecil Burge would tell Sid Wiggins if there was anything he wished to write which might require Sid to do something different from the normal.  They had been at it for almost eight years when they received the criticism, you would have thought they had got the hang of it by then.  They were still working the same way fifteen years later.

I spent many years at Movietone, I set up the news service film operation at GTV9 in Melbourne and as Senior Film Editor with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, I supervised the newsfilm editors there.  At no time can I recall that a commentary was written before the film was edited. Well, there was one time, when at GTV, we covered the Royal visit of the Queen Mother to Canberra.  We were able to write the commentary first because we knew exactly what was going to happen and the commentary was read straight on to the optical sound track of the film.

All this complaint was in a “wide-open letter” to Gerald Sanger, Movietone’s Editor and, occasional commentary writer.  I do not know if he responded.

In September 1937, there was considerable discussion concerning the inclusion within the newsreels of scene from the Japanese-Chinese War.

It started off with a word of praise in an item by “Tatler” in Daily Film Renter of 14th September 1937.

His praise is for Universal Talking News showing scenes from the war and writes:

Personally, I think it is time news reels showed the public these terrors and horrors, so that people themselves can see that it’s no drawing-room entertainment but stark realism in all its grimmest and most horrible truth”.

FT-15-Paramount-75On the same day, Tommy Cummins, then editor of Paramount News stated” It is our duty to give the news.  These things are happening and we have decided to show them” ”….the task of a newsreel in reporting a war is to show the war as it is, rather than as a glorious pageant of embattled chivalry”.

On September 15th, Jeffrey Bernard, head of Gaumont British News, issued a statement in The Cinema “It is the duty of the newsreels to present news, but not to put on the screen material for political purposes … exhibitors of this country run their theatres with the idea of entertaining their public…To show the ghastly destruction of human beings in the most horrific form is, I contend, letting down the exhibitor”.

Two days later Tommy Cummins replied with an open letter published in Today’s Cinema.

He wrote “To me, the newsreel is a phenomenon of the twentieth century, which deserves greater intelligence than as a medium for the presentation of mediocre pictures of laying of foundation stones or seaside baby shows solely for the purpose of scoring with an effective wisecrack”. He concludes:   Contrary to Mr Bernard’s expectations ‘managers are reporting that on every hand is heard the point of view that “every adult should be forced to see this … it would stop a lot of this cheap talk of war”.’

The war came anyway.

Soon after the war started, the newsreels were being criticised for their content.  The complaint was that they were not showing enough of the actual war.  There were two problems for the newsreels.  The first was that, during the first six months, there were little signs of war either in England or on the front line.  The second was that they were prevented from filming a number of stories because of censorship.  To make matters worse for them, there was a ready supply of genuine battleground material coming through from the Germans.

In November 1940 Tom Harrisson in Documentary News Letter under the heading “Social Research and the film” wrote a chapter on newsreels.

In 1937,Thomas Harnett Harrisson, with Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge, founded Mass-Observation, a project to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain.

As a result of the Mass Observation audience research, he concluded: “…with regard to the newsreels, that there has been a pretty steady decline in their prestige, ‘never high’ in the past year.  The researchers found repeated cases where the newsreels had alienated people by their political bias, by their treatment of emotional topics, by the commentaries (which are often unsympathetic to ordinary people), and had shown by numerous indications that they are sometimes out of touch with the feeling of the moment and even, sometimes, with the permanent feelings of housewives or labourers. The prestige of newsreels seems to have fallen more sharply among middle-class people and among men”.

This research does not seem to agree with the general opinion at that time that the newsreels were doing a good job reporting the war at a time when people were going to the cinema specifically to see the newsreel.

Gerald Sanger, Movietone’s Editor, wrote an article in Sight and Sound of October 1946.  It was entitled “Propaganda and the Newsreel”.

On wonders if he was replying to a complaint of which there is no current record.

He wrote that no two political opponents agree on the nature of propaganda.  He asked: “….would a newsreel not be denying a great many of its legitimate functions if it did not record events which conduce to the upholding established institutions ?”

“The liberty of the Press should be sustained in its extension to the newsreels and, the film industry should back the Newsreel Association to the hilt in maintaining the principle inviolate”.

He concludes with: “It is a source of constant regret to the writer that ‘we’, who had newsreel pictures of Nazi bellicosity, did not do more in those days to draw attention to their significance”. 

It is likely that Sanger was writing on behalf of the Newsreel Association.

In 1947, a survey sponsored by The Dartington Hall Trustees was published as “The Factual Film: the news film”

Considering the rota system introduced during the War, it states: The rota has tended to kill initiative and a tedious sameness in the issues of all five newsreels has been apparent from the inception of the system;  censorship – under the rota system material released has been automatically censored on security grounds; and production costs – £1,000 is a tentative estimate of cost for an average week’s production of two issues; and content – the usual content of the majority of pre-war British newsreels was trivial and the newsreel companies look forward to a return to the pre-war position now that their wartime role is over.

“…the main aim of the newsreel directorate is, therefore, to be as complaisant as possible, to be inoffensive by rule, and, when forced by exceptional circumstances to deal with social and political issues, to play safe”.

An agreement between British Movietone News and Gaumont/Universal has been mistaken for “rota”.  Movietone did not have any theatres in the United Kingdom.  Gaumont and Universal did and the agreement allowed that Movietone would hand over to Gaumont/Universal all of their overseas coverage.

At that time, I was General Office Manager at Movietone and it was my job to produce what was known as a “Comparative Statement”.  This was a document that listed the output of all the newsreels, so that we could all see what the other companies had used and what they had that was exclusive.  It is obvious that, in the case of a major event, all the newsreels would have it.  However, in my experience, this was invariably covered by each company with the exception of Royal Rota coverage which was carried out by one man and his film distributed to all the companies.  There is no doubt that the coverage of a particular major event would have looked similar.  All the cameras in the main positions would have been alongside each other.

In the New Statesman of 17th January 1948, John Dacre wrote a letter under the heading “Better Newsreels”.

He wanted longer newsreels saying “Twice a week editors have to discard much highly interesting material and to cut down stories from four hundred feet, at which length they are good, to a hundred or so feet at which they are all but ruined.  Merely to increase them to a thousand feet would make them more interesting, the only additional cost being incurred by the extra film stock and its processing by the laboratory.  To increase them to sixteen hundred feet would result in newsreels ranking next to the first features in entertainment value.  Such two-reelers would cost more than the present reels, but as the exhibitor would have no second feature he could easily afford the change.  The change could be effected overnight”.

The printing of the newsreel at that time involved, in the case of Movietone some 240 copies.  In the case of the rest of the newsreels is was a total of 800 copies.  As it was, it was a close run thing to get the copies to the trains for distribution around the country.

The extra time in producing an issue up to twice the length would have delayed distribution for as much as twenty-four hours.

In the Spring of 1949, Alf Tunwell, former Movietone cameraman and, at the time of writing, Chief Cameraman of the newly formed Telenews ,wrote an article in Impact.

He complained that the newsreels were retaining the rota system introduced during the war.

He complained about the power of The Newsreel Association, the representative body of all five British Newsreels.  As an association, it gave them, he states, more power to deal with government departments and public relations officers.  He further accuses them of monopolising news events and preventing Metro News (formed by M.G.M.) including pictures of Royal events, as well as other British institutions and important occasions.

He then arrives at the nub of his writing.  “The Association is currently trying to keep out an all-British newsreel unit established in Britain by Telenews, a new American company”.

Finally, he warns the newsreels that they will be no match for television news that will be piped into our homes daily.  Well, he got that one right.

In the spring edition of Impact , Paul Sheridan wrote an article called “British Movietone choose”

He accuses Movietone of “making” the news concerning the dock strike.

“Evidence is mounting that the whole structure of the newsreels is built on deliberately biased reporting, favouring the Tory Party. The newsreel companies are making political films that are boringly partisan, stupidly discriminating and reactionary.  The American owned Telenews unit is showing the Newsreel Association how the job should be done with bright newsworthy features that do not make a travesty of the news”.

Sequence: film quarterly No. 8 in the summer of 1949 ran an article which  accused the newsreel producers of imposing ‘a standard equivalent to that of the worst penny papers, more dangerous because the means at their disposal are even more potent’.

“….the best things in newsreels are usually the sports items ‘vividly shot and well edited’  “The rest is disorderly, Big Five melange based mainly on sensationalism, drenched in vulgar music, slapped together with a loud, unctuous commentator, without regard for chronology, place of relative importance”

In World’s Press News of 30th June 1949, an anonymous article states” The Monseigneur News Theatres are producing their own special newsreels on 16mm”

The article goes on “….Jack Davis, head of the company, says that at present reels will be made only for the Monseigneur, marble Arch, which is not being supplied by any member of The Newsreels Association because of his refusal to pay increased charges” “…If there were a change in the film rawstock situation we might extend our newsreel-taking activities”

It concludes “Since the company has produced its own reel it has obtained at least two “beats” on the newsreel companies.  Difficulties with commentators were being ironed out”.

Well, it would not have been that easy to start a newsreel overnight.  As for “beats” each newsreel company could claim that they could achieve that twice a week.

Now is the winter of our discontent made sudden summer…..”

The Manchester Guardian of July 6th 1949 ran a story with headings Cinema group bars newsreels”: ‘audiences bored’.

They quote Sidney Bernstein, head of the group:

“In our opinion they are of poor quality and lack a sense of journalistic selectivity and showmanship.  We find that they invariably bore our audiences” “Newsreels today, in our view, make no contribution to box office receipts. They are inferior to the newsreels shown in America”.

Castleton Knight of Gaumont said that many people had told him that they preferred the British Newsreels to those of America.  A Newsreel Association spokesman said that cinema audiences flocked to see the Royal Wedding.

In the edition of The Daily Express of 6th July 1949 it is reported Granada’s decision to discontinue showing newsreels.  The article includes the comments of Sidney Bernstein in which he gives his reasons for the cancellation.

The current British Pathé logo

British Pathé logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Howard Thomas, Editor of Pathe and chairman of the Newsreel Association replied:

“Mr. Bernstein is being a little unfair.  Newsreels are doing a useful job and when there is some outstanding news events we can rise to it …. But so much of the news today is about economics – which are unsuited to pictorial presentation – that it is difficult for us to be as up to date as the newspapers”.  

The problem persists today.  Our 24-hour news services have very little news stories in which one is able to see an event take place or any action.  There is often nothing to see.  For conferences, we see arrivals and departures and some speeches.  We have endless stories on television which show members of the army of journalists standing outside some location which the editor perceives has some association with the story at hand.

The only difference then was that newsreels were reluctant to shoot film that did not show the essential action of the story.

In The Daily Mirror of the same date, Bernstein is quoted as saying “There is no foundation for the story that our decision followed a price increase.  There has been no such increase.  If newsreels get better we will play them again”.

In The Daily Film Renter of July 6th Mr. Sidney Bernstein “flays” the newsreels (with the exception of Pathe), stating “ …. (they). are of poor quality ….The newsreels show incompetence in production;  often showing political bias and many items are socially outmoded”

In World’s Press News of July 7th, there was a round-up of all the comments concerning the Granada decision.  Finally, they revealed that the newsreels contested the validity of  the decision in view of the supplementary contracts and  that Movietone would be bringing a test case to the High Court.

Stephen Watts, writing in The Sunday Express  of 10th July, 1949 under the heading “Newsreels need a shake-up” wrote “I looked at the two principal British reels last week.  I must confirm Mr. Bernstein’s judgement”…. “Television or no, newsreels could surely prolong their lives with an infusion of new ideas, maybe of new blood.  There must be some young film men with a news sense and some imaginative punch”.

Andrew Buchanan writing in his book Going to the Cinema, published by Phoenix House in 1951, discusses the newsreels under the following headings:  “Are you interested in the newsreels ?”, The newsreels does not explain”,   What is news ?” Sometimes a one-sided affair”, “Newsreels don’t tell the whole story” “Will the newsreels change ?” – A newsreel that will tell you why”.

Most of the discussion concerned his dissatisfaction with the newsreels.

In The Daily Express of 26th July 1951 an article headed ”M.P. will ask about film threat” referred to Ian Mikardo, Socialist M.P. who was to ask in the House of Commons for the Monopolies Commission to investigate “restrictive practices of the Newsreel Association”.  It seems that the newsreels were boycotting films taken by cameramen of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Persia unless they were supplied by the big five newsreels.

Mr. Gordon Walker, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations said: “I don’t think it would be wise for the government to attempt to dictate what should appear in newsreels any more than in newspapers”.

In  the March 2nd 1957 edition of The Manchester Guardian  Paul Rotha, documentary film maker and film historian, wrote an article under the heading of “News on the screens; can cinemas compete ?”

He found evidence of “triviality and political” bias in newsreel coverage.  Concerning television, who by now were broadcasting a news programme every day, he asked “What can the newsreels do, apart from servicing television, if they wish to preserve their identity ?”

He suggested that they use their “rich” stock-shot library resources to develop an interpretative approach to the news, leaving the “spot news” as the sole province of television.

He welcomed the establishment of the British Commonwealth International Newsfilm Agency (BCINA) which became Visnews and is now Reuters Television.   It was established to service television. United Press Movietone Television had been doing that for two years before BCINA was established and they continued to service BBC Television News, Tonight and Panorama until 1964.

United Press Movietone Television became UPIN, United Press International Newsfilm ,which became  UPITN, which became WTN and is now APTN.  The ancestry of modern television news presentation includes the people of the newsreels.

lookatlifeThe end for the newsreels was in sight.  In 1957 Paramount News ceased production.  At the end of 1958, the Rank Organisation, owners of both Universal News and Gaumont British News,  closed them both down.  Pathe News continued until 1970 while British Movietone News continued until 1979.  For the last ten years of its life, Movietone concentrated on feature items rather than news.  Rank produced “Look at Life”, which followed a magazine format and was produced between 1959 and 1968.

After some ninety years of newsreels and fifty years of newsreels with sound, it all came to an end and the nagging stopped.  Or did it ?  I am sure there are people out there still having a moan about newsreels.

After all the complains concerning censorship, right wing political bias and the unsuitability of material, it is astonishing that programme makers are still able to go into the various newsreel libraries and find material to illustrate the period during which the newsreels were produced.  One of the main  point of the naggers was that the material would not be suitable.

Post Script:

From time to time, at Movietone, we received letters of complaint.  The following letter was so unusual I kept it in my scrap book:

 – Star and Garter Mansions
Putney,
S.W.15

10/12/52

Dear Sir,

To whom it may concern:  the Xmas feature in the current newsreel, which I saw today at the Gaumont in the Haymarket, deserves a word of comment.  In it a large number of turkeys are stampeded towards the camera, and the commentator remarks that the Xmas rush is on – or words to that effect.  Next the birds are shown crowded around a feeding trough, making their turkey fuss, and the commentator observes (I have not his exact words) that it is no use their holding a protest meeting, for they are for it in the morning.  Wherever they go they are followed by his jokes and jibes.

That I am not unduly squeamish seemed to me indicated by the fact that these insensitive – one might say callous – jests were received in silence.  If the object of the feature was to induce us to eat turkey, I should have thought that that was not its most conspicuous success.  Turkey is, in fact, one of my favourite foods; I wondered if I could eat it again.  Indeed yes, to kill and eat the animals and enjoy their flesh; but I also know that they part unwillingly with their lives and it seemed to me in poor taste to make fun of them before they die.

Yours faithfully,

J.N. Allenby

I showed the letter to Cecil Burge, who had written the commentary, and he wrote his cryptic message on the bottom of the original letter.

Cecil Burge:   Not so bad to make fun of them, as very few of them go to the pictures, but really rotten to kill and eat them

C.G.B.

As recent as 10th January 1971 Philip Norman wrote an article about the newsreels which was largely condemning and the author, grandson of newsreel cameraman Frank Bassill of Pathe News , seemed to have fallen into the same trap that he accuses the newsreels of  by being flippant in his description of the companies involved.  He had little good to say about them.  The account is extremely selective, choosing only the bits that suit his personal opinion.

In conclusion, in referring to the wartime Lofoten Island raid, he wrote: “All the film had to be pooled and used for propaganda; in the end the newsreels were simply a national public-address system to remark ‘Watch out, Adolf” as ships full of grinning, waving Australians, New  Zealanders and Gurkhas sailed off to be killed”

As I have written before, propaganda during The War was a valid means of keeping people morale at a high level.  Sometimes, there were periods when this was extremely difficult, but how can anyone blame the newsreels for being jingoistic in time of war ?

He goes on: “When the war ended, the world had a new phrase, ‘public relations’. Even the Palace used its own staff cameraman, Graham Thompson, who was responsible for allocating Royal faces to the newsreels by six-month rotas.  There could be no more bursting through hedges, as the bulk of Paul Wyand once did, to thrust a lens into Imperial perambulators.  The newsreels came to a standstill as journalistic instruments.  They were – as they finished up – like home movies; the voices of the commentators, Leslie Mitchell, E.V.H. Emmett, Bob Danvers-Walker, seeming to echo from lost rooms where men wore evening dress all day.”

When Gaumont British ceased operations, the Rank Organisation, owners of the newsreel, introduced “This Modern Age” to the cinemas.  It was a magazine-type programme which covered the interesting events of the day.  It has now been used by the B.B.C. as a series depicting the sixties.

It should be pointed out that the Palace never had a staff cameraman.  The so-called Royal Rota Cameraman represented the Newsreel Association and was provided by one of its members and paid for from the Newsreel Association Services Ltd.  Graham Thompson was a Movietone cameraman who was not responsible for the choice of stories concerning the Royal Family.  That job was handled by the News Editor.

What with the nagging, the rows about censorship and the continuous accusations of political bias, the newsreels had a lot to put up with.   For the most part they ignored a good deal of it.

Sources:  Yesterdays News and Researcher’s Guide to British Newsreels Parts I and II, published by British Universities Film and Television Council.

Anecdotal information from colleagues.

© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2013.  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.

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