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Bias in the newsreels – part one

The newsreels, since their very early days, had been subjected to severe criticism of their contents.  For much of their history, they were criticised for having a right-wing bias.

In May 1929, an article was published in The New Leader written by a person under the pen name of “Benn”.  He asks “Why not a socialist newsreel ?

He attacked the newsreels of the day: The Topical Budget, Pathe Gazette, Fox News and Eve’s Editorial Review, writing “… are regular features of every movie programme, and by the mere fact of their regularity must play a large part in the forming of popular ideas and in the moulding of public opinion. If it is the daily dose that does it, it is worthwhile examining the composition of the pictorial daily dose, so as to find out how it is made up and what are the effects at which it aims”.

Take as an example the newsreel I saw last week.  It consisted of the following items: two schoolboy football teams playing for some trophy or other;  second, Princess Mary opening a building’  third, the erection of a stand on a racing track, and racing ponies engaged in trial runs on the track’  fourth, the Prince of Wales opening the Newcastle Exhibition’  fifth, Captain Campbell failing in his attempt to beat Major Segrave’s motor-racing speed record;  sixth, the King being removed from Bognor to Windsor on his recovery from illness.  Six items – three devoted to sport, and three showing the movement of royalty.  No mention on 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.  Nothing about art or music or industrial development of slumdom or the breakdown of the efforts towards international agreement on disarmament”.

“Simply sport and royalty, royalty and sport.  And this newsreel that I have selected is only exceptional by reason of the moderation of the choice of events.  Usually, one has pictures of Mussolini reviewing the Italian troops, of tanks in action somewhere  in England, of gas-mask parades, of aeroplanes practising bombing raids, of naval manoeuvres – pictures of the whole paraphernalia of slaughter, but never a picture aiming at the development of the will to peace and at the inculcation of the spirit of internationalism,  Always militarism, jingoism, sabre-rattling or sport – never internationalism, peace, scientific advance or any matters likely to raise the intellectual and moral standards of the people”.

“this, then, is the newsreel. Its object is not to present news, but to breed a race of society gossipers, sports maniacs, lick-spittles and jingoes.  There is room here for a Workers Film society to photograph events of interest to the workers.  We could have a newsreel showing industrial and political demonstrations the social causes leading up to strikes; co-operative activities’ the effects of the miners’ eight-hour day on the miners and their families;  the contrast of a nine-to-a-room in workers’ houses with one-in-nine-rooms in the houses of the upper class, etc.,  It could be fairly easy to film such events, and, if done internationally, we could have a newsreel that would act as a real educational weapon on behalf of Socialism and world peace, and a defence against the dope with which the cinemas are now flooded”.

Wow !! I bet that would have drawn the crowds.

Of course, he was not alone in his wish for a left-wing newsreel.  The only way a Labour Newsreel could have any effect (that is to say the effect required by the proponents) is if it were shown in the cinemas throughout the country.  The question is, who would pay for it ?.  I would suggest that it would not be the cinemas, they would, most likely, believe that their audiences would not appreciate such a newsreel.

In August 1931, Ralph Bond writing in The Plebs Magazine called for “Labour Newsreels”.   The magazine was the publication of the Plebs League, a left-wing organisation which originated in Ruskin College in 1909.

Ralph Bond had shot a newsreel “…an explicitly leftist reel“ which was shown at the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in March 1930.

“It has an historical interest as a depiction of a major working-class gathering, complete with Communist firebrand Tom Mann and a comely comrade selling the Daily Worker. But it’s here because three days after it was shot it featured on the programme of the London Workers’ Film Society that also saw the first British showing of Turksib”.

Turksib was a Russian film showing the building of Turkistan-Siberia Railway. An English version, that is to say with English sub-titles, had been prepared by John Grierson.

Ralph Bond went on to produce a number of documentary films and, finally, he was Vice-President of the Association of Cinematograph Technicians until 1974.

Wing Commander Sir Norman John Hulbert, DL (5 June 1903 – 1 June 1972) was Managing Director of Capital News Theatres when he wrote an article for he Kinematograph Weekly in October 1934. Later, he would become a Royal Air Force officer and politician who served as a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party for nearly thirty years.

“The news film is the greatest propaganda medium in the world, not even excluding broadcasting, for the latter case it is easy to “switch off”, but when a news film is sandwiched between two feature films in a programme, I defy anyone to turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to its exhibition, and in this the newsreel editor has us at his mercy”.

“Editors, however, have a great deal to learn.  Politics should be “very sparsely” included, unless the newsreel is going to ally itself to any particular Party which is to be abhorred.  It is almost impossible to treat political talks impartially”

“Efforts have been made to secure a talk by each party leader for inclusion in one newsfilm, but results have never been completely satisfactory.  Editors should content themselves with giving the unvarnished screen of the world happenings in sound and picture”.

Sir Norman was, at one time, at that time, a supporter of the Nazis as well as the Germans and attended the Nuremberg Rally of 1938.  To him, even Conservative policies would have seemed left wing.

In March 1935, an anonymous article in the Kine Weekly included the following:

“the duty of the newsreel editor is to provide the patron with news uncoloured and free from personal or political bias…”

In the “New Statesman and Nation” of September 7th 1935 Glyn Roberts writes about the newsreels:

“…Their success is unquestioned”

He goes on to discuss the newsreels stating the “importance of the newsreels as a medium of propaganda” . “It is impossible that news on the screen can be given absolutely impersonally and without bias.  This being so, it would be far better if the bias were open and admitted”.

British Movietone News Poster

British Movietone News Poster (photo: Phantom of the Flicks)

He accuses Movietone News of a “highly tendentious view of the news while suggesting to the cinema-goer that he is receiving an objective, unbiased visual account of all the news that is fit to print”.

“Lately, the great weight of half-articulate resentment at the failure of the self-styled news-reel companies to fulfil their supposed function has been breaking out in a smattering of pungent and exasperated letters to the general press and the film weeklies”.

In the autumn of 1936 Brian Crosthwaite wrote an article “Newsreels show political bias: editing of Spanish Civil War Scenes discloses partisan views”.  This appeared in World Film News of 7th October 1936.

He writes “A check on recent newsreel tendencies shows that the old impartial presentation of news is disappearing.  A partisan spirit has arisen.  There is a strong measure of political bias.  And it is time to face up to the implications behind this vital change of style”.

“…Up till quite recently the Newsreels presumably regarded themselves mainly as entertainment and information caterers (chiefly entertainment).  Their aim was to serve up a popular hors d’oeuvre of the week’s sport and any other items of snob-value, thrill-value or amusement value.  They would indignantly have repudiated accusation of propaganda or the deliberate plugging of controversial issue in a one-sided manner.”

“But almost imperceptibly the new racket has started.  In recent newsreel issues about Spain the pro-rebel bias has been too obvious to escape notice, as witness the fact that the Rothermere-controlled British Movietonews blatantly uses the term ‘Red’ and ‘Anti-Red’.

“The propagandist element in the newsreels is bound to have a telling effect on the average audience”.

“…With typical guilt-complexes several newsreels have been careful to proclaim their impartiality. Items complementary to the Government forces are indeed not unknown.  But this does not alter the fact that no intelligent person can fail to notice the bias and political partisanship which is so rapidly establishing itself on the newsreel screens.. Whether this bias is to Right or Left, it is in any case something to be regarded as dangerous….”

He took Gaumont-British to task concerning their handling of a story on “The Blonde Amazon”  A woman they interviewed was identified as Miss Phyllis Gwatkin Williams.  She was said to be one of a number of women fighting in the war.  She did not claim to have been in action and did not declare whether she was “Red” or Rebel”.  For those who do not know, the Reds were the elected Government and the Rebels were the Fascists under Franco.

He writes “The choosing on an unreliable but sensational witness is deplorable but perhaps understandable.  The Gaumont British newsreel editor has however gone to considerable pains to give verisimilitude to her story by cutting in, at the appropriate and telling moments, shots of a car burning, a church burning, fierce-looking civilian soldiers their fists raised in salute, women fighting and the noise of machine guns, which in conjunction with the interview has become straight anti-government atrocity propaganda This method of cutting to stock shots is the normal method of giving reality to the fiction film;  but when it is used to give reality to what is only a witness’s statement in a newsreel film which we are in the habit of accepting as objective it becomes deadly dangerous”.

Arthur Calder-Marshal, the novelist and essayist, writing in Life and Letters Today (Winter Edition 1936-7), stated “`it is not that news-films are consistently used by right wing propaganda to distort news or form public opinion. The present news-films are not made with any deliberate purpose.  However , where there is a propaganda bias that bias its to the right.  The result perhaps as much of common stupidity as of political cunning.

He ended with a plea that the making of left-wing films dealing with contemporary events, in the first instance covering the situation in Spain and Abyssinia.

An article in World Film News of July 1937 headed “Historic Mistakes”, John Grierson is quote as saying “The newsreel is rushing breathlessly into oblivion”. The article goes on to admonish the newsreels for failing to cover labour disturbances that year and the decision of the Newsreel Association not to cover the wedding of the Duke of Windsor. At first, it was suggested that the newsreels were acting under pressure from the Government, but later, it emerged that the decision was of the Association alone.

In Life and Letters Today Charles Grinley wrote that the public “has become used to newsreels being deleted and doctored”  What ? One might ask by whom and why, where or when could this have taken place ?

He goes on: “The newsreel’s political or propagandist aspect is patent.  Certain reels are under the control of those from whom unbiased views is hardly to be expected”.

In March 1938, Mr. P.W. Dennis, Manager of the Tatler News Theatre in Chester in a letter to Today’s Cinema, criticised the attitude of newsreels in handling major political events.  He refers to the resignation of Anthony Eden.

“Cinema audiences, allowed in the Press to read forthright expressions of opinions on the rights and wrongs of the case, have been treated by the news-reel companies to the baldest statement of the facts coupled with some shots of the leading characters….

….”This hush-hush reporting was true of all but one firm (Paramount) , which was so ‘indiscreet’ as to allow a prominent critic of the Government to speak his views to the camera”….

….”Unless our newsreels are allowed the liberty of expression on matters of political and other importance that is accorded to the Press we shall be doomed to a succession of inarticulate reports of bare facts, valueless cinematically and valueless as screen journalism, in a country where the liberty of journalism stands high”.

So, the news-reels even got criticised when they do not express political opinion.

A reply on behalf of the news-reels:

“We can’t agree with you”. “The problem facing the newsreels is very different from that of the Press.  Most organs of the National Press are frankly partisan to one policy of the other, and their politics are well known to their readers”  “But with a newsreel the problem is fundamentally different.  An audience in any cinema includes all shades of political thought, from Communism to Fascism, and for any newsreel commentator to ex-press a view on the right and wrongs of any particular item is obviously liable to cause trouble….”

“…We think the duty of the newsreel is to preserve complete impartiality, so far as it is humanly possible…”

Universal title

Universal title

In 1938, Mr. R. E. Jeffrey was the commentator of Universal Talking News who received notice from an exhibitor saying that he was terminating the contract between the cinema and Universal.  He said that this was because Mr. Jeffrey had gone to Spain and had been biased in his dealings with the situation there.  Jeffrey argued that he had made several attempts to get to the Government side in order top get interviews and show their side of the story, but he had been “brought no encouragement” to do so.  On the other hand, he had received a safe conduct to the Nationalist side.  There he had obtained pictures of Franco.  He also got shots of Franco’s family.

The trade press had praised him for his neutrality.

In October 1943, Joan Lester, film critic of Reynold’s News, wrote:

“…But the commentary to this news reel was far from being just straight reporting.  It had a very definite political line of its own.  Here were remarkable and  most interesting pictures of the work of Allied bombers.  With them was a commentary to tell us that this was the second front in Europe, that it was not only crippling enemy war industry, but holding down Nazi forces in Europe.  The rest of the commentary was on similar lines – hardly unbiased reporting, I think you will agree”.

Well, no.  I do not see the point she is trying to make.  You could not blame the newsreels for being jingoistic in wartime.

At the end of the War in 1945, Andrew Buchanan in a book called Film and the Future wrote:

“….Long before 1939, partaking of partiality, the news reel and the news bulletin apparently had no alternative but to ally themselves to politics, a move involving en even greater projection of propaganda”.

One can only assume that he was referring to right-wing bias.

The conclusion of this article continues in part two.

Sources:  Researchers Guide To British Newsreels Parts I and II published by British Universities Film and Video Council. – published 1983 and 1988

Yesterday’s News – The British Cinema Newsreel Reader – Edited by Lujke Mckernan and published by BUFVC – 2002.

Personal observation.

© Terence Gallacher and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For more articles on Newsreels click here.

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