Media: How the papers went to war

Conflict has always meant profit for the press - but the role of words in battle itself dates only from 1914.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The First World War was the first true media war. Wars had, of course, been reported in newspapers before. But never before 1914 had a war been covered so extensively for such a huge readership. Never before had newspapers been so deliberately used to misrepresent events. And never before had the press itself been a weapon of warfare in its own right.

Indeed, many Germans believed that newspaper propaganda had been the decisive weapon of the war. "Today words have become battles," declared the German supreme commander, Erich von Ludendorff: "The right words, battles won; the wrong words, battles lost."

To the Germans, the architect of British victory was neither Lloyd George nor Douglas Haig but Lord Northcliffe, the elder of the two Harmsworth brothers, who by 1914 had built up Britain's biggest newspaper group (including The Times and Daily Mail). To Hitler, Northcliffe's war propaganda had been "an inspired work of genius" - one that he and Goebbels sought to emulate.

Those responsible for Allied propaganda did not dissent. John Buchan, the novelist who played an important role in British propaganda, agreed: "So far as Britain is concerned," he commented in 1917, "the war could not have been fought for one month without its newspapers."

The offices given to newspaper proprietors during the war testify to their importance. Lord Northcliffe was appointed director of propaganda in enemy countries. His brother became Air Minister. The Canadian businessman Sir Max Aitken, who bought the Daily Express in 1916, served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and as Minister for Information. The flow of honours told a similar story.

To cite one of many examples, it was in 1916 that Aitken became Lord Beaverbrook.

The conventional wisdom today is that newspaper proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch wield excessive power; but their power pales into insignificance when compared with Lord Northcliffe's during the First World War. His papers conducted a succession of campaigns aimed at intensifying the British war effort and harassing insufficiently bellicose ministers, including the prime minister, Herbert Asquith.

Typical of Lord Northcliffe's approach was his instruction to the Daily Mail editor, Tom Clarke, in December 1916: "Get a smiling picture of Lloyd George and underneath it put the caption `DO IT NOW', and get the worst possible picture of Asquith and label it `WAIT AND SEE'." There is not much Kelvin MacKenzie could have taught him.

The phenomenon of wartime press power was not peculiar to Britain, however. One of the most compelling of all critiques of the press at war was advanced by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus in his one-man magazine Die Fackel and his epic post-war play The Last Days of Mankind.

Kraus was at once fascinated and appalled by the way newspapers treated the war with conscious cynicism and unconscious irony as the ultimate "good story". The worst of the many reptilian journalists in The Last Days of Mankind is Alice Schalek, the female war correspondent for whom the suffering of soldiers is merely wonderful "colour" for her copy. To Schalek, the war is no different from the plays she reviewed in peacetime; "performances" at the front are "first class" and officers are interviewed as if they were stars of the stage.

Kraus's boldest argument was that such misrepresentation was itself a cause of the war. "The newspaper reporter," he argued, "has brought to us that degree of impoverishment of the imagination which makes it possible for us to fight a war of annihilation."

"Paper burns," he wrote in a crucial passage, "and has set the world alight. Newspaper pages have acted as the kindling for the world conflagration... Would the war have been possible at all without the press - possible to begin or possible to continue?"

Yet the press was only acting in its own interest: as one of Kraus's journalists says, "the public must have its appetite whetted for the war and for the paper; one is inseparable from the other." Crowds cheer "for Austria, Germany and the Neue Freie Presse", the leading paper of Vienna. "Are those our men?" one reporter near the front line asks another. "You mean from the press corps?" asks the other in return.

This argument is bound to strike a chord with a modern reader, anticipating as it does later commentators such as Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan. But was Kraus right? His implication was that the war boosted newspaper circulation and hence also the profits of newspapers: indeed, he memorably denounced the proprietor of the Neue Freie Presse as "the man at the cash desk of world history".

Lord Northcliffe certainly expected war to boost sales of his titles. "What sells a newspaper?", one of his editors was once asked. The first answer is `war'. War creates not only a supply of news, but a demand for it. So deep-rooted is the fascination in a war and all things appertaining to it that... a paper has only to be able to put up on its placard `A Great Battle' for its sales to go up."

It was as true in 1914 as during the Falklands War. The circulation of the Daily Mail soared from 945,000 before the war to just under 1.5 million during the first weeks of August 1914, and remained at 1.4 million until June 1916. Even at the end of the war it remained above its pre-war level. The Times saw sales rise to 278,000 on 4 August 1914 and 318,000 the following month. The Evening News, too, gained nearly 900,000 readers in the second half of 1914. The Daily Express very nearly doubled its circulation during the war, while Horatio Bottomley's John Bull was selling as many as two million copies by the end of the war, a figure beaten only by the new Sunday Pictorial and the News of the World. Figures from France, Germany, and even neutral Switzerland and America, tell a similar story.

Yet there was a downside. For the war brought several economic disadvantages that prevented higher circulations from being translated into higher profits. Advertising revenues fell everywhere and, like other service sector industries without a direct role in arms production, the press lost skilled labour. Especially damaging were the paper shortages and the general price inflation caused by the war.

Everywhere newsprint and ink grew more expensive. But with papers shrinking in size it was difficult to put the cover price up by as much as the costs of newsprint and ink without losing readers. These economic problems help explain why the war saw a significant reduction in the number of newspaper titles in a number of combatant countries. Still, it would seem that the principal losers were small, often left-wing papers; there is reason to think that the big publishing groups increased their market share. For them it probably was, on balance, a lovely war.

Shortly after the First World War, Jean Cocteau bought a copy of Le Figaro in Paris, only to find that not only had he been charged double the cover price, but the paper was also two years out of date. When he complained the vendor replied: "But, cher monsieur, that is precisely why it is more expensive - because there is still a war in it."

`The Pity of War' by Niall Ferguson is published on 5 November by Allen Lane/Penguin Press, at pounds 18.99