In democracies, wartime censorship is about finding the right balance between informing the public to create support while denying intelligence to wartime opponents. In addition to news from the war zones, censorship applied on the home front. Any details about weather, war production or troop movements were banned.
The key question behind censorship is: will this information help the enemy? That question is both tactical and strategic. Tactically, radio news can be used by opponents to adjust their operational activities. Strategically, radio news can impact morale and commitment, both at home and at the front. Democracies with a culture of openness must struggle to get the balance right. For both reasons, censorship is a challenge and a burden. But even Ed Murrow, the war’s most famous radio news reporter, believed it was necessary.
Allied censorship across America, Britain and the Commonwealth was independent but somewhat coordinated. Since radio was state controlled in Germany, Russia and became so in Japan during the war, it was largely propaganda. In some cases, though, such as the D-Day landings, reasonably accurate news coverage was first provided by German radio. Military censorship frequently caused long delays on the Allied side.
Public opinion of censorship was generally positive but ambiguous.
War Radio News Censorship – Britain
Although this might sound like a Monty Python gag, all wartime news in the United Kingdom was controlled by the Ministry of Information. And, while MOI had the right to control BBC, it never did. During pre-war planning, government agreed that the BBC should seek to report events truthfully and accurately, but not in such detail as to endanger the civilian population or jeopardize operations. Notwithstanding, some setbacks, such as Dieppe in 1942 were heavily censored.
BBC stuck to reporting news calmly and without comment. In part due to its style, people all over the world came to trust BBC for news. This “trust” was a very potent weapon during the conflict. So much so that listening to the BBC in occupied countries was punishable by death. Here is how the BBC described censorship in its 1941 yearbook:
“How are the BBC news bulletins safeguarded against the inclusion of items, say about air raids, which may sound innocent enough, but might, if broadcast, give useful information to the enemy ? There is, and has been ever since the war began, a double line of defenses to protect the broadcast news. First, there is the government censorship. The object of this is to save the press and broadcasting from giving anything away to the enemy. The censorship is not just a necessary evil ; it is in wartime a real and daily help to a responsible news editor. The second line of defense used by the BBC does more than the negative job of keeping the enemy in the dark. It aims at ensuring for listeners to the BBC a thoroughly accurate service. The passing by the censors of a news item for general publication does not mean that the BBC will, without more ado, use it. Items are further subject, in advance, to a check with the specialist authorities concerned. The BBC does not take any chances with the news. What it says about the progress of the war has official knowledge and opinion behind it.”
BBC also served as a news hub for many foreign broadcasters. It provided facilities to American broadcasters. BBC made extensive use of shortwave radio to relay news, either by recording or live, to other parts of the world. In the main, only the needs of military security kept important news off the air.
War Radio News Censorship – Commonwealth
In Australia during World War II, the government exercised significant powers over censorship and the release of sensitive information to the public. Australia’s news was censored by a newspaper publisher – Rupert Murdoch’s father, Kieth. The media was nudged towards supporting government positions, often quite strongly. In New Zealand, radio news reporters did not really exist. War news came by cable, and was censored when it arrived at Auckland and Wellington. Otherwise, most radio war news was a re-broadcast of BBC. In South Africa, domestic radio was used mainly for propaganda; actual war news came from the BBC.
In Canada, censorship was voluntary and a bit more subtle. There were strict rules, though, spelled out in a long set of guidelines, which were often confusing. If rules were not followed followed, charges of damaging the war effort could be laid. However, such charges would not be made if news stories had prior clearance from censors. Any kind of discussion of the war was supposed to be scripted and reviewed in advance. Neither private not public broadcasters wanted to accept any responsibility for facts or opinions broadcast by politicians. News from the fronts was censored by Canadian and British military before being transmitted to Canada.
There were many controversies about the success of Canadian censorship. Nazi intelligence advised its agents that practically all of the information needed by Germany could be obtained from Canadian media and parliamentary records. Britain complained. Critics accused the Canadian censors of being too political. On the other hand, many Canadians believed they could get better information by listening in to American stations across the border. And on the other hand again, the first news of the D-Day invasion came from German radio.