Canadian Journalists Visit France 4
01 min 31 s
Delegation of Canadian newsmen on a Ministry of Information tour leave London for France, July 1918.
The party assembles in twos and threes outside its hotel, and its members are seated one at a time to have formal portrait photographs taken. The man taking the photographs may be G P Lewis, the Mol official photographer. They enter taxis and drive through central London. Arriving at their station, probably Waterloo, they are shown on board their train by two Army staff officers.
Pieces of History
Journalists and the War
Student at HEC, Montreal
The military soon understood that while the mass communication methods that had come into use in the 19th century made it possible to inform and mobilize entire populations, they also gave rise to new risks. Censorship became a fundamental component of military strategy very early in the war, with two specific objectives: keep the enemy wrapped in a fog of ignorance and protect the morale of the nation in order to promote the war effort. No one was free to say or write whatever they wanted, as Canadian journalists soon discovered after hostilities broke out in August 1914.
Although the press’s primary objective when war was declared was to keep readers informed about developments on the battlefield, it proved to be an extremely difficult task. The British government banned journalists from the front until 1915. Even afterwards, the situation did not improve much. Military information was supplied by an “official eyewitness,” appointed by the Canadian government, whose dispatches from London were so biased that no one took them seriously. Finally, in March 1917, in response to increasing complaints from journalists, the Canadian Press Association sent a real war correspondent, T. S. Lyon, editor of the Toronto Globe, to the front.
With a shortage of Canadian war correspondents during the Great War, journalists had to get their combat news from telegrams sent by their European colleagues. All news dispatches were carefully monitored, however: information and photographs that managed to get past the censors assigned to each group of correspondents were scrutinized and altered by the French and British censors prior to transmission across the Atlantic.
The tentacles of censorship did not stop there, however. One of the Government of Canada’s first military initiatives was to impose censorship of the press under the War Measures Act. Yet this statute was not sufficient to stem the flow of information that might be harmful to national security. With war being a very lucrative subject for newspapers, and with censorship being voluntary, editors sometimes gave in to the temptation to boost sales by revealing risky information. The highest value was attached to any information that was supposed to be kept secret under the censorship rules: movements of troops or goods within Canada, departures of contingents for the front, locations of military industries, technical specifications of arsenals, espionage rumours and casualty lists.
In June 1915, in an effort to put an end to these leaks, the federal government established a censorship board and named Lt.-Colonel Ernest J. Chambers chief press censor. With over 30 years’ experience in journalism, on top of a career in the military, Chambers enjoyed the respect of both the government and journalists. Under his surveillance, editors had to make sure that any information that might aid the enemy, endanger soldiers or discourage the war effort went into the waste basket. The definition was very broad. Besides details on military operations, it also blocked most information providing a realistic portrayal of the war. As Chambers saw it, Canadians might be shocked and demoralized by the horrors of the war. As a result, journalists were forced to use euphemistic language: a defeat became a reversal, a retreat a strategic withdrawal, a slight advance a tremendous victory. Soldiers’ letters were censored, too. Only humorous and optimistic allusions to the war were allowed to be published in Canadian newspapers.
Most journalists deplored the situation. As some of them, including those at the Toronto World, saw it, preventing the publication of genuine news served no useful purpose, and in fact, had a negative impact on recruitment. Indeed, according to the daily, publishing the truth about the war would have served to underline the urgency of the situation on the front to the Canadian public and to encourage patriotic young men to join up. The image that was presented was one of a war effort that was going well enough and not really in need of new recruits. Another criticism levelled at censorship was that it protected the government from the scrutiny of public opinion. The Edmonton Bulletin drew its readers’ attention to the fact that the censors had kept Canadians in the dark about the defects of the Ross rifle for almost two years. Many newspapers argued that if accurate information about the weapon’s shortcomings had been known, the public outcry would have forced the military to switch to a better rifle and could well have prevented many deaths on the battlefield.
From 1917 on, freedom of the press came under even greater threat. Reflecting public opinion, newspapers became increasingly critical of the government’s war policies and of the socio-economic conditions in Canada: national registration, rationing, increase in the cost of living, poor treatment of civilians by the military authorities, and conscription. Dissent was most vocal in Quebec. Newspapers — liberal, nationalist and Catholic — refused to back down in their opposition to conscription or any other measure deemed excessive. Not wanting to allow criticism of this sort to be disseminated, the government passed a new, more restrictive censorship act, specifically aimed at banning the publication of views hostile to the government. While mere threats of banning, imprisonment and fines were not enough to convince French-Canadian journalists to cease their attacks, the shutting down of the liberal newspapers Le Canada and Le Bulletin and of the ultra-Catholic La Croix, along with the censorship of the war news column of the weekly L’Action catholique in the spring of 1918, forced them to submit.
In many respects, censorship in Canada during the First World War was more severe than in other Allied countries. From the time hostilities broke out until censorship of the news was officially lifted on April 30, 1919, 253 publications were banned in Canada. Of this number, 164 were published in a language other than English or French. Journalists knew what was at stake. Yet while they resisted any efforts to set limits on their freedom of expression, they were still willing to aid the war effort.
In a way, journalists became informers, supplying the censors with all kinds of information useful to the authorities. At the same time, newspapers were turned into instruments of propaganda. In Quebec, for instance, La Presse and La Patrie played an active role in raising the Canadian 22nd Battalion. Newspapers also provided free space to the government for its advertising campaigns and published articles encouraging young men to enlist.
Throughout the war, Canadian journalists were torn between, on the one hand, not wanting to put the lives of young soldiers at risk or hinder “the successful prosecution of the war” and, on the other, not wanting to submit to the censorship imposed allegedly to protect the nation’s morale and, indirectly, the government in power in Ottawa. An integral part of the war machine, but also a tool of political power, censorship rocked the foundations of Canadian journalism for over four years.
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