Waging war for hearts and minds with might of the pen

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Propaganda and censorship played a big part in the fight to win the hearts and minds of people during the First World War, says Rachael Jolley.

AS the centenary of the beginning of the First World War approaches, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to examine the role of propaganda, communication and censorship.

Censorship and propaganda are the yin and yang of communication in wartime, controlling public thought and rallying public support to a government position. The word “propaganda” in the sense we recognise it today first came into use during the period of the Great War. Before then, the word was mainly used in a religious context and didn’t necessarily have the negative overtones it does now.

That’s not to say propaganda techniques weren’t known before 1914. Throughout history, monarchs and national leaders have known the importance of rallying public spirits via the mass media of the day; using town criers and playwrights to project their message to the wider public.

However, modern propagandists really learnt their craft during the First World War – using posters, postcards, advertising, caricature, photography and newspapers to get their messages across. A century after the Lord Kitchener “your country needs you” poster first appeared, it remains in the public consciousness and continues to spark copies and pastiches. Stereotypes, phrases, songs and ideas invented during this period have proved resilient, and are still remembered 100 years later.

So the idea of “packing up your troubles in your old kitbag” continues, the “Hun” depicted by cartoonists is still recognised, while the phrase “Spanish flu” continues to be used without many of us realising its root is in the censorship of the war.

Spain was one of the few countries without media censorship in place when the epidemic struck and when it was reported on by the Spanish media, the flu consequently became “the Spanish flu”.

This global flu epidemic highlights both propaganda and censorship. Many experts now believe the pandemic killed more than the war itself; at least 50 million across the world, more in a single year than the Black Death.

But when the first symptoms came to the attention of doctors and governments large swathes of the world were at war. Young men were risking not only being hit in battle, but the chance of encountering the world’s deadliest flu outbreak. Governments were loathe to acknowledge the disease. It was feared that news of the deaths would undermine the war effort, and cause panic, if the full extent of the epidemic was acknowledged.

Posters and newspaper advertising challenged the public with “Don’t Let Flu Frighten You”. Meanwhile doctors struggled to identify what was causing the outbreak and how to tackle it.

When censorship finally began to relax, governments started using propaganda methods to fight the medical battle. Public health posters with a simple message were placed in newspapers to warn the public of the problem.

The tale of the flu epidemic illustrates the great risk of cutting off the public from vital knowledge. But today things would be different. With our access to all sorts of social media, as well as all the official outlets, it’s unlikely that any government would be able to keep a lid on news of a global disease sweeping through countries.

In most parts of the world we have experienced an information revolution since 1914 and we’re no longer in thrall to what governments deign to tell us. But the masters of the universe are still at it, trying to reach the public by swirling their magic. The question we now have is what and who to believe?

• Rachael Jolley is appearing at the Leeds Big Bookend festival on June 7 to discuss Censorship and Propaganda in Wartime: Where do we Draw the Line? For more information visit www.bigbookend.co.uk