A Social and Cultural History of the British Press in World War Two

This project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, runs for three years from 1 September 2011. It is hosted by the Aberystwyth Centre for Media History, which is based within the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University. The project team consists of the Principal Investigator Dr Sian Nicholas, Co-investigator Professor Tom O’Malley (Department of Theatre, Film and Television), Research Assistant Dr Marc Wiggam, and PhD candidates Ms Caroline Dale and Mr Kris Lovell.  

This project aims to provide the first full critical study of the development and role of the British press in the Second World War. It will integrate the history of the wartime press within the wider social, cultural and political context of wartime Britain, and explore what role the press had within them. It will also assess how changes in the relationship between the press, other media, and society during the war structured the development of communications in post-war Britain.

By the end of the 1930s the commercial pressures on newspapers had given rise to concerns over the structure of the newspaper industry and its role in democratic society. Tendencies towards monopoly, sensationalism and the distortion of news and opinion were increasingly thought by observers and those working in the industry to have the potential to undermine the welfare of the country. The changes in civilian and political life brought about through total war, and the restrictions the war required of the press, brought substantial changes to the industry. The press found itself facing a far more competitive media environment in which, for instance, radio broadcasting challenged its supremacy in the news market for the first time. Yet as well as this, the normal parameters of competition within the press industry were suspended during the war, for example by the rationing of advertising space, and this enabled newspapers to enjoy new freedoms and stimulate reflection on their social role. After the war’s end, pre-­war concerns about press freedom under the state, and the very future of newspapers in the modern age, found a new voice within the press industry, and from outside commentators and government alike. This culminated in the debates around the first Royal Commission on the Press in 1947.

By situating the wartime press within the wider flow of cultural, political and social change, this project will break new ground in the study of media history by looking beyond purely institutional or discrete matters affecting the newspaper industry. It will also address the marked absence of any comprehensive study of the wartime press.