Thursday 5 June 2014

The BBC, Twitter and the first news of D-Day

Seventy years ago this morning, allied troops established the beachhead in occupied Europe and founded the modern world.

What is interesting to me, and the story hasn't been told before, is the complexities of how the news around the landing was handled.  Noel Newsome, the director of the BBC European Service, was one of those few civilians with knowledge about the date of the invasion.  He had built his reputation there, and torn the service away from the bureaucratic grip of the BBC, with a commitment to truth as propaganda and an awareness that - in the war he was fighting - getting the news out first was the most powerful weapon he had.

But he could hardly ignore what was going on and wait to be told what to say.  What was he to do? This is how he described the decision in his autobiography:

"Soon after dawn, we began to receive flashes from the monitoring services and the news agencies, saying that the German News Service was reporting Allied landings in Normandy and in the Calais area. We had every reason to believe that the reports of the Normandy landings must be correct, but believed that those of attacks in the Calais area were false, as we knew of no plans for landings there. But if these were false, might not those of the Normandy assault also be untrue? Might they have been put out by the Germans to enable them to claim, if bad weather had again prevented the invasion, that we had been repulsed? My instructions were to wait for the SHAEF communiqué, not due for many hours even if landings had begun. On the other hand, our broadcasting services had built their reputation on the speed, as well as the accuracy, of their news. My own overpowering instinct as a newspaperman was to report the news from whatever source as soon as I got it. 

"Half-an-hour passed and German reports of Allied landings continued to come in thick and fast. I took the bull by the horns and ordered that we should start transmitting the German reports, with a statement that there was no confirmation of these in Allied quarters. Meanwhile, I took immediate steps to check the true position with SHAEF. This was not easy. Perhaps naturally, SHAEF was in a state of high excitement and it was impossible to get a clear telephone line for some time. 

"Eventually, I got through and secured confirmation that the invasion was on, that we were ashore in Normandy, and that a feint attack had been made in the Pas de Calais to sow confusion in the German defence. This was a great relief. Obviously, we could help the feint to achieve its purpose if we continued to relay German reports about the Calais attack as if confirming them. This we did..."

What I find fascinating about this is not just that Newsome broadcast the news about D-Day based on German reports, ignoring his instructions - in retrospect the least suspicious thing he could have done for the listening enemy - but just how modern this all is in the days of Twitter and competing internet news coverage.

Newsome is now a largely forgotten figure, quite wrongly in my view - though he broadcast anonymously three times a week as the ‘Man in the Street’ - but during the war his influence was immense.

By force of personality and amidst furious controversy, he built the organisation that transmitted to Europe throughout the war, broadcasting on three channels and in 20 different languages for a total of 36 hours a day – the biggest broadcasting operation in the world then and now.  As Director of European Broadcasts, he shaped the daily line against Goebbels, and dominated the voice of Britain from the BBC, and then the voice of the allies at SHAEF from Radio Luxembourg.

"Would you risk your life to listen to that?" he scrawled on official scripts - demanding that people listening secretly to illegal wirelesses around Europe deserved the straight-talking truth. Such was his success that, by 1945, 15 million Germans were risking a death sentence to listen to his programmes every day.

But at VE Day he was told he was too much of a crusader for the post-war BBC, and he never broadcast again. They never forgave him for wresting control of the European Service away from them. The most recent BBC history of the World Service only gave him a footnote.  It was 25 years before Asa Briggs, in his history of broadcasting, called him "the central figure in the organisation... and the most industrious, lively and imaginative of all its wartime recruits."

It was under Newsome’s direction that the organisation that was to become the BBC World Service gained its European reputation for trust, and the art of broadcast ‘propaganda’ was developed into a fine and largely forgotten art.

It meant keeping the good news in proportion, reminding people of the discredited claims of the Nazis. But most of all, it meant a daily struggle to make sure the bad news – especially the embarrassing news – was got on the air before the other side.

It happened at such speed that there was no time to wait for orders.  Even without official backing, he pushed the limits of his editorial control to the utmost, twice taking it upon himself to reject Hitler's peace offers to Britain over the radio, without any reference to higher authority. But he was most controversial in his conviction that British propaganda had to have a 'moral core'. By this he meant that the news should be recognisably British, and that the ideals for which the nation was fighting should shine through every broadcast - through religion, art, literature and the whole orchestra of free culture.  This is what made the European Service so effective.

"There is one way in which the British, despite the narrowness of their political thinking, are ahead of us," Goebbels warned in a newspaper article in 1944. "They know that news can be a weapon and are experts in its strategy."

Newsome believed that the range of different languages included in his organisation, filling Bush House, would allow his pan-European broadcasts to provide the basis of a pan-European institution at the end of the war.  The British government were not keen, which was a historic tragedy.  But what strikes me now is how modern this kind of news was - in hour-by-hour struggles with the Nazi broadcasters. 

We are reinventing news along these lines now, with 100 million people a month using the Guardian's website, updated 24 hours a day, and the objective primarily being 'traffic' - as Newsome's was.  Just getting people to tune in to find out something critical they could find out nowhere else, and to trust it.

That meant the news had to be recognisably British - it may not have been the whole truth (how could it have been?) but it wasn't spin.  It also had to build civilisation rather than undermine it.

"If I were to try to describe in one word the character which I sought to give our broadcasts I would reply 'civilised'," Newsome said in his farewell talk from Radio Luxembourg on 23 May 1945. "There were many who told us that we were failing at our task because we did not employ tricks and devices as clever as those of the Nazis. Others said we did not adapt ourselves sufficiently to the tastes and susceptibilities of our audiences. Our bitterest critics were those who objected to admissions that the Allies were far from perfect and had made mistakes, and that our enemies were not all, to a man, woman and child of them, villains beyond redemption. Yet we sought to tell the truth: not only the true facts about the war, but the truth about human beings at all times - that no-one of any race or nation has a monopoly of virtue or viciousness, that in everybody there is a glorious goodness and bestial evil which fight for domination."


Edis said...

Wow. Thanks David. This was all news to me and I suspect to many others. Do you have references (books etc) we could follow up?

A different world from the British 'black' stations run by Sefton Delmar - the fictional Soldatsender Calais and its supposedly patriotically subversive broadcaster 'der Chef'.

David Boyle said...

It is a different world from the Sefton Delmer operations, though he also broadcast the news in German for the BBC. There hasn't been much written about this, for the reasons I say, and it may have to wait for me to write the book - I've been waiting for 20 years to do so! But if you were interested in the meantime, Asa Briggs' war volume of the History of Broadcasting (Vol 5, I think) includes very interesting material.

Edis said...

My Mum was one of those risking their lives listening to these broadcasts. One of her jobs in the Lithuanian anti-Nazi resistance was to transcribe he news and pass it on for the underground press. And thereby hangs a tale of a Gestapo raid on her parents house, teenagers dancing the Lambeth Walk and two furious senior Wehrmacht officers. If you ever write that book abut these wartime broadcasts David I'll let you know the flavoursome story of a bit of the life at the other end of Newsome's microphones....