Chapter 12- The Censorship

Posted in The Forgotten People

Tonight I want to speak to you about the subject of censorship. It may be a disappointing thing to say so early, but I do not propose to make an attack on the censorship, or even upon the censor, whose displeasure I have so far never incurred. What I really want to do is to discuss with you one or two aspects of wartime censorship which seem to me to require plain thinking.

The essence of the principle of wartime censorship can perhaps be expressed in one sentence - that censorship imposes silence, and silence is one of the important weapons of war.

Censorship has two main subject matters: opinion and news.

The censorship of opinion raises difficult problems. The task of the authorities is to permit criticism and to prevent subversion; to avoid political censorship, but to maintain a complete repression of anything that threatens the national security.

Time will not permit an analysis of this interesting and important problem, but you will all have your own ideas as to how it should be solved.

The other aspect of censorship, that of news of and arising out of the war, is the one about which I would like briefly to talk to you.

In the handling of news - of statements of fact, or alleged fact - is the censor being too severe or too lenient? Are we being told too much, or too little? Is the enemy reading our newspapers and listening to our broadcasts with profit to himself, or not?

My own answer to these questions is that though, from time to time, there are mournful complaints about an excessive censorship of news, I believe that there is too little. There is too much talk of a kind useful to the foe and, if I may say so quite bluntly, there is too much talk anyhow.

Of course you have me on the hip at once. I can hear some of you muttering to an unresponsive wireless set that such a sentiment comes badly from an almost notorious speech-maker: but I shall stick to my guns. Sinner as I am, I shall still condemn the sin. There is too much talk.

At the moment the most successful Allied leader is Stalin, and he must be one of the most silent men on earth.

We British once used to regard ourselves as "strong, silent men" - not voluble and excitable, as other nations were. Alas, "how are the mighty fallen"! Every day and every night we vocally exhort, explain, denounce, comment, prophesy; political statements flood the already saturated air; boys of tender years whose knowledge of strategy is non-existent expound, in paragraph or column, the deficiencies of generals; after every defeat we have a noisy and ill-informed post mortem for the benefit of a delighted enemy; we talk of morale so much that we are in danger of losing it.

The truth is that most of us have no adequate conception of the use that may be made by our opponents of quite simple-looking disclosures of fact.

Many a time I have heard people say, apropos of some item of news - perhaps the presence of some ship in an Australian harbour, freely discussed down the street but banned from the Press, "Oh, what nonsense to conceal it! If we know it, the enemy must know it. His system of espionage, of intelligence, is perfect." But when you consider how little we know of what our enemy is doing - of his equipment, his ships, his personnel - and how inaccurate what little we thought we knew has turned out to be in most cases, why should we assume that he is in any better plight than we are? And why would we take any shadow of a risk of telling him something that he does not know? One indiscreet statement in a newspaper column or in a broadcast may tomorrow or next week sink a troopship, or submit an air base to attack, or cut off and destroy a division.

Frankly, listeners, I have been horrified - as I am sure you have been - at some matters which find their way into print or come across the air in relation to movements of troops, of ships and of aircraft.

When the defence of Johore was about to begin, one heard over the air and read in the public Press of certain changes in the disposition of the Australian forces. That must have saved the Japanese a great deal of difficult and dangerous reconnaissance. When the Prince of Wales and the Repulse arrived at Singapore, their arrival was shouted from the house tops. Whenever it appears that we are deficient of either men or equipment in some part of the world, we take the world into our confidence and advertise the fact to all comers. Such things are dangerous. We all like news, but news is much less important than victory.

I do not know whether it has always been so in our history, but it is hard to believe that any war has ever been conducted with such an accompaniment of publicity - individual publicity with all its false values, the splashing of the lightest words of amateurs across the world's newspapers.

Apart altogether from my deep-seated belief that whatever in this strange, mad world of ours is best advertised, is probably the worst in fact, what I want to emphasize is that no consideration of publicity should ever be permitted to impose three ha'p'orth of risk upon any man fighting for his country.

And we cannot leave all this business of censorship to my unhappy friend the censor. There is such a thing as self-censorship, self-restraint. Some of the stuff we have served up to us from day to day might well be made the subject of a self-denying ordinance.

Most people are not fools, and they are not easily satisfied by a common form of news-announcing couched in such cheery and exaggerated terms as to make it seem that the war had been an unbroken series of victories for us. We have all noticed that whenever the enemy retreats he is, so we are told, "broken"; his retreat is a "rout". During our recent push in Libya, and at a time when any rational onlooker must have admired the extraordinary skill and tenacity and resourcefulness of the German general, Rommel, the announcer over the air kept telling us that Rommel was still "on the run".

But whenever we retreat, we are doing it "according to plan". We are doing it to "prepared positions". A cynic would think that all our retreats were planned in advance.

Such false pictures do nothing but harm. We shall win this war not by bluffing ourselves about the facts but by facing them, without necessarily advertising them.

It is foolish to go on telling ourselves or being told that if enemy aeroplanes are destroyed on the ground it shows unreadiness or even fear on the part of the enemy, while when our aeroplanes are destroyed on the ground the incident represents merely misfortune of the blackest dye.

The whole danger of induced self-deception on the news of the war is that we either become completely sceptical of the truth of everything we are told or, accepting it, we sink more deeply into a condition of stupid underestimation of the enemy - an underestimation that has done us incredible harm in the past and that is quite capable of destroying us unless we take steps to destroy it.

It is time that we "cut the cackle", to use the homely phrase, and set out with a clear recognition of the facts in our minds, and with one object - to become as good at and as well-prepared for war as our opponents. We shall not fight any the worse if we concentrate on the business of fighting and of producing, and save our breaths until we really have something to say.

We shall not remain indefinitely inferior to the Japanese in sea power or in air power when once we have frankly admitted that we are inferior and that we must be prepared to submit to all the discipline that he imposes upon himself - and more - if we are to catch him up.

A completely candid self-examination would, I believe, show us that a good deal of our trouble arises from the fact that our belief in our innate and almost godlike superiority to "the foreigner" is dying hard, but is not yet dead.

We have fed ourselves on miserable and false clichés, "One volunteer," we have said, "is as good as two pressed men." What nonsense! For the two pressed men may be of the highest courage and skill, and superbly equipped. "We lose battles but we win wars." What pitiful wishful thinking that is! "Our beautiful battleships will never be outmoded by the bomber." And then the enemy comes along with dive bombers and torpedo-carrying aircraft and sinks two of these monsters in a matter of almost minutes.

And while we are slowly - but surely, I hope - ridding ourselves of these self-deceiving doctrines, some of the foreigners to whom we were so superior are setting us the most noble example of resourcefulness, of self- forgetfulness, of stark and realistic courage. Look at the Russians on the German frontier! Look at the Dutch in and around Java!

These reflections may seem to you to have little or nothing to do with censorship. As I see them, they have a great deal, for the function of censorship, as I began by saying, is to impose silence.

The function of self-censorship is to create silent places in our own minds and own hearts: a modest silence when we think how far we have fallen short in this struggle; an admiring silence when we think how much some others have done; a determined silence when we contemplate the task in front of us, and the labours which we must endure before it is completed.

6 March, 1942