‘Sir Philip Hesketh-Smithers went to the folk-dancing department; Mr Pauling went to woodcuts and weaving; Mr Digby-Smith was given the Arctic circle; Mr Bentley himself, after a dizzy period in which, for a day, he directed a film about postmen, for another day filed press-cuttings from Istanbul, and for the rest of the week supervised the staff catering, found himself at length back beside his busts in charge of the men of letters.’
Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags (London, 1942)
Thus, does Evelyn Waugh describe muddled reform within the Ministry of Information. First mooted in 1935, organised in secret and briefly activated during the Munich Crisis of 1938, the Ministry of Information (MOI) formally came into being on the day of Britain’s declaration of war. Over the next two years much would be made of supposed confusion within the MOI which was the subject of vehement criticism, not least from journalist Norman Riley in his scathing book 999 and All That (a reference to the number of staff reportedly employed by the Ministry). Pilloried in the press and lampooned by comedians, the MOI experienced four changes of Minister between 1939 and 1941. Yet perhaps the most notable early blunder concerning Britain’s wartime information policy was not in fact of its making.
Issued by the War Office on September 10th, 1939 Control of Photography Order Number 1 banned the photographing or filming of any object or subject conceivably connected with the prosecution of war. The order’s list of prohibitions included large groupings of troops or evacuees, any form of equipment or supplies, harbours and docks, crashed aeroplanes, damaged buildings and any form of riotous or disorderly assembly. Also included were gas works, electricity plants, hospitals, ambulances and roads or railways ‘connected with works of defense’.
Carried through with little or no cross-departmental consultation, this legislative blunt instrument came, in the understated words of the Home Office, as ‘rather a surprise’. The immediate effect was to convince many that civilian photography had been banned outright. The press and, in particular, the newsreel companies were incensed. With the British Expeditionary Force in transit to France, and the public eager for news, the biggest pictorial story of the war thus far was off-limits.
The state of confusion created by the War Office reached the heights of absurdity the following day. A broadcast on French radio incorrectly stated that the BEF had gone into action alongside French troops on the Maginot Line and British newspapers were soon pressing for permission to print. The War Office remained obdurate until 21:00 when it permitted a clarification to the French story to be printed. Concerned by an eyewitness account by Daily Express correspondent Geoffrey Cox describing British troops landing at Cherbourg at 23:30, the War Office ordered the story to be suppressed. The result was utter chaos. With the early morning editions already en route to their distribution points, police raided newspaper offices and wholesalers. Early-rising motorists had their cars searched in what one paper described as ‘Gestapo tactics’. Whilst all hell broke loose in London, in Paris, the Commissariat General á l’Information issued a bland communique clarifying the earlier radio report confirming that the BEF had arrived, but that they had not gone into action. At 02.55am after consultation with the War Office the MOI once again granted permission for the story to be printed.
Why Leslie Hore-Belisha, a Secretary of State for War known for astute handling of the press, pursued such a draconian approach remains a mystery. The photographic sub-committee of the MOI appears to have entered into discussions with the War Office in the summer of 1939 yet the surviving documentation makes no reference to the control order.
In a review of the incident the Home Office ascribed a knee-jerk reaction by M.I.5 as being at the root of the ‘hastily prepared’ and ‘ill-drafted’ order. Certainly, the zeitgeist of September 1939 lent itself to paranoia. In a meeting held at the MOI on September 14th the War Office admitted that the order ‘allowed practically no photos’ to be passed by the censor and that the ‘application of common sense must operate’. The order, however, remained in place and despite press announcements by trade bodies such as the British Photographic Manufacturers Association and the Photographic Dealers Association who jointly advised ‘Snap the girl, not the Gun’ , the legality of photography remained unclear in the mind of the public and perhaps more importantly in the minds of many policemen.
To supply the image-starved newsreel companies, on 11th September former documentary cameraman Harry Rignold was appointed Official War Office Cinematographer with Gerald Massey Collier as his assistant. On the 14th Geoffrey Keating, formerly a photographer on the Daily Sketch, was commissioned as 2nd Lt to support the work of then sole War Office photographer 56-year-old Armando Console (who had lost a leg and suffered shell shock as an official photographer in 1918). It would take months before the chaos of September 1939 abated, but out of it would emerge the nucleus of what in October 1941 became the Army Film and Photographic Unit.