100 years since Basil Clarke became war reporter

War reporter Basil Clarke
War reporter Basil Clarke

Today is exactly 100 years since, on October 15, 1914, the journalist Basil Clarke got a phone call telling him to report urgently to the Daily Mail’s office.

It was a call that changed his life forever and would mean the British people got more comprehensive news about the early part of First World War than they would have otherwise.

Clarke had spent the first couple of months at the Government’s Press Bureau in Charing Cross, picking up officially issued news and trying to get his colleagues’ copy past the censors.

But when Clarke arrived back at the office, his news editor told him the Germans were about to take Ostend in Belgium and he wanted him to try to reach the city before it fell into enemy hands.

‘Get there first and send us a tip-top story,’ his news editor told him as he handed him the paper bag filled with 100 gold sovereigns that was to be his expense account. ‘Run it to a page if you like.’

War reporting has always been one of the most challenging types of journalism, but working as a war correspondent in the first few months of the First World War was especially difficult because journalists were not allowed at the Front.

The ban made it difficult for journalists to report from the Front, but it is to the credit of the independent-minded nature of the press that a number of reporters used their guile to get to the war zone and send news back to London.

They would often be helped – or at least a blind eye would be turned – by members of the military who thought the restrictions were unnecessarily draconian, but the ban still meant that during the early days of the war the ability of war correspondents to evade capture was at least as important as the traditional journalistic skills of finding news and writing articles.

As Clarke received his instructions to go to Ostend, he still had on the bowler hat and Burberry coat he had worn to the Press Bureau that day. He had no idea how long he would be away, but there was no time to say goodbye to his family and so collected the small suitcase he kept packed in the office and headed straight to Dover.

He would later wonder if he was the only journalist ever to have gone to war in a bowler hat.

At Dover, he was told that no boats were going to Belgium and so he took a cab to Folkestone to see if he could get one from there. As he waited at Folkestone, boats began to arrive that were crammed full of Belgian refugees and he spoke to some of them and was told that they had come from Ostend and that the Germans had already taken the city. He was too late.

The German occupation of Ostend meant that completing his news editor’s instructions was now impossible, so the obvious course of action was to return to the office. But instead, Clarke made a life-changing decision that was extraordinary both in its impetuosity and its recklessness.

Despite having a young family, he was so eager to see the war for himself that he decided to risk both his life and the ire of his employers by taking the first boat heading to Europe and, using his bag of gold sovereigns to pay his way, see what he could of the war. He gambled that he might be able to retrospectively justify his decision to his newsdesk if he was successful in getting news back from the Front.

And so began the three months Clarke spent as what he described as a ‘journalistic outlaw’, when he lived outside the law and survived day by day by using his cunning to evade arrest in what was a ‘labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken in journalistic work’.

Clarke took a steamer to Calais, where he explained to a British Consul that he wanted to head towards the war zone but was told not to leave town unless it was to return to England. Clarke also tried to get French officials to help him but they all refused to give him a ‘laisser-passer’ to anywhere in the direction of the fighting.

Clarke was determined to circumvent the intransigence of officialdom and he headed to the train station despite not having the necessary paperwork. But when he arrived he saw that its doors were guarded by soldiers with bayonets and so he instead decided to try to leave town by road. He had identified Dunkirk as a potential base because of its relative convenience for getting copy back to London and, given that it was just over 20 miles from Calais, he thought he might be able to walk there.

On the outskirts of Calais he came to a sentry box and the soldier inside refused to let him pass. Feeling tired and dejected, he stopped at a roadside café filled with soldiers. There, he struck up a conversation with a soldier who had been a printer on a French newspaper before the war and who remembered reading Clarke’s work in the Paris edition of the Daily Mail.

He said that he would shortly be leaving on a train that would stop at Dunkirk and agreed to help Clarke board the train. So Clarke headed back to the station, where he found that the door to the station restaurant was unguarded and he was able to walk through the restaurant and straight onto the platform, where the soldier was waiting for him.

They boarded a train full of French soldiers and as they made their way towards Dunkirk they passed such large numbers of Belgians either trudging in the opposite direction or crammed into trains that it seemed to Clarke to be ‘a stream of outcast humanity as few live to see’. He saw trains that were so overcrowded that men were lying on the roof or holding on between the carriages, and at one point he saw women being pulled out unconscious. ‘All
Belgium seemed to be pouring into France,’ he wrote.

When they stopped just outside Dunkirk’s station, Clarke decided to leave the train in the hope of avoiding the officials who would be guarding the station. He grabbed his suitcase, said goodbye to the soldiers and jumped down onto the track. But there was no obvious way to get off the track and as he looked for an exit he noticed he was being watched by a soldier with a bayonet.

Anxious not to attract any more attention, he started walking towards the station platform and then through to the main hall. Both exits were guarded by a soldier, a police officer and a ticket inspector.

Fearing he was about to be arrested or sent back to Britain, he noticed the refreshment buffet. To delay facing the officials, and reasoning that if he had to spend the night in jail then it would be better not to do so on an empty stomach, he went inside and got a meal.

And then his luck changed.

As he ate, a train full of Belgian refugees arrived and the platform was suddenly full of hundreds of people who all seemed to want to get to Calais.

‘There are no more trains tonight,’ Clarke overheard a station official telling the refugees. ‘Tomorrow, perhaps.’

Someone else said they had heard there were no vacant rooms left in Dunkirk that night and news of the accommodation shortage led to a rush towards the station door. Clarke realised this was his chance and so he joined the crowd that was now surging forward.

The pushing and shoving became worse as Clarke got near the exit and he was pushed onto a woman holding two small children. He lifted one of the children, a girl aged three or four, onto his shoulders to protect her from the crush, and just then the half-open station door suddenly burst open under the pressure of the crowd and Clarke was carried past the gesticulating officials and out onto the street. When he gathered himself, he realised he still had the girl but could not see her mother or the other child. He decided to wait for them and sat on his suitcase among the refugees outside the station and did his best to comfort the crying girl.

Half an hour later, the girl’s mother finally appeared. She told Clarke she had been left inside the station when the staff shut the door and feared he had run off with the girl. Clarke could see she had been crying and she had also lost her luggage in the crush. He assured her she would find the luggage later but did not offer to help look for it because he thought going back inside the station might lead to his arrest. Instead, he bought some warm milk for the children and a coffee for the woman, which they drank sitting on the cobbled stones of the square outside the station. After finishing their drinks, they found a nearby furniture store whose owners let the woman and the children sleep on the floor for the night.

Clarke said goodbye and returned to the station square, wondering how he himself might be able to find a bed. But as he considered his options he was noticed by a police officer who asked him where he was from.

A wrong answer could have meant an abrupt end to his ambition of becoming a war reporter. So instead of answering the police officer’s question, he asked him when the next train for Calais was leaving, hoping to change the subject.

The tactic worked. The police officer gesticulated as he explained it would be impossible to get a train to Calais that evening and Clarke managed to further distract him from his original question by insisting that he was surely wrong and that there must be another train to Calais that night.

‘You can never do more towards making the ordinary man talk and forget his original line of question than by contradicting him, and letting him convince you he is right,’ Clarke later wrote.

The police officer ended a long explanation by concluding that Clarke’s only option was to spend the night in in Dunkirk. Clarke thanked him for his advice and said goodbye.

He eventually got talking to a barber’s assistant who arranged for him to stay in a room in a nearby café. Clarke was pleased with the find. He thought the small number of guests there made it less conspicuous than a large hotel and he ended up staying there for some weeks before eventually deciding to leave after a police officer showed too much interest in him.

After spending his first night in Dunkirk, Clarke woke early the next morning and, intent on getting to the Front as soon as possible, walked to the gates of the city. There, he found a guard-house that was manned by soldiers and he confidently walked up to it and asked the soldiers the way to the nearby city of Furnes.

‘Your laisser-passer, monsieur?’ said one of the soldiers.

Knowing he did not have the correct documentation, Clarke ignored the request and instead repeated his question. But the soldier again demanded that Clarke produce his papers, more aggressively this time. Clarke took out the documentation giving him permission to go as far as Calais and showed it to the soldier.

‘What is this?’ the soldier asked.

At this point, Clarke decided to tell the truth and explained that he was a journalist who wanted to get to the Front but had not been able to get a permit.

The soldier told him that he would not be allowed outside the city gates, but as they continued talking the tone of the conversation became friendlier. The soldier mentioned he had once lived in London and remembered reading the Daily Mail.

‘If you let me through that gate,’ Clarke said, sensing an opportunity, ‘I’ll undertake to show you some of my writing in the Daily Mail in a day or two from now. Possibly it will have my name on it and then you will know it is mine, but to prevent accidents I will tell you when I return through this gate tonight what I am going to write and then when it appears in the paper you will be certain.’

The soldier laughed. ‘It is not allowed to leave the gate, monsieur,’ he said in a conspiratorial tone, ‘unless one wants to pay a visit to the cemetery which you see over there. The same road leads to Furnes and Ypres and the Front. If monsieur, now, would say he would like to see the cemetery, I should be able to let him through the town gate.’

Clarke said he would love to see the cemetery and the soldier winked at him and let him through.

By the time Clarke returned to the gate it was dusk and he had had his first experience of war reporting. On Sunday, 18 October 1914, three days after leaving to try to get to Ostend, he sent his first despatch back to London. Just 38 words, it appeared in the Daily Mail the following day:

“Severe fighting is taking place today near Nieuport (south of Ostend). Very heavy firing has been heard at Dunkirk since eight this morning. It is suggested that torpedo-boats or gun boats are being used in the canals.”

It marked the start of the three months that Clarke spent living as a fugitive. By the time he was finally forced to return home in January 1915, he was one of only two journalists left in the war zone.

The first public relations code of ethics

Basil Clarke, who wrote the first PR code of ethics
Basil Clarke, who wrote the first PR code of ethics

When it comes to most firsts in public relations – the first practitioner; the first agency – it is usually the United States that gets the glory.

But, given that September is Ethics Month for public relations, I thought it would be worth telling the story of how the UK can lay a claim to the industry’s first ethical code.

It was not that the American public relations pioneers had never considered ethics. Ivy Lee included an ethical element in his ‘Declaration of Principles for Public Relations’ in 1906. Also, Edward Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda included a code of ethics.

But Lee only included ethics as a small part of a wider document, while Bernays’s code of ethics was as much a description of how public relations practitioners already behaved as it was an attempt to codify standards of behaviour that could be used to hold people to account.

So when Basil Clarke, the father of the British public relations industry, developed a code of ethics in the 1920s that set tough and credible standards that those working in public relations were expected to conform to, it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The Code called for an end to anonymity in public relations. All public relations copy was to be marked with the sender’s name and clearly labelled as publicity copy, while the press agent would be obliged to disclose the name of his client if asked to do so by an editor.

As well as highlighting the importance of transparency, Clarke’s code set out that press agents should not accept fees from newspapers or ‘suborn’ newspaper staff to publish stories, while they should also be responsible for satisfying themselves of their clients’ bona fides.

It also judged canvassing for business to be inappropriate because it could lead to press agents over-promising about the levels of coverage they were likely to achieve. And work should be paid for by professional fee, rather than by the number of articles secured.

Its other provisions included that stunts should not be used if they were intended to deceive either an editor or the public; that press releases should include footnotes giving the source for any claims; and that, except in ‘special circumstances’, editorial publicity was to be offered alongside advertising rather than instead of it.

The code also stipulated that press agents should not offer to place advertising with a newspaper on condition that it agreed to give editorial coverage, as this was ‘degrading alike to the maker of the threats and to the paper’.

Clarke hoped his code would force deceitful press agents to either change their ways or go out of business, and that this would enhance the professional reputations of those who remained. He also called for an industry-wide approach where a new ‘Vigilance Committee’ would monitor adherence to these rules and punish those who broke them, which he thought ‘would rid editorial publicity work of many abuses and leave unimpaired the useful functions’.

But as forward-thinking as Clarke may have been in identifying the need for this kind of code, it did not make any immediate discernible difference. A decade later, Clarke himself was lamenting that ‘there is still no knowing who is, or may be, a press agent, or what he may do … [and] nor is there any limit, except those imposed by his natural decency, to which a press agent may descend to get his publicity or propaganda across’.

And when the journalist Richard West looked back at Clarke’s code in 1963 as part of a book about the public relations industry, he concluded that while it was ‘admirable as far as it goes’, the vast majority of 1960s public relations firms were consistently breaking at least some of Clarke’s rules.

One rule West claimed was being routinely ignored was the one about ‘suborning’ journalists, which he thought included asking journalists to see a copy of their article before publication and so making ‘the journalist reluctant to be critical in his writing’.

West also gave the example of public relations practitioners posing as ordinary members of the public when writing to the letters page of newspapers as evidence of a failure to be transparent. But to be fair, Clarke did this himself in the 1920s, writing to The Times to enthuse about the telephone industry without mentioning that it was one of his clients.

One element of Clarke’s code still being debated today is the issue of payment by results.

As for Clarke, he apparently only ever broke his rule on payment by results once, when a client insisted he would only pay for the newspaper coverage his agency actually secured.

Clarke reluctantly agreed a rate and at the end of the campaign the client was shocked to find that the bill was five times higher than the fee Clarke had originally proposed. Content to have taught the client a lesson, he let him off the difference in exchange for the price of a lunch.

10 best bits of Philip Gibbs’s autobiography

Sir Philip Gibbs
Sir Philip Gibbs

I have just finished reading Pageant of the Years, the autobiography of legendary journalist Philip Gibbs.

It’s a fascinating read, which i’d recommend to anyone interested in the history of British journalism. I thought it would be worth picking out the 10 things in it that I found most memorable.

1. The Daily Mail – a hiring and a sacking

Gibbs’s career at the Daily Mail was unusual in the way it both started and ended.

At the age of 23, he was invited to meet the newspaper’s owner, Lord Northcliffe, and at the meeting he was offered the editorship of the Daily Mail’s literary page (page four).

For a man of his age, it was a huge opportunity and he did not hesitate in accepting it. Six weeks later he arrived at the Daily Mail office to start his new job but this time Northcliffe seemed unsure who he was.

“Let me see,” he said. “Oh yes, I remember. Didn’t I ask you to join us?”

“Yes,” Gibbs replied. “You offered me the editorship of Page Four.”

“Did I?” Northcliffe said, looking surprised. “Well that’s a little awkward. I’ve given it to a brilliant young fellow named Filson Young.”

Northcliffe called down Young to join them.

“This is Philip Gibbs,” he said to him. “He tells me I offered him the editorship of Page Four. Well, he can work under you for a time.”

And so began Gibbs’s career at the Mail, working for a man whose job he had thought he had been recruited to.

His departure from the Mail was equally unorthodox. He had thought his time there might be coming to an end when he overheard another member of staff saying some “ominous words” to Northcliffe and saw Northcliffe nod in agreement.

Fearing he was about to be sacked, Gibbs decided he would resign instead. He went upstairs and wrote a resignation letter, sending it down by messenger boy.

Half an hour later, a man knocked on his door and introduced himself as his replacement.

2. “Only gentleman in Fleet Street”

When working as literary editor for the Tribune, Gibbs wrote to the novelist Marie Corelli to ask her to write an article.

She replied that she would be willing to do so as long as it would not be cut or edited in any way.

Gibbs agreed to her condition, and was flattered to receive a postcard from her in which she wrote: “You are the only gentleman in Fleet Street.”

But when he received Corelli’s article, he was horrified to discover that it was what he described as “a violent and libelous attack upon almost every other newspaper”.

He wrote back to Corelli to explain there was no way he could publish it.

She responded with another postcard. On it were the words: “You are an unspeakable cad.”

3. The explorer

In 1908, the world was abuzz with the news that the American explorer Dr Frederick Cook had become the first man to reach the North Pole.

Frederick Cook: the first man at the North Pole?
Frederick Cook: the first man at the North Pole?

Gibbs traveled to Denmark to cover the story and, through a huge slice of luck, managed to get a place on a boat that was going to meet ship bringing Dr Cook back to Copenhagen.

It meant he would get to interview the explorer before he had even landed but although getting the interview was a major achievement, there was something about Dr Cook’s story that Gibbs thought seemed odd. His suspicions deepened when Cook became defensive at straightforward questions and so Gibbs concluded that he was a charlatan who was lying about having reached the Pole.

When the boat reached Copenhagen, Gibbs hurried off to write his story. In it, he took the huge gamble – putting his career at risk – of making it clear he thought Cook was a fake.

“I took a big chance,” Gibbs wrote, “and looking back on it one which was too dangerous and not quite justified. I had no proof whatever that he was a fraud.”

Having questioned Cook’s truthfulness, Gibbs interviewed Cook again (why he agreed to be interviewed by Gibbs is unclear) and asked him about details of his trip. He then checked Cook’s answers with Danish explorers and they told Gibbs that Cook’s answers proved conclusively he was lying.

But as sure as Gibbs now was that he was exposing a conman, he found himself to be “the most unpopular man in Copenhagen”, a city that had lauded the explorer for his supposed achievement. He was once booed while eating at a restaurant and a newspaper described him as “the murderer Gibbs”. One of Cook’s friends even challenged him to a duel.

Even the great British journalist W.T. Stead, who was also in Copenhagen at the time, warned Gibbs: “Young man, you are not only ruining yourself but you are ruining the Daily Chronicle [Gibbs’s paper] for which I have great respect.”

The hornet’s nest he had stirred up began to worry Gibbs.

“There were moments when I had frightful doubts about the line I was taking,” he wrote. “Supposing after all Cook had been to the North Pole? Suppose I was maligning an honest and heroic man?”

These doubts were never more prominent than when a Danish newspaper announced that the Rector of the University of Copenhagen had examined Cook’s scientific notes and observations and thought they provided proof that he had been to the North Pole.

Gibbs, with his career on the line, went with Stead and a French journalist to visit the rector.

The rector proved reluctant to talk to them, telling them he was not allowed to give an interview to the press without first getting permission from the university.

“I only want to ask one question and to have one answer,” Gibbs told him. “Did you or did you not examine any notes and scientific observations by Dr Cook?”

“I do not want to get involved in this controversy,” the rector said. “The reputation of my university…”

At this point, Stead intervened. “This young man’s reputation is also at stake,” he said. “In any case the report in the press that you have examined Dr Cook’s documents should be confirmed or denied.”

Finally, the rector answered. “I have seen no papers from Dr Cook which confirm his claim to the discovery of the North Pole,” he said.

Shortly afterwards, Gibbs was having tea with the wife of a famous explorer when she showed him a letter from her husband. In it, he denounced Cook as a “charlatan and a rogue who certainly had never been anywhere near the North Pole”.

She agreed that Gibbs could publish it and, predictably, it created a sensation and seemed to prove Gibbs right. But then a few days later a letter appeared from the explorer’s wife denying she had ever shown Gibbs the letter.

“It was to me a knock-down blow,” Gibbs wrote. “I learned afterwards that she had weakened under great political and social pressure from high quarters. I have long forgiven her.”

Despite this set-back, as time went on it became increasingly clear that Dr Cook was lying about having reached the North Pole and his claims were finally disproved by the University of Copenhagen and the Royal Society.

Gibbs received a letter from Stead. “You were right and I was wrong,” the great journalist wrote.

4. Portuguese taxi ride

On a foreign assignment to investigate prisons in Portugal, Gibbs took a taxi ride to Forte Mon Santo outside Lisbon.

He wrote: “My driver went like a madman and a murderer, deliberately killing any dogs in the road. He knocked out three and was astonished by my anger.”

 5. C.E. Montague’s laughter

As one of the accredited reporters during the First World War, Gibbs’s work was supervised by C.E. Montague, previously a leader writer for the Manchester Guardian but now a censor for the British Army.

C.E. Montague: "ghoulish laugh"
C.E. Montague: “ghoulish laugh”

He had been against the war, but once it started he dyed his grey hair black and lied about his age so he could sign up, once telling Gibbs that since it was impossible to reconcile Christian ethics with the war, he had “declared a kind of moratorium on Christina ethics” until it was over.

Montague told Gibbs how when he was a sergeant in the front line he used to sneak up on his own sentries at night to see if any of them were asleep.

“It was a crime punishable by death,” Gibbs wrote, “and it was at a time when his men were so exhausted that sleep crept over them as an almost irresistible narcotic. There was something rather horrible in this stealthy creeping up on men like that, however necessary it might be.”

One day, Gibbs and Montague were watching a British attack and were close enough to see Germans running out of their dugouts and being shot as they emerged. Now and then a group of Germans that had been forced out into the open were hit by a shell, “blowing them all to bits”.

Each time this happened, Montague, who was sitting on a pile of sandbags, laughed in what Gibbs described as “a goblin way”.

“Montague, you’re ghoulish!” Gibbs said to him. “Why do you laugh like that?”

“I laugh because every shell that bursts on the enemy brings the end of the war nearer,” Montague replied.

Gibbs wrote: “This was a perfectly good answer, and yet somehow it seemed to me out of character – that goblin laugh – with a man of his high standard. I do not write this as a criticism of Montague, who was a better and wiser man that I have ever been, but as a glimpse of some oddity in him, some conflict within him, almost a touch of dual personality.”

6. The War and his wife

One of the most poignant parts of the book is where he writes about the effect the War had on his relationship with his wife, Agnes.

He wrote: “I noticed a change in her. She looked worn and thin. The war, so unending it seemed, was a horror to her, with all its casualties of youth. She saw no sense in it – nothing but massacre and misery on both sides. And she felt that she had lost me…

“She hated the despatches of war correspondents always holding out for a hope which was never fulfilled, always describing the heroic valour of boys who, of course, were sentenced to death. In the end she hated mine, for the same reasons, and I didn’t blame her, because that was the truth…

“I saw a tragic look in her eyes when I came back. She found a stranger in me because the war had changed me, she thought, and I was no longer the delicate boy she had loved – her shy fawn. I found her a little cold, a little distant, with some invisible barrier between us, though I came back to her with passionate longing, and left her again with tears in my heart.”

7. Being called a liar by Lloyd George

In the years after the War, the journalists who had reported the conflict were accused of having misled the British public; Beach Thomas of the Daily Mail later admitted to being ashamed of what he had written.

Gibbs denied this (though elsewhere in the book he seems to allude to the fact that his despatches had not been quite the whole truth).

So it must have been upsetting when David Lloyd George wrote in his war memoirs: “Gibbs lied merrily like the rest of them.”

“It was grossly untrue,” Gibbs wrote, “and it was very unjust of Lloyd George of all men to make this accusation against me.”

Gibbs put the accusation down to the fact that he had criticised Lloyd George for his policies during the Irish War of Independence.

8. Ramsay Macdonald’s confession

Gibbs got to know Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and, despite being politically “not altogether in sympathy with him”, he thought he had great charm “because of his handsome face, and beautiful voice with its Scottish accent, and a gentle way with him”.

Ramsay Macdonald: "A broken man"
Ramsay Macdonald: “A broken man”

One day, Macdonald was giving him a lift in his car when the Prime Minister turned to him.

“My dear Philip,” he said suddenly. “I am a broken man. I can’t put two sentences together, and I can’t put two ideas together. I am blind, and old, and useless.”

Gibbs wrote: “He grasped my hand and clung to it like a small boy needing comfort, and my heart was filled with pity for him, and I was stirred by the poignancy of this tragedy. But when I left him I was disturbed by the thought that a man in this state of mind and body should be Prime Minister at such a time in our history.”

9. Interviewing Himmler

When visiting Berlin in the 1930’s, he was given the chance to interview Himmler.

He wrote: “He was in a large room with big windows. He rose from his desk and came towards me, and for the first time I saw the man who was responsible, I should say, in the years to come, for more cruelty, torture, and human agony than any human being in modern times. He did not look like that. He looked like a professor at a university, or even perhaps an artist. 

“There was nothing repulsive about him. On the contrary, he was genial, vivid and humorous. It was difficult to believe I was in the presence of a most damnable villain.”

Himmler started the interview by introducing himself as “a man whom your English newspapers call ‘the worst man in Germany’” and then asked Gibbs why the English people thought Hitler was preparing for war.

“Many people in England,” Gibbs replied, “think that Hitler, after rearming, may be tempted to play the part of Napoleon and attack other people’s frontiers.”

Himmler laughed. “That is not only not the truth,” he replied, “but the very opposite of the truth. I know what is in Hitler’s mind, and that is not part of it. After all, we have read a little history. We know something about Mr Napoleon. We know what happened to him. We also know that if Hitler was to attack other people’s frontiers and march across Europe, as you suggest, it would be for Germany the road to ruin. That is a way we shall not go.”

In his book, Gibbs wrote: “Looking back upon them [Himmler’s words] they seem to me astonishing. Why did he say that? If he were lying to me that would be easy to understand, but surely he would not have lied in such a phrase? He need not have prophesised that a war of aggression would be for Germany the road to ruin. Even now I find its psychology inexplicable.”

When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Gibbs wrote a letter to The Times in which he repeated Himmler’s claim that if Germany violated other countries frontiers then it would be the road to its ruin.

He later heard that Himmler was furious about the Times letter and in 1945 Gibbs learned that his name was on a list of those to be arrested in the event of a German invasion of England.

10. Second World War

Having been a war correspondent in the First World War when in the prime of his life, Gibbs returned to France at the age of 62 to report on the Second World War.

His autobiography gets across an overwhelming sense of history repeating itself:

“I had the queerest sensation of being a ghost and walking among ghosts. For every village into which I went, and every bit of country through which I passed, every town in which I halted with the younger crowd of war correspondents, was haunted by the young officers and men of the old war.

“Here I was in Arras again – the Arras into which I had gone so often with a steel helmet on my head when it was being shelled.

“Away towards Lens was the Vimy Ridge, captured by the Canadians and Scottish through a snowstorm. Outside Arras, only a few minutes in a car, was Monchy Hill which I had seen charged by cavalry when the bodies of young troopers lay about the ground below.

“All over this countryside were the war cemeteries with their rows of crosses in crowded ranks. There below the soil lay the lads whom I had known, whom I had seen trudging up the Arras-Bapaume road, whom II had heard singing in estaminets, who had walked the Street of the Three Pebbles in Amiens, who had been up to their waists in the trenches sometimes, and who knew their chances were one in four when they went over the top, and less than that the second time.

“I was ghost-haunted. I myself was a ghost of that previous war. I went one day into Amiens and turned towards the Godebert restaurant with an officer who was with me. On many nights I had seen this place crowded with those who had come down from the Somme battlefields when their battalions were out of the line for a time. They had drunk too much wine here. They had flirted with little Marguerite. Now some of the officers of the Second World War were here, but not many.

“A woman came up to take my raincoat. She stared at me and then spoke to me in French.

“I remember you in the last war. I am almost certain of that.”

“Yes,” I said, “I was here in the last war. What were you doing then?”

“I was a young girl then,” she answered. “I used to take the officers’ overcoats when they arrived on rainy nights.”

I remembered her. She had been a slim dark slip of a girl. Now she was a middle-aged woman thin, and worn, and plain. Twenty-three years had passed since the Battle of the Somme, and I was elderly and haggard, and there was another war on.

Or was it the same old war? Had I been on seven days leave and come back again? Everything looked the same. The Vimy Ridge looked the same, through dank mist or a flurry of snow. The British soldiers in Arras were just like those others – their fathers – with the same cut of the jib, the same Cockney accent if they were Londoners, the same broad Scots if they were Scotsmen. They were singing the same songs: ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “The Long Long Trail”, “Pack up Your Troubles in your old Kit-Bag”, with a few new ones which I didn’t know. The sons of the fathers were not much different, though afterwards in talking to them I found a difference. They were better educated, perhaps, and not so tough.”

The Daily Mail and the First World War

Lord Northcliffe: had warned for years of the threat of Germany
Lord Northcliffe: had warned for years of the threat of Germany

Ahead of the centenary of the First World War, Private Eye has reported how in the Daily Mail did not understand the significance of the events of June and July of 1914 and at the time was more focused on events in Ireland.

There is certainly some truth in this, as the Daily Mail’s Tom Clarke set out in My Northcliffe Diary:

It has always seemed curious to me that the prophets of war who have since described this event [the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand] as the planned and obvious signal failed to recognise it at the time.

Northcliffe [the owner of the Mail] certainly did not recognise it. He, like many others, was wrapped up in the Irish deadlock, and as late as Monday, July 20, only five days before Austria and Serbia started the conflict which was to set Europe aflame, he was preening himself at having secured a personal ‘scoop’ about the King’s decision to summon a conference of the leaders of all parties on the subject of Ulster.

But criticising the Mail for lack of foresight over the War seems a little unfair.

Lord Northcliffe can at least claim to have been ahead of the crowd in identifying Germany as a threat. The Mail had been warning about Germany since its “Germany as She Is” series in 1896 and as early as 1908 he had written to Evelyn Wrench: “I know them [the Germans], they will bide their time, but Der Tag will come. You mark what I say.”

At the end of 1913 he even considered starting a Berlin edition of the Mail, which he apparently reckoned would cost him £200,000 but would be “worth many times that much if we can knock the war mania out of German heads”.

Northcliffe always saw the War as vindication of his years of warnings, but the reality is not quite so clear-cut. The Star newspaper’s claim that “next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any other living man to bring about the war” may have been overdoing it, but there is certainly a legitimate debate to be had over the extent to which the Mail’s hostility towards Germany was prescience or xenophobia.

While the answer is probably a bit of both, the fact that Northcliffe spent the last couple of years of his life – he died in 1922 – warning about Japan suggests he had something of a talent for identifing threats to world peace.

What is clear is that Northcliffe and the Daily Mail understood better than most that the impending war would be long and bloody. The Mail was devoid of all glibness about it being over by Christmas; on July 29, for example, it warned its readers that “Europe is face to face with the greatest catastrophe in human history”.

But while Northcliffe’s understanding of the situation was undoubtedly superior to many public figures, his judgement undoubtedly failed him at the outbreak of war and he was only saved by Thomas Marlowe, the Mail’s editor, from launching a ludicrous campaign for no British troops to set foot in Europe.

“Not a single soldier shall leave this country,” he announced to an astonished Mail newsroom. “We have a superb fleet, which shall give all the assistance in its power, but I will not support the sending out of this country of a single British soldier.

“What about invasion? What about our own country? Put that in the leader. Do you hear? Not a single soldier will go with my consent. Say so in the paper tomorrow.”

Northcliffe’s control over the Mail was such that he almost always got his way on matters of editorial policy. But this time, Marlowe disagreed with him and refused to back down.

This led to a tense night, with the printers preparing two very different leader columns for publication – one written by Northcliffe and the other by Marlowe – and Marlowe telling the printers that neither page should go through without his express order.

That day’s edition was three-quarters of an hour late going to press, as the office waited for a final decision. In the end, Northcliffe was persuaded to change his mind and it was Marlowe’s leader that the public read the following morning.

Press Gazette article on journalism in the First World War

Ahead of Monday’s Centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War, I’ve written a piece for Press Gazette about the role of journalism during the War.

I’ve reproduced it here:

In as much as historians think about them at all, British journalists who covered the First World War tend to be viewed in a less than flattering way.

Seen as unthinking mouthpieces of the army and the government, the accepted version is that these journalists let their readers down by painting an inaccurate picture of the war. The most often cited example is William Beach Thomas, the countryside writer turned war correspondent who some believe inspired the inept main character in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

To be fair, there is some truth in this negative portrayal and, certainly, the fact that Thomas was hosted by the British Army does seem to have compromised his independence. While it is common for war reporters to be “embedded” in this way, Thomas does stand out as exceptional for having presented the first day of the Battle of the Somme – the most disastrous single day in British military history – as a victory. He later came to regret allowing the military to influence his reporting and after the war admitted to being ashamed of some of what he had written.

But there is also another, very different, side to the story of how journalists covered the First World War. It is a story of hardship and heroism and of the kind of bloody-minded refusal to submit to authority that characterises the best of British journalism.

So as well as understanding the cautionary tale of Beach Thomas, we should also make sure we do not forget the stories of the many heroes of British journalism who risked everything to cover the war and challenged the government to an extent that was extraordinary.

The most famous example of this challenging approach is one of the most incendiary leader columns in the history of British newspapers. Written by Lord Northcliffe in the Daily Mail, it argued that Lord Kitchener – then a national hero – had been incompetent in ordering the wrong type of munitions and that this had resulted in the deaths of thousands of British soldiers

The article caused a scandal. Copies of the Mail were burned in the street; a police guard was put at its office near Fleet Street; and there was a huge overnight drop in circulation. But as unpopular as the article was in the short term, it was right and newspaper coverage of the scandal was seen as one of the reasons the Liberal Government was replaced with a coalition.

This willingness to challenge the Government, even during a time of War, was not an isolated incident. Just to take Northcliffe as an example, the following year his newspapers played an important role in removing Asquith as Prime Minister. Then when Lloyd George replaced Asquith, he was so worried about coverage in the Northcliffe press that he tried to placate him by offering him control of the Air Ministry. It did not work. Not only did Northcliffe reject the offer but he embarrassed Lloyd George by doing so publicly in The Times.

But it was not just the truculence of media owners that made British First World War journalism something to be celebrated. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about journalism during the War was the extent to which ordinary reporters were willing to defy the will of the Government.

Kitchener loathed journalists because he held a grudge for something that had been written about him earlier in his career. And so at the start of the war he decided to ban them from the war zone. Instead, newspapers were expected to pick up war news from a Press Bureau in Charing Cross and print reports penned by Sir Ernest Swinton, a kind of official war correspondent whose work one newspaper editor memorably dismissed as “magnificently uninformative”.

It is to the great credit of British journalism that it ignored the ban. From the start of the war until the restriction was eased in 1915, journalists used subterfuge to get to the fighting and endured living under constant fear of arrest as they gathered news for an anxious British public.

Life as a fugitive was difficult and dangerous. The war correspondent Hamilton Fyfe claimed Kitchener “talked wildly about having the reporters shot if they could be caught”, while Philip Gibbs, who later wrote for The Daily Telegraph, was held under arrest for ten days and told he would be put against a wall and shot if he dared to return to France.

Basil Clarke, who was one of these reporters, later recalled how life as what he called a “journalistic outlaw” was “a labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken”. He found that even the simplest aspects of reporting, from sending articles to London to even finding a light to write by, were suddenly filled with difficulty.

As Clarke wrote in his memoirs, the motivation for taking these risks and enduring such hard conditions was simple. “If Britons and Allies died in their thousands,” he wrote, “their fathers, mothers and sweethearts, and the countries that gave them, were entitled to know some little of the work they did.”

We should remember the defiance of the newspaper industry and the bravery of the journalists who risked their lives to report on the biggest story of their lifetimes. In this post-Leveson world, their example can act as an inspiration to us all.

Bert Gunn’s conversion to public relations

CIPR President Stephen Waddington
CIPR President Stephen Waddington

I really enjoyed reading the transcript today of CIPR President Stephen Waddington’s recent excellent speech to the International History of Public Relations Conference about the history of the CIPR.

One thing that stood out was a quote about public relations from Bert Gunn, who was editor of the Evening Standard between 1945 and 1952.

Gunn said:“[They] are an obstacle to the journalistic profession. I hate them. If I had my way I would do away with the lot.”

Stephen used it to illustrate the point that the kind of hostility shown towards public relations in Robert Peston’s recent high high profile speech has been there pretty much since the beginning.

I’d never heard this quote before, but it’s a good one.

And I found it interesting because of what Gunn did after leaving the Standard. That’s right – he entered public relations, as the managing director of Editorial Services Ltd, the PR agency Basil Clarke founded in 1924.

So who knows, maybe one day we will see Robert Peston join our ranks…



Tim Traverse-Healy on public relations

Tim Traverse-Healy: "paramount concern for public good"
Tim Traverse-Healy: “paramount concern for public good”

After 66 years working in public relations, Tim Traverse-Healy has written a document setting out his professional beliefs and views on the industry.

It is fascinating reading, and Stephen Waddington has posted the whole thing on his blog.

I was most taken with Traverse-Healey’s view that while securing media coverage, communicating and persuading are a big part of what we do, they don’t, on their own, add up to public relations.

Traverse-Healy thinks that for something to be considered public relations, it also has to have three extra ingredients:

  • Truth
  • Paramount concern for the public good
  • Genuine dialogue

I agree with him and think these are things that all of us working in public relations today would do well to remember.

Telling the truth is, I think, a given. And genuine dialogue is something that might not happen all the time, but with the advent of social media it is certainly the way things are going.

But concern for the public good?

This was fundamental to the approach of British public relations pioneers like Basil Clarke and Stephen Tallents. They, like Traverse-Healy, saw themselves as part of a movement that is trying to make society better.

I wonder how many of today’s public relations practioners think of themselves in this way.

That’s why it’s important that we champion this focus on public good and celebrate our industry’s proud history. Above, all, we need to keep making the case that we are more than just a gun for hire. As Traverse-Healy does in his document, “the argument we are like lawyers available to either defend or prosecute is untenable”.

H/T Tom Watson