World War II began 75 years ago with censorship chaos that echoes down the decades

September 1939. Meanwhile, press blockades. PA/PA Archive

At approximately 1.30 am in the night of September 11 1939 two police officers walked into the offices of the Daily Mail with instructions to seize all of its early editions. This action was repeated at newspaper offices and wholesale newsagents across the United Kingdom. A road block was set up in Fleet Street, trains from London were stopped, and members of the public had newspapers confiscated.

The war had begun eight days earlier. And this chaotic situation 12 hours earlier. At midday on 11 September, an official radio broadcast in Paris had wrongly announced that British troops were engaged in offensive action against Nazi forces. The whereabouts of British troops had been kept strictly secret since the beginning of the war. So the announcement led to serious discussions within the British government.

The Ministry of Information believed that there was little point suppressing a story which had already broken. The fact that reports of the broadcast had been picked up in the United States suggested that they would also have made their way into enemy hands.

It was eventually agreed that the government should confirm the arrival of British troops in France. But the War Office remained wary that more important information might be accidentally disclosed. It became even more worried when government censors began to receive colourful stories about troops being welcomed with flowers and partaking in bayonet charges.

The War Office responded by instructing the Ministry of Information’s censorship division to recall the news. When this attempt at retrospective censorship failed, an unnamed civil servant in the Home Office instructed the police to take “all possible steps” to protect “the national interest”. The resulting blockade led to scenes of “complete chaos”.

The events of 11-12 September 1939 became a defining moment for British censorship during World War II. They led to intense criticism. Newspaper editors accused the Ministry of Information of acting in a “true Gestapo manner” while opposition politicians spoke of a “muddle of the worst possible kind”. An opinion poll undertaken on behalf of the government also found that more than half of the public believed censorship was too tightly applied.

The fact that the Ministry of Information was responsible for both the issue and censorship of news exacerbated the criticism. Newspapers simply could not understand why the ministry had ended up censoring itself. It had been designed to act as the government’s mouthpiece and its press releases were supposedly vetted in advance. The very fact that one of these stories had been repressed suggested that the system did not work. This led to the ministry being stripped of its responsibility for censorship on October 9 1939.

This episode demonstrates the challenges caused by censorship in an otherwise “open” society. It also resonates with more contemporary concerns. Recent debates about press regulation – reignited by Sir Alan Moses’s statement that the industry-funded Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is not “a joke” – show that the perception of any regulatory body remains crucial to its success.

It’s not yet clear how IPSO will work in practice. And it’s unlikely that it will ever be embroiled in events as dramatic as those outlined here. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the experience of the Second World War, it’s that the system linking the production and regulation of news must be made clear.