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06 November 1915 – Prior Restraint

Decades before the first electronic data networking experiments, communication and printing technologies have already created a world where false news can wire itself around the Earth much faster than the sober truth. In 1915, one erroneous report can already be translated into hundreds tongues, repeated by thousands of outlets, being seen by millions of readers in a day. We flatter ourselves in the 21st Century by imagining this is a newer phenomenon; we just carry it around in our pockets now.

While British history involves many episodes of oppressed speech (see above), and cultural censorship is still taking place in Britain as much as anywhere else in the world a century ago, British society had been characterized by a liberalization of thought and word by the time the war began. This is in fact a point of great pride for Britons as they seek to defend the world from German ‘barbarism,’ but wartime censorship, propaganda, disinformation, and editorial agendas have shaped a ‘new normal’ for the free press, challenging the very freedoms the Great War is supposed to cherish most.

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One way of stifling public discussion of casualties and horror is by censoring soldiers’ mail, a logistical challenge as big as a battle

Yesterday evening, the Globe of London reported that Minister of War Lord Herbert Kitchener has offered his resignation to King George V during a visit with the monarch as he recovers from a riding accident suffered on a recent inspection tour of the Western Front. As reported by the 112 year-old newspaper, Kitchener has made this move out of “a full sense of responsibility” for the gloomy state of the war — a situation the Globe blames on unnamed civilians, an implied attack on Prime Minister Asquith’s coalition government.

No man who is honestly out for king and country could be expected to tolerate indefinitely the intrigues of the politicians.

Lord Kitchener, acting with a single eye to the interests of his King and country, has tolerated manoeuvers and machinations which none but the patriotic soldier would have endured for a day.

but even with a man so strong and independent as Lord Kitchener, there comes a breaking point. It is for the King and the people to decide whether that point has been reached.

Lord Kitchener has tendered his resignation to His Majesty. The fact that he should have done so at such a time is a measure of the gravity of the step.

Lord Kitchener is in fact on his way to Gallipoli for a personal inspection of the situation there, and the newspaper’s story suggests the trip is a result of the refused resignation rather than a high-level, on-the-ground policy mission. While the sensational report is denied by the Press Bureau, a public relations office that has been set up for the war, and receives no independent confirmation, it is nevertheless repeated around the world by newswire all day today. Instead of a correction or retraction, the placard outside the Globe‘s offices is updated with a headline doubling-down on the scurrilous assertions.

THE TRUTH ABOUT LORD KITCHENER.

REASSERTION OF THE “GLOBE” STATEMENT.

HIS RESIGNATION TENDERED.

We repeat our statement that Lord Kitchener had an audience of the King on Thursday and tendered his resignation, which was not accepted.

The publication of this information excited the greatest interest in all quarters. It had the desired effect; it prevented an entire change in the responsibility for the direction of the war being carried out behind the backs of the nation.

[…] Lord Kitchener does not visit the Sovereign in his sick room merely to make a pleasant au revoir…

Just after 10:30 this evening, a company of police descends on the Globe building at the Strand to stop the linotype presses. In fact, before they leave, the molds and plates of the entire evening’s edition has been stripped from the machines and removed, all copies seized, the motors unplugged, the lights extinguished. The Globe is being punished for broadcasting false and dispiriting rumors in wartime, and the constables are acting under the orders of the British Home Secretary John Simon, who knows as well as anyone that the precarious war situation is not being accurately portrayed in the British press.

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Militarized policing: London’s ‘first responders’ a century ago performing heroic duty in the emerging ‘national security’ role

Editor Charles Palmer immediately turns to his fellow newsmen, many of whom have chafed at the restrictions on their various agendas and stories, to comment. “I cannot say in what ‘The Globe’ has offended, because no definite allegation has yet been made, but the action of the Government is clearly a challenge to the freedom of the Press and the right of public criticism,” he says. Secretary Simon is a Liberal, and the Globe is undoubtedly aligned with the Conservative Party, creating an uncomfortable political polarization. Removed as editor in an agreement between the government and the newspaper’s lawyers allowing it to reopen, Palmer later accuses Simon of having “wholesale misrepresented” the facts. His reputation never recovers.

The Globe is in mixed company, for the Glasgow socialist Forward has also been suppressed, yet the contrast with Simon’s gentle treatment of the Labour Leader, an Independent Labour Party newspaper whose closure Simon reversed in August over the objections of then-Attorney General Sir Edward Carson, does not go unnoticed by the Tories. The plain failure of Asquith’s Balkan policy, which triggered Carson’s resignation just three weeks ago, also does not go unmentioned when the political reaction emerges in Parliament next week.

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The ‘haystack dilemma:’ handing 19,000 mailbags every day made it impossible to censor all the mail, with consequences