On September 4, 1942, Canada’s most famous war correspondent, Ross Munro, told a packed rally at the Montreal Forum that Allied commandoes had murdered 150 German prisoners at the height of the Dieppe raid just a few weeks before.
Speaking on a government-sponsored propaganda tour, Munro said Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat’s British commando unit captured a German coastal battery in one of the few successful moments of the raid. “Some of the Germans had been killed in the skirmish but many of them were left,” Munro said told the Montrealers. “Then,” Munro continued, “in an aristocratic tone Lord Lovat said to the remainder, ‘I’m sorry, but we will have to erase you’ and erase them they did.’”
This was murder, even in wartime. Why did Munro, only 28 years old but still one of the sharpest minds among the Canadian reporters stationed in Britain – he was to have scoop after scoop until the last days of the war and went on to a distinguished peacetime career – make the allegation? Killing 150 POWs in cold blood would, if true, be a war crime.
It could have been a defining moment of Canada’s participation in the war, like the modern debate on alleged abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan. Instead, Canada’s press censors and journalists covered up the allegation.
Munro was in a position to know what happened. He had gone into Dieppe and managed to survive the raid, then spent days interviewing the soldiers who had managed to get back to England.
The day after the Forum rally, Canadian military intelligence agents scrambled to shut down coverage of Munro’s claim. Munro later said he could not remember making the statement, which seems rather bizarre considering the details of the Gazette’s quote. Newspapers across the country were warned not to use anything about Lovat’s supposed actions. The editors obeyed, but the Montreal Gazette story was already on the streets of Canada’s largest city and nothing could be done to take it back.
So the Canadian government had good reason to fear German retaliation against the Canadians captured at Dieppe. It came quickly: the Nazis ordered Canadian POWs captured at Dieppe to be chained or handcuffed in retaliation for alleged mistreatment of German POWs. Then Germans held in Canada were chained up in retaliation, sparking a riot at the Bowmanville POW camp west of Toronto that was hit by a news blackout by Canada’s censors.
Canada’s wartime editors were hardly free press crusaders, although, for various reasons, many of them partisan, the Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Tribune, the Montreal Gazette and Montreal’s Le Devoir stood up to Canada’s wartime censors. The rest maintained Canada’s long tradition of talking a good fight about freedom of speech.
Still, the World War II censorship system was benign compared to the one imposed during World War I.
Any second-rate police state would have approved of the Canadian press censorship system in World War I. At first, it was branch operation of the British censorship system, which strangled all real debate about the war and tried to warp public opinion to believe the war was a glorious crusade, not a murderous slaughter of young men led by incompetents.
Canada’s Postmaster General, acting as a deputy of the British Chief Press Censor, could ban any publication that questioned the government’s version of the military situation or suggested the Allies were in any way responsible for causing the war. Nothing could be written that undermined recruiting or might dissuade the Americans from joining the Allies.
The maximum penalty for writing, publishing, circulating or possessing anything banned by the Postmaster General was a fine of $5,000 (about $600,000 in today’s money) and/or five years imprisonment. The owners of the print shop where the material was published faced the same fines and jail terms, and the presses could be seized.
These rules were enshrined in the War Measures Act, passed on August 22, 1914 but made retroactive to August 4, the day that Britain had declared war. Editors of the country’s larger newspapers went to Ottawa to help write the censorship rules. These were printed in a pamphlet and mailed to newspaper offices, publishing firms, advertising and public relations agencies, government departments, police departments, military intelligence officers, and to allied governments.
The censors dealt mainly with two types of news: domestic stories from Canada and pro-German articles from the United States, which was neutral for nearly three years. The government had no worries about coverage from the front. There wasn’t any. The British and French controlled all access to the fighting zone and threatened to shoot any journalists who went near the trenches.
“War correspondence” from France came mostly from Britain’s official “eyewitness” who was, through most of the war, Canadian Max Aiken (Lord Beaverbrook). Aiken was eyewitness to very little. He rarely went near the front, and simply re-wrote press releases drafted by army officers who likely hadn’t seen much action, either.
Censors spent most of their time killing stories that might change public opinion. The war could not be won unless the public gave its full support, and, as the streets filled with crippled men, the newspapers carried pages of casualty lists and the great breakthroughs announced by the army never seemed to change the lines on the map, that support weakened. Enlistment plunged and bond money dried up.
As the disaster dragged on, the Canadian censorship system became increasingly invasive and powerful. An Order in Council (a Canadian cabinet order) passed September 12, 1914, banned any news about troop movements, and, two months later, Cabinet outlawed publications “calculated to be, or that might be, directly or indirectly useful to the enemy, or containing articles bearing on the war and not in accordance with the facts.”
In the spring of 1915, Canada got its own Chief Censor, Ernest J. Chambers, an old Fleet Street reporter and militia officer who served as Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod of the Canadian Senate (the upper house’s head of security). His previous war work involved wiretapping overseas telegraph cables.
Month after month, Chambers tightened the censorship screws. Films and plays fell under censorship. In the last months of the war, the censors began poking through record stores. Just a few weeks before the end of the war, the government banned all printed material in the languages of the enemy powers, which included newspapers in Polish, Ukrainian, and the many other minority languages of Germany’s main ally, the Austrian empire.
No Canadian could publicly criticize the way the army and navy did their work. They, like the people in Britain, were not allowed to advocate a negotiated peace. it. The government, along with most newspaper and magazine owners, flooded propaganda into the marketplace of ideas. Censorship created the illusion that these official ideas were the only version of reality.
People might have expected the censorship to end when the Germans quit. But the Russian Revolution had created a whole new set of villains, and the Communists had some supporters in Canada. At the first post-war cabinet meeting, held on November 13, 1918, federal ministers tried to outlaw seditious talk. They criminalized the printing of anything advocating socialist revolution or criticizing capitalism. It was the only time in Canadian history that the media was officially censored for political ideas in peacetime.
The system survived, with a few tweaks, until December 20, 1919, when all of the Orders in Council dealing with press censorship were repealed.
Chambers didn’t spend his workdays breaking up print shops. Press censorship in World War I operated as a voluntary system, with editors and publishers engaged in self-censorship. Except for the Victoria Week, the Sault Ste. Marie Express, Le Bulletin of Montreal and Quebec City’s La Croix, all of which were banned, editors of commercial newspapers toed the line. They chose to ignore the obvious futility of the war and did not, like the banned Sault Ste. Marie paper, question the sanity of sending more Canadian soldiers to the front.
The government was more subtle in World War II, deliberately seeking out respected journalists to run the press censorship stories. He wanted a voluntary censorship system, based on a very clear set of rules. And he feared the rise of a powerful propagandist, knowing he lacked the charisma to be that person.
Still, when the Allies seemed to be losing the war, military officers and some senior politicians wanted a much tighter censorship system. “In the twilight war everyone had been reasonable and tolerant; as the bad news poured in and the foundations of life were shaken, reason gave way to passion and tolerance to blind fury,” Chief English Press Censor Wilfrid Eggleston, a former Toronto Star reporter, wrote in his memoirs.
The top mandarins, used to life under pressure, hung tough. O. D. Skelton, senior bureaucrat at External Affairs, Ernest Lapointe, the Justice minister, and Mackenzie King, himself a former reporter, backed the censors and rejected demands from lesser ministers and from military officers for tighter censorship of Canadian newspapers and the banning of Isolationist U.S. publications like the Chicago Tribune and The Saturday Evening Post .
Canada could not escape the war. Much more of it arrived on our shores than we learn in the paltry bits of history taught in school. About 300 people drowned, burned or froze to death in submarine attacks within sight of the Canadian (and Newfoundland) shore. Japanese balloon bombs drifted over the West carrying God-knew-what. As hundreds of thousands of Canadian men went off to war, thousands of German POWs were brought into the country and had to be guarded and put to work. Sometimes these prisoners rebelled, although the public never knew.
In Quebec, the French-speaking majority was at odds over whether the war was Canada’s business at all, and many people on both sides of the debate took to the streets to make their views clear to the government. Le Devoir and other nationalists papers opposed Canadian participation in the war, and Quebec City’s L’Evenement Journal carried, in the first weeks of the war, semi-satirical “letters from Adolf Hitler” pleading with Quebeckers to abandon Britain and France.
The federal government used a combination of censorship and judicial review to cover up the military’s failures at Hong Kong. In early 1942, Sir Lyman Duff was appointed a one-man Royal Commission to look into the lack of training and shortage of weapons among the troops that surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas day, 1941. King and Duff were close friends, and King extended his term on the court.
Ontario Conservative leader George Drew was “opposition” counsel on the Duff Commission. He denounced Duff’s secret hearings and the judge’s decision not to force senior generals to testify. When Duff’s report came out, Drew righty criticized it as a whitewash. To circumvent Duff’s powers to jail him for contempt of court, Drew asked King to table in the House of Commons Drew’s 32-page response to the Duff Report. King refused, newspaper editors were warned not to touch Drew’s letter, and the Hong Kong veterans were left to fight for years to put the truth on the record.
After the war, the government decided overt press censorship would no longer work. Instead, it used secrecy and subversion laws against journalists. In World War II, the federal government did not jail any reporters or editors for breaking the censorship or secrecy laws, but in 1970 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa had 17 journalists arrested under the War Measures Act.
And in 1978, the Trudeau government charged Toronto Sun editor Peter Worthington under the Official Secrets Act for publishing the names of 16 Canadians recruited as spies by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police and spy agency.
The federal government has, in fact, chosen to accept some of the recommendations of the last two press censors, Warren Baldwin (who went on to become a Globe and Mail parliamentary correspondent) and Fulgence Charpentier, a prominent francophone journalist.
They argued, in their secret 1946 report on wartime censorship, that information, once it gets into the hands of reporters or the public, can’t be suppressed. Instead of harassing journalists, governments had to do a better job of keeping secrets.
But they also argued that the military, and democracy, function much better when they’re scrutinized by a well-informed press and public. They suggested the government create commissions of military officers and journalists in wartime to vet information to determine if it really poses a threat to the war effort.
Instead, the Harper government has chosen to “redact” information from the files on the Afghan detainee issue before releasing them to opposition Mps and the media. The names and positions of the censors have not been made public. Since the documents are exempt from the federal Access to Information law because they deal with military issues, there’s no right of appeal.
At the same time, the government has hired a former Supreme Court justice to go over the material in secret and decide, as Duff did in 1942, whether the government and the military are at fault on a contentious wartime issue. In censorship, as in war, the battlefields may change but the battles tend to repeat themselves.