V for victory for a fine journalist

The first rough draft of history

That journalist’s credo has more than a bit of history in itself: for the truly dedicated, it is detailed by wikiquote. My favourite is by George Helgesen Fitch (another decent lefty), and from 1914, in the Lincoln [Nebraska] Daily Star:

A reporter is a young man who blocks out the first draft of history each day on a rheumatic typewriter.

He could be describing the old Irish Times newsroom, up the stairs, just off D’Olier Street, and convenient for the Palace Bar in Fleet Street.

Which brings me to 8th May 1945:

IT 8 May1945

Dramatis personae

Every good story needs an antagonist, against whom the protagonist contends. I’m going to make R.M. “Bertie” Smyllie, for twenty years the editor of the Irish Times, my protagonist hero here. So for the hissable villain of the piece I need a conflation of Joseph Walshe (de Valera’s reliable go-fer at External Affairs), Thomas Coyne (a big-wig in the Department of Justice, licensed to implement wartime censorship) and Michael Knightly (chief press censor).

Walshe was a man on a mission — not just to serve assiduously his political master — to elevate Ireland as the Christian state that would take a very real part in bringing about a cessation of hostilities. The idea was to mobilise the other small European states, and the Vatican in particular. Good stuff, Joe! (provided we overlook that meant cuddling up to Pius XII Pacelli, Salazar’s Portugal and even Franco’s Spain).

Of course, Ireland had a head-start in censorship: The Irish Press was the Fianna Fáil party organ (proprietor: de Valera and family); Radio Éireann was a state monopoly; 1,700 books had been banned in the previous decade; films and newsreels were cut (or totally banned), seemingly at whim; in short order, 200 censors (all hand-culled) were working in Exchequer Street to scrutinise personal mail. Walshe could use all this, and wanted more, to promote his neutralism:

Public opinion must be built up on a neutral basis, a neutral-mindedness must be created. A list of the states which are neutral should be frequently and prominently displayed in the Press. The advantages of being neutral should be stressed. The losses and sufferings of all kinds, including famine and poverty, which come upon countries at was should be expressed.

Walshe’s remit was wide, but he demanded more. His particular bête noire was The Irish Times, which featured strongly in his report to de Valera:

The greatest danger, in my opinion, to our neutrality, and conceivably to our continued existence as a State, is the subtle propaganda of an ascendance clique which will undoubtedly use this occasion to promote their dearest wish which is to bring the British back. When a certain paper says, for instance, that the irishmen who joined the British Army in 1914 were the real Irish patriots and the cream of our people, it is essentially a principle completely opposed to the continued existence of an Irish State. Such views should be ruthlessly suppressed.

[Both Walshe quotes are taken from Brian Girvin, The Emergency, pages 85-6]

Our protagonist

“Bertie” Smyllie had evolved the Irish Times from being the mouthpiece of imperial Dublin Castle into a true, small-l liberal paper of record (to the angst of many Colonel O’Blimps), and one with an international perspective unique in Irish journalism. That had to stop, and Michael Knightly was the man for the task.

Smyllie and Knightly waged a day-by-day, hand-to-hand from September 1939 to the following January. Only then, under threat of infinite suspension, did Smyllie concede. After that all matter had to be pre-submitted to Knightly’s office. Apart from the crackles and pops of BBC transmissions, Ireland had become a one-voice media operation. Already, when the Farmers Federation went on a dairy-products strike, it was kept out of the papers for three days (Dubliners knew the cause: that came down the supply chain very effectively) — and the Offences against the State Act was invoked.

Beware the fury of a patient man, wrote John Dryden. Smyllie’s revenge came at D’Olier Street, late Monday evening, 7th May, 1945. Peter Murtagh tells it like this:

… a framed original of Smyllie’s famous VE Day front page from May 8th, 1945. At the time, the newspaper was subject to government censorship, the blue pencil scoring out any hint of partisanship. But with the censor gone home for the night, Smyllie tore up the approved front page and remade one that included seven small photographs – showing King George, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, General Eisenhower, and Field Marshals Alexander and Montgomery – arranged in a giant V (for victory) shape across the page.

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Filed under History, Ireland, Irish Times, World War 2

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