Why Canadian media embraced censorship during WWI: Ira Basen

From the moment Canada entered the war alongside Britain on Aug. 4, 1914, public opinion overwhelmingly favoured the combat effort. At the government's behest, most Canadian journalists censored the less positive and heroic aspects of their coverage of the Great War, writes Ira Basen.

Canadian government introduced War Measures Act in 1914

Max Aitken, the future Lord Beaverbrook, was arguably the most prominent Canadian journalist to cover the First World War. (M.S. Kay/Hodder and Stoughton/Wikimedia)

"The first casualty when war comes," U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson reportedly declared in 1918, “is truth.”

Johnson was an isolationist who opposed U.S. entry into the First World War, and his concern over the fate of truth in that conflict was justified.

After the war ended, American journalist Will Irwin wrote, “the world struggle of 1914-1918, which saw an unprecedented advance in the art of large scale dying, saw an equally rapid advance in that of large scale lying.” 

In the U.S., there was strong anti-war sentiment before the country finally joined the conflict in 1917. But that wasn’t the case north of the border.

From the moment Canada entered the war alongside Britain on Aug. 4, 1914, public opinion overwhelmingly favoured the war effort.

The world struggle of 1914-1918, which saw an unprecedented advance in the art of large scale dying, saw an equally rapid advance in that of large scale lying.- American journalist Will Irwin

But that consensus made it difficult for anyone to present a version of reality that ran counter to the accepted wisdom.

This was especially true of the press. Publishers weren’t prepared to risk the wrath of their readers and the government by publishing stories critical of how or why the war was being waged.

Enter the censor

While Canadian troops were overseas standing up to the Germans, the government of Robert Borden was reluctant to fight the war on the home front without some significant ammunition at its disposal.

On Aug. 22, 1914, less than three weeks after the war began, Parliament passed the War Measures Act. It provided for “censorship and control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communication and means of communication" whenever the government determined that “the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada” was under threat.

For most of the war’s first year, government officials made little effort at enforcement. There was no centralized authority to monitor the press, and only the most obvious pro-German, anti-British papers were shut down.

But news from the front became increasingly grim. More than 6,500 Canadians were killed or wounded in the country’s first major battle of the war at Ypres in April and May of 1915. The government began to worry about the impact such bad news might have on recruitment and fundraising, and so it began to take a closer look at how the war was being reported.

      1 of 0

      Newspapers still eagerly supported the war effort, but they were also highly competitive, leading some to publish stories and pictures of troop movements that government officials considered inappropriate.

      So in June 1915, the Borden government established the office of the Chief Press Censor, which was responsible for insuring stories that were critical of military policy did not appear in the press. It would also ban stories that in the opinion of the censor were “assisting or encouraging the enemy, or preventing, embarrassing, or hindering the successful prosecution of the war."

      The man chosen to take on these important responsibilities was a former editor of the Calgary Herald, Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest J. Chambers.

      Most publishers, reporters and editors welcomed the establishment of a chief press censor’s office, and the appointment of one of their own to the job. It meant that every newspaper in the country would now be playing by the same clearly defined set of rules.

      They weren't overly concerned about the potential infringement on the freedom of the press. They shared Chambers' passionate commitment to the Empire and to victory, and were prepared to accept the paradox of curtailing free expression in order to protect democracy.

      'A keen patriotic desire'

      John Ross Robertson, the owner of the Toronto Telegram, acknowledged that while in principle it was true that "a muzzled... press spells doom for democracy," he also believed that the current crisis made censorship necessary in order "to escape evils worse for the nation than the temporary infringements on personal liberty."

      “There exists throughout the press of Canada,” Ernest Chambers wrote Prime Minister Borden in 1915, “a keen, patriotic desire to assist the naval and military authorities in every possible way.”

      The government’s censorship efforts were made considerably easier by the absence of any competing versions of reality appearing in the nation’s newspapers. In the early days of the war, Canadian publishers accepted the British government’s ban on correspondents at the front.

      Lord Kitchener, the British secretary of war, had no use for war correspondents — referring to them as “drunken swabs" — and didn't want them anywhere near the battlefield. 

      But by early 1915, both newspaper owners and their readers were becoming frustrated by the lack of any Canadian coverage of Canadian troops. The federal government responded in March by appointing its most celebrated expatriate in London, Max Aitken, the future Lord Beaverbrook, as the country’s official “eye-witness” to the war.

      Unlike Americans, Canadians almost unanimously supported the war effort and Canadian soldiers, seen here during a parade on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg in 1915. ((Archives of Manitoba, L.B. Foote fonds, Foote 2303))

      Aitken’s reports, which were published in Canadian as well as British and American papers, were designed to glorify the role of Canada’s fighting men. He was both a journalist and a propagandist, and slid easily between the two roles.

      His friendship with British politicians of the day, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George, gave him license to frequently sidestep the heavy hand of the censors.

      Aitken's most memorable dispatch was a vivid re-telling of the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, in which he broke precedent by admitting that Canadian troops "suffered terrible casualties," and actually named some of the soldiers who took part.

      Widening gap in understanding

      But as the war dragged on, the gap between what Canadians were reading in the press and what they actually knew to be true widened.

      Those looking for answers about what was happening at the front were not finding them in Canadian newspapers and magazines.

      Rather, the truth was gleaned from letters written at the front, from stories told by returning soldiers, from the ever-lengthening list of casualties and from American reporters who were not subject to censorship before 1917.

      Of the 250 publications banned by Canadian press censor Ernest Chambers during the war, 225 originated in the U.S.

      In light of this, some Canadian editors and publishers began to understand that they were putting their credibility at stake.

      An editorial in Saturday Night Magazine in August 1917 complained “we have been fed too long on cocksure confidence and optimistic piffle. Wars are not won that way. If we cannot bear to hear the truth in our war news, to have it presented in unvarnished, truthful paragraphs, we are a poor lot and unworthy of success.”

      Embedded reporters

      Even so, most of the Canadian press was only too happy to put a positive spin on even the most horrendous battlefield carnage. The dispatches filed by the handful of reporters who were allowed to report from the front after 1915 were generally even less reliable than those supplied by Max Aitken, the government’s official "eye-witness.”

      These were the original “embedded” reporters: in uniform, subject to strict military control and not inclined to complain.  

      The idea that journalism was a “profession" and that its practitioners should be objective and independent of government influence was well established in the U.S. and Britain by 1914, but not in Canada. 

      Canadian reporters saw themselves as advocates for the cause of war and imperialism. The purpose of their reporting was to contribute to the war effort, not to be seekers of truth.

      The Great War was Canada’s first opportunity to shine on an international stage as a quasi-independent nation. It was critical that the country seize the moment.

      'A discreditable period'

      Writing a decade after the war ended, British MP Arthur Ponsonby declared “there was no more discreditable period in the history of journalism than the four years of the Great War.”

      Several British and American war reporters wrote mea culpa confessionals, trying to justify what they had done and assuage their sense of guilt.

      "We identified ourselves absolutely with the Armies in the field," wrote Phillip Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph. "There was no need of censorship of our dispatches. We were our own censors."

      There were no similar confessionals from Canadian reporters. They had done their duty for King and country. They felt they had nothing to apologize for.


      To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

      By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.