Voices from a past national crisis mirror the news fatigue challenges the media faces today

In a blog post exploring news and censorship during the Second World War, the SoE’s Mariella Brown examines what diarists can tell us about processing life in a crisis.

More than 60 per cent of the public say they always, often or sometimes avoid news about the Covid-19 crisis, according to a survey by Reuters Institute conducted last month.

Eighty years previously when the UK faced a very different crisis, wartime diarists such as Nella Last – star subject of Victoria Wood’s acclaimed drama Housewife 49 – and journalist Mollie Panter-Downes were writing on the same issue.

At the start of the war, theatres and cinemas were closed over safety fears. ‘Britons find themselves dependent for entertainment on the B.B.C., which desperately filled the gaps in its first wartime programs with gramophone recordings’, wrote Panter-Downes (10 September 1939) whose diaries were sent off to inform the New Yorker’s American audience about wartime in Britain.

Panter-Downes wryly added: ‘There has already been considerable public criticism of these programs and of the tendency of announcers to read out important news in tones that suggest they are understudying for Cassandra on the walls of Troy.’

Her diaries quickly revealed news fatigue, especially in the way bulletins were delivered in the early stages of the war. Months of appeasement and uncertainty had preceded the outbreak and some citizens greeted it with weariness.

However, Nella Last, a housewife and mother-of-two from Barrow in Cumbria, wrote of different reasons to avoid news from the wireless – she felt it couldn’t tell her anything that she didn’t already know and fear.

‘I don’t think there is much need for the wireless to advise people to stay indoors,’ she wrote on 5 September 1939, adding ‘I’d need a dog to lead me [outdoors].’

This would appear to be a seemingly private confession by the diarist about a deep-seated fear of enemy attack.

However, Last had enlisted to send off her work to Mass Observation (MO), an anthropological organisation. Initially founded in 1937 to create ‘a weather map of popular feeling’, its brief evolved in 1939 to accept diary submissions tracking British public sentiment during the war years.

Last’s response informed directors like MO founder and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings about the response of the public to news bulletins. It was evident from the writings of MO diarists that everyday people reacted to the news of the war in disparate ways; far from the homogenous “Blitz-spirit” narrative perpetuated by government newsreels.

Writing over 15 million words during the course of her tenure, Last’s insights show how attitudes towards news and propaganda shifted over time. Two years later, she wrote in her diary:

‘Nowadays when my husband and I hear bad news on the wireless we just look at each other and don’t talk much about it. In his eyes I read a puzzled wonder, as if he cannot believe what the announcer says.’

Nella Last’s news avoidance had evolved by February 1941. She confesses to being unable to process the events that she hears, with her husband seemingly in a state of denial.

On the morning of that entry, Last had read the newspapers. They had provided news about Australia, Japan and China – countries across the other side of the world – and their involvement in the war.

What she had processed left her with imagining that ‘all the world will be aflame soon’ with ‘no peaceful corner left anywhere’.

Living in the ship-building town of Barrow in a northwest corner of England, Nella Last became overwhelmed when hearing about the scale of destruction in places she cannot see.

And this was exacerbated by the fact there has been little direct impact of the war on her hometown in February 1941.

Nella Last even asked her husband ‘Does the war news seem real to you?’ She confessed that the few air raids left her with a sense of disbelief about what she had read.

Avid diary-keeper, author Virginia Woolf, voiced her discomfort in December 1939 when feeling helpless in acting upon the information ‘served up’ by the wireless like fodder.

‘The eyes of the whole world (BBC) are on the game,’ Woolf wrote. ‘Several people will lie dead tonight, or in agony. And we shall have it served up for us as we sit over our logs this bitter winter night.’

A year after Woolf expressed her distaste in hearing about the agony of soldiers fighting for their country while she sat comfortably at home in Bloomsbury, Nella Last confided in her diary that she could not face reading a book written by women living in Poland in 1940.

Recalling a conversation with a friend who asked if she would consider reading the book, Last cried ‘Dear God, NO. My heart would break into pieces.’

Faced with reading about a place far away from home, she told her diary ‘what I cannot help I shun’ and instead poured her soul into producing tangible help for her community. Last undertook extensive unpaid work for the WVS, Hospital Supply and Sailors Home.

But it was not only individuals facing dilemmas about hearing the news. News avoidance inadvertently was encouraged by the Ministry of Information (MoI) during the war.

Fearing that unchecked news could inform enemy spies, the MoI briefly ramped up its domestic propaganda campaigns including that of the campaign ‘Silent Column’ which prohibited discussion about the war, particularly military news and the weather.

It drew much criticism from the public.

Aiming to ‘discourage subversive and depressing talk’, newly-appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill ended up scrapping the campaign in July 1940.

The wartime PM told the Commons, ‘When the idea was put down in black and white it does not look so attractive and seems to suggest that reasonable and independent discussion about the war between loyal and well-disposed people ought not occur’.

Evidently, both the making and reading of news was a cause of much consternation for public policy and private life.

Although diarists like Mollie Panter-Downes continually expressed anxiety that hearing news affected her emotional composition, she still remarked upon her concerns when the output of news itself was endangered.

Following the Nazi invasion of Scandinavia, her entry on 21 April 1940 worried about the paper shortages that threatened the production of such news.

‘One of the direct results of events in Scandinavia is the diminished girth of that same august journal, the Times. From being a paper which only a strong man could manage on a crowded train, it has shrunk to svelte proportions.’

While the diarists often confessed distrust of and reluctance to read the news, all acknowledged a value in it.

Mollie Panter-Downes made a living by receiving cheques from America for the diary entries she sent to the New Yorker.

Nella Last wrote about barring the news from her consciousness, being unable to hear it or deal with its content. The act of writing shunned the news to the pages of her diary.

And Mass Observation writer Naomi Mitchison often found herself conflicted when reading about current affairs.

Still, as a diarist and author, Mitchison conveyed a keen sense of the need for freedom of speech.

When Home Secretary Herbert Morrison banned the Daily Worker and The Week in January 1941, Mitchison defended their right to exist in her diary.

‘However much of a nuisance I find them and however much I disagree with them, I think this is intolerable.’

Further reading

  • News avoidance increases during the pandemic, report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (May 19, 2020)
  • The Diaries of Nella Last, by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson (London: Profile Books, 2012)
  • Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (Persephone Books publishes an excellent collection of early twentieth century work by women)
  • Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, by Leonard Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1954)
  • Naomi Mitchison, Among You Taking Notes: The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison 1939-1945, ed. by Dorothy Sheridan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)
  • Naomi Mitchison, Vienna Diary 1934 (London: Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)

Picture: The Women’s Land Army in Britain, World War II.