The current issue of History Today includes an interesting article by Adrian Bingham on the British newspapers (especially the Daily Mail and the Times) during WW1:
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914 the widespread feelings of fear, uncertainty and patriotic determination were matched at the offices of the Daily Mail by a sense of vindication. The newspaper had been warning about the German threat for years, perhaps most notoriously when it serialised in 1909 a series of inflammatory articles by the journalist Robert Blatchford, which, when reprinted as a penny pamphlet, sold some 1.6 million copies. The Mail had, moreover, consistently demanded that the Royal Navy be reinforced. It was soon styling itself ‘the paper that foretold the war’. For its critics, the Mail’s irresponsible stoking of anti-German sentiment, driven above all by the paper’s owner, Lord Northcliffe, actually helped to create the conditions that enabled conflict to break out. ‘Next to the Kaiser’, wrote the esteemed editor and journalist A.G. Gardiner, ‘Lord Northcliffe has done more than any other living man to bring about the war.’
It was not long, however, before Northcliffe became frustrated with the strict censorship imposed on the British press when reporting events in Europe. ‘What the newspapers feel very strongly’, wrote Northcliffe to Lord Murray of Elibank, ‘is that, against their will, they are made to be part and parcel of a foolish conspiracy to hide bad news. English people do not mind bad news.’ Such censorship was particularly worrying when it risked hiding failures in the prosecution and management of the war. Drawing both on the experiences of his visits to the front and on private sources of information from his many correspondents, Northcliffe became increasingly convinced that several men in leading positions were not up to the job, including the prime minister, Asquith, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.
The episode that crystallised this concern, over which Northcliffe put both his and the Mail’s reputation on the line, was the Shell Crisis of May 1915. Northcliffe had received letters from the front claiming that British military operations were being undermined by the lack of the right kind of shell and, after the Allies failed to capitalise on an initial breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle due to a lack of munitions, these criticisms began to be publicly aired. On May 15th, 1915 The Times (also owned by Northcliffe at the time) published a telegram from its respected military correspondent, Lieutenant-Colonel Repington, highlighting the problem and Northcliffe decided to go on the offensive. After some critical editorials, on May 21st the Mail published an incendiary piece written by Northcliffe himself and headlined ‘The Tragedy of the Shells: Lord Kitchener’s Grave Error’. Northcliffe pinned the blame for the shells scandal directly on Kitchener:
Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell … He persisted in sending shrapnel – a useless weapon in trench warfare … The kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them.
This direct public attack on such an esteemed figure at a time of national crisis was shocking and generated fury among many of Northcliffe’s critics. Members of the London Stock Exchange burned copies of both The Times and the Mail and anxious advertisers cancelled contracts. Thousands of readers stopped buying the papers. Northcliffe, though, was undaunted: at this point he was concerned not with circulation but with what he perceived as his national duty. ‘I mean to tell the people the truth and I don’t care what it costs’, he told his chauffeur. It was clear even to Northcliffe’s opponents, moreover, that there were indeed problems with Britain’s munitions supply. Northcliffe was soon vindicated. Although Kitchener survived in the short term, the Liberal government fell at the end of May 1915, to be replaced by a coalition administration: Asquith remained as prime minister, but Lloyd George was appointed as minister of munitions to address the supply problems.