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Black and white photograph of children sitting amongst rubble after bombing raids on London in WW2

Britain’s newspapers played a key role in shaping public opinion and government policy during World War Two, according to a new book.

Reporting the Second World War – The Press and the People 1939-1945 says newspapers’ influence has been seriously overlooked. 

Written by Durham University’s Professor Tim Luckhurst, the book looks at time when the BBC grew in scale, influence and popularity. 

Huge readerships 

But despite this increased competition, the book shows how almost everyone read newspapers. 

Eighty percent of British families read a title such as the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, News Chronicle or Daily Herald. Two thirds of middle-class families shared this habit. Sunday titles including the Sunday Pictorial (now the Sunday Mirror) had huge readerships.   

A lot of existing academic literature depicts wartime newspapers as mouthpieces of state propaganda.  

However, Professor Luckhurst challenges and underscores the role popular newspapers played as guardians of democracy and fierce defenders of their readers' interests.  

Speaking truth to power 

Examples of accountability journalism include coverage of the overseas evacuation of children, air raid shelter policy and Sir William Beveridge's proposals to 'banish want from cradle to grave'.  

Newspapers spoke truth to power on topics of ethical concern such as the treatment of black American soldiers posted to the United Kingdom, the area bombing of German cities by the RAF, the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and tried to alert their readers to the emerging horror of the holocaust. 

Professor Luckhurst explains how, far from being eclipsed by the BBC's enormous wartime success, newspapers learned to work well in partnership with the national broadcaster.  

He charts the way in which the radical and irreverent tabloids entertained ordinary Britons and reminded them that true freedom requires a press that serves it readers.   

Find out more 

Image: Children of an eastern suburb of London, made homeless during bombing raids on the city during World War Two. Credit: National Archives Catalog.