The discordance between the waterfront and the front pages was bewildering, the first vague stirring of doubt about my untutored trust in newspapers. As a kid in short pants, I had hardly followed the events of the 1930s with the avidity with which I later read the histories, but I remember how troubled my father was on September 3, 1939, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. It was so contrary to what we had been insistently told by the Daily Express, the newspaper my parents took at home. The paper had reassured its millions of readers that there would be no war with this front- page slogan: "The Daily Express declares that Britain will not be involved in a European War this year, next year either." Everyone believed it. And why not? The Express was a brilliant broadsheet with a circulation of three million and a huge secondary readership. Most British homes were reached by one of the bigger newspapers: in 1939 some thirteen million read the Express newspapers, the Daily Mirror, the News of the World, or People, an audience that by 1948 reached twenty- two million. Newspapers played a crucial role in shaping public perceptions. As the social historian Richard Hoggart noted in his study of the working class at this time, people often used to say as evidence of disputed truth, "Oh, but it was in the papers."
But what if you couldn't trust a newspaper to tell the truth and nothing but the truth? Which institution was more trustworthy, the state or the press? Later in adulthood, it was easier to understand how predictive headlines could turn out to be wrong than to reconcile what we experienced in Rhyl with the emphasis in what we read as fact. How did newspapers come to conclusions? Were they acting at the request of government? Was there a deliberate and widespread gloss on Dunkirk? Would that have been justified as a means of sustaining the nation's morale at a crucial time? Should newspapers take account of such imperatives or just report things as they saw them? How did a newspaper decide these things?
Such questions still resonate with me after a lifetime in newspapers. There have been many times when I have found that what was presented as truth did not square with what I discovered as a reporter or, later as an editor, learned from good shoe- leather reporters. It was not so much that deliberate lies were told, though they sometimes were, and not always to conceal a villainy. "In wartime," Churchill remarked, "truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies." We all understand in an age of terrorism that refraining from exposing a lie may be necessary for the protection of innocents. But "national interest" is an elastic concept that if stretched can snap with a sting. When, in the early 1970s, the Sunday Times began reporting the anger building among the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, a group of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) invoked the national interest to demand that we stop. They came to tell me, as the paper's editor, that it was "treasonable" to continue. Actually, the real offense was failing to give Northern Ireland full attention in the early 1960s, when the violence was incubated.