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"Public opinion," appeasement, and The Times : manipulating consent in the 1930s Gossen, David J.


What was the role of "public opinion" in Britain during the Prime Ministership of Neville Chamberlain? Was it a significant factor in the government's policy regarding rearmament and appeasement of Europe's dictators? Also, what was the nature of the policy-press-opinion dynamic in the two years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War? This study attempts to ascertain the extent to which "public opinion" necessitated a slow pace of rearmament in Britain until 1939, or if government leaders used "public opinion" to justify their actions in foreign affairs. Did the political leadership in Britain merely see the benefits of a receptive "public opinion," or did it attempt to actually alter "public" perceptions of European affairs to facilitate support for appeasement? In the 1930s, the British press was the most important conduit of information and influence between government and "public," as well as among members of the interested political community. No newspaper was more powerful in this respect than The Times of London under its Chief Editor Geoffrey Dawson. This study will focus on The Times' approach to government policy and leadership. It will also assess the role played by the newspaper in the formulation of opinion and in the governmental decision-making process. In order to appreciate The Times' influence on appeasement policy it is necessary to go beyond the daily lead editorials. A thorough content analysis of The Times must include reference to correspondents' dispatches, letters to the editor, reported public speeches, advertising formatting and placement, and photographic displays, all of which were used to present the newspaper's image of world affairs. In other words, a holistic approach to newspaper reading is required for a proper assessment of editorial policy. Also, it requires an understanding of the key personalities involved in the formulation of newspaper policy, and their relationship to government officials walking the corridors of political power. Numerous historical studies of the press and "public opinion" suggest that newspapers are mirror images of the mood of the times in which they are printed. In an ideal world enjoying free and unfettered access to information by all interested members of the "public," and where the press maintains a high level of objectivity when scrutinizing governmental affairs, such may be the case. But in the real world of cutthroat politics there is an even greater likelihood for "public opinion" to become a pawn of powerful decision-makers. Within such an environment, the role of the press is much more problematic, and its identification with "public opinion" tenuous at best. It may be true that virtually every British politician in the twentieth century has attempted to manipulate the press to suit government policy. Neville Chamberlain, however, pursued this goal with a thoroughness and vigour unmatched by previous occupants of Downing Street. He was greatly assisted in his task by the most powerful editor on Fleet Street, Geoffrey Dawson, who willingly oversaw the debasement of one of democracy's most cherished institutions and traditions - an uncompromised press serving as a guarantor for "public" freedoms of speech. From the lofty heights of being considered Britain's crown jewel of journalism, The Times stooped to become during the 1930s an organ of government propaganda. In the process, it distorted "public opinion" to the extent that the general "public's" ability to influence national policy was immeasurably weakened. The Times was also seriously compromised when its prior policy of being prime critic of governmental decision-making was reversed in the cause of partisan advocacy. The result was a dangerous lag in "public" perceptions of the perilous course on which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's foreign policy was leading the country until the virtual outbreak of war.

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