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My novel, set between 1936 and 1939, has eerie echoes of today. From May 1937, Neville Chamberlain’s government restricted access to Downing Street press briefings to those newspapers and journals supportive of the  appeasement policies which were at the heart of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy.  There have been suggestions, backed by hard evidence, that Boris Johnson’s team have not been altogether open in their dealings with newspapers and journals opposed to the UK leaving the European Union. It should be most strongly emphasised, at this point, that such restrictions have not been placed on media outlets reporting on the current coronavirus emergency. While social media increasingly influences people’s views on just about everything, the daily and evening papers retain a strong influence. Thus, in the recent General Election, a majority of the newspapers supported the Tories. Only one, The Daily Mirror, wholeheartedly backed the Labour Party although the little read daily The Morning Star could hardly be described as supporting right wing politics. Of the rest, the i newspaper was more or less independent and the Guardian, although overtly socialist, didn’t like the Labour leadership. The result in the General Election was a crushing defeat for Labour. 

Back in the 1930s, things were much worse. Chamberlain was aided and abetted by senior civil servant Horace Wilson and, together, they attempted to control the written, sound and film media and ensure that the government’s favourable policies towards Hitler and Mussolini were not questioned. He did this not because he was a fascist but

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UK Prime Minister

May 1937 to May 1940

because he was desperate to avoid another war. Anybody who dared to question his stance was in trouble. Conservative MPs, for example, in the National Government could be threatened with de-selection by their constituencies. Cinema newsreels could have their newsreel narratives adjusted to reflect a positive attitude to appeasement. Newspaper proprietors were warned that companies owned by Tory backers might withdraw advertising from their papers ifs they didn’t toe the party line. The BBC had to submit scripts for their Talks programmes for approval before broadcasting.

All this was to placate the German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and, through him, Hitler. The Nazi government read every newspaper they could lay their hands on. Expulsions of foreign journalists were commonplace. The blue pencil is, of course, a tool of censorship and my book of the same name tells of attempts by a liberal newspaper, a thinly disguised London evening newspaper The Star, to break through the government’s suppression of real news and let the public know the truth. In this they were assisted by  Claud Cockburn, a Daily Worker journalist and publisher of a weekly news sheet The Week. Cockburn was a Communist who printed stories that editors and proprietors of papers blue pencilled or spiked. Journalists who worked for these papers and couldn’t get their stories into print passed them to Cockburn. In post-war years, Cockburn was a regular contributor to Private Eye.




To counteract this, the Tory party published their own news sheet Truth , under the auspices of one of its most unscrupulous members Joseph Ball, a former MI5 agent. Ball was a vicious anti-Semite who once described The Daily Mirror as part of the Jew infested sink of Fleet Street. Lies wood have been a more suitable title for this publication which most certainly had the support of Wilson and perhaps even Chamberlain. Ball and Wilson it was who fixed the result of the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election in December 1938. Between them, they threatened shopkeepers who refused to display posters promoting the pro-appeasement candidate William Snadden and lairds and landowners warned tenant farmers and labourers that they would lose their livelihoods and jobs if they didn’t support Snadden. All of the local newspapers were owned by the lairds. The sitting MP, the anti-appeasement Duchess of Atholl, didn’t stand a chance.

Chamberlain had a brief triumph at Munich in the autumn of 1938 bringing ‘peace for our time’ but Kristallnacht and Hitler’s subsequent seizure of the rump of Czechoslovakia revealed Hitler for what he was, a virulent anti-Semitic warmonger. Appeasement was at an end in March 1939.

The Blue Pencil covers all of these events, closely observed by a young, crusading journalist, Roger Martin who puts his liberty, and indeed his life, at risk in his campaign to expose Chamberlain’s government’s attempts at a massive cover-up. Along with Cockburn, he uncovers a dark conspiracy at Cliveden House in Berkshire where the owners, Lord and Lady Astor gathered together a group of pro-appeasement conspirators at weekends to plot support for Chamberlain’s policies. Lady (Nancy) Astor was the first woman to take her seat as an MP in the House of Commons. She too was anti-Semitic, a francophone and a strong supporter of the ‘new Germany,’ the Nazi ambassador Ribbentrop was a guest at Cliveden from time to time. The most influential of the plotters was Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times who used his newspaper to promote appeasement and even suggested a solution to the Czech ‘problem’ before the Munich conference.

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Centre of pre-war appeasement plotting and location of 1960s society events at which John Profumo dallied with Christine Keeler.

Cliveden also plays its part in The Blue Pencil and adds to the thrills of a tale frequently told but perhaps never so excitingly. The novel is published in hardback, paperback and as an Ebook. Its is available from the publisher, in all good bookshops and on Amazon.

Follow the author on Twitter @lowtherdavid37.

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