When we think of newspapers today, we think of celebrity gossip in the likes of The Sun and The Mirror. We think of right-wing scare mongering in The Mail. And we think of political bias in current affairs coverage across a range of broadsheets, from The Independent and The Guardian, to The Times and The Telegraph. It’s always been the way. And it makes looking back through old, original newspapers all the more interesting.
Original newspapers not only give us a glimpse into the past, but also provide detailed insights into the editorial and reportage zeitgeist prevalent at the time. The contradictions that existed between publications help us understand the probable mindset of the paper’s readership – or, at least, how the paper hoped to assist in shaping public opinion.
A great, yet lesser known, example of this was during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
For nearly a century, the Suez Canal provided Britain with a shipping shortcut to the further reaches of its empire. And with the growing 20th-century demand for oil from the Persian Gulf, the canal remained crucial to the success of Britain’s economy. It needed protecting.
Unfortunately, a series of intricate disputes between a number of nations – including Britain and Egypt – throughout the 1950s led to Egypt’s head honcho, Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser, nationalising the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company in 1956. His rationale was simple – with the US and Britain having withdrawn their funding for the Aswan Dam, Egypt would have to raise her own revenue from the canal.
Britain’s interests were now at risk, with Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, even likened any potential appeasement to that extended to Hitler during the 1930s. He greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, during the Cold War gripping the globe, things were hotting up.
Israel, a long time enemy of Egypt, had a cunning plan. Concerned by Egypt’s rearmament and relations with the Soviet Union, Israel began buying weapons and aircraft from France, whom they also met with in secret. In October 1956, Blighty was asked to join them. Eden met with his counterparts near Paris and concluded a secret agreement whereby Israel would attack Egypt – thereby providing the pretext for an Anglo-French invasion of Suez.
The legality of the measures was highly questionable. And yet when historians look at the original newspapers of the time, support for Eden’s government was fairly comprehensive, with the likes of The Telegraph, The Mail and The Express actively supportive of the Suez campaign.
The position of The Times, however, is the best example of the political turmoil faced by Britain’s foremost original newspapers during the crisis.
The story goes something like this. Eden frequently briefed the Times’ editor, Sir William Haley, with confidential operational secrets that even his own cabinet weren’t privy to. In exchange, the paper continued to support government policy, in spite of the invasion’s legal and ethical grey area. This remained the case, even with Haley’s increasing dismay at the information Eden was providing him. In short, although the paper’s editor disagreed on a personal level, his paper continued to tow the line.
Indeed, Eden’s attempts to muzzle the press didn’t stop with the nation’s original newspapers. It also extended into the BBC. But what it all goes to show is just how influential newspapers can be. Today, like yesteryear, they play a huge role in shaping public perception. And it’s why original newspapers remain such a key ingredient for historical research.
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