Twilight of Truth: Chamberlain, Appeasement and The Manipulation of the Press, was my first book published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1989. It was the book of my Phd Thesis, completed at the University of London in 1988. Lord Weidenfeld personally commissioned it after I had bailed out one of his other book projects.
The book is essentially a study of the relationship between politicians and the press during the 1930s and 1940s, focusing in particular on the premiership of Neville Chamberlain and his ill-fated policy of appeasement. It charts the rise and describes the strength of those personal relations between ministers and pressmen, including the notorious press barons, which ensured that the appeasement policy was supported by almost every newspaper in Britain, despite the dissent of many individual correspondents and experts. Unfortunately, the press often proved as craven as the politicians were myopic and corrupt.
It’s not an edifying tale, but extremely revealing, and even entertaining, nonetheless. The book created quite a stir when it came out, as it was the first time that a historian had managed to comprehensively document what many had long suspected – that rather than acting as a “watchdog” of democracy in the 1930s, the press was complicit in actively trying to keep the truth about Nazi Germany from the public.
Here are extracts from some of the reviews:
“It was a signal failure of national newspapers to discover and print the truth about the Hitler’s Germany. Some did discover it through their Berlin correspondents and other sources. With one or two honourable exceptions none of them were willing to print it. Why? Largely because proprietors and editors were induced by ministers – manipulated is not too strong a word – to suppress material, in the news or editorial columns, that might give offence to Hitler. Bluntly, the national press fell down on the job.
It is high time all this was resurrected, pulled together and exposed, because it is a cautionary tale about over-powerful press lords. Richard Cockett…has gone about it thoroughly. His sources are copious and the references solid.”
– William Deedes, The Spectator, April 9th 1989
“Why did so much of the British press support Chamberlain and appeasement in the late ‘30s? Richard Cockett set out to find answers, and his book is a healthy reminder of discreditable episodes in Fleet Street. It is a revealing and stimulating book”
– Alastair Hetherington, The Guardian, April 7th 1989
“How and why the press, Macaulay’s ‘watchdog of government’ became the prime minister’s poodle is the study of Richard Cockett’s opportune study… he has thrown down the glove before all revisionists who argue that Chamberlain was more sinned against than sinning.”
– Michael Barber, Sunday Times, April 1989
“Anyone who believes that the appalling standards of most of the British press in these days of Murdoch and Maxwell represent a lapse from the loftier ethics of some not-too-distant era will be freed of illusion by Richard Cockett’s book… The case against Fleet Street has to rest not so much on the views which papers expressed as on their general connivance with government news management.”
– Angus Calder, The Listener, March 30th 1989
“Anyone who wants to must know by now that the British press as a whole was both pro-appeasement and pro-Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of the time. Where Richard Cockett breaks new ground is in showing that the acquiescence in appeasement went much wider than is generally supposed, and that large sections of the press were quite deliberately cultivated – Cockett’s word is “manipulated” – from the very top of government… Cockett is at his best in revealing new sources. This is his first book. He needs to decide whether he wants to be primarily an historian of a trendy campaigner. Excellent though his book is, it is a little black and white. It is hard to believe that practically his entire cast were either villains of stooges, or both.”
– Malcolm Rutherford, Financial Times
“Today’s vocal, self-righteous critics of the press almost always invent for purposes of comparison a golden age when reporters were honourable and editors paragons of integrity, virtue and intellectual distinction… Of course this age of perfection never existed and we’ve always been – whether simple hacks or pompous editors – a pretty unpleasant bunch. These media moralists could well pause for a moment and consider the facts about editors and newspapers in the 1930s.
For a start they would be well advised to read Twilight of Truth which recounts in horrifying detail the depths to which the press, particularly the ‘heavies’, had sunk fifty years ago as war approached… Richard Cockett is one of those rare (or is he unique?) media experts who writes well and does not let his theories influence his facts. Twilight of Truth should be required reading, as an awful warning, for all political journalists and every editor.”
– David Chipp, Literary Review, June 1989
“This is a revealing study of how Neville Chamberlain used the press to put across his foreign policy. The extent of press support for a highly controversial policy has always been something of a puzzle. It was not universal… But the press was in general pro-Chamberlain.
The people who come out worst in this sorry story are the Lobby journalists who preferred the lazy acceptance of briefings to the effort of hunting for news elsewhere… The system is flawed. If Mr Cockett has contributed to its downfall he will have performed an excellent service in this, his first book, quite apart from his excellent analysis of a neglected aspect of pre-war politics.”
– Robert Blake, Daily Telegraph, June 10th 1989