The first page on the front line
by Martin G. Debattista
published by Midsea Books
This book is a labor of love. Martin Debattista’s interest in wartime newspapers dates back to his studies at the University of Malta, a bachelor’s thesis in communication studies written 27 years ago.
Since then I have had the opportunity to follow his personal trajectory and am delighted that in this book he has continued to dig deeper and deeper into war journalism in Malta. With this publication, Debattista fills a gap in knowledge about the role of the media at a time when the islands were considered the most bombed place in the world.
This book examines the multiple threats faced by journalists and printers in times of war. Some challenges and fears were common to the rest of the population, but others were intrinsically linked to their crucial role.
These included bombings and a high level of personal risk; newspaper workers who showed up for work despite becoming refugees and suffering from hunger; buildings and machinery destroyed; difficulty in accessing and disseminating information due to censorship and the dissonance that often accompanies self-censorship.
Wartime journalism is indeed different from peacetime reporting, but reading the book one also senses some of the intense polarizing traits that have always characterized Maltese island newspapers. Freedom of the press in Malta was granted in 1837, later being enacted in many parts of Europe.
The tradition of Maltese journalism that emerged from that year was either rooted in culture wars over language and loyalty to outside powers, or modeled on social-reform ideals inspired by illuminism, political emancipation and anti-colonial sentiment.
It cannot be said that before the Second World War, Malta enjoyed a positive peace. There were terrible conflicts that boiled over during the June 7 riots and continued after self-government in 1921. A harsh political-religious clash erupted in the late 1920s that was embedded in the language question.
This led to an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Gerald Strickland and eventually the withdrawal of the self-government constitution. Interwar journalism is, to some extent, an extension of some of these struggles in the context of international developments that were occurring with the rise of far-right forces in Europe and the advancement of aspirations liberators in the colonies.
A key character in Martin’s book is Mabel Strickland. I find the young Mabel of the interwar period to be much more coherent, self-sufficient, authentic and understated than the mature Mabel of the post-war period.
She was active in the formation of the Constitutional Party in the 1920s and played an important role when her father, the leader of the party, spent months away from Malta, as he contested a Conservative seat in the House of Commons and when he later became a peer in the House of Lords.
War journalism was in part a continuation of interwar dynamics
She took over when he left to enjoy the cool English summers at Sizergh Castle, or while he courted his second wife, the wealthy heiress Margaret Hulton, who was the daughter of a Fleet newspaper magnate. Street. Strickland’s political fortunes and most of his printing businesses were all wiped out by early politico-religious crises.
In this era, we see young Mabel Strickland, a devout Catholic, reaching out to allies and traveling overseas in an effort to end the clash with the Church and help lift mortal sin. of the party and of the Stricklandian newspapers.
In 1931, she appeared before a royal commission to plead for the aspirations of women in politics, when a petition signed by 428 women demanded their emancipation. She made a fantastic case in front of the commission, even though her plea was not granted. It was during this period that Mabel coordinated with Josephine Burns, a well-connected newspaper contributor who grew up in England. This provides a backdrop to Debattista’s chosen theme.
Indeed, war journalism was in part a continuation of the dynamics of the interwar period.
Debattista devotes a good part of the book to the theme of war propaganda. The book documents the setups and methods used to construct narratives of heroes defending the empire, their homeland, their wives, and their children. The media are used as tools that legitimize imperial decisions.
It must be remembered that Britain initially followed a policy of appeasement with Hitler, in an attempt to avoid another war.
The policy shift required increased propaganda to shift gears and gain mass consent. Propaganda was needed to recruit armies; build patriotism and loyalty to the Empire; maintaining morale; and maintain the flow of volunteers.
It was also used to ensure wartime industrial and food production that needed to be supported by those not on the war front. Women were persuaded to lead industries that had previously been male domains.
To counter the gender divide, the Maltese Church was momentarily mobilized to encourage women to support the war effort. Mabel was surely a role model during this difficult period, when the islands were run by women, as we have even seen them play roles in male domains such as the shipyards of Malta.
It is not surprising that women also played an important role in wartime journalism, but this momentum did not continue in the post-war period where, in addition to Mabel, women in Maltese journalism (the Malta weather included) didn’t get a key role until the 1990s.
Interestingly, some of the Allied psychological operations in Italy were coordinated in Malta. In this book, Debattista recounts how leaflets thrown at Italy, to demoralize the Italians, were printed in Malta. Propaganda in Malta was broadcast under the auspices of Rediffusion and came from the BBC and Reuters.
This publication filled some knowledge gaps in the history of the Second World War. We can say that we now have a better understanding of how information played a role in “the worst of times”.
Carmen Sammut is Deputy Rector for Student and Staff Affairs and Outreach, and Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media Communication at the University of Malta.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.