One hundred years of Fake News

Journalism lecturer David Clarke’s research on ‘fake news‘ and propaganda spread by newspapers one hundred years ago has been featured on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

A cartoon published by Punch magazine in 1917 showing the 'Corpse Factory' (credit: Punch)
A cartoon published by Punch magazine in 1917 showing the ‘Corpse Factory’ (credit: Punch)

His feature on the BBC News magazine can be read here.

Dr Clarke, who is the Reader in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University,  has uncovered evidence that British intelligence agencies connived with the Press  to spread false stories against the German enemy during the 1914-18 war.

The research places the current controversy concerning ‘fake news‘ and ‘alternative facts‘ into historical context. In addition, it traces public distrust in the reliability and credibility of British newspapers to the aftermath of the First World War.

The most gruesome example was a rumour that claimed the German Army was operating a ‘Corpse Factory‘ behind their front line where the bodies of soldiers killed in battle were recycled into soap, munitions and animal feed.

The story was untrue but members of British military intelligence realised it could be used to smear the Germans and would horrify people in neutral countries like China who, they believed, might be enticed to join the war on the side of the Allies.

Stories about the Corpse Factory were published as factual by the Daily Mail and The Times on 17 April 1917 . Both newspapers were owned by the Press Baron Lord Northcliffe, whose success in spreading propaganda against the Germans had been rewarded by the British Government who gave him a post in the war Cabinet.

At the time the German government protested against what they called ‘loathsome and ridiculous’ claims they said were the result of a deliberate mis-translation of the German word Kadaver that referred to the bodies of animals, not soldiers.

But their protests fell on deaf ears as the Chinese and the leaders of other neutral countries in the Far East issued public expressions of horror at German treatment of their dead, the latter warning if the bodies of Indian soldiers were treated in this way this’ would be regarded as an atrocity that would never be forgotten or forgiven.’

In 1925 the British Government were forced to admit in the House of Commons the German Corpse Factory did not exist. We now know it was propaganda – designed to demonise the Germans.

Dr Clarke said: “Some historians have blamed the Northcliffe newspapers entirely for spreading this most false of WW1 fake news stories.

‘But until recently, it was impossible to discover the truth about how the story was created and spread, with the connivance of the British military authorities.

‘British soldiers who fought in WW1 already distrusted newspapers because they failed to report the facts about the slaughter on the Western Front.

‘This distrust grew in the 1920s when stories like the Corpse Factory, which many had believed, were revealed as lies. So distrust of the mainstream media has a very long history indeed.’

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