A journalist’s dilemma: no escape from war-time reporting for a conscientious objector
- Category: General
Donating my father’s papers to Wolverhampton Archives was a sobering experience. Tucked away inside voluminous scrapbooks from the 1940s was a letter of dismissal for a failure to carry out his “journalistic duties”. But a refusal to write stories in support of the war effort was a principled stand that would have to be reversed...
A reporter having to struggle with his or her conscience is not the kind of story line likely to win much public sympathy at a time when the headlines have been dominated for so long by allegations of phone hacking and the bribing of police officers. Journalists do get sacked because of their convictions but examples among my generation seem few and far between. Indeed I freely admit that during my fifty years as a reporter I cannot remember having such strong feelings on an issue that I felt the need to stand up and be counted in support of my beliefs.
Having had no experience of the inner turmoil which might have resulted if I had ever put my job on the line, I felt increasingly inadequate as I read and re-read correspondence tucked away in long-forgotten family scrapbooks.
Six months after the start of the Second World War, my father Clement Jones wrote a letter accusing his editor of “a violation of principle” for having assigned him to report events being held to raise morale of the troops and boost arms production.
As with many of those who saw active service but were subsequently reluctant to discuss their front-line experiences, so it was with my father; he died without ever describing what it must have been like to get sacked, become a conscientious objector and then within two years be forced by dint of family hardship to have to put his pacifist beliefs to one side and return to war-time news reporting.
His one and only insight was a comment to the effect that the struggle with his inner self was even worse after the war when journalists who had been on military service returned to the local paper and accused him of furthering his career while they were away fighting for their country.
Occasionally, when reflecting on the trials and tribulations of raising three war-time babies, my mother did let slip the odd remark which revealed the pressures she faced as the wife of a conscientious objector.
She had to go along with the excuse offered locally by their landlady: my father had to wear spectacles and it was his poor eyesight which was the reason why he had an exemption from war service and was therefore free to work as a journalist.
When the neighbours saw through this explanation and the landlady feared her house was about to be daubed with white feathers, we had to move yet again.
In the mid 1980s, not long after my father had finally retired, I was stopped in my tracks when a national trade union leader held back from agreeing to give me a radio interview when he realised that I was the son of Clement Jones. “You know your father was a ‘conchie’...I am sorry, I can’t forget that.”
Having lost his own father in the First World War, Jones was a convinced pacifist from his early twenties, a belief which grew ever stronger during the increased militarisation of the late 1930s. In 1938 he became a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and joined the Peace Pledge Union.
His first job on leaving school at sixteen was a four-year apprenticeship with the Cambrian News in Aberystwyth; at the outbreak of war he was a district reporter on the Stourbridge County Express. His scrapbook entries give an indication of the path his conviction would dictate: on page after page he had pasted newspaper clippings about workers who had relinquished jobs in support of the war effort and who had gone on to become conscientious objectors.
In February1940 Jones made his own principled stand. He wrote to his editor, Eric Moody, complaining of “a violation of principle” in having been sent to report a pro-war speech at Brierley Hill Rotary Club. He pointed out that he had also had been marked down in the diary to cover the “opening of the Services Club” at Stourbridge and asked to be “excused” from reporting this assignment while at the same time offering to continue to work for the County Express “as long as it squares with my conscience.”
Moody’s reply encapsulated an editor’s exasperation at my father’s failure to understand the “journalist’s traditional position in the relation between his work and his opinions.” Although my father’s request could not be granted, Moody was prepared to consider the matter closed unless the issue was raised again. But the editor’s decision was final: “It is obvious that it would be impossible to run a newspaper office at all if separate reporters had to be reserved for the functions of each denomination and political party.”
Five days later Moody signed the dismissal letter when my father declined to carry out his “journalistic duties” and report the opening of the Services Club; he was warned that “a continuance of this attitude” would seriously interfere with his journalistic career.
The following two years were a defining episode in the life of an idealistic young reporter. After registering as a conscientious objector he appealed when he was listed for non-combatant duties in the Army; finally, on the strength of his beliefs, he gained an unconditional exemption from war service.
Jones devoted himself to the pacifist cause; he served as a voluntary administrator for Friends War Relief Service and became election agent when the national secretary of the Peace Pledge Union stood as a candidate in the Birmingham King’s Norton by-election in May 1941 (and lost his deposit).
Ultimately the task of trying to raise a family without a paid job defeated my parents. My elder brother was born in 1940 and when they found I was on the way, father had no alternative but to put paid journalism ahead of his pacifism; he joined the South Wales Argus as district reporter for Abergavenny (where I was born in October 1942).
A fit and able young man riding a bicycle around Abergavenny collecting news items inevitably attracted attention and apparently provoked some pointed remarks especially from Land Girls working on farms in the surrounding countryside.
Rumours that the railway signalman’s house where we had rooms was about to be tarred and feathered prompted another move. Journalists were in short supply and when in May 1943 the Wolverhampton Express and Star offered to provide a house along with a job my father jumped at the chance to become district reporter at Bilston in the heart of the Black Country.
His status as a conscientious objector with an unconditional exemption had not gone unnoticed and his letter of appointment from the Express and Star’s acting editor, Leslie Duckworth, included the proviso that while fully respecting his “liberty of conscience” he would have to give an assurance his views would not prevent him discharging his “full duties as a reporter” which included “fire watching at the Bilston office” – conditions he accepted.
Much to his relief, when the paper’s previous Bilston reporter returned from war service, Jones was kept on the staff, moved to head office and subsequently became features editor, news editor and finally editor of the Express and Star, a position he held for ten years until 1970.
As I progressed in my own journalistic career I often wondered how my father had dealt with the difficulties he must have encountered being a conscientious objector, working as a reporter, but like other war-time children we sensed that our parents did not always relish talking about the hardships they had endured.
Knowing so little about the inside story of my father’s war years I was taken aback when, at the height of the industrial disputes of the mid 1980s, I casually mentioned to the late Terry Duffy, President of Amalgamated Engineering Union, that he must have known my father in his early years in the AEU when he was also chairman of Wolverhampton Trades Council.
Duffy did a double-take at the very mention of the name Clement Jones. There was an embarrassing pause before he finally agreed to my request to do an interview for BBC Radio, but not before he had reminded me that he did have to think twice about it as my father was a “conchie.”
I realised immediately the significance of my father’s throw-away remark about how unpleasant it had been for him when the Express and Star’s reporters returned to Wolverhampton from war service. If Duffy’s reaction forty years later was any guide (and I subsequently discovered he had a distinguished record in the RAF), I could only imagine what it must have been like to have been ostracised by colleagues and given the cold shoulder when covering meetings of the Trades Council.
My one memorable act of solidarity with my parents and the war-time dilemmas which scarred their lives occurred just before Remembrance Sunday in the autumn of 1992 when pre-recording an edition of Scrutiny, a Saturday evening political programme on BBC 2. A floor manager noticed that I was not wearing a poppy and stopped the recording.
I stood my ground: I was merely a political journalist not subject to the BBC instruction that news readers must wear poppies. After half an hour’s hoo-ha the editor gave way and recording resumed.
My childhood Sunday mornings were spent at Quaker meetings; sometimes on Remembrance Sunday the quiet contemplation would be interrupted by the sound of a Boys’ Brigade band marching to join local veterans at the war memorial. I can still hear my mother’s voice telling me to think what the poppy symbolised. As pacifists they believed the Remembrance Sunday parades with their marching, bands and uniforms entrenched a fighting spirit.
Nicholas Jones was a BBC industrial and political correspondent for thirty years; his brother George Jones was formerly political editor of the Daily Telegraph.
This article first appeared in the British Journalism Review June 2012