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"Peace News has compiled an exemplary record... its tasks have never been more critically important than they are today." Noam Chomsky
This June Peace News has been publishing for seventy years. To mark this historic occasion, Bill Hetherington takes a trip down memory lane...
A commitment to its core values
In the mid-1930s there was a ferment of pacifism in Britain. The First World War was a recent memory, and with the rise of Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and the whole of Europe rearming, there was a popular yearning for a real way to peace.
One group who decided to do something about this was led by Humphrey Moore, a journalist in Wood Green, north London. He and others, including a young activist named Harry Mister, first met in late 1935 and decided to bring out a newspaper aptly titled Peace News, as “The only Weekly Newspaper serving all who are working for Peace”. Six months' planning through frequent meetings in the Moore family home led to the first issue on 6 June 1936.
Such was the success of the paper that by the sixth issue an agreement had been reached by the Peace News Group with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), newly established in May 1936 as a full blown organisation following its initial launch in 1934, that PN would become the PPU's official paper.
With prominent PPU figures such as Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman and Vera Brittain writing for it, PN monitored the worsening international situation and the government's responses with Air Raid Precautions, encouragement to voluntary “National Service”, and finally conscription.
As war came, PN street sellers - organised by Harry Mister, who joined the staff as a conscientious objector in 1941 - became the main means of distribution and began increasingly to be harassed by the authorities. Then in May 1940 PN's printers took fright and withdrew. The pacifist sculptor and print designer Eric Gill hand set and printed two issues before the pacifist firm C A Brock came to the rescue.
PN, much reduced in size by paper rationing, reported news of COs, the PPU's Food Relief Campaign for the starving people of occupied Europe and the campaign against mass bombing of German cities.
For a period there was a regular supplement on community experiments, as conscientious objectors and other pacifists took over farms and tried to build their own self-sustaining islands of peace and harmony amidst the maelstrom of total war.
In the aftermath of world war, PN reported early protests of the PPU and others against the new atom bomb; and with the devastation of Europe continuing for years, PN reported on the pacifists who were central to relief work, and on campaigns against continuing conscription as the longed-for peace elided into the Cold War.
By 1950 the paper was being subtitled The International Pacifist Weekly, in 1953 a sales office was opened in the USA, and the next year an airmail edition began, continuing for more than a decade. When Britain announced its commitment to its own nuclear weapons, and a vibrant nuclear disarmament movement emerged in the late 1950s, PN, under the redoubtable editorship of Hugh Brock - brother of the paper's erstwhile printer - became the effective but unofficial paper of its radical wing, the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, and then the Committee of 100. Some members of the PPU became uneasy about a perceived shift from opposition to war itself to opposition to a particular means of war, and in April 1961 it was agreed that PN would revert to its independent status.
Meanwhile, a generous donation from the Revd Tom Willis had enabled the purchase of the freehold building at 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, as a permanent base for both PN and Housmans Bookshop from 1959. Four years later the initiative of Len Cook, the PPU's pacifist printer, led to the setting-up of Finsbury Park Typesetters as PN's sister company (of which PN was the main customer), in a second freehold building at 11 Goodwin Street, Finsbury Park, London N4.
As the first wave of the nuclear disarmament movement declined, issues such as the Vietnam and Biafran Wars came to the fore. But the paper was also known for its counter-cultural, as well as counter-political, coverage.
In 1974, amid some controversy, PN's office moved from London - retaining only a toehold in 5 Caledonian Road - to Nottingham, which was felt to be more identifiable as a local community. The paper also changed from weekly to fortnightly, and from newspaper format to magazine. Soon afterwards PN “scooped” the story of a former SAS colonel setting up a private army, and received much publicity as well as a prestigious award from Granada TV's What the Papers Say programme.
The next year, PN was effectively on trial, with a number of its key people being defendants in the prosecution of 14 members of the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign for allegedly inciting troops to “disaffection”. Issues of the paper were put in evidence by the prosecution, but the jury took only 90 minutes to dismiss all 31 charges after 10 weeks at the Old Bailey.
In 1978 PN as a company and each of its staff were hauled before the Lord Chief Justice in the High Court for supposed contempt of court in publishing the real name of “Colonel B”, an anonymous witness in the ABC Official Secrets case. The LCJ found PN in contempt, but the House of Lords nobly overruled him.
Pause for thought
In 1988 there was a hiatus when the paper stopped regular publication for a rethink of its role and its viability: it decided to revert to a newspaper format, whilst remaining fortnightly.
Then in 1990 it switched to a monthly frequency, and began joint publication with War Resisters' International. Having initially moved back from Nottingham to join WRI in their south London offices, the paper then moved with WRI back to Caledonian Road in 1994 - the “housewarming” party doubling as an 80th birthday celebration for Harry Mister, still on the scene as secretary of Peace News Trustees, the body formed in 1971 to own the company's buildings and administer its resources.
Backwards and forwards
In 1999 the paper changed format again to a thematic quarterly magazine, of mainly in-depth articles from international contributors, until, in 2005 the arrangement with WRI was terminated, and in February 2005 Peace News changed again - from a thoughtful magazine to a more Britain-focused, action and campaign-oriented, monthly tabloid newspaper.
Peace News has been published as a peace journal for 70 years, in many formats and frequencies. Whatever the product, PN has always retained an essential commitment to its core values - radical pacifism, nonviolence, antimilitarism, empowerment and practical social and political action.
For further information about PN's earlier years, see the (now rather rare) pamphlet Against All War, published by PN to mark its 50th birthday in 1986.