Freemasonry and the Press in Twentieth-century Britain
Issue: Vol 2 No. 2 (2011)
Subject Areas: Religious Studies
The following article—based upon a doctoral thesis that was approved by the University of London in 2011—represents a study of British media coverage of freemasonry in the twentieth-century. It considers how and why the public image of freemasonry changed from that of a highly respected élite organization, at the centre of public life in 1900, to a position on the fringes in the 1990s, regarded with suspicion and disapproval by many. It focuses exclusively on national newspapers.
This article describes how the press projected a positive message of the organization for almost 40 years, based on a mass of news, which the author believes—and shows—emanated from the organization itself (making it an unexpected pioneer in modern public relations practice).
It concludes that the change of image and public regard, which occurred during the twentieth-century, was due, mainly—but not solely—to masonic withdrawal from the public sphere. It considers—and finds wanting—the suggestion that this withdrawal was a response to fascist persecution and it offers a number of additional explanations. Freemasonry’s reluctance to engage with the media after 1936 powerfully assisted its critics, who grew in strength as a result of developments within the media and the churches.
In the second-half of the century, greater competition spawned a more challenging form of journalism and accelerated the decline of deference. Concurrently, the rise of secularism and religious pluralism in Britain provided Christianity with increased competition and led some adherents to re-define freemasonry and to treat it as a rival. Throughout the period, ‘Conspiracy culture’ remained strong, rendering the secrecy of freemasonry a major handicap to public understanding. The history of freemasonry in twentieth-century Britain is largely an unexplored field and, in examining the fraternity’s media profile, this study also illuminates the organization’s collisions with nationalism, communism and state welfare provision.
Author: Paul Richard Calderwood