Celebrating 300 years

The Craft in black and white

Thursday, 05 June 2014

Pressing matters

In his Prestonian Lecture, Paul Calderwood traces Freemasonry’s faltering relationship with the press throughout the twentieth century. Andrew Gimson finds out why things have started to improve

Why did Freemasonry’s public image change so much for the worse during the twentieth century? This question struck Paul Calderwood many years before he delivered the 2013 Prestonian Lecture on the subject. He became a Freemason in the early 1970s and towards the end of that decade began to notice the declining tone of newspaper coverage: ‘By the 1980s, it was pretty dire. I was amazed at the things I read in newspapers. These reports didn’t match my experience.’ 

On investigating the image of Freemasonry, Paul found that it had ‘a very positive profile in newspapers in the late nineteenth century. It was very much part of the public sphere’. How and why did things go wrong? On retiring from business, Paul decided to conduct a scholarly inquiry into this question, and enrolled at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he researched and wrote a doctoral thesis, which has now been published.

‘Throughout 1900-1940, the largest part of the fraternity’s press profile was derived from the strong involvement of the Royal Family, which played a key role in the administration of the Order,’ explains Paul. ‘Three of the four kings of twentieth-century Britain were Past Grand Masters of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) – as were kings of Sweden and Denmark. They provided Freemasonry with publicity on a lavish scale.’ 

Thanks to its royal favour, Freemasonry drew eminent people from many different walks of life. Archbishops, aristocrats, government ministers, judges and mayors flocked to become Freemasons, commending the fraternity as ‘the key to model citizenship’.

But Paul has identified another, less obvious factor that contributed to the positive image: the openness of Freemasonry itself. ‘There can be little doubt that the raised masonic profile between 1916 and 1936 was directed by the most senior members of UGLE,’ says Paul. ‘The nature of the press coverage – its detail, frequency and, above all, volume – are clear indications that the in-trays of the leaders of the Order were being officially scanned on a daily basis for news items.’ During those twenty years, the number of masonic articles in the national press increased fourfold. Indeed, there were times when as many as four articles appeared on the same day in the same newspaper.

‘Throughout 1900-1940, the largest part of the fraternity’s press profile was derived from the strong involvement of the Royal Family.’ Paul Calderwood

News outlets including the Press Association, The Times and The Daily Telegraph employed masonic correspondents. Lord Ampthill, who in 1908 became Pro Grand Master of UGLE, had a high opinion of journalism, while Alfred Robbins, who in 1913 became President of the Board of General Purposes, was a well-known journalist. Robbins knew exactly what journalists needed, and he had a network of contacts through whom it could be supplied. Freemasonry in these years did not fear the press; it embraced it. Paul, who himself worked in public relations, sees UGLE as a pioneer of these methods that we now take for granted.

A step backwards

So what went wrong? Robbins died in 1931, but his network continued to function for a few years. Ampthill’s death in 1935 led to the decisive change: ‘There was a change in leadership at Grand Lodge, to people with a very different attitude to communications, and they effectively withdrew from the public sphere.’

The abdication in 1936 of King Edward VIII showed that publicity ‘can be a two-edged sword’. The high profile of Freemasonry had been maintained by his active participation during his years as an immensely popular Prince of Wales, and now, in Paul’s words, ‘his reputation went into free-fall, and an asset proved more of a liability’. The rise of fascism on continental Europe, with Freemasons facing persecution, was taken in England as confirmation of the wisdom of keeping a low profile.

In the years after World War II, Freemasonry in England continued to grow substantially in numbers, only levelling off in the late 1970s and then, in common with most membership organisations, going into decline. But the press no longer carried masonic stories. Paul observes that news values had changed; editors were less interested in printing reports about such bastions of the establishment as Freemasonry. 

Some of the churches, too, having once welcomed Freemasonry as an ally, now began to see the Order as a rival. But the greatest single factor in the decline in coverage was the decision by Freemasonry itself not to make news available, and to be an organisation that jealously guarded its privacy.

‘Many members of the public saw a secretive organisation that did nothing to rebut the conspiracy theories that multiplied around it.’

Addressing the damage

Even when Freemasonry came under attack, no reply was made. ‘Critics had the field to themselves,’ explains Paul. ‘They were able to fill the vacuum with their insinuations.’ In the 1980s, a ‘witch-hunt’ developed, and for a long time no attempt was made to counter these stories. 

As Paul explains, the attitude of many Freemasons was: ‘Let them think what they want. We know we’re right.’

The problem with taking the high road was that many members of the public saw a secretive organisation that did nothing to rebut the conspiracy theories that multiplied around it. At length, the need for a policy of greater openness was seen. According to Paul, this was ‘quite controversial’, even though it was a return to the greater openness of 1916-1936. 

With so little material published about Freemasonry in the twentieth century, Paul has broken new ground both with his book and his lecture – which he has now given about thirty-six times in England and Wales: ‘There is a lot of interest in the subject of our public image and what can be done to improve it.’ Provinces in England and Wales have appointed publicity officers, who are trying to communicate better with the media, and many are also successfully using social media.

As a young man, Paul read history at the University of Leicester before qualifying as a journalist and working for a short time on local newspapers. He understands journalism and, from his days in public relations, has absorbed the lesson that ‘the prelude to understanding is communication’. What a pity it is that having learnt this lesson earlier than many other organisations, Freemasonry then forgot it for half a century.

To order a copy of the 2013 Prestonian Lecture, ‘As we were seen: The Press & Freemasonry’, from Amazon, visit http://tinyurl.com/prestonianlecture 

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