from: peaceworks autumn 2013

Old Pacifist Warhorse gallops onto page three

As many of you will have seen, the PPU achieved some unexpected publicity for our new Objecting to War project, funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Some time after our Co-ordinator had given an interview to the Guardian, he found himself reported somewhat inaccurately on page 3, with WW1 Conscientious Objectors described as having been executed. Some COs were taken to France and threatened with being shot but their sentences were commuted to penal servitude – thanks to the vigilance of supporters in the No Conscription Fellowship and Parliament.

Alerted by Jan from the airport as he was starting his holiday, PPU Council members had to leap into action… we got a letter and a corrections piece in the Guardian (especially important these days to get corrections to the online article) – and gave an opening for some other peace groups to get coverage too. Throughout the week, no national journalist bothered to check the story with the PPU as it rumbled on and grew stranger. The Times copied the story, made new mistakes and had to print corrections. It was then exploited by the Telegraph (in four places on one day) to attack the Heritage Lottery Fund for turning down a grant to a branch of the British Legion whose proposed WW1 project consists of planting red poppy seeds in Kent. Apparently the branch had the support of the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales - if you believe what you read in the papers. (In fact the Heritage Lottery Fund are in talks with the national British Legion about funding.) Now they had the controversy they wanted between the red and white poppy groups. Other papers such as the Daily Mail took up the story; at some point it went international in Le Monde (we’ve learnt the lovely French word for poppies ‘les coquelicots’ – though it looks better without the attached ‘de la discorde’) By the weekend, the headline in the Sunday Mirror stated that money was going to remember WW1 COs instead of soldiers! They did grudgingly admit that the WW1 COs had been brave – but not as brave as the soldiers… Interestingly from the Telegraph onwards they all got the number of COs (16,000) right, and they didn’t execute them – so some journalists did do some belated homework.

A further complicating factor was that the Guardian article was misread by many to mean that we were also responsible for the No Glory campaign (actually run by Stop the War and CND)– in fact the PPU has a more ambitious No More War campaign.

This crazy week showed that some parts of the press are going to be just as hostile as ever to those trying to raise awareness of conscientious objectors and the war condoning mentality during the WW1 anniversary. They seem to need ‘executed’ COs (or a manufactured white/red poppy story) to get excited about them - for some reason the press seem reluctant to mention the fact that some COs did die from the conditions in prison, from illness, mistreatment or serving in the war zone in the Non-Combatant Corps – and that the PPU has a plaque in their memory in our office.

Thanks are due to the PPU’s volunteer press spokesman, Albert (and apologies to the Heritage Lottery Fund). We have accidentally launched our new staff member into a blaze of publicity. This old pacifist warhorse (as one Guardian columnist called the PPU, affectionately I think) has a lot of life left in it yet.
Lucy Beck