An anecdote related by the former editor of Picture Post, Tom Hopkinson, remains many years later a potent symbol of the supposed radicalization of the British electorate in the first half of the 1940s, which has given a particular significance to the Second World War as ‘the people's war’. Following the general election of 1945 Hopkinson was accosted by a Conservative politician who insisted that it was Hopkinson's weekly illustrated magazine which had secured Labour's huge success. Hopkinson demurred: the Daily Mirror newspaper had been far more influential, he felt. The story continues to have currency, and the idea that a left-wing press, in particular a combination of Picture Post and the Mirror, played a crucial role in establishing the agenda for post-war reconstruction has proved remarkably resilient.
Contemporaries certainly believed that the press helped mobilize public support behind a project which some on the right saw as taking Britain ‘half-way to Moscow’. George Orwell argued that the press had been able to play this role because, as the war economy was focused away from personal and household consumption, the power of advertisers and other commercial interests over the press waned, leaving them more ‘controlled by journalists’. As a result, Orwell sometimes felt the press demonstrated ‘how very much more thoughtful and also “left-wing” the non-highbrow public has grown’. Not all ‘the sensational nonsense’, ‘stunt make-up’ or ‘screaming headlines’ had been eliminated, but it did seem possible to contemplate the arrival of a moment of cultural reformation. The challenge seemed to be to satisfy at one and the same time popular tastes which existed for both ‘light entertainment and high thinking’.
After 1945, the primacy of commercialism was reasserted, however. Journalism, as a quasi-profession, was either unable or unwilling to resist its own degrading, despite its pivotal role in the establishment of the first Royal Commission on the Press in 1946. Journalists and intellectuals on the left limited their ambitions for democratic control of the press, accepting the principle of private ownership. Furthermore, the Labour Party's participation in government from 1940 led to its attaining the ‘commanding heights’ of news management. Initiated by the exigences of war, and often dressed up as integral to the process of ‘public accountability’, by 1951 public relations was deeply embedded in government.