Looking at definitions of secrecy in different contexts and societies shows that time, place, form of government and the prevailing political environment matter. One person’s secret is another’s publicly available information: it depends. The circumstances of the Second World War (WWII) led to UK government censorship of civilian letters and telegrams. What would have been innocuous, even boring letters about shortages and daily irritations became information of potential value to the enemy. Intruding into the private sphere by censoring private communications was justified in the name of protecting the nation and its citizens during time of war. Senior UK government officials knew they would be held to account for their decision to impose censorship and were at pains to ensure they had the appropriate legal warrant in place. The Admiralty, as it was then called, was also completely clear that the only reason to censor letters to and from members of the Royal Navy was security and the defence of the realm. Any other minor sins, transgressions or disciplinary matters were to be ignored by Naval censors.
The fact that censorship existed and correspondence was intercepted and examined was not a secret. Large labels stuck on envelopes made it very clear that letters had been opened and read. People who broke the rules could have their letters returned with a request to mend their ways. It was believed that censorship acted as a deterrent to the foolish, self-aggrandizing and vain. However, the objectives censorship material served beyond this basic deterrence were sensitive and classified. Censorship material was summarised in reports with a restricted distribution to government officials, the military and the BBC. Those working as censors, known as Examiners, received specific tasking as requirements evolved. Knowledge that suspect correspondence from potential intelligence agents or their contacts was passed to the Security Service required concealment. Special Examiners were taught how to remove letters from envelopes and pass them on to MI5 for further scrutiny without leaving any trace before the letters were sent on to recipients, preferably with minimum delay.
At the end of the Second World War, the UK government confidently judged that there had been no Nazi or Axis intelligence assets or agents operating within the UK. The Censorship was given credit for contributing to this success. Either M.I.5 had turned those they had discovered into UK assets; or had prevented agents and agent runners from either entering the UK or operating effectively. A trickier question is the number of British Fascist or Nazi sympathisers close to government or in positions of influence. They could have done the National Socialist government’s work for them. Alarmed at the influence and potential damage such sympathisers could cause led the writer Nancy Mitford to denounce her sister Diana Mosley as a threat to national security.
An intriguing case study is a creative writer employed as a censor in wartime. Barbara Pym worked as a civilian examiner and a Naval censor. Yet little trace of this experience appears in her fiction. Reading other people’s letters must surely provide valuable material for a writer. Other writers, largely male, were less scrupulous about mining their wartime experience. A working assumption is that Barbara Pym conscientiously observed the requirement to keep her wartime work secret. She did not question the shelf life of a secret, but accepted the prevailing view that secrecy was for ever. She did not mention her wartime experience at all in a 1978 radio talk about how and why she wrote, the influences which shaped her writing, how she developed her voice. In effect, she observed a form of lifelong self- censorship, suppressing what she knew, not allowing it into her creative life.