HC Deb 05 March 1924 vol 170 cc1557-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. F. Hall.]


At the close of Question Time to-day, I gave notice that I would call the attention of the House to an interesting interview which took place between a member of the War Staff of the Admiralty and a body of journalists on the 3rd March. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) desired to ask a private notice question on this matter at the close of Question Time. As the matter was not regarded as urgent, the question could not be put. In order to show exactly what has arisen, I desire to read the question which he intended to put to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty: Whether he is aware that on 3rd March Captain Norris, of the Trade Division of the War Staff, delivered an address to journalists at the Admiralty on certain aspects of naval warfare; if so, what was the object of this proceeding, and why the information it was desired to convey was not laid before Parliament in a White Paper? This meeting is, I understand, unique of its kind.

Captain Viscount CURZON

Is it in order for the hon. Member to mention the name of an officer at the Admiralty in this connection?


Yes, I think so. He is entitled to do that. There is no criticism of the officer.


I have expressed no views as to the action of this officer, and I assume that in what he did he was not acting upon his own responsibility, but on instructions from the political officers of the Department, who are responsible to this House for what was done. This meeting, I understand, was a revival of a system with which we were familiar during the War—a system of propaganda. We have only in very vague terms an indication of what was said at this interview, but undoubtedly the Press were instructed regarding—as it is put here—"certain aspects of naval warfare," particularly in relation to the trade routes as far as the future was concerned. Special reference was made to the im- portance of the Pacific Ocean, to the impending clash between Asiatic and Western civilisation, and to the fact that Singapore was the gateway of the Pacific, and I am informed that the whole tendency of this interview was to impress upon the journalists present the importance of the Singapore base. That is borne out by an article which appeared in the "Times," obviously, with the same inspiration and having the same object, the authorship of which is attributed to an even higher source. The "Times" as usual, of course, has precedence of other newspapers, and the publication of the article in the "Times" came a day before the matter was released for the rest of the Press. But the important matter is this: Are the views expressed in this interview, as they have so far been communicated in the Press, the views of His Majesty's Government, or are they only the views of the Admiralty? Up to the present time there has been no declaration of Government policy. Varying statements have been made in different organs of opinion as to the views of the Government and the differences between different Members of the Cabinet on this matter. But we know that no decision has been taken, and obviously it is a most unusual thing that the representative of a Department should be advocating a policy to journalists in respect of which the Government itself has not come to a decision. There are two alternative explanations. Although the Government may not have taken its decision, the Admiralty may, nevertheless, have had instructions to give this information to the Press, and to present these views to journalists as a means of preparing the way for a Government decision. The Government may regard it as necessary that the ground should be prepared and that the public should be made aware of the arguments in favour of this proposal. In that case, the Admiralty, without official sanction, would be acting as pioneers for the Government.

There is an alternative explanation. The Government may not intend to change their views on this matter. They may intend to adhere to the views expressed by the Prime Minister when in Opposition, that the Singapore base is a colossal folly. In that case the Admiralty would be in the position of mutineers—


We would give them the cat.


I have no doubt what the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) would do. He is made of sterner stuff than the Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench. What is a First Lord to him, or a Sea Lord to him?


Or a Pringle?


I agree. The question for the Parliamentary Secretary is this: Was this officer authorised to put forward this propaganda in favour of the Singapore base? Does it represent the policy of the Government, and, if not, has this been done by the official heads of the Admiralty, without consultation with the Cabinet?


In the moment or two which have been left to me to reply, I should not like to say designedly, by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Pringle), I want to say that once again he has given an instance that he is the greatest discoverer of mare's nests—


It is in the "Daily Herald" to-day.


I imagine that the hon. Member is greatly deceived if he thinks that he is going to deceive the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. Kirkwood) by the reference he made to him just now. When he says, "I am informed," one usually begins to appreciate that his information is not very well based, as in this particular case. Let me briefly say that the whole case put forward by the hon. Member is not exactly as appears on the surface, but simply a desire to fish for something else, at which we are not going to rise so easily as he imagines. Is it not a fact that Captain Norris, of the Trade Division of the War Staff, delivered an address on certain aspects of naval warfare. Certain newspapers, knowing of the existence of the Admiralty trade routes and commodity charts, requested permission to publish them with explanations. These charts are not secret, and could not be refused; but it was thought inadvisable and unfair to the other papers not to allow them all to have the information. Consequently the editors of the newspapers were invited to send representatives to the Admiralty, and a Press Conference was held at the Admiralty on Tuesday morning. The facts that were given to them were the summaries of the returns published in the Trade and Navigation Return, Lloyd's, and other official documents, and are intended to show in precise form the volume of ocean-going trade, for the benefit of the general public.

I need only say that the Admiralty are not responsible for the statements which have appeared in the Press. They are absolutely unauthorised by the Board of Admiralty. We cannot be concerned with what view the Press takes, and nobody knows that better than the hon. Member. In view of the whole question of Singapore being under consideration by the Cabinet, it is eminently desirable, in the public interest, that no information be given which could be misconstrued as in the present case. Information desired by the Press will in future be issued to them subject to this consideration.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'clock.