HC Deb 14 May 1931 vol 252 cc1488-92

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


I desire to draw the attention of the Attorney-General to the issue of the "Daily Herald" of the 12th May, in which it is stated on the front page with great prominence that the Public Prosecutor, instructed by the Law Officers of the Crown, will apply for a summons against a world-famous business man and his auditor. I wish to ask whether this announcement is not a breach of the Official Secrete Act, and whether it might not tend to prejudice any trial which might be pending, It seems to me damaging to the best interests of justice and of journalism that efforts should be made to influence high and independent authorities by a public journal whatever its views.

The ATTORNEY - GENERAL (Sir William Jowitt)

I am very much indebted, and I think the House is indebted, to the hon. and gallant Member for bringing this matter forward. I am perfectly certain that all Members on all sides of the House will agree with me in deploring this announcement. From whatever source this or any similar announcement may come, i can only regard the publication as being, in the first place, a great handicap to the authorities who are charged with the administration of justice, and secondly, as very likely to be prejudicial to the persons concerned. May I point out that whether a man be a duke or a dustman, he is presumed by the law of this country to be innocent until the contrary is proved? Thirdly, I venture to say that announcements of this character are rightly criticised by the hon. and gallant Member who has just spoken as being outside the scope of decent journalism. A year ago, in connection with a case, which hon. Members will remember, relating to the arrest of Gandhi, I made use of the powers of the Official Secrets Act. I explained that in my view this drastic power should be used sparingly, and only where serious issues are involved. I added that it was a gravely serious publication, from which tragic consequences might have ensued, and I asked on that occasion that I might receive the cooperation of the Press as a whole in stopping this sort of thing. I was subjected to a good deal of criticism. It was said that I had made use of the powers in a case which was merely a case of intelligent anticipation, and I frankly say that I realise still more than I did then that these powers must only be resorted to on most exceptional occasions.

Let me just tell the House what has happened—I will take only the Department for which I am responsible—since I last asked, almost exactly a year ago, that I might receive the full co-operation of the Press. On 4th December, 1930, a publication appeared in a daily paper, not this paper: Early arrests expected of men accused of share-pushing. These men are now undergoing trial, and I forbear to say anything more about that. On the 12th February this year the same daily paper which I have just mentioned gave out that the Public Prosecutor had called for all the papers in the official inquiry into the death and the estate of the 83-year old London recluse who was found dead in his lodgings. Thirdly, on the 12th of May of this year, came this announcement in this paper, which is in part accurate and in part inaccurate. It is always difficult to know how far these announcements may be due to deliberate leakage or indiscretion, or to intelligent anticipation on the part of the Press.

If I supposed that there had been deliberate leakage from an official source, which constitutes the offence under the Official Secrets Act, I should not hesitate to avail myself of the powers which that Act conferred upon me. In the first instance, I made all such inquiries as I myself could make, and I satisfied myself, so far as I could, that the leakage had not come from official quarters. I asked the editor of the paper to come to see me, and requested him to give me the name of the informant. I pointed out to him the embarrassing position which people would be in unless this were forthcoming. He explained to me that to give the name of the informant would not be in accordance with the traditions of Fleet Street, and he felt himself quite unable to do that, but he did give me his word that the statement did not originate or emanate from any official source, I cannot go further than that under these circumstances. I can only avail myself of the powers of the Act if I am satisfied that there has been, or that there is ground for supposing that there has been, a breach by some official.

I am unable to take the House further into my confidence, unable to make as full a statement as I would have made, because I must not say anything which might have any possible bearing upon a case which now, at any rate, is sub judice. But I would like to say, that, now that this case is sub judice, I have, in the event of further comments being made, methods of procedure which I had not got before the case was sub judice, and I say frankly that, so far as concerns myself and my Department, I shall keep a watchful eye to see that we do not have in this country anything like a trial by newspaper, and that nothing is done to prejudice the fair trial of any person, whoever he may be, who is accused of any offence.


I should not have intervened on this occasion had there not been, as the Attorney-General has said, previous occurrences of a similar nature, and while agreeing with what the Attorney-General said in regard to the previous publication of serious news of this kind I think it is only right that attention should be drawn to what has been stated to be the practice in regard to matters of this kind. All of us who have to live and pass our time in this House know that it is singularly difficult, if one does happen to know anything at all, whether of a party nature or a confidential nature, to keep it from leaking out. One can walk along the Lobby and have a talk quietly with someone, and suddenly discover a little paragraph in the papers quoting something that one has said. It has been laid down by the important and powerful Press that they are entitled to, and will, get news where-ever they can, and at any price, and while I am pleased to learn from the Attorney-General that he is satisfied that there has been no official leakage in this matter, there are very serious considerations to be taken into account.

There was a similar case in 1928 of a much more serious nature, in some respects, when it was alleged that certain people had made money out of previous information with regard to the merger of the Imperial Marconi Company and the Imperial Telegraph Company. It was alleged that the "Daily Mail" had given prior information to persons, who made huge fortunes as a result. When challenged with that, the "Mail" replied: The first business of a newspaper is to provide news, and we thank Mr. Baker"— The late Member for East Bristol— who raised the matter heartily for his kind and encouraging words, in the fact that he bore testimony to our superiority over other persons in respect of getting news for our readers. In this case it is a newspaper of a different political colour, but it is no better because of that. While we permit our Lobbies and all the parts of this House to be open to journalists, whose duty it is to provide their proprietors with news, then when there is no leakage from official sources we must expect some intelligent anticipation of events of the character that has been described by the Attorney-General. The "Daily Mail" further said: We have always made it our first and most urgent duty to provide our readers with the fullest and earliest news on matters of public interest from all parts of the world. It is their due, they expect it and, on the evidence of Thursday's Debate, they get it. We have 6pared no effort in the past and we shall spare no effort in the future to maintain our news service at the pre-eminent level which is acknowledged. Our supremacy in this cardinal virtue of journalism has been established for more than a generation. We are, therefore, faced with the position that there are people in and about the House whose duty it is to find news for their proprietors and their readers, and they are going to find it, according to this statement in the "Daily Mail," sparing no expense and no effort. In these circumstances this newspaper is no more to blame than others that indulge in the practice of what one may call intelligent anticipation of nosiness for news.

I think the Attorney-General might consider whether we should exclude all journalists from the House and the Lobbies. I see our Chief Whip on the Front Bench. He knows and the Whips of other parties know that news does leak out from all sorts of places in the House of Commons. So long as we have the Press possessing free access to all parts of the House and seeing that we have had plenty of questions by hon. Members from this side and from the other side of the House in regard to this particular company for many months, it was not a great stretch of the imagination for someone to be able to put their finger on what was happening in relation to this particular case. The matter has been before the House for three or four months, or even more than that, and replies have shown that very careful consideration was being given to it. The Attorney-General stated that when he was satisfied he would not hesitate to put certain machinery into action, if he thought the case was proved. In these circumstances, apart from the total exclusion of the Press from the House, we may expect news to leak out, as it has done in the past, however regrettable it may be from the point of view of the Government or of the people.


There has been another recent case of leakage of news, which occurred in the "Daily Herald." That leakage related to the subject that we have been debating to-day, namely, the report on R 101. A forecast of the report was published in the "Daily Herald" before the report appeared, and on comparing what was published with the report one found that the statements were very similar to what appeared in the report. I should like to ask the Attorney-General whether any inquiry was made into that leakage at the time?


That matter did not come before me. I was unacquainted with it. Unfortunately, as the last speaker has said, it is not only a case of the "Daily Herald."

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes after Ten o'Clock.