HC Deb 14 November 1934 vol 293 cc2102-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

10.58 p.m.


After the important matters with which the House has been engaged all day I feel some diffidence in detaining hon. Members with what may seem a minor matter, but is, I venture to think, one of some importance, and growing importance, to the public. I desire to raise the question of the broadcast delivered by Dr. Ivor Jennings on 30th October with regard to the question of the borough council elections. I should not have troubled the House had this been an isolated instance of what I believe to be partial and controversial matter being introduced into the so-called educational broadcasts. Indeed, only the action of the Leader of the Labour party in London averted a very similar instance. There had been arranged a so-called impartial broadcast by an actual candidate of the Conservative party for one of the borough councils, and it was only by the intervention, in my humble view the very proper intervention, of Mr. Morrison, that that broadcast was cancelled. I should be grateful if the Lords of the Treasury would allow me to address the House. If these matters are to be discussed at a time of stress like the eve of an election it is of the utmost importance that they should be discussed in an impartial spirit. I have no doubt that Dr. Ivor Jennings, who gave this talk as an address to secondary schools in what; I believe, is now known in the educational curriculum as "civics," endeavoured to describe the machinery of government. I have no doubt that he intended his address, to be as far as possible, impartial. I do not propose to bore the House with an extensive quotation, but during the period of his speech he made use of this phrase: Let me put a hypothetical case to you. Suppose that Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky were all alive and were elected as city councillors of Oxbridge, and suppose that the question before them was whether Oxbridge should have an enormous housing scheme under the control of the council in order to pro- vide houses at very low rents for the working people. I think that you will agree with me that three of them would be in favour and three against. I leave aside the extremely doubtful taste of introducing individual names on the one side or the other. That is a matter for the personal views of the deliverer of the broadcast, but as to the personalities selected, I suggest that they lay down quite plainly what was followed out by the rest of the talk, a theory which I hold to be entirely unsound, although hon. Members opposite may hold a contrary view.


What was the lecturer's point?


If the hon. Member will allow me, that is exactly what I am trying to explain. The illustration was carried out by the theory of the rest of the broadcast, which I do not intend to detain the House by reading, that the rich, as represented by the Conservatives, Municipal Reformers, ratepayers' associations—whatever you like to call them —the right wing candidates, were not in favour of spending any money for the benefit of the populace whereas the other side were of the contrary view. There is one other sentence which I think is worth quoting. Having stated the argument for economy, the lecturer finished by saying: The answers given to this are first, that the expense is likely to be less than is alleged, and secondly, that the inequalities of wealth are such that the wealthier classes must be expected to subsidise the services provided for the less fortunate members of society; and thirdly, that expenditure on such schemes will ultimately be repaid by the saving on such services as hospitals, owing to the better physical conditions of the people. I make no comment on that statement as such, but I contend that the whole tone of the broadcast was such as to give an entirely wrong interpretation of the attitude of the Conservative candidates in that election. It is almost impossible, if one has to deal with parties and if one has strong views, to give a really impartial view of borough council elections. It was for that reason that I said that Mr. Morrison was right in protesting against the broadcast by a Conservative candidate. I do not know what Dr. Ivor Jennings' views may be—though, having read some of his books, I have a shrewd suspicion, and having read his broadcast I have an even shrewder suspicion—but anyone with strong views who is going to enter into the question of the difference between parties will inevitably bias his broadcast on the one side or the other.

It is difficult to discuss this matter within the limits of the Motion for the Adjournment, but we come up against the whole question of controversial matters in education. I quite agree that it should be possible to deliver without partiality what this purported to be, and what the majority of it was, a description to the schools of the system of local government, the machinery of local government and of the need for the interest of the citizens of this country in local government. My complaint against the British Broadcasting Corporation, in this instance as in many others, is not that they are wilfully biased on the one side or on the other, but that they seem to be incapable of discriminating between what is and what is not controversial matter. They are like the Baker in "The Hunting of the Snark," who, when charged with deceiving his colleagues, said: You may charge me with murder or want of sense, We are all of us weak at times. But the slightest attempt at a false pretence Was never among my crimes. I do not think that they are untruthful when they say that they are trying to be impartial; I think it is merely that they cannot understand what impartiality means. Again and again I could quote to the Postmaster-General instances of what purported to be educational talks, or educational articles, into which controversial matters have been, introduced, when there was no possibility of a reply —and that is the point which is agitating a great many people inside and outside this House. The British Broadcasting Corporation, as we all know, has a monopoly; it has statutory protection and statutory obligations. We had a Debate in this House last year on the subject, and there was unanimity on this point at least, that, if the broadcasting of controversial matter were to be allowed, it must be absolutely without any kind of partiality. I do not doubt for a moment—indeed I know it to be a fact—that, where an avowedly con- troversial broadcast is given, a countervailing broadcast is allowed at a later date, or possibly on the same day. But what is continually happening with both political and non-political matters of controversy, is that controversial matters are introduced, statements are made which are subject to the gravest dispute, misstatements are made, bias is put forward, people not qualified to put the point of view are asked to advocate some important controversial matter, and there is no redress to the public.

Mr. Morrison, with the full strength of the Labour party behind him—the official Opposition in this country—may get one broadcast in reply. The average person in this country who sees in the Press an article which he does not like can write to the papers, and the probability is that some version of his complaint will sooner or later be published if he is persistent enough. But all that you get from the British Broadcasting Corporation is a none too courteous acknowledgment of the receipt of your letter, with, possibly, if they are feeling particularly mellow, a statement that your complaint will be looked into, and that is the end. That, I venture to suggest, is not a state of affairs which can be allowed to continue. The public of this country are, in increasing numbers, becoming disturbed, and particularly the politically-minded public. They take the view that there must be fairness, and that, if unfairness is even justifiably alleged, there must be some power of intervention and control. This brings me to the direct questions that I wish to address to the Postmaster-General.

The Government have stated—and this was the reason for my troubling the House with the matter at all—that they could not see their way to give time for discussion of the very important Motion which stands on the Order Paper in the name of the hon. and learned Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Knight), which demands an inquiry into the whole question. I can appreciate the position of the Government in this matter. They have more than they can do to complete their programme. But I think the matter is urgent and important, and I would ask the Postmaster-General this question: "Has he any power to intervene in a matter of this sort?" If not, has anyone any power to intervene? If the answer to either question is in the affirmative, will steps be taken to see that justifiable complaints receive attention? If the answer to both questions is in the negative, I would remind him that the charter comes up for consideration at no distant date, and, in view of the growing feeling—ample evidence of which I should be pleased to give if time permitted—it will be necessary for Members of the House to consider whether Amendments providing for increased control, will not have to be put into it.

11.11 p.m.


I have no desire to anticipate in an impatient manner the answer which my hon. Friend desires, and will of course receive from the Postmaster-General, but I should like to say a word or two upon this matter. I agree with much that the hon. Member has said, hut, nevertheless, I am of opinion that he has not been altogether fair to the gentleman who gave the broadcast that he has complained of. If, after reading the best report that I can obtain of this broadcast, I were sincerely of the opinion that it was of an objectionable character, I should be the first to say so, and I should be delighted to take this opportunity of supporting my hon. Friend. I should leap the breach that he has attempted to make. Indeed, I might have attempted to make it myself. But candidly I am not of that opinion. Giving the matter the best consideration that I can I do not take the view of this broadcast that he does. He quoted one or two passages from it. The first was one in which six gentlemen of eminence were referred to in connection with the question whether a particular town should have an enormous housing scheme under the control of the council in order to provide houses at very low rents for working people. Dr. Jennings said: I think that you will agree with me that three of them would be in favour and three against. The hon. Member seeks to infer that that is in some way an objectionable statement of the case, and that in some manner or other it sets in an improperly favourable light the Socialist argument, or the argument that would be on this occasion maintained by Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. But I should have thought that approval of a scheme or a principle of government by Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky would be no recommendation of it to the greater number of the people of this country. In fact, without hesitaion, I record my conviction that the greater number of Englishmen, if they were told that Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were in favour of a scheme and Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Carnegie were against it, would conclude that the scheme had no merits whatever.


Ingenious and attractive as my hon. Friend's argument is, it is getting away from the point, which is that rich men would be opposed to a housing scheme and Socialists would support it, which is at least a mis-statement.


Well, but Dr. Jennings goes on to say: Surely the reason for this difference would be their divergent views on social policy, that is, their different politics. I am sorry if I have misrepresented his argument, but I am afraid that the hon. Member has now raised a point which at this time of night, it would take me too long to argue adequately. He then read a passage from this broadcast which sets out what might be described without inaccuracy as the Socialist argument on a certain question. But what has gone before? How does Dr. Jennings treat this question before the passage which the hon. Member read to the House? He begins by asking whether the councils should supply gas, water and electricity. Should private companies do it? Should a council undertake housing or slum clearance schemes? He goes on to say, "These things involve two difficulties," and then in a passage which is not negligible he sets out one of them. Later he sets out the other difficulty. He says that the second difficulty is that services of this kind cost money, which has to be provided by the ratepayers; that many people believe we are already overtaxed, and that our task should not be to increase taxation by large and expensive new developments, but to keep it as low as possible by providing only those services which are absolutely essential to maintain a reasonable standard of health and efficiency. This passage immediately preceded that which the hon. Member read to the House, and it was hardly fair to read the second passage to the House without the first. On the whole, the broadcast fairly sets out the considerations that should be brought to the minds of those to whom it is addressed. Nor is it suggested that there was anything objectionable in the tone or manner of it. The only objection taken is to the way in which the arguments are set out. But even if it be open to objection, what then? The hon. Member has referred to the occasion last year when the House expressed its view upon the system of broadcasting in this country. On 22nd February of last year this House resolved by a large majority that, being satisfied that the British Broadcasting Corporation maintains in general a high standard of service, it is of opinion that it would be contrary to the public interest to subject the Corporation to any control by Government or by Parliament other than the control already provided for in the charter and the licence of the Corporation. There is then control already provided for in the charter and the licence of the Corporation. Is it suggested that on this occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General or any other Minister of the Crown should have exercised the powers which are vested in them? Not seriously, I think, by the hon. Member. I conclude, and I ask the House to conclude, that in this matter no case has been made out for action by the right hon. Gentleman or any other of His Majesty's Ministers.

11.20 p.m.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir Kingsley Wood)

I confess that I have not given careful study to this particular address, which was given, I understand, at 3.35 in the afternoon to children and young persons. I have not carefully studied it, and it is not part of the functions of my office to offer any comment one way or the other. If I were speaking in my personal capacity and not as Postmaster-General, I should complain that the gentleman who did the broadcast was out of date because he represented the Municipal Reformers at the recent municipal elections as the rich people and the Socialists as the poor people. My own observation has shown me that there are probably more rich people belonging to the Socialist party to-day than to the Municipal Reformers. Be that as it may, I should like to remind the House what the position was so far as these broadcasts were concerned. We had a very long debate on the position of broadcasting in this country on 22nd February, 1933. We devoted a whole day—and no one regretted it—to a discussion of the position and influence of one of the most remarkable and far-reaching forces in the country. With only a small minority voting against the Resolution, the House declared, in the first place, that it was satisfied that the British Broadcasting Corporation maintained in general a high standard of service. Secondly, they emphasised the point—and my hon. Friend has been right in taking this opportunity of raising discussion, because it illustrates the right of the House to look at these matters from time to time—that it was most important that the greatest care should be exercised in the selection of speakers by the corporation. Further, they said that it would not be in the public interest to subject the corporation to control other than that contained in the charter and licence of the corporation. My hon. Friend put some questions to me, but did not make any practical suggestion as to what he desired to be done. I think it is right that discretion as to programmes and speakers should be vested in the governors of the corporation and it is certainly a very high and responsible duty. I do not think anyone would care to suggest —either my political friends or my political enemies—that the Postmaster-General should act as a general censor. That would be almost an impossible position for a Minister of the Crown.

It may be said that the Resolution which was passed on 22nd February, 1933, was in reality a general verdict in favour of the present system. The British Broadcasting Corporation is only a young body, and in the light of further experience we may be able to perfect the arrangements which have been made as to the duties vested in the Postmaster-General on the one hand and the corporation on the other, but so far as I am aware, no one has yet been able to propose a more promising alternative than the present arrangement, which my predecessors of all political parties have followed. I cannot undertake, nor do I think the House would desire me to undertake what is in the nature of a general censorship of broadcasts of this kind. I would much sooner emphasise the responsibility of the governors of the corporation in this respect.

In regard to this particular broadcast, my two hon. Friends take different views. Just as in Government Departments, mistakes may be made from time to time. I suggest to my hon. Friend, who has put his complaint and his point of view, as he had a right to do, that it is necessary to rely upon the responsibility of the Governors in this respect. He has asked me a question as to my own position and powers in the matter. It is true that the Postmaster-General has a right of veto on broadcasts but as far as I am aware no former Postmaster-General has ever exercised that veto and it would be a very important and extreme case in which that course would be necessary. That is one of the powers I have. With regard to broadcasts that have taken place, my practice in regard to the statements which the hon. Gentleman has made and to other communications I have received, both for and against particular broadcasts, has been to draw the attention of the Governors to the communications I have received. I propose to continue that practice. The Charter of the British Broadcasting Corporation has another two years to run and obviously before that time expires the House will have an opportunity of reviewing the whole position and of considering whether any improvements can be made in the organisation and in the terms which Parliament has laid down.

I hope—and I think the hon. Member would agree—that having put his point of view on this particular broadcast and having brought to the notice of the Governors the importance of the question, his object has been achieved. I am sure too that the Governors will continue to do their utmost to do what is impartial and right. I would equally emphasise that from my own point of view and I think from the point of view of the great majority of the House, it is best to allow the selection of speakers and the subjects which are to be broadcast to be left to those on whom Parliament has laid a very considerable and onerous responsibility.

It is at least evidence of the impartiality of the directors of the British Broadcasting Corporation that from time to time during the three years I have been Postmaster-General I have received vehement protests from hon. Gentlemen sitting opposite, and on other occasions equally indignant repudiations of what has been done from my hon. Friends on this side of the House. I hope the House will at any rate feel that it is a very difficult and onerous task which the Corporation are carrying out, and I hope the House will also feel that not only are they carrying it out to the best of their ability but are doing so with singular success.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.