HC Deb 13 December 1938 vol 342 cc1806-12
Captain Ramsay

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Companies Act, 1929, with respect to the holding of shares in news agencies. newspapers, and periodicals. The relevant words are that in the case of news agencies, newspapers and periodicals, it shall be illegal for shares of any description to be registered in the names of nominees or otherwise than in the names of the actual shareholders, and there is a penalty attached of not less than £10 for every £1 share incorrectly registered thereafter. The object of this Bill is to prevent the manipulation and control of "news" for their own ends—I make no charges, but the Bill is to eliminate the risk, if there be one—by big finance, whether the group consists of British, foreign or international financiers.

I have been asked why the Bill is not more widely drawn and made applicable to all companies. The answer, in the first place, is that it is not intended to be discriminatory in any shape or form. Secondly, a precedent for this form of legislation already exists. It is an accepted principle that leaflets and pamphlets tending to influence and shape public opinion shall be traceable to their source, and if that principle applies to leaflets and pamphlets, how much more should it apply to our big daily newspapers and news agencies. Influencing public opinion cannot be done more effectually than by carefully editing the news, by selection, distortion, concealment or emphasis. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I make no charges but it is for this reason, because of this especial danger and because of the existing precedent that news agencies, newspapers and periodicals only are mentioned in this Bill.

In order to get some idea for the purpose of conveying it to the House as to whether there was any reasonable ground for suspicion that this kind of manipulation might be going on, I had the figures of the shareholdings of three news agencies looked up at Somerset House. I find that Reuters has an issue of £75,000 worth of share capital only, and £74,000 worth are held by the Press Association. The Press Association has an issue in£10 shares of 9,888 shares. They are held in numbers of blocks of 96 shares by various papers and combines and no holding thereafter is above 50 shares. Only one big block—over 10 per cent. of the whole issue of capital-is held by a company which calls itself the Press Association Share Purchase Company, which has a capital of only £100 with only seven £1 shares issued. There is one other agency, the Central News, which has an issue of 1,000 £20 shares or £20,000 capital, and 788 of these 1,000 shares are held in the names of two men. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who are they?"] They are bank officials and we cannot tell whom they represent. Of those shares, 592 were bought from New York in December last year and 200 were bought from another person in New York on the same date.

Again, without making any charges, I suggest to this House that these people who are only represented in the shareholding have the control. No matter who the directors may be, they have to do what they are told by those who have the money. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I assure my hon. Friends opposite that the public interests of this country in independent undiluted and unbiased news are as jealously guarded on this side of the House as on theirs, and the proof of it is that I am moving this Motion; nobody can attribute any Left views to me. May I repeat that this Bill is riot discriminatory in any way. It is confined to the report of the news in its various forms because the mishandling of news can be used in two ways both gravely affecting the public welfare—financial and political. We know that Consols fell to something like 55 during the crisis and have since recovered to about 74. Who could have made money out of that except the people who had the first news, and more especially who knew that bad news was about to be changed to goodnews? Secondly, it could be used for political ends. It could be used to thrust this country into a war. The British public have the right to know who controls this presentation of news and what influences are at work behind it. It is to achieve that end that this Bill is directed.

Mr. Storey

As I happen to be chairman of the principal home news agency and a director of the principal overseas and foreign news agency of this country, it may be convenient for the House if I state what are the facts of the ownership of British news agencies, because I am sure that the House will, when they know the facts, agree that my hon. and gallant Friend's proposals would be a piece of discriminatory legislation for which there is no justification. There are only four British news agencies—the Central News, the Exchange Telegraph, the Press Association and Reuters, and, of these, the Central News is the only one which might justifiably arouse the curiosity of my hon. and gallant Friend as to the ultimate responsibility for the control of its shares, because, as he pointed out, the controlling shares are registered in the names of bank nominees. I am not at liberty to disclose the identity of the owners of those shares, but I can tell the House what is an open secret, that, recently, control was purchased by a group of persons interested in news agency work who were determined, though at heavy cost to themselves, that control of that British news agency should be regained from foreign hands, and that it should be saved from falling into the hands of any foreign news agency which might use it for the purpose of dumping news with a foreign bias into the British market, under the cover of British ownership. With the Exchange Telegraph, I need not take up the time of the House. It is an ordinary commercial company, and the ownership of its shares, and the identity of its shareholders, are clear.

I now come to the Press Association and Reuters. Here the facts are no secret, and have been many times clearly stated in public. They are that the control of both agencies is vested in the provincial newspapers of this country, which I claim, without fear of contradiction, represent the best traditions of British journalism. The business is run on a non-profit making basis, and the shares are held on terms which make it impossible for any individual to gain control which might be used for the furtherance of personal or political ends. The directors are all men of practical experience and proved ability in the industry. They are appointed on a demo

cratic basis, and, as directors they exercise full and unfettered responsibility for their actions. The present board includes men who are engaged in the production of such newspapers as the "Yorkshire Post," the "Manchester Guardian," the "Glasgow Herald," the "Belfast News-Letter" and the "Sheffield Telegraph," all papers of distinction but having such divergence of political views that their representatives could hardly co-operate in the production of news except of a strictly impartial character.

My hon. and gallant Friend raised the question of the Press Association Share Purchase Company. There need be no mystery about it. It plays no part whatever in the control of the Press Association, and owes its existence solely to the desire to prevent shares held by papers which cease publication, from falling into the hands of outside interests. Its business consists solely of the purchase of shares from papers which have ceased publication and selling them off when opportunity offers, to new newspapers which desire to qualify for membership of the Press Association. The facts I have stated are easily ascertainable and are, indeed, well known, and I submit that, whatever our views may be about shares being held by bank nominees, these facts provide no ground for singling out the news agencies for discriminatory legislation, I, therefore, ask the House to refuse leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Companies Act, 1929, with respect to the holding of shares in news agencies, newspapers, and periodicals.

The House divided: Ayes, 151; Noes, 104.

Division No. 17.] AYES. [4.0 p.m.
Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J. Channon, H. Errington, E.
Adamson, W. M. Clarke, Lt.-Col. R. S. (E. Grinstead) Everard, W. L.
Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.) Muse, W. S. Fildes, Sir H.
Anstruther-Gray, W. J. Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston) Fleming, E. L.
Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R Conant, Captain R. J. E. Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H.
Banfield, J. W. Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.) Fremantle, Sir F. E.
Barclay-Harvey, Sir C. M. Cooper, Rt. Hn. T. M. (E'nburgh, W.) Gardner, B. W.
Barnes, A. J. Croft, Brig.-Gan. Sir H. Page Garro Jones, G. M.
Barr, J. Crooke, Sir J. Smedley Gibson, Sir C. G. (Pudsey and Otley)
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H. Crowder, J. F. E. Goldie, N. B.
Bann, Rt. Hon. W. W. Davies, R. J. (Westhaughton) Graham, Captain A. C. (Wirral)
Blair, Sir R. De la Bère, R. Grant-Ferris, R.
Bossom, A. C. Denman, Hon. R. D. Granville, E. L.
Brooklebank, Sir Edmund Duncan, J. A. L. Grenfell, D. R.
Brooke, H. (Lewisham, W.) Edmondson, Major Sir J. Gratton, Col. Rt. Hon. J.
Buchanan, G. Edward., A. (Middlesbrough E.) Gridley, Sir A. B.
Bull, B. B. Emery, J. F. Constar, Capt. Sir D. W.
Hacking, Rt. Hon. Sir D. H. MacNeill Weir, L. Shepperson, Sir E. W.
Hall, G. H. (Aberdare) Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Shute, Colonel Sir J. J.
Hannah, I. C. Markham, S. F. Simpson, F. B.
Harbord, A. Marsden, Commander A. Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)
Heilgers, Captain F. F. A. Mathers, G. Smith, Rt. Hon. H. B. Lees (K'ly)
Henderson, T. (Tradeston) Maxwell, Hon. S. A. Smith, Sir Louis (Hallam)
Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan- Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J. Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Hepworth, J. Mills, Sir F. (Layton, E.) Southby, Commander Sir A. R. J.
Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth) Milner, Major J. Stephen, C.
Hicks, E. G. Montague, F. Stourton, Major Hon. J. J.
Higgs, W. F. Moore, Lieut.-Col. T. C. R. Sutcliffe, H.
Hope, Captain Hon. A. O. J. Morgan, J. (York, W.R., Doncaster) Taylor, Vice-Adm. E. A. (Padd., S.)
Hunloke, H. P. Morrison, G. A. (Soortish Univ's.) Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
James, Wing-Commander A. W. H. Morrison, R. G. (Tottenham, N.) Thomas, J. P. L.
Johnston, Rt. Hon. T. Munro, P. Thomson, Sir J. D. W.
Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T. Neven-Stance, Major B. H. H. Thorne, W.
Kerr, Colonel C. I. (Montrose) Paling, W. Tinker, J. J.
Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.) Parker, J. Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.
Kirby, B. V. Patrick, C. M. Wakefield, W. W.
Knox, Major-General Sir A. W. F. Pethick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. W. Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Lamb, Sir J. Q. Price, M. P. Waterhouse, Captain C.
Lambert, Rt. Hon. G. Rathbone, Elea[...]or (English Univ's.) Watt, Major G. S. Harvie
Lancaster, Captain C. G. Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin) Wedderburn, H. J. S.
Lansbury, Rt. Hon. G. Rayner, Major R. H. Wells, Sir Sydney
Lathan, G. Reid, J. S. C. (Hillhead) Wilkinson, Ellen
Leech, Sir J. W. Rickards, G. W. (Skipton) Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)
Lees-Jones, J. Riley, B. Williams, T. (Don Valley)
Leonard, W. Ritson, J. Willoughby de Eresby, Lord
Leslie, J. R. Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge) Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel G.
Levy, T. Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R. Young, A. S. L. (Particle)
Liddall, W. S. Russell, Sir Alexander
Lipson, D. L. Russell, R. J. (Eddiabery) TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Logan, D. G. Russell, S. H. M. (Darwen) Captain Ramsay and Mr.
MacAndrew, Colonel Sir C. G. Sandeman, Sir N. S. Bellenger.
Macnamara, Major J. R. J. Scott, Lord William
Adams, D. (Consett) George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke) Poole, C. C.
Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.) Gluckstein, L. H. Pownall, Lt.-Col. Sir Assheton
Adams, S. V. T. (Leeds, W.) Grattan-Doyle, Sir N. Quibell, D. J. K.
Anderson. F. (Whitehaven) Green, W. H. (Deptford) Reed, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)
Apsley, Lord Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. Richards, R. (Wrexham)
Barrie, Sir C C. Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth) Ridley, G.
Batey, J. Griffiths, J. (Llanelly) Rothschild, J. A. de
Benson, G. Grigg, Sir E. W. M. Sanders, W. S.
Bird, Sir R. B. Groves, T. E. Sandys, E. D.
Boyce, H. Leslie Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel) Schuster, Sir G. E.
Brown, C. (Mansfield) Hardie, Agnes Saxton. T. M.
Burke, W. A. Harris, Sir P. A. Shinwell, E.
Butcher, H. W. Harvey, T. E. (Eng. Univ's.) Sinclair, Rt. Hon. Sir A. (C'thn's)
Cape, T. Henderson, A. (Kingswinford) Smith, E. (Stoke)
Gartland. J. R. H. Henderson, J. (Ardwick) Smith, T. (Normanton)
Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.) Hills, A. (Pontefract) Sorensen, R. W.
Clarry, Sir Reginald Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath) Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)
Clynes, Rt. Hon. J. R. John, W. Strickland, Captain W. F.
Collindridge, F. Jones, Sir H. Haydn (Merioneth) Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.
Cook, Sir T. R. A. M. (Norfolk, N.) Kirkwood, D. Tasker, Sir R. I.
Cove, W. G. Lawson, J. J. Thurtle, E.
Cox, Trevor Leach, W. Tomlinson, G.
Critchley, A. Lindsay, K. M. Viant, S. P.
Daggar, G. Lunn, W. Watkins, F. C.
Dalton, H. Macdonald, G. (Ince) Watson, W. McL.
Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill) McGhee, H. G. Westwood, J.
Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Mender, G. le M. White, H. Graham
Dobbie, W. Marshall, F. Whiteley, W. (Blaydon)
Dower, Major A. V. G. Mason, Lt.-Col. Hon. G. K. M. Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)
Ede, J. C. Messer, F. Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)
Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty) Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest) Woods, C. S. (Finsbury)
Evans, D. O. (Cardigan) Mitchell, Sir W. Lane (Streatham) Wright, Wing-Commander J. A. C.
Foot, D. M. Peake, O.
Furness, S. N Pearson, A. TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Fyfe, D. P. M. Perkins, W. R. D. Mr. Storey and Sir Edmund
Gallacher, W. Pilkington, R. FIndiay.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Captain Ramsay, Sir Robert Rankin, Sir Charles Cayzer, Mr. Erskine Hill, Captain Alan Graham, Mr. Johnston, and Mr. Kingsley Griffith.