HC Deb 06 April 1939 vol 345 cc3088-96

2.33 p.m.

Mr. Dingle Foot

I wish to raise a matter which was before the House at Question Time yesterday, namely, the issue to the Press on Tuesday evening of a "D" notice requesting it to refrain from publishing a speech made by the First Lord of the Admiralty on board the "Ark Royal." Before I say what I have to say, I should like to acknowledge the courtesy of the Prime Minister in being present this afternoon to deal with the matter. My hon. Friends and I thought that this was a proper subject to raise in the Adjournment Debate. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not from any wish to add to his burdens at the present time.

As the whole House knows, the First Lord made a somewhat startling speech on Tuesday evening. I am not now concerned to discuss whether it was well advised or not; in any case that is a matter on which the House, I think, has already made up its mind; but I am concerned with what followed. Hon. Members will have seen in this morning's papers a statement by a Mr. Wulf, the Press Association reporter of the speech, in which he says he was expressly informed on behalf of the First Lord that the First Lord had no objection whatever to his remarks being published; and the report of the speech, as we know, was actually included in the Empire news bulletin of the B.B.C.

That report, I understand, reached London newspaper offices at about 930 in the evening. About an hour and a half later, the Press was requested not to publish the speech, and was told to regard this matter as covered by a D notice. We know now that this request was made by the direction of the Prime Minister. I do not think this incident should be allowed to pass without some comment from this House. A D notice is a notice issued to the Press about matters the publication of which would not be in the national interest. The term "national interest" has always been narrowly construed. In the past, I think I am right in saying, D notices have almost exclusively been applied to confidential information affecting the Services. I am informed that when such a notice is issued the Press take it that the matter is an official secret. In the past, the Press has faithfully carried out requests that have been made to it in this form, but it must be obvious that the greatest discretion must be used in issuing notices of this kind. If they are to be issued in all sorts of circumstances, to prevent the publication of matters that are not confidential, one of two things must happen: either the Press must make up its mind to ignore those notices, or this system is bound to constitute a form of unofficial censorship. I want to quote one passage from the reply given yesterday by the Prime Minister: Since it seemed to me likely to be treated, as in fact it has been treated, as a sensational matter, whereas there was no reason or foundation for any sensation, I gave directions that the Press should be asked not to publish the account of the First Lord's speech, or, if they did publish it, not to ascribe to it any particular importance. Apparently my efforts to spare the public unnecessary agitation were not altogether successful."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th April, 1939; col. 2795, Vol. 345.] I feel that that passage was singularly unfortunate. This was nothing in the nature of an official secret. It was not information which it was necessary to withhold from the public in the sense that we wanted to keep it from an alien enemy. It was to be withheld, we understand, because it seemed likely to the Prime Minister that it would be treated as a sensational matter. I have no doubt that it was not intended, but these words come perilously near to the attitude of a Government censor. The Press was to be asked not to publish this speech, not because it contained confidential information, but because the Prime Minister considered its publication undesirable on general grounds, and because he desired to spare the public unnecessary agitation.

If D notices are to be issued on these grounds the possibilities are obvious. There no doubt will be many occasions in future when Ministers will be anxious to spare the public unnecessary agitation. The House will recollect how, in a recent Debate, we discussed what happened at the time of the Hoare-Laval plan, when it was said that British correspondents who knew of the existence of the plan were asked not to publish it in the Press. No doubt there was a desire at that time to spare the public unnecessary agitation. I do not know when the Prime Minister last took down his copy of "Areopagitica." If he has done so recently, he will no doubt remember this passage, which seems to have some bearing on the situation: Nor is it to the common people less a reproach if we are so jealous for them that we dare not trust them with an English pamphlet. What do we then but censure them for a giddy, vicious and ungrounded people, in such a weak state of faith and discretion as to be able to take nothing down except through the type of licenser. In these days, I think it is true to say that we are more or less hardened to shocks, and our nerves are not really so frayed that we are not able to bear the contents of a speech from the First Lord. The Prime Minister has, as I have said, a great many burdens to bear at the present time, and none of us would like to add to those burdens the task of deciding what would cause us too much of a shock over the breakfast table. This is the first time a D notice has been used in order to avoid the publication of a Ministerial indiscretion. It is not the first time recently that somewhat questionable use has been made of that machinery. There was a recent occasion when a D notice was issued to the Press, asking them not to publish the news of certain troop movements from Lichfield to London until it had been made public by the Secretary for War. It was assumed that that meant an official statement in this House, and a great many people connected with the Press were surprised when the found that the statement in respect of which no publication was permitted was made by the right hon. Gentleman at a city luncheon at the Guildhall.

The importance of the matter, as I see it, is this. We have a free Press, subject to no kind of censorship, and we regard it not as a source of weakness to the State, but as a source of strength. But it is generally known that in certain other parts of the world they are inclined to have their doubts as to the freedom of the Press in this country. In totalitarian States, for instance, they seem to think that there is in the Government some power to restrain what shall appear in the Press, and even in the United States there are some people who are inclined to think that the silence of the Press on certain occasions—notably as regards the events that led up to the Abdication—is due to some kind of official veto. Everybody in this House knows that there is no truth in those suspicions, but it would be unfortunate if the impression were allowed to prevail in totalitarian countries, or in any other part of the world, that what appears in the Press appears in any way by leave or licence of His Majesty's Government. If we have these D notices, if we have this kind of machinery used for this kind of purpose, that is the impression we shall most certainly create. There was one other passage in the Prime Minister's reply to which I should like to refer. In answer to a supplementary question, he said: It was because I thought the words as reported would give a wrong impression that I thought it was desirable to make that request to the Press."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th April, 1939; col. 2797, Vol. 345.] There, again, it seems to me that that particular expression was rather unfortunate, particularly the use of the words "as reported." It has been stated in the message to the Press to which I have referred, and which appears in the newspapers this morning, that the words were reported just as they were used by the First Lord. I am sure it was not intended to cast any slight on the way the speech was reported, but that is the inference which might be drawn from the way in which the reply was framed.

2.44 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson

I understand the Prime Minister has an important appointment and has to leave the House in a few minutes, so I will not take up much time. Nor do I propose to discuss the speech itself, which was delivered by the First Lord of the Admiralty. It was, I think the whole House will agree, a Ministerial indiscretion, and I do not think the House will expect the Prime Minister to accept any personal responsibility for what the First Lord said. Therefore, I, for one, do not propose to take up any time in dealing with it. But I would like to associate myself with the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot). It is the method which was adopted to deal with this matter to which certain exceptions can be taken, and, even so, I, for one, realise the position in which the Prime Minister must have found himself two nights ago. and it is always easy to be wise after the event. But a question of principle arises out of this proceeding. I am informed that in most newspaper offices it is accepted that to ignore Form D is to lay the offender open to possible proceedings under the Official Secrets Act. Whether that be so or not, I understand that that is the view which is commonly held in the newspaper world. I do not express any view as to whether that is correct, except to say that everything would depend upon the facts of the particular case.

I cannot conceive that it can be argued in this case that there was or would have been any breach of the Official Secrets Act if a newspaper had published the remarks attributed to the First Lord, more especially having regard to the fact that the First Lord himself, according to some newspaper reports, made a special request that his speech should be reported. Apart altogether from the legal aspect of the case, I doubt whether any Members of this House would object in principle to such a request being made. There might be many occasions when it would be essential in the interests of the State that the Government, no matter of what complexion, should make a request to the newspapers not to publish particular statements, but that, I think, is the greater reason for restricting such appeals to cases of vital importance from the point of view of the public interest. Otherwise there is a real danger not so much of interfering with the liberties of the Press, but of appearing to interfere with the liberties of the Press. If I may use the analogy of the law, it is always considered that judges should not only administer the law, but that they should appear to be administering the law.

As my hon. Friend has said, already in the United States of America there appears to be a widespread impression that our newspapers are in some measure under the direct control of the Government. We in this House know that that is not so, but that such suspicions should be aroused is a matter of regret to be deplored by the Press as well as by the public. I do not suggest that the Prime Minister had any idea that form D would be used—he made his position plain in his reply yesterday—but I think that the use of form D in this case was a mistake and that an explanatory communique should have been issued by the Admiralty, which, in my submission, would have been quite sufficient.

It is to be hoped that steps will be taken hereafter that form D will in future be sparingly used, so that our country will not lose its reputation for maintaining a free Press. I agree that at the same time there is an equal responsibility upon the Press to have some sense of proportion, and not to issue some of the captions and notices that they do which are tendentious in their nature, but, even so, it is much more important that we in this country should maintain in these days, when freedom and liberty are menaced in all parts of the world, the priceless boon of a free and independent Press.

2.50 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher

I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether, when he arranged for the D message to be sent to the Press he arranged that such a message should be sent to the "Daily Worker"? I would also like to draw the attention of the Prime Minister to the fact that any effort in the direction of trying to prevent the Press from publishing a Ministerial statement of that character would be abolutely useless, because the "Daily Worker" would never in any circumstances accept such a suggestion or such an instruction.

Mr. Gurney Braithwaite

Or publisher.

Mr. Gallacher

I can assure the Prime Minister that it would be an absolute waste of effort trying to prevent the "Daily Worker" ever publishing Ministerial indiscretions or anything that in any way would embarrass the Government. The "Daily Worker" will guarantee that it gets full publicity.

Mr. Braithwaite

What is its circulation?

Mr. Gallacher

The circulation is not the important matter. The fact that it appears in one paper makes it essential that it will appear in the other papers.

Mr. Braithwaite

It depends who reads it.

Mr. Gallacher

I would, therefore, ask the Prime Minister whether he committed the more glaring indiscretion of trying to get the "Daily Worker" to assist him in suppressing the indiscretion of one of his Ministers?

2.52 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

The hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) began by making a very courteous reference to myself for which I am much obliged to him. I would like to say that, so far from making any complaint of having to appear here again to say a few words on this subject, I welcome the opportunity of supplementing what I said before. The hon. Member mentioned three definite points in the course of his speech, one of which was emphasised by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson). The first, and perhaps the most important point, was the question of the issue of the D notice, the second was the propriety of my action in interfering at all, and the third was my use of the words "as reported" in answer to a supplementary question. As to the last one—and perhaps I may deal with it first as it is a small matter—the words were used, as the hon. Member observed, in answer to a supplementary question, and, therefore, they were not considered words, but they did give rise, I think, to a natural misunderstanding.

Let me remind the House of the circumstances under which I heard of this case. I was at a dinner at the Foreign Office which was given to the Polish Foreign Minister, and it was after dinner, and while I was engaged in conversation, that news was brought to me that the First Lord of the Admiralty had made certain observations which had given rise to a great deal of comment and some commotion. When I said "as reported," I meant as reported to me at that dinner. I did not mean as reported by the reporter. It was the last thing that would occur to me to challenge the accuracy of the report. I know how extremely competent these gentlemen are who report these things, and it was not in my mind, and certainly I know it was not in the mind of my Noble Friend the First Lord, to challenge in any way the accuracy of the report which was made. So much for that.

As regards the use of the D notice which has been raised, the hon. and learned Gentleman said that he did not suppose that I had been responsible for that notice. That is quite right. All I did was to give the general directions which I reported to the House, but it was clear that if those directions were to be effective they must be carried out quickly, and I suppose that it was thought that the use of this phrase—not exactly a D notice but that the message should be treated as a D notice—not perhaps a very great distinction—was thought to be the quickest way of conveying what was required. At the same time, I should like to say that the D notice has been reserved, broadly speaking for special occasions, for movements of troops, for questions of armaments or matters of secrecy in connection with military or arms questions which it is not desirable in the public interest to put into a paper. I regret that on this occasion that technical phrase was used. It was a mistake, but perhaps an excusable mistake in the circumstances. It must not be thought that there is any intention to misuse the D notice because, as has been pointed out, the D notice, if it is to be observed, as it has always been loyally observed by the Press, must not be used for purposes for which it was not intended. I think the House may take it that better care will be exercised in the future to prevent that being done.

The next question is whether I was right or wrong in what I did. Let me explain that a little bit further. What were the considerations that were in my mind? We must remember that we are in a condition of affairs where a certain tension does exist. The statement of the First Lord, as reported to me at this dinner, appeared to me to be likely to convey the impression to the public, and perhaps not only to the public in this country, that we were actually at that moment expecting some surprise attack upon our ships. I knew there was no foundation for any such supposition, and it was because I was anxious that that impression should not be conveyed to the public anywhere that I thought it was desirable, if it were possible, either not to report the words, or, if it was too late to stop them, that, at any rate, the words should not be given that interpretation which seemed to me might reasonably be given to them, when in fact there was no foundation for it. That was the justification for what I did. Hon. Members may still think I was mistaken in taking the action I did, but one has to make up one's mind quickly at times, and, looking back upon the circumstances I think that if they were repeated I should do the same thing again. That is all that I can say.

Mr. Mander

May I ask the Prime Minister to deal with one question? Why was the D notice on this occasion which is most unusual, sent to representatives of the foreign Press as well as members of the British Press?

The Prime Minister

I mentioned that the D notice was not issued, but the request was made that it should be treated as though it were a D notice. I imagine that it was thought that this was the best way of dealing with a very urgent case, and of emphasising the desirability of complying with the request, and nothing more than that. That does not alter what I have said as to the object of my action.

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