HC Deb 28 July 1939 vol 350 cc1870-81

Again considered in Committee.

[Sir DENNIS HERBERT in the Chair.]

Question again proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £40,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1940, for the salaries and expenses of the office of His Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department and subordinate offices, liquidation expenses of the Royal Irish Constabulary, contributions towards the expenses of Probation and preparation of plans for a Ministry of Information.

1.19 p.m.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas

I should like to join the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) in thanking the Home Secretary for his very clear statement on the publicity machinery, both for peace-time and in time of war. I should like to add my support for this grant to the foreign publicity department and the British Council. The only question in my mind is whether in view of the expenditure of foreign countries on their propaganda, this amount is adequate. But the important feature of these new departments, is that they stand in peace-time for publicity rather than for propaganda, and that they send out not blatant, strident propaganda, but news, simply and soberly presented. They are infinitely more likely in this form to impress listeners with the truth of their statements and to get past the ban of foreign censors. The function of propaganda is to state a case, whether it is true or false. It is, therefore, suspect. Publicity states the truth, and we in this country are to-day in a position to standon our merits and our own achievements. We have, indeed, hidden these achievements far too long, and there is genuine relief, both in this House and in the country, that our self-denying ordinance is coming to an end, and that we are at least breaking through our barriers of aloofness and modesty. I must confess that there was a time when I had hoped for a full-blown Ministry of Propaganda and that I was at first disappointed with the setting up of this foreign publicity department, which seemed to be half-measure. But I have changed my mind, and I realise that there are many advantages in having this new department responsible, in peacetime, to the Foreign Office and to the Foreign Secretary.

Some of us on these Benches have had very real differences with the Government on foreign policy during the past 18 months, but, having heard the Foreign Secretary's broadcast speech a few weeks ago, we can be certain now that any publicity for which he accepts responsibility will be a logical, dignified and accurate presentation of the British point of view. I was fortunate enough to work for a time at the Foreign Office and to watch especially the Press Department. It is a relief to feel that this new publicity department has from its beginning been in a position to benefit from the skill and experience of that Press Department. All Government offices have now, I believe, their own Press services, but the Press department of the Foreign Office is the pioneer, and is second to none in its experience and knowledge of handling both news and news correspondents. Its staff when I was at the Foreign Office was small and cruelly overworked, but one had only to go to Geneva or to conferences abroad and meet the Pressmen of the world to realise how great its influence was and inwhat respect it was held. This was because it stuck to straightforward news, and never sank to propaganda. For this reason, I am glad this new publicity department is to work under the wing of the Foreign Office, for one can be sure that the same high standards will be maintained. If there was a weakness in the Press Department of the Foreign Office it was that, through no fault of its own, there was a certain lack of contact between that Office and other Whitehall Departments. The new Department should have an opportunity of eliminating this fault, because we have this central body for co-ordination, to which I think all the other Departments will more readily come with news of their achievements to be passed on to the world. Above all, there will bethe reports for the Service Departments of their achievements in increasing armaments and man-power. These can now go out marshalled and co-ordinated not only to foreign countries, but to our own diplomats abroad.

I think that sometimes we look upon diplomacy in too narrow a sense. It should be as wide as possible. Our Embassies and Legations abroad should not be in a position only to negotiate treaties, but they should be armed with the latest facts and achievements of all Government Departments, in their own country so that they may speak for us with the conviction of knowledge. The British Council has already done a great deal of invaluable work in that direction, and it is now to be reinforced by this foreign publicity department. Both these bodies are vital links in our defence chain. Just as in the past we have allowed our rearmament to dwindle on sea and land and in the air, so we have neglected this vital armament of publishing effectively to the world our intentions and our achievements. I for one feel—and I believe that hon. Members on all sides of the Committee feel the same—that we shall support this Supplementary Estimate more gladly to-day because we believe that both these new departments are indispensable weapons in our fight for peace.

1.27 p.m.

Sir R. Acland

On behalf of my hon. Friends who normally sit on this bench, I would like to offer the Government our good wishes in the task which they are now undertaking in attempting, in a businesslike way, to combat the foreign propaganda which has battered against the reputation of this country for some time past. I should like to make a few observations on my behalf and that of my hon. and right hon. Friends. Let us be certain that the information and propaganda to be sent out is truly national, and is in no sense purely Government as distinct from national, and also, that the information is set out by competent persons. These things can be grouped together in what I have to say. Everybody wants to be certain that this information comes from a team of people who are represenatives of all shades of opinion in this country, and not from a team of people all of whom take the Government view. That objective can be achieved very largely in the staffing of the Department. Frankly, it is a little disappointing to us to see, on page 15 of the Estimates, as far as we are able to see it, that all the people who have been appointed up till now are civil servants.

This takes me on to the other point I wish to make, namely, that the work should be done competently. This is a job of disseminating news, and I submit that not all, but, at any rate, some of the people who are engaged in this work should be those who have made it their trade and business and their occupation to disseminate news, namely, influential journalists. As this Department, when it is developed, will have the function of dealing with journalists all over the world, it will be a very good thing if the Civil Servants involved begin at once, right in this skeleton stage, to become accustomed to the way in which journalists set about their task and to the nature of the journalist's mind by being set to work with one or more well known journalists as equals.

Sir Edmund Findlay

Can anyone equal journalists?

Sir R. Acland

Probably not. This is the particular sphere of work which appears to be largely the sphere of work that this Department will have to pursue. I see that there are to be three administrative officers at the top, one of whom at the moment is on loan from the Post Office, and the other two are on loan from the Customs and Excise Department. Would it be possible, perhaps to repay the loan which has been made from the Customs and Excise Department at a very early date without offending anybody, and to fill one of these three places by "the appointment of a journalist? Also, I think that to use a certain number of journalists inside the organisation which has already been set up would help to give assurance to the whole country and to the world that this is not exclusively a Government Department. We want it to be a Department in which everybody has real trust, and I am thinking of an organisation in which, on the whole, the country does have real trust, namely, the Board of Directors of the B.B.C. People have trust in that organisation because it represents all political points of view, and many others. Would not it be possible to take into this organisation several journalists of whom at least one should be representative of a point of view which is not strictly the Government point of view? If that could be done, the country would have more confidence in it, and it would go a long way to defeat any foreigner who might say that the information given out by this Department was not the real information of the state of opinion abroad as a whole, but was simply dope which the Government Departments wanted to put out.

That leads me to the question of what is to be the relation between this new Department and the Press in this country not in time of war, because we understand what would be the relation in time of war. We understand it and we regret it, but we admit that it must be so. No country has ever conducted a war without exercising a great deal of Government control over the Press. There were two answers given by the Prime Minister on 15th June which I would like the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to consider, and, if he can, to explain because at first glance they seem to be contradictory. Perhaps I may draw the attention of the Under-Secretary to them. The Prime Minister said: With regard to the peace-time publicity which I have described … there will be no interference with the Press in this country by the Department. Later on the Prime Minister was asked by the Deputy-Leader of the Opposition: Is it the intention, in establishing this nucleus of a Department, that whoever may be the titular head of it shall be effectively supported by competent and experienced journalists who understand sound publicity? This is more or less the point which I have been putting. The Prime Minister replied: I do not think it is necessary to associate journalists directly with a Department of the Foreign Office. Of course, there must be"— I understand that this did not refer merely to war — intimate touch between the Department and the journalistic profession."—[OFFICIAL REPORT: 15th June, 1939; cols. 1507–8; Vol. 348.] I would point out that there is a slight contradiction between these two answers. In one the Prime Minister says that there will be no interference with the Press by the Department—

Sir E. Findlay

The question that the hon. Baronet is raising is a very important one, and there are very few members in the House.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present: Committee counted, and 40 Members being present

Sir R. Acland

When the count was called I was pointing out that in one answer the Prime Minister said that there would be no interference with the Press by the Department, and in the other he said that there must be an intimate touch between the Department and the journalistic profession. That leads me to ask the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs what exactly is the relationship between the Department and the Press in peace time, and particularly may I ask whether in time of peace there will be any alteration whatever in the way the press obtains its information from Government Departments? May we take it that there will be no suggestion that when a Pressman goes to the Foreign Office, or the Colonial Office or any other Department in future, he will be told "You must not come to us for information; you must go to the Ministry of Information. You will get the information there."?

The next point that I wish to raise is one that I should have liked to put when the Home Secretary was here. That may seem disrespectful to the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who is now present, but I assume that when we are dealing with the way this Department works in the foreign field, the Foreign Office will deal with our questions—the Foreign Secretary in the House of Lords and the Under-Secretary here, or, if it is a question of tremendous importance, the Prime Minister. When we raise questions as to the development of this department in home affairs, I wonder whether we can receive an answer from the Home Secretary, who is the Cabinet Minister responsible for piloting these Estimates through the Committee to-day. The Under-Secretary will appreciate that immensely important questions may arise, and if there are any suspicions in the minds of hon. Members it would be an advantage if we could address Questions to the Home Secretary.

The last question that I should like to raise is that everything should be done to impress upon our Ambassadors and staffs abroad the importance of keeping very vigilant and close contact with people in those countries. There was a letter in the "Times" on 8th July about the Royal visit to Canada and the United States. I do not know whether that letter represents anything that is substantially true, but it is there stated by someone who was in America that the whole of the preliminary information about the Royal tour was making no effect whatever upon American opinion, until, with a complete disregard for precedent, the British Ambassador called a Press conference and offered himself to be shot at by the Press, which must be a very formidable thing in America. As a result, the immediate effect was almost miraculous, and the information became immensely popular from one side of America to the other. If that be so, it would be useful if we could circulate a minute or a note to the Ambassadors drawing attention to this initiative of the Ambassador in Washington and advising the Ambassadors that, as times are changing and new methods are being used by different countries, it would be useful to copy the example of our Ambassador at Washington when they thought fit.

There is an item in the Estimates which was not sufficiently explained in the opening speech, namely, £10,000 for the preparation of posters. I realise that when you start introducing posters £10,000 goes a very small way; but £10,000 for preparing posters seems to me to be a very large sum of money, and I would ask the Under-Secretary whether he can give us a little further information as to what these regulations really amount to. I gather that the posters have not been made yet and that the Estimate was put down so that the preparations can be made in the next few months. Would the Under-Secretary consider inviting such Members of Parliament of all parties as might be interested in the matter, to see the posters. We have been shown private things at aerodromes and the Army showed us some of their preparations. Could there not be an expedition so that we might have a look at some of the posters when they have gone so far forward as to be inspected?

Another matter to which I should like to refer has been fully and bravely dealt with by the right hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison). I support him in saying that our propaganda should be put over bravely. Let us have no more of this sort of propaganda to the German people—" You dear German people, do believe that we are not trying to encircle you. "Let us say" Yes we are encircling you because your leader has said that the objects for him are either world domination or nothing, and because 4,000,000,000 inhabitants of the world flatly refuse to be dominated by 80,000,000 Germans." There is one further point on which the Home Secretary did his best to satisfy us but he has not quite done so, and I would ask the Under-Secretary whether he can satisfy us. I refer to the question whether this Ministry of Information is to be used in this country in time of war, and at no other time except the time of war. There was a sentence in the Prime Minister's statement which makes me a little bit anxious. He spoke about the Ministry of Information operating in war time, and went on to say that in peace conditions there would only exist a skeleton organisation, without which certain action would be impossible if emergency arose. You can take that as meaning that swift action will be possible if an emergency arises. But "emergency" is rather an indefinite word. It has been used over and over again by Ministers as being synonymous with war, but it is also capable of meaning something like what happened last September.

I noticed that the Home Secretary said that there is no intention of operating this Ministry of Information at all in peace time. The first comment I make is on the use of the words "there is no intention," and I wonder whether the Under-Secretary will go a little further and frame his assurance along other lines and give us a pledge that they will not. The other comment I have to make is on the use of the words "in peace time." It is difficult to define an indirect aggressor, and it is becoming equally difficult to define "peace time." Indeed, we have had a definite assurance from the Prime Minister, as a part of his justification for changing not his intention but his pledge, that even now it is not peace time. Therefore, if the Under-Secretary wants to satisfy our doubt he will have to go a little further and say that there is no intention of operating the Ministry of Information at all in peace time; he should give us a pledge and make it a pledge to the Opposition.

I always thought that pledges were made to the Opposition, but the Prime Minister has treated it as a pledge to the whole House, from which a majority of the whole House who are his sup porters can absolve him. I submit that in this case he should make it a pledge to the Opposition that the Ministry of In formation shall not be used at all except in time of war. And that is difficult to define. War is not declared in these days: it just happens, and I sub mit that the definition of war must be a time when our citizens are actually en gaged in killing and are being killed. If that is not the definition of war one could imagine it to be a time when troops are moving, or the mobilisation of the British Fleet, in which case there would have been a state of war last September and all these powers could have been brought in. That seems to me to be a terrible thing, and unless the Government can give a pledge to the Opposition that these powers and this Ministry of Information are not to be put into operation except when you come to the point of war, in the sense that the guns are going off —

Mr. Bracken

There is nothing about these powers in the Bill.

Sir R. Acland

The Bill is to set up an organisation without which swift action would be impossible. You can read that as if swift action will be possible in an emergency. It would mean the calling of this House and the passing by a majority of this House of a short Act giving the Ministry powers because the Navy had been mobilised. That is a definition of an emergency which we fear and we ask to be assured that there is no question of anything like that happening in order that we may be able to give wholehearted support to the Government in their declared purpose of combating foreign propaganda so far as it may be possible.

1.50 p.m.

Mr. Loftus

The hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) in the latter part of his speech entered into the labyrinth of a rather difficult attempt to define when a war is a war and when it is not. I listened to him with great interest, but it gave rise to a reflection in my own mind in regard to the new technique of war, the great advantage of having no declaration of war so that the American Neutrality Act does not come into force and you can buy all the munitions you require. I only intervene in this interesting Debate really to stress one point. We are discussing various methods of diffusing information, of propaganda, in peace and war. There is one comment I should like to make on the actual machinery of diffusion. I have had recent' information from one big city in the German Reich where a friend of mine has been living for some months. He told me that the well-to-do people, the rich people, listened to the B.B.C. propaganda every day but their employés, their clerks, who try to listen to the new service of the B.B.C., cannot do so because the lack of power of the transmission requires an expensive reception instrument which they cannot afford. I suggest that that is a point worth consideration and investigation.

In the Debate stress has been laid by the right hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) on the necessity in our propaganda services for dealing with British culture and explaining the British outlook. It is true that the right hon. Gentleman said that he hated the word "culture"; many of us do so, but I do think we want to diffuse the British attitude towards life and the views we hold as a nation and a people, regardless of party differences. We want to impress upon foreign nations that we are above all a tolerant people and have an immense respect for the individual. We must emphasise that in all our propaganda, and point our that this respect for the individual is the basis of our tolerance and love of compromise, which incidentally makes for the working of the British constitutional machine. There is one thing we should point out on a matter on which we are often criticised by foreigners, namely, that the regard we show for conscientious objectors is typical of our attitude to life, an extreme and most valuable regard for the individual, which is the centre of our culture, if we must use that word.

The second observation I want to make as regards a service of information abroad is that it is right, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney said, that we should give a confident and bold expression to British war preparations. I agree with the hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) that we should put over that propaganda bravely. We should stress the enormous daily increase in our strength and power to defend ourselves and to defend others. But while doing that, there are one or two other aspects which the dissemination of information should contain. First, it is essential that, not once but constantly, we should emphasise that the peace front which we are successfully attempting to build up is not a mere instrument—and will not be used merely as an instrument—for the permanent maintenance of the status quo. If we could convey that impression, it would have an excellent effect in certain countries, and to name one country in particular, I would mention Bulgaria.

Mr. Crossley

May I express my opinion that it would have a most damnable effect everywhere?

Mr. Benn

On a point of Order, Sir Lambert. Is the word "damnable" a Parliamentary word? Perhaps we may have a Ruling on that, in order to brighten our Debates if we can.

Mr. Crossley

Further to the point of Order. Is it not a word which appears quite frequently in the Bible?

The Temporary-Chairman (Lieut.-Colonel Sir A. Lambert Ward)

The word "damned" would not be in Order, but in these circumstances, I think the word "damnable" is.

Mr. Crossley

It means condemnable.

Mr. Loftus

My hon. Friend thinks that my remarks are condemnable. I disagree with him. I ask him to discuss with any responsible Bulgarian whether those remarks are condemnable. A further point that I want to make is this. We are preparing for the possibility of war, and in that preparation, we are using an immense concentration of energy and effort. We are making an intellectual effort in peace time to adapt ourselves to war conditions. It is right that that should be done, and it is right that all foreign nations should realise how successfully we are doing it; but I feel that while we continue to take up that attitude, quite rightly and while we stress our preparedness, strength and determination, we should also continue in our propaganda to express our readiness to make every effort to plan for the possibility of peace, and our readiness to examine new ideas, and to utilise them if possible, for planning for peace, in the same spirit as we are prepared to accept new ideas in planning for war. I recognise, of course, that any such propaganda would be on dangerous ground, but I think the danger should be risked. I know that it is impossible to go into details, but I suggest that in our propaganda we should define our general attitude and also the general principles upon which we are prepared to work for the establishment of peace on a secure foundation. I suggest that we should lay down that any settlement for peace will not be a continuance of the white war in the region of economics, finance and trade. We should lay down that we realise the economic strains from which countries such as Japan and Italy are suffering, and that while we wholeheartedly condemn the methods they are using to-day, we recognise that in any settlement for peace we should have to make full allowance for those economic strains.

Finally, I think our propaganda should stress that while preparing for war, while working for peace, we recognise that it is futile to talk of any settlement for peace or to have any discussions for peace unless we are prepared to recognise that any peace combined with disarmament— for any peace worth the name must be combined with disarmament—must not involve, in this country or in any other country, a colossal problem of unemployment, and that it is the duty of Great Britain to make clear throughout the world that we recognise that it is our duty to give a lead, in co-operation with other nations, to ensure that the transition from war employment to peace employment will be made without straining the social fabric.

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