HC Deb 11 June 1940 vol 361 cc1231-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

8.17 p.m.

Commander Sir Archibald South by (Epsom)

On Whit Monday the British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an account of the Battle of Narvik during which impersonations of both living and dead persons were given over the air. Many people, I think, were disgusted at the unpardonably bad taste of that particular broadcast. No one could object to a broadcast of an account of the battle itself, but any attempt to reconstruct personal conversations and orders given by men who lost their lives in action is, I submit to the House, a revolting innovation which ought to be stopped at once. The widow of a gallant officer who lost his life leading this attack on Narvik wrote a letter to the "Times" which I think expresses what most of us feel. Mrs. Warburton-Lee said this: Had they told the story simply and correctly, it would have contained all the drama necessary, and no one would have listened to it with greater pride than I, but to impersonate the voices of the living and dead is unpardonable. On 16th May Mr. Val Gielgud, who signs himself "Director of Features and Drama of the B.B.C.," wrote a letter to the "Times" expressing sympathy with the feelings that prompted Mrs. Warburton-Lee to write her letter and saying that it was a matter of deep distress to the producer responsible for the programme that its effect should have been what Mrs. Warburton-Lee said that it was. Mr. Val Gielgud said in his letter that the programme was described as an "impres- sion" and not as a "reconstruction" and that no attempt had been made to reproduce the accurate dialogue either of officers or of men engaged in the action. He also said that the script was submitted to the Press division of the Admiralty and a survivor of His Majesty's Ship "Hardy," and went on to say that every excision and suggestion was immediately accepted. Anyone who read Mr. Gielgud letter in the "Times" would naturally have supposed that it contained a truthful representation of the facts and an expression of real regret on the part of the B.B.C. for the injury done to the feelings of those who heard the broadcast. Unfortunately, neither of these suppositions would have been correct.

In the first place, on page 18 of the "Radio Times" of 10th May, the programme was definitely described as "a dramatic reconstruction of a great naval feat of arms," and in two other places in the same issue the word "reconstruction" is used. If Mr. Val Gielgud does not read the "Radio Times," it is time he did. After all, he was for a short time a member of its staff. It appears, therefore, that when in his letter to the "Times" Mr. Val Gielgud said that the programme was not a "reconstruction," he was stating something which was at variance with the officially advertised programme in the B.B.C.'s own organ, the "Radio Times."

As regards his assertion that excisions and suggestions of officer survivors were immediately accepted, Paymaster-Lieutenant Stanning, a gallant officer who won imperishable fame for his conduct during the battle, felt himself obliged to write a letter to the "Times," on 17th May, in which he protested at the broadcast and stated quite categorically that whereas Mr. Val Gielgud had said that excisions and suggestions were accepted, the officer who was supposed to have made the excisions and suggestions did not confirm in conversation with him the truth of Mr. Val Gielgud's statement. Further, in his opinion as a naval officer who was present at the naval action, Paymaster-Lieutenant Stanning said that the broadcast as given was not one which would have been agreed to by any naval officer who had read the script. Further, he said that it was not correct for Mr. Val Gielgud to say that only his own name, that is, Paymaster-Lieutenant Stanning, and those of two able seamen survivors were mentioned, because the name of Chief Stoker Styles was represented as a survivor when, in fact, he had been unfortunately killed. I leave it to the House to imagine the feelings of distress which must have been caused in the minds of the relatives of Chief Stoker Styles when they heard this broadcast.

I put down a Question to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Information on 29th May regarding this broadcast, and in his reply my right hon. Friend said that the B.B.C. deeply regretted that any pain had been caused by the broadcast and that in future the greatest care would be taken to avoid anything which could possibly distress the relatives of the fallen. In answer to a Supplementary Question by me, my right hon. Friend said that he would see to it that on no future occasion would broadcasts of such unpardonable bad taste be allowed. He gave a categorical assurance that they would not be allowed. It was a definite undertaking from the Minister of Information and from the B.B.C. that broadcasts of this kind would not be repeated. My Question was answered between 3o'clock and 3.15 on the afternoon of 29th May, and at 2 a.m. on 30th May, less than 12 hours after the undertaking had been given in this House, the B.B.C. repeated the same broadcast, word for word, in the Empire programme.

On 5th June I asked my right hon. Friend whether he was aware of this, and how he reconciled this action with the undertaking given to me on 29th May. He replied that he was not aware that the broadcast was to be repeated in the Empire programme, and stated, as I am quite sure he would, that had he known it was going to be repeated, he would have done his best to prevent it. One thing is certain, and that is that the B.B.C. has let the Minister of Information down in the most unpardonable way. My right hon. Friend informed me on 5th June that he was not in a position to take any disciplinary action against the B.B.C. official concerned, but he assured me that the necessary steps would be taken to prevent a repetition of an occurrence such as this. What steps have been taken? On 29th May this House was assured that broadcasts of this kind would not be allowed in the future. Within 12 hours the B.B.C. reproduced exactly the same broadcast. On 29th May the B.B.C. allowed the Minister of Information to apologise in this House on their behalf for the pain that their first broadcast had occasioned. Within 12 hours they repeated the identical broadcast.

I ask the House, Could any disobedience have been more deliberate? Do the B.B.C. take up the attitude that they did not think it would matter repeating the broadcast in the Empire programme because it takes place at 2 a.m. and that therefore nobody would be listening to it? I should like a categorical assurance one way or the other whether this is the position taken up by the B.B.C. If it be so, if they think that by repeating it at 2 a.m. nobody will know, then it seems to me that their undertaking and their apology mean nothing whatever and that they reserve to themselves the right to flout and disobey the Minister of Information just whenever they like. Broadcasting at the present time is a most vital part of our national war effort, and it is a form of war effort of the utmost potentiality. We cannot afford to allow it to remain in the hands of officials who owe no allegiance to anyone but themselves and who arrogate to themselves the right to do as they please. I submit that it is time that this organisation came under the control of a Minister of the Crown who could be answerable for the organisation in this House. As it is, the Minister of Information comes to this House and is humiliated when he makes an apology on behalf of the B.B.C. and gives an undertaking regarding future broadcasts. We take disciplinary action against our sailors, soldiers and airmen who are guilty of disobedience, and it seems to me that the B.B.C. should come under the same kind of regulation.

The Director-General of the B.B.C. is presumably the ultimately responsible authority for what takes place at the B.B.C. But it would appear from Mr. Val Gielgud's letter to the "Times" that he as Director of Features and Drama, accepts the responsibility for this particular broadcast. If that be so, then he is the person directly responsible for what has occurred. It is he, therefore, who allowed the Minister of Information to apologise in this House and to give the undertaking which was promptly broken by the B.B.C. If he is the Director of Features and Drama, he must have known perfectly well that this broadcast was going to be repeated in its original form in the Empire broadcast early on the morning of 30th May, less than 12 hours after the apology of the B.B.C. had been made. I should like to know what qualifications Mr. Val Gielgud has for holding his present position. In order to acquaint myself with his qualifications before making these remarks, I went to that repository of information, "Who's Who." There I found that he has had a somewhat variegated career. He has been secretary to a Member of Parliament, an actor, a sub-editor of a comic paper, and, apparently, he joined the "Radio Times" in 1928. Doubtless his past experiences justify his appointment as Dramatic Director of the B.B.C. It may interest the House to know, in passing, that among his recreations I find that he is said to enjoy golf and the society of Siamese cats, also talking and travel. I suggest that the best thing he can do would be to learn to tell the exact truth when he writes letters to the "Times" and to travel as far away from the B.B.C. as he can.

On all sides we hear complaints and criticism of the B.B.C. and its officials. This is not an isolated instance. It is a particularly bad instance, and it is time somebody was put into this stable to clean it up. War conditions demand that these matters should be dealt with immediately. The original broadcast on Whit Monday was described by a writer of a letter to the "Times" as a vulgarly sensational attempt at a dramatisation of a wonderful exploit and one which can only have caused distaste and distress to many. That is perfectly true. It has caused great distress to the relatives of many gallant men who fell in battle at Narvik, and there should be some guarantee that similar vulgar, sensational reconstructions should not be allowed to occur. If that can be achieved, then this incident will have served a useful purpose. It has shown up the administration of the B.B.C, and I hope the result will be that it will be possible for my right hon. Friend to introduce some discipline into that organisation.

8.31 p.m.

Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)

I will not follow the course taken by the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. South by), but I hope that what I am about to say will not be misunderstood. My own views in regard to what has happened in Italy have been expressed already in the House. It has been one of the most disastrous acts recorded in history, this action of Signor Mussolini in entering the war. I wish to say a few words, however, in regard to the broadcast speech, last night, by the Minister of Information. I do not do it in any critical manner, but I feel he did not do justice to his case. There was bound to be a good deal of reaction on anyone who heard what had taken place in Italy, but I must say that as I listened to the Minister, last night, I was rather shocked. It is self-evident to anyone who knows Italy and the Italians that they are not united behind Mussolini. I should have thought that it would have been much better if an appeal had been made direct to the people of Italy, rather than to take the line that the Minister did last night. I should like to know whether, when these great occasions arise which necessitate an authoritative statement from the Government to be broadcast, that statement is drawn, reviewed and passed by responsible Members of the Cabinet before it is publicly uttered.

I think it would have been far better if challenges had not been thrown out last night, and if reminders, which only irritate people who have been our friends, had been left out. There is a vast difference between the people of Italy and the people of Germany psychologically and in other ways. Could not an appeal have been made bringing in St. Catharine and Francis of Assisi? I should have thought something along the line of an appeal to the lives of the Saints, and of St. Thomas Aquinas in particular, would have been more appropriate, and the question asked whether this land with Catholic devotion had suddenly fallen so far as to join with the pagan hordes of Germany. I think it would have been more beneficial to have appealed to their Catholic devotion than suddenly to have reminded them of Caporetto. Acceding the point that the Minister himself may have been rather heated up, as it were, and in the passion of the moment giving rein to his feelings at the time, I do hope that on future occasions that psychology will be understood and appreciated more before these public pronouncements are made. It would be far better if we had tried to put in a wedge between the people of Italy, and those who are striving to put them into this destructional enterprise, rather than that we should estrange them and put them behind Mussolini by saying irritating things such as were uttered last night.

I hope the Minister will forgive me for intervening. I hope he will believe that what I have said I have said with as much sincerity as I dare say he felt when he made his pronouncements last night. We should make more friends on the Continent of Europe and not make remarks which may turn possible friends into veritable enemies. I do hope that in future such speeches will be taken more seriously by the Government and that Government responsibility will be consulted before they are uttered.

8.38 p.m.

The Minister of Information (Mr. Duff Cooper)

Two entirely different questions have been raised, one with notice, as is usual, and one without notice. The hon. Member for Burslem (Mr. MacLaren) does not like my broadcast. Well, I am encouraged by the fact that when he last spoke in this House on the subject of broadcasting he condemned every speaker, including the Secretary of State for War, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information, and nearly every production of the B.B.C. I was fortified upon that occasion by the fact that nearly everyone who spoke afterwards, and especially Members of his own party, disagreed with him. It shows how difficult it is when addressing audiences of many millions to please them all. The hon. Member has a mind of exquisite refinement and taste, and has a very high standard of artistic merit. The last time he spoke he really left one with the impression that he thought the B.B.C. should devote themselves to nothing else but Beethoven; and it is not only music-hall entertainment which he condemned, but also the serious statements of Ministers of the Crown.

He condemns me for not having suggested last night that there was a possible division between the Italian people and their Leader. Possibly he has not been able to refresh his memory by reading the text of what I said. If he had done so he would have found that that was precisely what I said. How tragic it was, I said, that a great people should put their faith into the hands of one bad man, and should become, when they did that, the accomplices and victims of his crimes. I said that if there was a democratic system prevailing in Italy, Italy would not have gone to war, and that the will of the people would have prevailed. Surely that was exactly what the hon. Gentleman wanted me to say? After that I went on to use strong language. I do not believe, when you are at war with a nation, that you are going to defeat that nation by being very polite and begging their pardon. We have tried that for nine months with Germany, and see what it has brought us to. It is nonsense to suggest that there are two Germanys, the good Germany and the bad Germany, and that the good Germany at any moment is going to rise up and throw over its Leader. The only people who will rise up and defeat their Leader are those people who have been defeated by their enemies. I do not believe that is so, and I do not intend to change my belief. I do not believe you can win wars by being very civil to your enemy and trying to persuade them with soft words and flattery and praise to come over to your side. That is not the way in which war has ever been fought or won. I suggested, and I think rightly, that there were differences between the people of Italy, and that if the people of Italy had had the decision in their own hands they would not be at war to-day.

Turning to the subject upon which my hon. and gallant Friend addressed the House, I am surprised that he has raised this matter again because, when he raised it last time, I said that a mistake had been committed, that I regretted that mistake and apologised for it, and that I had taken every step to make sure it would not occur again. He may say with truth that there were two mistakes, because I said that a similar broadcast would not take place on future occasions and the same broadcast took place the same night. I have endeavoured to explain why that error occurred. The assurance that it would not occur again was given, not in reply to my hon. and gallant Friend's first Question, but in reply to a Supplementary Question. The B.B.C., like other Departments of the Government, do not immediately the same afternoon—they did not in the past, but they will in future—check up all the supplementary replies given by Ministers in order to make sure that those replies or any pledges given in them will be carried out.

In the ordinary way, if a Minister makes a statement in reply to a Supplementary and there is a promise given in such a reply, it is improbable that it would be broken or interfered with the same night. It is customary in every Department to read the Official Report next morning, to take note of any assurances given and to take the necessary steps to see that those assurances are carried out. That has been the course hitherto followed in the B.B.C., but as a result of this unfortunate incident they have taken steps to make sure that immediately after Questions have been put and answered a full report shall be received at the B.B.C. in order that any pledges given shall be faithfully carried out. I hope that that will prevent a repetition of this regrettable incident. I discussed the matter in the morning with the heads of the B.B.C., and they agreed with me that this incident was regrettable and was in bad taste.

Again I would remind my hon. and gallant Friend that even in these matters there are two opinions. He and I are entirely in agreement as to the bad taste of this particular episode, but it received very favourable reports in such reputable papers as the "Manchester Guardian" and the "Glasgow Herald." That shows there are two sides to every question, especially questions of taste. While I give my hon. and gallant Friend an assurance that similar incidents—by which I mean incidents purporting to record events in the war in which voices of the dead are reproduced—should never take place again—and I have the assurance of the Director-General of the B.B.C. that they shall not—I cannot give him an assurance that no entertainment will ever be given that will not be in execrable taste. There are many things which he and I and the hon. Member for Burslem consider execrable taste, but which many people, even in this House, may consider extremely amusing and diverting. We have to remember the magnitude of the task of the B.B.C. For 24 hours a day stuff is going out from the B.B.C. to every quarter of the globe. It is being listened to by many millions of people. The millions who are satisfied do not bother to write to the papers or to say so, but the one or two who are shocked and who find fault are those who make complaints. Those complaints will never cease in the most admirable administration that we can devise.

My hon. and gallant Friend objects because I have not the power to inflict disciplinary action on those who were guilty of this offence. It would not be of very great assistance if I had that power. I have found the Director-General and the authorities of the B.B.C. perfectly willing and eager to accept my advice and guidance, and, indeed, my instructions on all important matters. I do not intend to take over the administration of the B.B.C. or to be responsible in any way for their entertainment programme. So far as pronouncements on political subjects and reports of news are concerned, however, I have satisfied myself that machinery now exists whereby I can exercise complete control over what is said on important political matters. On the whole, I am satisfied also that the machinery as now improved will prevent a repetition of the incident which I regret as much as my hon. and gallant Friend.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter before Nine o'Clock.