HC Deb 25 March 1941 vol 370 cc541-52

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

Mr. Noel-Baker (Derby)

A great many times in recent months I have drawn the attention of the Minister of Information to the importance of our foreign broadcasts, particularly to enemy countries and countries under enemy occupation and control. Since my right hon. Friend took over his Ministry it has begun, in my opinion, and I think in that of very many others, to do most valuable work at home, in the Dominions and in neutral countries by the various means at its disposal, but no one can doubt, and I do not believe he himself will dispute, that foreign broadcasts are incomparably the most important part of all the work that any Ministry of Information can possibly do, and every month the importance of those broadcasts continually increases. They are listened to very widely. A British speaker gave a talk in Greek the other day— a message of encouragement and admiration to Greece. A day or two later from a tiny village in the mountains 30 miles from any railway came a telegram, composed, no doubt, with the help of the village schoolmaster as follows: "Many thanks for charming conference" The "Times" correspondent in Belgrade told us yester-day—

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn— [Major Dugdale.]

Mr. Noel-Baker

The "Times" correspondent in Belgrade told us yesterday that in Yugoslavia it has been a factor of real importance in the crisis that the peasants of that country were able to listen to the news in the Yugoslav bulletins of the B.B.C. It made me wish that our service there was more extensive. No one can study what has been said by Italian prisoners and by those who have recently come from Norway, Belgium or France, as I have done, and who have been in contact with German soldiers there without feeling that the time has now arrived when our wireless transmissions to the enemy peoples and the enemy forces have become an arm only less potent than the Navy, Army and Air Force in its power to bring the war to a speedy and happy end. The first time I raised this matter was in May last year, and I urged then on the Minister that these foreign broadcasts were different from the ordinary work which the B.B.C. has to do, that they were a new and specialised job of political and journalistic work, a job for which the B.B.C. was not particularly well equipped, and that the Minister would do well to take them over himself and rehouse them under a separate roof, reorganise the whole thing—staff and programmes and all—leaving the B.B.C. to do its work at home and in the Empire under its charter as it has done before.

I recognised that there were real difficulties in the plan which I proposed and that there were real advantages in retaining the technical direction and the great international prestige of the B.B.C. Those difficulties and advantages seemed to the Minister in his wisdom to be decisive. He left the B.B.C. to carry on, and, having done so, he has rightly given it the full measure of independence and responsibility which it has in all its work. Looking back, I still regret this decision. I still believe that what I suggested would have been, on balance—I admit that there was a balance—a better plan. I was particularly disturbed last May, because it seemed to me that after nine months of war there was no one in the B.B.C. administration who showed the imagination, drive, ingenuity and courage which these foreign broadcasts required. That extended, as far as I could judge, to every part of the world, to the scale on which it was attempted, to the transmission time allotted, to the planning and preparation of the programmes, to the recruiting of the personnel, and, above all, to the message which we were sending from the British people to the outside world. I have always thought that much of the work which the B.B.C. has done in this domain deserves high praise, and I do not need again to say that the staff have been single-minded, industrious and devoted to the highest degree.

I thought last May, however, and I still think, that even within the limits imposed on it by the shortage of transmitters—and it was serious—and by the lack of adequate Government decisions on the policy to be pursued—which was serious too—the B.B.C. should nevertheless have done far more than it did. I still think, as I thought then, that the most damaging of their limitations was a too narrow and too unambitious conception of their task. That showed itself, as too narrow conceptions always will, in the material organisation of the work. The B.B.C. were then starting many new services in different languages. They were doing work which had to be done in London, but they did not try to get adequate new premises in which to instal the services. They piled them on top of the other services in broadcasting, having, I admit, evacuated some services to the country. In consequence, last May the studios and the offices of those services were overcrowded, the staff was inadequate in numbers, the offices could hold no more, and they were working in bad conditions and were being overworked. That was five months before Broadcasting House was bombed. In those five months I often raised the matter in private, but nothing was done. In October came the bombing; part of Broadcasting; House had to be evacuated, and all the foreign services were sent to another place, to reserve premises which had been prepared elsewhere.

Great praise has been given to the B.B.C. because their services were carried on at the time of the bombing without a break. Great praise is rightly given to all to whom that very considerable success was due, but I cannot, for my part, include those by whom the reserve accommodation had been planned. In December I called the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary in this House to that accommodation, and I said the conditions were vile. He had seen them for himself, and said they were almost intolerable, but that he hoped they would be dealt with quickly. I raised the question again on 6th February, and the Minister then accepted my criticisms and said they were completely justified. Last week the foreign services were still in that same place. Let me in one or two sentences remind the House of the conditions. When I spoke last I said I found there eight national sections working in one small room, with eight tables, four or five men to a table. If an unhappy translator had to prepare an urgent news bulletin for the microphone in a few minutes, he had to sit on the corner of a table and shout his dictation into the ear of the still more unhappy typist who was taking it down. This work is difficult, arduous and highly responsible, involving a great nervous strain. If I may borrow the Parliamentary Secretary's word, it really was "intolerable" that the staff should be made to do it in such conditions.

I ask the Minister to note two things. The foreign services were moved into this place, with these conditions, after we had been 14 months at war, when the B.B.C. had had 14 months in which to prepare reserve accommodation for these most vital services if they should happen to be bombed. Secondly, they were left in this place, in those intolerable conditions, for five months after the bombing had taken place, in conditions which prevented good work, which were a grievous menace to health and which were open to other grave objections of which the Minister is well aware. I know that the Minister is going to tell us that these services have now been moved, that the B.B.C. have taken a new building and that conditions are better than before. I congratulate him. I am sure it would not have been done but for his own action and insistence. I am sure the conditions will be better but, according to my information the B.B.C. have not taken a new building but have taken only the twentieth of a building, that the accommodation, while better, is very doubtfully adequate, and that it does not leave a margin for expansion. Yet expansion has got to be.

The staff last May was inadequate. There have been additions to it, much less than there should have been in view of the great increase of work which has taken place. But that increase of work is going on. Since 16th February, in one particularly important section, the German section, the number of bulletins per day has been increased from 8 to 14, and there has been added a feature programme lasting from 50 minutes to an hour per day. That doubles the work, indeed, more than doubles the work. Yet only three people have been added to the German staff, according to my information. Two of them were translators. Of those two one was a painter. I am told that as a translator he is an excellent painter, but that he does not greatly relieve the labours of the other translators.

This is a desperately serious matter. If I had the time, I would urge upon the Minister a special case with regard to the feature programme. We cannot afford mistakes in a feature programme to Germany. We are dealing with Dr. Goebbels. That staff was manned by four people six weeks ago. I hope the Minister can tell us it has been increased, but I doubt it. There is one man who certainly ought to be taken on. His name is Priwin; he used to be known to the British public as Inspector Hornleigh. It would take a longer time than I have at my disposal to give the House the details why the late Inspector Hornleigh—Mr. Priwin—is now on the streets instead of working for the B.B.C. I can give the information to the Minister in private. I hope that the Minister will see that something is done.

When the Minister hears the facts I think he will agree that the present direction of the B.B.C. has not shown the vision, strength, courage and determination to cut through red tape and to get the results which, in such a vital matter, are required. If those qualities had been shown, the B.B.C. would never have left the foreign services for nine months in Broadcasting House. It would never have been content with the "Black Hole of Calcutta" to which it moved, when it had been bombed. It would never have lived there for five months after it had been bombed and would never have left vital services seriously understaffed, as some of them still are. Difficulties by which it was confronted would have been swept away. I think I understand those difficulties and the explanations which are given. One of them is that the B.B.C. did not dare to take on a big new building in London because it thought that some other Government Department would take it away, after the B.B.C. had got it. Could anything more clearly prove the case which I am trying to make than that such an argument should be put forward as an adequate explanation or excuse?

The other day I was talking about the whole thing to a man of mature judgment who has had a long experience of administration and who knows the effect and the problems of the foreign services far better than I do. I asked him why all this had happened. In language far harsher than I should use, he said that the only possible explanations were either complete indifference or gross incompetence. I could not ask the Minister to accept that view; I do not ask him to accept the view which I have given of the history of the matter. I do not ask him to discuss it, if he does not want to. I hope that, from now, that history may be buried in the past. I ask him to see that things go better in future. I urge him to make the necessary changes at Broadcasting House. I hope that he will start at the top.

In answer to a supplementary question the other day, the Minister promised to reconsider the composition of the Board of Governors. I hope he will tell us that he has done so, and that some decision has been taken or will be taken at a very early date. The number of governors was reduced in September, 1939, on the one ground alone that it was necessary, because in war-time we might need swift decisions. That is true in all parts of our Government machine. It is true even of the War Cabinet. The Prime Minister loves swift decisions, yet he would be the last to propose that the War Cabinet should consist of himself and the Minister of Aircraft Production. He knows, as we all do, that wider representation is re quired in order to get the right decisions and in order that the decisions, when made, shall command confidence outside. The same is true of the B.B.C.

The Minister has had a lot of trouble lately with some decisions of the B.B.C, including one to which the Prime Minister gave attention the other day. That decision would never have been made if there had been a more representative Board of Governors. I can see no argument for a Board of five at the present moment. I hope the Minister will tell us that a change will be made in. the high direction. That is the most important change now. I hope he will tell us also that changes will be made in the day-to-day administration if, after examination of the facts, he thinks they are required. I know that the Minister may be advised by the staff. They are excellent people. I am not absolutely convinced that, administratively, that is the most effective way, and in any case I urge that he should take any necessary action. No personal difficulties should stand in the way; efficiency and the public interest should be the only things taken into account. I ask him to remember that we are coming to a point at which this work of wireless propaganda must assume immense importance. I urge him to create a service in every way equal to the task which it is called upon to perform, remembering always that by this means the war may well be shortened and much blood, treasure and suffering may thus be saved.

Mr. Price (Forest of Dean)

I should like to express a feeling of dissatisfaction at the way in which, until now, the foreign propaganda of the B.B.C. has been carried on, particularly in regard to what has been going on in enemy countries. It seems to me that insufficient emphasis has been laid upon a certain aspect of our propaganda. There has been a failure to realise that this is a war of ideas in which propaganda for the rule of international law and democracy must be a cardinal part of our war machine, and that one of our means of answering Hitler's "new order" in Europe, with its "Herrenvolk" idea, is our own idea of the co-operation of the people of Europe and of the world, which is our new order. I suggest that sufficient emphasis has not been laid on this all-important aspect of our propaganda, which should be an integral part of our war machine.

From time to time, I have heard broadcasts; one was made not long ago by the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Commander Sir A. Southby) who is not now in his place. It was a good, hearty Speech, no doubt, and it gave a certain aspect, or rather lack of aspect, namely, that we must fight this war out without worrying about our war aims. He suggested that those could come later. But we want also to give the other point of view. I think it is high time that we should hear from the microphone, occasionally at least, the other aspect of the matter, both for our own people and particularly for the enemy countries. It is a very serious matter, for I am satisfied that a very large part of the working-classes of Germany to-day, thanks to months and years of Goebbels' propaganda, seriously believe that this country is ruled by what they are pleased to call a "Plutodemocracy"

The whole working-class of Germany is demoralised; it should be our task to remoralise them. We can do it, I believe, but it will take some doing. We have to show what our ideas of a new Europe are; we have to show that we are not a plutodemocracy, but that we have a great system of social services, and that we are as capable as they are of putting our house in order even in spite of the war— more capable in tact. There is no doubt that the masses of the working-class in Germany are at the moment completely hypnotised. It is our job to de-hypnotise them, but I see no sign whatever that any of the ruling people in the B.B.C, even appreciably, understand this terribly important point. We ought to show them how our democracy functions. We ought to give them descriptions of the way in which our problems are dealt with in open discussion, how in fact everything works. We have to set our aims high and have a long term objective.

I am satisfied that, in the long run, that would bring some response. I understand that this is the position in Germany to-day. The bulk of the youth, whose minds have been poisoned by Goebbels's propaganda, are at the front. There remain at home, listening to our broadcasts, the older people, who have been brought up in the tradition of the old German Social Democrat movement and of the trade union movement. If they hear the right stuff, they will become uncertain. I think that many of them are uncertain now. There is an immense chance for us, if only we will take it. I hope that those who control our broadcasting will take that chance.

The Minister of Information (Mr. Duff Cooper)

I have no quarrel with anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) has said. He stated his case with his customary sincerity and, I think, with complete fairness. We are all aware of the importance of foreign broadcasts at present. We are all aware that insufficient vision was shown before the war in making the necessary preparation for expansion in this direction, just as there was a lack of foresight in so many other directions. But we cannot, I think, justly apportion blame for a failure for which we are all, to some extent, responsible. I entirely agree with him, and with the hon. Member for the Forest of Dean (Mr. Price), not only that it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of foreign broadcasting at the present time, but that that importance is ever growing. It is greater this year than it was last year; and, as the war approaches a critical stage, and as the prospects of victory draw nearer, so the importance of this weapon will become ever greater, and will hasten the collapse of the enemy which our Army, Navy and Air Force will prepare.

It is partly a realisation of this fact which is the cause of many of those discontents to which the hon. Member for Derby has given expression. He says that he advocated 10 months ago an entire reorganisation of the system of foreign broadcasting, that it should be taken away from the British Broadcasting Corporation and placed completely under Government control, separated materially and mentally from the authorities who had hitherto controlled it, and housed in a separate building. Looking back, I am quite prepared now to say that that might have been the right thing to try; but it is difficult to reform your army on a new basis in the middle of a battle. The thing has to be kept going all the time, with increasing power, increasing rapidity, and ever-increasing volume. Therefore, it would have been difficult to take so drastic a decision, cutting at the root of the matter, at any moment, and especially at those moments in May and June last year when I assumed office, when it was so difficult to take a long view, when we were all living more or less from hand to mouths.

The hon. Member has generally admitted the great advance that has been made, both in the amount of broadcasting done and also, I think, in its quality. I assure the hon. Member for the Forest of Dean that that really is the case. I can judge to some extent from the telegrams which we receive from our representatives abroad. A year ago they were nearly always telegrams of complaint; now, they are often complimentary. We appreciate the importance of developing this side of broadcasting—this all-important side of propaganda, at the present time. Indeed, the hon. Member said it is the only way we can get our views expressed on the Continent of Europe. As we have realised that, so we have increased the staff and the languages and the hours devoted to foreign broadcasts. It has not been easy. In fact, it would have been impossible to keep up with these increases in the line of accommodation. It is not an easy matter, the House will readily understand, to house satisfactorily those who are engaged in broadcasting. They cannot be put just anywhere, and they have to be served by all the technical apparatus inseparable from the work that they are carrying out, and the installation of such apparatus necesarily takes time.

As they carry on their work during the 24 hours of the day, all through the night, which in many cases are some of the most important hours, they have also to be housed with reasonable security. My hon. Friend may say that they have not been housed with reasonable security, and I am bound to admit that there is something in that contention, but everything possible has been done. If insufficient vigour has been shown, as it may seem to him, at any rate, I can assure him that those who are responsible for carrying out the work have thrown all their energies into it. The staff, which was evacuated so rapidly at such short notice from Broadcasting House and was living in conditions which he rightly described as intolerable, was moved the Sunday before last into better quarters. I inspected those quarters last week, and I shall be very glad if he does so too. I do not think that he will be satisfied if he does; I was not. There is still a great deal to be desired. We are endeavouring to obtain two other, larger parts of the same buildings and are getting rid of the obstacles placed in our way. At the same time, we contemplate taking on another separate large building in another part of London, so that eventually, I hope, the increase in accommodation will catch up with the increase in staff and hours of broadcasting.

We are also trying, at the same time, to do all we can to increase the broadcasting hours, realising, as the hon. Member does, how important it is. I am not in a position to-night to give him a full statement with regard to the future of the Board of Governors. I remember that on the last occasion I was giving close attention to the matter, and I am giving immediate consideration to the problem at the present time, but, of course, a problem of that sort necessitates some consultation with other people. There is the question of various names to be considered and so on, and I feel I can with comparative certainty give him an undertaking that I shall be making a statement on the subject next week. I hope that it will be a statement which will give him some satisfaction and meet to some extent his criticism, and that in future we shall be able continually to develop this side of propaganda activity so that broadcasting to foreign countries may become one of the weapons of victory.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.