HC Deb 08 December 1942 vol 385 cc1530-6

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

Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter which has caused me some concern, but which is in addition a matter of public interest. The other day there came into my possession some information with regard to the question of censorship. I have discovered—at any rate, this is my understanding of the matter—that it was the intention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Information to exercise more rigorously than hitherto his powers of censorship. To what did the matter relate? It would appear that it was the intention of my right hon. Friend to interfere with the rights of foreign correspondents in this country to send information to their people abroad on the subject of Parliamentary criticism. For example—this is my interpretation of the matter—if an hon. Member criticised the Government, or any Department, of His Majesty's Government, or any Minister, or any of the United Nations, or anything pertaining to the conduct and organisation of the war, my right hon. Friend had the power to decide whether that factual criticism—I use the term advisedly—should be censored or whether a foreign correspondent should be permitted to acquaint his people with what had transpired. On the basis of my interpretation of such information as was in my possession, I regarded this as highly reprehensible. There is too much censorship already. Of course, in these times some measure of censorship is essential. Here I would remark that it is not a desire of mine to embarrass the Government in this matter. I recognise at this time that the situation is highly delicate and complex. Unnecessary criticism is inadvisable. Nor is it my intention to address hon. Members on this matter with any desire to antagonise my right hon. Friend the Minister of Information. On the whole, taking Ministers of Information by and large, he has not made such a bad job of it. He has won, I will not say the affection, but the admiration of the House. I hope he will appreciate that there is no hostility in the matter. I regard it as quite impersonal.

I saw the right hon. Gentleman privately, after having addressed a Question to him across the Floor and received what I regarded as a somewhat oblique—I will not say evasive—reply. He was a little troubled, not to say embarrassed, by the fact that I was in possession of what he described as a secret document. I ascertained then for the first time that it was a secret document. He was very anxious to know how I had received the information. I beg him not to press me unduly on that point because, if I informed him, he might be even more surprised, and it is not my desire to administer any further shocks. He seemed at one point to indi- cate that I might be visited with extraordinary penalties if I did not disclose the source of my information. That left me quite cold. Perhaps a sojourn in the Tower would do me no harm. If I were subjected to torture, the thumbscrew, or the rack, or the inquisition of a Star Chamber, I should certainly not disclose the source of my information, and I hope the matter may rest there. In a further conversation with him I ascertained that there was no desire to impose a more rigorous censorship than at present. I have no desire to quote from the document and, in order to make certain that I should not quote from it, as one might be tempted to do by provocation and interjections, I have left the document at home, so that I am proof against any such temptation.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will give a specific assurance that it is not the intention of his Department to prevent foreign correspondents retailing to their people in any part of the democratic and civilised world information which relates to factual criticism addressed by Members of this House to the Government. If he will give such an assurance I shall be content and no more need be said about the matter. I understand, from his answer to a Question that I addressed to him, that he was anxious to prevent Members being misquoted. That may be the case but, on the other hand, it may be otherwise. There is a distinction, which applies to foreign correspondents, between factual criticism, however unpalatable it may be to the Government, or to the United Nations, or to the war effort, and comment on criticisms. I have seen some comments on criticism which foreign correspondents have tried to send abroad, and I agree with my right hon. Friend that much of that comment, that interpretation, that misunderstanding—garbled, distorted and misquoted—ought not to be sent abroad. It is very harmful and, in the main, untrue. I am concerned with what is true. If it is merely factual criticism, I do not think there should be any suppression at all. Let us take an example, which occurs to me as I speak. Let us assume that an hon. Member expressed himself in this way, "The B.B.C., an otherwise excellent institution, for some unaccountable reason does not permit critics of the Government to broadcast." That, of course, would be a statement of fact.

The Minister of Information (Mr. Brendan Bracken)

Not entirely.

Mr. Shinwell

There can be no doubt about it. The B.B.C. have occasionally allowed people who indulge in criticism to broadcast, but not to criticise the Government. A distinction must be drawn. Taking it by and large, the critics of Government policy are not allowed to broadcast. Only a coterie of people who are responsive are allowed to do so. Some people call them "yes men," but I do not want to strike a discordant note. If a statement of the kind I have indicated is made, it is a factual statement. On the other hand, if a foreign correspondent tells his people in any part of the civilised world, on the basis of that statement, "Because of that the B.B.C. is an anti-democratic institution inimical to the war effort," that would be going too far. That is the distinction I draw. I hope that my right hon. Friend will see the appropriateness of the point I am making. If he cares—I do not put it higher than that—to pay a little more regard to what I have said about critics broadcasting, all contributions will be gratefully received. In raising this point there is no desire to embarrass the Government, but we are very jealous of the privileges of this House. Even in war time it is necessary that our censorship should not proceed too far. I agree that a measure of censorship is inevitable and no one wishes to dispute the right of my right hon. Friend to enforce it, but let him not go too far, even with his democratic conceptions. If he does, it may be necessary to quote the document. In the meantime, I leave the matter there and hope that my right hon. Friend will give us the assurance we desire.

Mr. Bracken

My hon. Friend the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) embarrasses me by the compliments he has paid me, and in order not to prolong this Debate, I will give him the assurance he desires in advance of anything else I have to say. There is no question of censoring speeches made in this House. No speech has ever been censored, and unless some Member, through some aberration of the intellect for which he is not physically responsible, says something about military operations—in which case the House will be taken into consultation—there will never be a question of censoring faithfully reported speeches made by Members in this House. There is, however, a duty reposing upon us at the present moment. That is to make certain that the speeches made in this House are properly reported. For instance, a speech by my hon. Friend is a matter of some importance to people in various parts of the country and of the world, and it is desirable that speeches made by him and other Members should be properly reported. I remember one or two occasions when speeches made in the House have been most improperly reported. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Sir M. Robertson) one day came to me in a state of most violent indignation. He said, "Here is a speech bitterly criticising the Government and attacking the Prime Minister. It is attributed to me. I have read it on the tape. What have you got to say about it?" I said I had not seen it. He said, "It is a very serious matter." I looked up the report, and there it was. Again, remarks made by Mr. Speaker have been grossly misrepresented in the United States of America. So I beg my hon. Friend to realise that it is quite important that we should make certain that speeches attributed to hon. Members of this House have actually been made by them, and that is the sole censorship, if you can call it censorship, or action, for which I am responsible.

As a matter of fact, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised this point. I could easily have given him the assurance in private. I can now give it to him in public, and I welcome this opportunity of saying something about the work of the Censor's Department. Of all the disagreeable war jobs, I think the censorship is one of the worst. As hon. members know, we started in this war without any trained censors. We have never, unlike the dictators, bred a race of censors, so we had to start off with amateurs, and, believe me, they made probably the maximum possible mistakes in the first year and a half of the war; but by brutal treatment in Parliament and by fairly rough treatment from the Press the censors have learned a very good lesson. Over 11,000,000 words go out of this country every week. They have to be dealt with by about 360 censors, and I must say that it is amazing they make so few errors and, what is more important, that they make so few enemies.

Our censorship is the most liberal in the world, and lest anyone should accuse me of praising the shop I keep, I can say that I have heard that from the journalists of every free nation in the world, and I am particularly anxious that people should realise how splendid is the work of the Chief Censor's staff. The Chief Censor's life is not a very happy one. For him there can never be any rest. There is a right of appeal always to the Chief Censor by any newspaper correspondent, and as newspaper correspondents do their work at strange hours, the Chief Censor must always be available. The Chief Censor spent his life before he came to the Ministry in Information in submarine warfare, and I feel sure that from time to time he has some nostalgic feelings for his old service. He has done the most splendid job of work I have ever seen. I can hardly praise him highly enough, and if any Member thinks I am just paying a tribute to one of my own officials, I would remind him that the hard-bitten Press correspondents of Great Britain and America and other correspondents actually give him a lunch the other day, and that some man with great discernment gave him a copy of one of Cato's works, saying that it was a delicate hint to censors who were critically severe but that it was an appropriate document, and that he would be the last Chief Censor in this country.

I think a great deal of credit is due to these censors, because if we had a clumsy censorship like that in France, depending on whims, caprices and obscurantism, it would have made innumerable enemies for this country abroad. As it is, I have no hesitation in saying that in the most difficult task in the world, that is, imposing a realty competent censorship, and at the same time carrying with you the good will of the Press, Admiral Thomson and his staff are deserving of the highest possible praise, and my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham has done a very great service to me to-day, because he has given me this, the first, opportunity of saying the truth about our censorship.

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