HC Deb 05 August 1943 vol 391 cc2585-93
Mr. G. Strauss (Lambeth, North)

I would like the Minister of Information to give me some answers to points which have worried me as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) and others in this House. I, too, have asked various Questions of the Minister of Supply in regard to the suppression of newspapers, and I would be obliged if the right hon. Gentleman would give a Categorical reply as to who is responsible for the suppression of foreign newspapers in this country?

The Minister of Information (Mr. Brendan Bracken)

I can give a reply to that straight away. I take absolute responsibility.

Mr. Strauss

That is very satisfactory; we know now at whom we can fire Questions and to whom we can make complaints in the future, when we are worried. I would also like the Minister to tell us on exactly what principles he proceeds before he decides to suppress a paper? Are there different principles in operation in regard to foreign newspapers as compared to British newspapers? As the House is fully aware there is no political censorship of papers in this country. A paper can publish what it likes, as long as it does not state anything which may be dangerous from a security point of view. This arrangement has worked very satisfactorily. But when it comes to foreign newspapers, does the Minister of Information say that there are special regulations in operation and that if such a paper says anything which, in his view, is politically harmful, then that paper is liable to be suppressed? If that is so, then I would ask him to give us an assurance that he will not exercise his powers of political censorship except in the most extreme case; because it is absolutely essential that we should maintain the principle in regard to all papers, not only British, that the Press is free within the essential limits laid down by the war and requirements of security.

In my view it does no harm if papers, whether British or foreign, make honest comments—so long as they are not deliberately mischievous, and it may be difficult sometimes to differentiate—which may be critical of an Allied Government. I have never taken the view which I think is taken by the Minister of Information, that it is undesirable that English papers should be critical of the American Government or American people. American newspapers and American politicians are often critical of this country and of what we do over here, and in a democracy, I believe that this public expression of opinion is altogether desirable. If there are elements in the country which are suspicious or doubtful about the rightness or policy of another democratic country, it is far better that their views should be expressed publicly, so that they can be answered publicly. In the long run, there is a far better chance of getting international understanding if criticism is publicly expressed, so that it can be publicly answered, than there is if criticism is suppressed. I hope the Minister will tell us that he will not suppress a paper or take any action against a paper, English or foreign, if it merely ventures to criticise the policy or attitude of some foreign Government. That, I think, is exceedingly important and I hope the Minister can give us an assurance along those lines. I also hope that lie will bear in mind the great importance of maintaining the reputation of a free Press in this country. Our reputation for maintaining our freedoms has been a great asset to this country; we are all proud that we have been able to maintain them in such a remarkable degree. But if a policy is adopted of stopping all sorts of papers because they happen to say something about which there is disagreement or about which we may get a complaint from a foreign country, then, to some extent, our reputation will be damaged. I hope therefore the Minister will be able to tell us very definitely what the principles are on which he has proceeded or is likely to proceed in future before he suppresses any newspaper at all and particularly whether he will give a foreign newspaper adequate warning before he takes any drastic steps to suppress it.

The Minister of Information (Mr. Brendan Bracken)

I have not the slightest complaint to make about this Debate. I am encouraged by the opportunity of talking to the House about anything concerned with the Ministry of Information because the House has ceased to have any interest in our Department. We are now less exciting than the British Museum. The House has not even taken the trouble to discuss our Estimates. Of all the dull jobs in the Government the Ministry of Information is becoming the dullest so that any discussion in Parliament gives us some encouragement because we feel that the House is still in a mild way interested in its old favourite, at any rate its old whipping boy. The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) asked me if the Polish Press was better behaved. The Polish Press is better behaved. I can give no guarantee for the continuance of its good behaviour—

Mr. Driberg

What I actually asked was whether the right hon. Gentleman had dealt equally drastically with the Polish Press.

Mr. Bracken

We were very severe indeed in dealing with one Polish paper which published an article which in our Government's view was likely to create disunity between the United Nations.

Mr. Driberg

Was it suppressed?

Mr. Bracken

No. The editor was sacked, which is even worse.

I am surprised at the hon. Member's attitude to pamphlets. Some of the greatest journalism has been done in the form of pamphlets. Dean Swift's best political writings were in pamphlet form and the famous William Hickey wrote pamphlets about Warren Hastings. It is surprising that a journalist of the hon. Member's profound Liberal principles should suddenly want pamphlets suppressed. The pamphlet is the poor man's method of stating his case in public. The rich man's method of putting his case across to the public is either to own a large newspaper or if he likes to spend a great deal of money on advertising his point of view. I am amazed that a journalist of the hon. Member's quality should now approach the pamphlet which in my opinion is the most effective form of propaganda if you can get anyone to read it and ask for it to be shut down in favour of a great machine controlled perhaps by the party opposite or by some Press lord.

Mr. Driberg

I do not and I never said so.

Mr. Bracken

It is a great falling off. The hon. Member himself is a great pamphleteer. His pamphlet on the Fall of Tobruk had a vital effect in the election at Maldon. It was due to his genius and without it he might not have been able to start this Debate to-day.

Mr. Driberg

If I may try to reply concisely to the right hon. Gentleman's three-pronged drive against me, I think it was generally agreed that the anonymous leaflet to which the right hon. Gentleman refers came rather too late to influence more than a few hundreds or a thousand or two votes one way or the other. In my speech I made no attack whatever on pamphlets. I specifically said that they should not be suppressed.

Mr. Bracken

The hon. Member wanted me to encourage the notion of a closer inspection of the printing plants of the country so that highly controversial matter should not be published. When he reads his speech I think he will agree that my interpretation of it is accurate.

He asked me a question about the Ministry of Supply. I should like to answer it but I do not know what new publishers are being set up under these arrangements. I am sure however that the Minister of Supply will look into the point. It is important because it would not be playing fair with the whole arrangement made between the Government and publishers if new publishers were allowed to start in war time books which are more profitable than the normal products of the average publishing house.

I want to say a word or two on the speech of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Major Petherick). I have to be very careful about my approach to this matter, because I think Mr. Deputy-Speaker would intervene very quickly if I followed him into some of the interesting topics that he raised. He is right in saying that the British public own the B.B.C. But they also own the Navy and I have yet to learn that the House of Commons wishes to run the Navy. If it had conducted it in all its operations during the war I do not think the Navy would have been quite as successful.

Major Petherick

The Royal Navy can be discussed on the Navy Estimates, and if the House withheld the money it would have to be disbanded. That does not apply to the B.B.C.

Mr. Bracken

I agree, because no one knows where the B.B.C. stands. I do not. But the conduct of the B.B.C. is thoroughly well discussed at Question time and in various Committees upstairs. In fact it seems to me to have acquired an interest here which makes the Ministry of Information jealous. We wish it was more interested in the affairs of the institution for which I have to take responsibility. The charter of the B.B.C. is approaching its end and I think hon. Members would do a great deal of good in pressing for a complete examination of the whole set up of the B.B.C. That is a thing that can be done at any time through the usual channels. I do not wish to discuss it again to-day beyond once again saying that though it makes a great many mistakes it is the finest broadcasting organisation in the world. In my considered judgment the European service is a finer broadcasting organisation than the wildest optimist could have hoped for at the beginning of the war. It has fulfilled our best hopes. It is a splendid institution. I get worried when I hear criticisms of the B.B.C. because the staff is devoted and feels acutely when it is held up to ridicule in the House or elsewhere. I think the B.B.C. has done a splendid war job but it is not perfect and my hon. and gallant Friend is right in saying that the House of Commons could quite easily set up some form of investigation as to whether its constitution could be improved. It may be it is perfect and may not be capable of improvement. I am not adopting that viewpoint, but no harm could be done by Parliament examining into every monopoly.

The hon. Member for North Lambeth (Mr. G. Strauss) asked me a number of question about the foreign Press. He made one remark that I wish to take notice of at once when he said I had some notion that British newspapers should not criticise America. I do not know where he derived that information from. I think the Americans, like the English, do not wish to be mollycoddled about the feeling in the respective countries regarding any policy which our Governments adopt. I think nothing could be better than publicity. It is the basis of public life. I have never suggested for one second that the British Press should never criticise any actions by the American authorities or that the American Press should not criticise aspects of our affairs which they disagree with. Reading as I do very carefully the American Press and the British Press, I am bound to say that both sections of the Press show a healthy capacity for criticism, and long may they continue to do so.

Mr. G. Strauss

A little time ago, according to an announcement which I think the right hon. Gentleman made in the House, there was an extension of Press censorship on both sides of the Atlantic by which it was agreed that nothing should be cabled from one side to the other which was strongly critical of the war effort of the other side. I cannot remember the exact words, but it was along those lines, and I objected to it at the time. It may have been wider than America and this country. Can the right hon. Gentleman say that the situation has been modified?

Mr. Bracken

The position was that I took powers in this House, which I felt were very necessary, to prevent the export from England of any matter which was likely to create disharmony between the United Nations. That covered all the United Nations, and I got very extensive powers when I asked for them. They have not been used with any great illiberality. It has not often been necessary to use them, but they were necessary in view of some statements which were published by certain newspapers and which were of the greatest possible help to the Axis propagandists.

Let us get back to the foreign papers here in London. Some hon. Members are apparently unaware of the curious, not to say privileged, position of the newspapers published in foreign, languages in this country. In August, 1940, British newspaper and magazine publishers were forbidden to start any paper without first obtaining a licence from the British Government. Licences have been rarely granted. Even so, a large, not to say excessive, number of foreigners have succeeding in obtaining facilities to start journals which are more viewspapers than newspapers. Many of them are nothing but propaganda sheets, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Maldon says, and some of them are edited by persons without the slightest sense of responsibility who use them to air their views against the Allies of Great Britain. Many of these papers are exported or smuggled abroad, and they provide most useful fodder for Axis propaganda. Some of our Allies and many Members of this House have reminded me that these mischief-making newspapers are printed on paper controlled by the British Government, and it is complained against us that we are fostering propaganda which creates disharmony between the United Nations. I must say that I am surprised that I am not more often reminded that it is scandalous that our sailors should be asked to take incredible risks and undergo great hardships in bringing paper into this country and that that paper should be used to injure the war effort of the United Nations.

I therefore consider it perfectly proper to withhold supplies of paper obtained through an intermediary of the British Government from foreigners who are using it to foment discord between the United Nations. Before I take action I must be provided with evidence of consistent malicious intent. The Government have no desire to prevent free comment, and papers published in foreign languages which are conducted with a due sense of responsibility will not be interfered with.

About "La Marseillaise," I should be wanting in frankness were I not to say that that paper did little to honour the obligations of its privileged position; it was often most irresponsibly edited. But even if it had been conducted by a staff which showed a real sense of responsibility, there was, in my opinion, no place for it in London after the leaders of the Fighting French movement had transferred themselves to North Africa. With the setting-up of the Committee of National Liberation in North Africa I could see no justification for British paper being used to publish a Fighting French daily newspaper in London. North Africa is the proper place in which to publish that paper, and any help we can give to establish it in North Africa, by way of giving opportunities for its having a London correspondent, etc., we shall give. As the Fighting French had been responsible for the establishment of "La Marseillaise" our resident Minister in North Africa was invited to convey the decision about that paper to Monsieur Massigli, who concurred in it.

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

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

Mr. Bracken

When by the force of arms of the United Nations the Axis is driven out of the territories of the many foreign countries whose Governments are resident in London—and I hope we shall see the progressive development of the redemption of European soil, or the clearing of European soil, from the Axis Powers—I very much hope that all these Governments will take their papers back to their own countries. I have treated them, I think, with the greatest tolerance, but at the same time I should never attempt, as the hon. Member for Lambeth has done, to compare them with the British Press. The British Press is under no obligations to the British Government. There is no compulsory censorship here, and we know who owns those British newspapers, but these other papers which are published by the privilege of the Government must accept the conditions of their privilege, and if they wish to stir up trouble between the United Nations I say frankly that I shall ask the Paper Controller to withdraw their paper.

The hon. Member for Maldon says, "Why do you not proceed in another way? Why not prosecute or do something of that kind?" I say "No" I have to sign a request to the Paper Controller to give them paper, and I do that trusting that they are going to behave with some responsibility in relation to the conduct of the war. I do not object to fair criticism of this country or of the British Government or foreign Governments, but if they use the facilities we have given to create trouble, and I get telegrams from our Missions abroad complaining about these papers and saying they could not have been published in England were it not for the Ministry of Information obtaining the paper for them, I have a right to say that in the event of those papers helping the enemy by stirring up trouble between the United Nations I shall go to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply and say, "Will you kindly withdraw their paper." It may be said that that is contrary to any of the statements that have been made in the House of Commons before, but I have certainly never attempted to censor these papers. The best possible control I can obtain over some of these illiberal sheets which are creating so much trouble is to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply to withdraw the facilities which he has given to them at my request, and I do not think there is anything wrong with that. It does not affect the freedom of the British Press. I have strong views about the freedom of the Press, but I think the British Press have also very strong views about the goings on of some of these papers published in foreign languages. From every side of the House I have been asked to deal with these papers, and I took what I thought was the best method, but it seems that I cannot please everybody.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are starting no precedents that will affect the freedom of the British Press and—and this is a point of importance—that we are not going to be illiberal with these papers published by foreigners in this Ill country. There are some distinguished foreign journalists here, and I am glad they are in London, and I think some of them run exceptionally good papers. They need never look over their shoulders and wonder what the views of the censor will be, because I have made it crystal clear that the only time I will interfere with any papers is when it is proved to me that they have followed a consistent policy of trying to create disharmony between the United Nations. I have made that very clear to them, and they know the terms upon which their privilege continues. I do not personally expect much further trouble from them, but any Minister of Information who makes a prophecy about avoiding trouble is himself looking for it, so with that I shall sit down.