HC Deb 05 August 1943 vol 391 cc2577-82
Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

On 7th July an hon. and gallant Member asked the Minister of Information a Question about the French paper "La Marseillaise," published in this country. He drew attention to what he considered to be certain undesirable articles in it. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information replied that the licence for that newspaper had already been withdrawn, and added, in reply to a Supplementary Question, that it had come within the category of those papers which had been attempting to stir up discord among the United Nations. I then asked a Supplementary Question as follows: In view of the reports published this morning of the method by which this paper was suspended, are we to take it that the Paper Control is now used as an instrument of censorship? Parliamentary Secretary replied: Not at all. The Regulations governing the use of paper were drawn up in order to prevent the wasteful use of paper, and I should imagine this action has been taken in accordance with that purpose."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th July, 1943; col. 2086, Vol. 390.] Those two answers seemed to me to be somewhat self-contradictory and not very satisfactory, because, in the light of the Parliamentary Secretary's first supplementary answer, this clearly was, whether justified or not—and I am not saying anything about that at the moment—a case of political censorship. Equally clearly, in view of the method by which it was applied, the Paper Control was used as the instrument of that censorship. So I cannot understand why the Parliamentary Secretary replied, "Not at all," when I asked whether it had been so used. In raising this matter now I am really asking for information rather than offering criticism. I should genuinely like to have this whole rather obscure matter of the foreign language newspapers, published in this country by our Allies, cleared up in several of its aspects.

I do not want to say much about the specific case of "La Marseillaise" because, for one thing, it was a newspaper which I did not very often see. I am told that one of its offences was that it published articles mischievously criticising America and the American Government; and, if so, I agree that that is in general principle a very deplorable thing indeed. I do not hold with newspapers criticising any of our Allies in harmful terms. [Interruption.] I did not read any of the articles myself, so I merely say that I agree that, in principle, that is a deplorable thing. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions about the suspension. First, was the newspaper given any kind of warning, as I think newspapers have been given in the past, and, second, has the Minister now dealt equally drastically, or, to use his own word, "toughly," with those Polish newspapers which, at about the same time, or a little earlier, were also publishing matter calculated to cause ill-feeling among the United Nations—publishing very violent articles criticising the Soviet Unon and so forth? I refer both to the Polish newspapers which operated under licence from the British Government and to those, far more scurrilous, which were published independently, on such paper as they could get hold of.

I am more interested in the general issues raised in these supplementary questions and answers than in the specific case of "La Marseillaise" because in the last year or two, on a number of occasions, the Minister of Supply has reiterated his determination not to be in any way a censor, in regard to the operation of the Paper Control, which comes under his Ministry. Again and again hon. Members who wanted things suppressed have asked the Minister of Supply if he could not withdraw the paper allocation from this or that publication, and again and again he has refused to do so. For instance, on 9th June last year the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply said, in reply to a request of this kind: I should be loath to become the censor of pamphlets."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th June, 1942; col. 938, Vol. 380.] On May 20th last year the Minister of Production said: The duty of wholesale censorship cannot be placed on the Production Departments."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 20th May, 1942; col. 232, Vol. 380.] On 22nd July last year—and this is, I think, an especially clear instance of what I am saying—a Member invited the Minister of Supply to cancel the allotment of paper to a periodical which he claimed was impeding the war effort. I will quote from Hansard: Sir A. DUNCAN: … The question whether there are grounds of policy for refusing to allow the periodical to continue is one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Sir J. LUCAS: Has the Minister any power to stop the supply of paper if he thinks that its use is wrong? Sir A. DUNCAN: I have no such power."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd July, 1942; col. 37, Vol. 382.] Well, this is how "La Marseillaise" was suppressed last month. I quote from "The Times" newspaper: The Minister of Supply yesterday revoked the paper licence granted for the publication of the De Gaullist newspaper 'La Marseillaise'. The Minister said a year ago: I have no such power. Has he now acquired or been granted such power? Even without the Ministry of Supply, there were two Departments exercising powers of restriction or censorship over the Press, the Ministry of Information and the Home Department, which, as we know from instances which have occurred, can proceed against newspapers by warning them, or by immediately suspending them, under Regulations 2D or 2C. There may be good reasons for granting the power of censorship to still another Department. It may be convenient for the Government to use the Paper Control in this way as an instrument of censorship, but, whether the Minister of Supply exercises this power only on the advice of the Minister of Information or whether he does it off his own bat, it cannot any longer, I submit, be claimed that the Paper Control is not used as an instrument of censorship. But this is contrary to expressed Government policy, and I think we are entitled to ask the reasons for the change of policy.

But this I must add. If the Minister of Supply and the Paper Control no longer regard paper, so to speak, simply as paper—mechanically, without regard to the merit or demerit of what is printed on it—surely the Minister will have in future to give more satisfactory replies to those hon. Members who complain that paper is often not available for publications designed to assist the war effort although it is still available in very large quantities for all sorts of publications which do not help the war effort at all—pacifist, crypto-Fascist, anti-Semitic and all the other innumerable crank publications which we see. One of the commonest things that one hears from hon. Members of the House is their complaint about the torrent of pamphlets, memoranda, manifestos, and so on which reaches all of us by every mail.

We have often asked, "Can anything be done about this?" and have been told in effect that nothing can be done. Nothing could in the past be done, but now, since the Paper Control is being used in this way, the Minister of Supply might have to undertake the difficult and unenviable task of drawing up what I may call a list of priorities in rubbish. I do not envy him the task, but I think he has been let in for it by this new development. I need hardly give more than one or two instances of the kind of thing about which I have been speaking. There is an admirable periodical called the "Aeroplane Spotter," which is very widely read in A.T.C. squadrons, by boys who hope to go into the Air Force and by all sorts of mechanically-minded and air-minded youth. That suddenly had to cut down its circulation by 50 per cent., approximately, because some of its paper was withdrawn. There was a small booklet of trigonometrical tables, for a, further edition for which the paper could not be found, although it was much in request by precision engineers and in factories engaged on war production. There are medical and educational books, and books of all kinds of a valuable nature, for which you cannot now get paper, and yet, as we know, our mail-bags are swollen and our book-stalls are laden with every sort of salacious and seditious tripe. I am not at all suggesting that the Minister ought to suppress all these various minority views, however deplorable they may seem to us, in one direction or another. On the contrary, it is very desirable that free jobbing printers should still have their allocation of paper for printing pamphlets, posters, leaflets and all the different kinds of material they do print. There will be difficulties in the way of drawing up any list of priorities because tastes and opinions differ so widely. I imagine there would be very few hon. Members of this House, except perhaps the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) who would object to as much paper as possible being allocated to a book of which I received a review copy yesterday, the new volume of the Prime Minister's speeches. On the other hand, as I say, literary tastes do differ, and while the lieutenant-colonel about whom I had a Question down to-day objects very strongly to that delectable strip-cartoon "Jane," the War Office and the India Office and the Admiralty take all the steps they can to circulate it to the Forces. So obviously the Minister would have a very difficult task; but I cannot believe that the difficulties are insuperable, and an anomaly as glaring as this, and as patent to everybody, should, I suggest, not be allowed to remain ungrappled with.

This is not the time to deal with the whole question of the paper supply for books, but I would like to say parenthetically that I was not at all satisfied with the answer that I received yesterday from the Minister of Supply, when he said that, generally speaking, only paper licensed for book production may be used for that purpose. "Generally speaking" is a phrase that does not carry a particularly great significance if you do not define what the permitted exceptions to the general rule are. I would like to ask the Ministry of Supply one or two questions which they can brood over in the Recess, and, if there has not been some substantial improvement by the end of the Recess, I shall hope to raise this matter again. I would like to ask the Ministry of Supply how it is that, despite the declared policy of that Ministry and of the Board of Trade, new publishers are still springing up frequently. Where do they get the paper? Obviously, as the Ministry know, they get it from the jobbing printers who have free paper allocated to them. Why is it that these jobbing printers disregard the Ministry's instructions or requests? What check is kept on the use of the paper allocated to these jobbing printers? Is any check kept at all, to see that they do not supply it to the new mushroom book-publishers who are springing up?

As I say, that is all in parenthesis. I return, in conclusion, to my original point, the question of "La Marseillaise" and the foreign language papers, about which I should be very grateful to have one or two answers from the Minister of Information. When I was asking my Supplementary Question on 7th July an hon. Member, who I do not think is here to-day, interrupted to say, "There is a war on." The interruption, though hackneyed and infantile, was not a completely useless reminder. It is, of course, just because there is a war on that we have these problems of Allied newspapers published here. It is because there is a war on that we are troubled by these problems of censorship; and although there is a war on—or even, perhaps, still more, because there is a war on, it is the duty of Members of Parliament to watch with vigilance all the operations of censorship and restriction and to assist in defining their proper limits.