HC Deb 22 February 1944 vol 397 cc649-51
49. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Prime Minister whether he has completed his inquiry into the restrictions imposed on war correspondents in Italy; and can he give any information to the House.

50. Mr. Baxter

asked the Prime Minister if he has any further statement to make on the interference by the military authorities with the facilities and the established rights of newspaper correspondents in Italy.

The Prime Minister

My inquiries did not take me very long, as I myself sent the telegram asking for a stricter censorship on alarmist reports about the position in the bridgehead sent not by the correspondents there, but by persons in Naples and Algiers. Such words as "desperate" ought not to be used about the position in a battle of this kind when they are false. Still less should they be used if they were true. In the first case they needlessly distress the public; in the second they encourage the enemy to attack. I am glad the radio facilities have been restored to the correspondents in the bridgehead. These were not the people who caused the trouble but others far in rear. The liberty of the Press is of high consequence, and so also are the lives of the troops.

Mr. Shinwell

Has not the right hon. Gentleman's statement made it clear that General Alexander himself has not personally complained of pessimistic statements about the position, or only did so when he received a telegram directing his attention to these statements? Is it not true that newspaper correspondents, generally, have acted with the greatest discretion?

The Prime Minister

I take full responsibility for doing my best to see that these matters are conducted in a proper manner. I certainly thought, from some of the headlines and some of the telegrams coming from people at Algiers, and from reports in many cases to the American Press, that a wrong impression was being given, both to our people and to the enemy, of the situation in the bridgehead. I, therefore, issued some reassuring statements myself, based on statements of the commanders, and at the same time telegraphed asking that there should be a stricter censorship on alarmist phraseology. I take full responsibility for that. I did not in fact telegraph to General Alexander at all. I thought he was much too busy with the battle. I telegraphed to General Wilson, who may have shown the telegram to General Alexander. With regard to giving a general certificate of blamelessness to all newspaper correspondents, wherever they have been at any time during the war, I should like to say that I think they have discharged their duties with very great discretion, and that is particularly true of the men who were nearest to the enemy and in the same danger as the troops. There is a general desire among newspaper correspondents to discharge their duties with discretion, and to help the troops in every way. At the same time, accidents will happen even in the best regulated families.

Mr. Beverley Baxter

As a former war correspondent would not my right hon. Friend have resented fiercely writing a despatch in the field based on a policy dictated by a general in the field?

The Prime Minister

I should not have been allowed in South Africa, where I was a war correspondent for some time, to say, for instance, that the position inside Ladysmith was desperate.

Sir Herbert Williams

Is not my right hon. Friend aware that the really alarmist statements were not made by newspaper correspondents but by members of the American and Canadian Governments?

The Prime Minister

I am only responsible for the part I took in the matter.

Sir H. Williams

Since the Press are being blamed for actions taken by members of the Canadian and American Governments, is it not right that the right people should be blamed and not the wrong ones?

Mr. Shinwell

Might it not be more desirable, if there are pessimistic statements emerging from any quarter, apart from military quarters, for the High Command on the spot to issue more frequent and authoritative statements?

The Prime Minister

I think that they do issue very frequent and authoritative statements, and I supplemented them with another of my own.