HC Deb 05 July 1944 vol 401 cc1273-82

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

Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)

I wish to raise a short discussion on the position of the Cabinet Ministers who are also proprietors——

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.]

Sir R. Acland

I would like to raise this question as a matter of general principle, and also in relation to the present position of the Lord Privy Seal, who is simultaneously the proprietor, or the major proprietor, of the "Daily Express," the "Evening Standard" and the "Sunday Express." Hon. Members will remember that during the Conservative Administration of 1924–29 a somewhat similar question arose, I think, in relation to the position of the late Lord Birkenhead, who contributed articles to the Press. After discussion an unwritten rule was made and accepted that Cabinet Ministers should not contribute articles to the Press, for several reasons. The first was that a Minister should give the whole of his time to his job, and that if a Cabinet Minister expressed certain thoughts in an article there were only two possibilities—either that they were his own private thoughts or expressions of Government policy. If they were expressions of Government policy then an article by an individual Minister in his own paper was not the proper way of expressing Government policy, and if they were an expression of his own private point of view then it was thought that Ministers, who would have wide opportunities of placing articles in the Press, should not use that particular way of publicising their own views.

I fully appreciate that different views can be held, but it would seem to me that there is at least a prima face case for saying that this rule that Cabinet Ministers should not contribute articles to the Press applies a fortiori to the position of a Minister of Cabinet rank, who is the proprietor of largely influential journals in which he is obviously at any moment in a position to write unsigned articles and to make quite sure that they will be published and in which, of course, he exercises, or at any rate can exercise, control over general policy. In the case of the Lord Privy Seal I think it is general knowledge that although, doubtless, when he is a Member of the Government he does not devote so many hours or days a week to his newspapers as he otherwise would, nonetheless he exercises fairly active control over general policy. It is true that one of his editors at least and one of his cartoonists have amazingly wide liberty of action, but in the last resort it is he who controls policy, and when editors are changed—as I believe they are in newspapers from time to time —then it is the Lord Privy Seal who exercises responsibility for making those changes. That means that a Cabinet 'Minister who is in the important position of being the proprietor of several papers holds in his hands powers which are not available to his colleagues. I therefore want to raise the general question—some may share my views and others may express a different view—as to whether this is a proper and normal state of affairs.

Coming from the general position to the particular instance that is related to it, I suppose it is a matter of common knowledge that there is what can be described in no other terms than a vendetta against the Co-operative Wholesale Society in one of his newspapers. It seems rather peculiar when he has as his Cabinet colleague at the Admiralty the leader of the Parliamentary group associated with this organisation. If the position had been reversed in a political sense, and if such a Minister as the Home Secretary had been the proprietor of newspapers, and had very powerfully stamped his personality upon them, and if in these last months those newspapers had been pursuing a steady attack on the Property Owners Association, the mineowners, the railway stockholders or any other such body of citizens, I cannot help thinking there would have been protests and questions as to the propriety of this procedure. The organisation with which I am associated has also attracted his Lordship's attention. I do not want to get particular individuals into trouble but we have heard, as nearly directly as you can come to being absolutely direct, about instructions given to the people who write for those papers, not to comment upon our activities from the point of view of people who hold a different political opinion but to hunt round for any item which cant possibly be twisted to our discredit.

I will give, an example of what has actually happened. A certain gentleman started certain companies for the purpose of gold mining in Australia in 1932. The company got into difficulties about 1939. After all the difficulties had arisen, a certain Mr. MacKay was called in in his professional capacity to try to clear up the mess tha t had been made and save what could be saved for the people who had invested their money in the companies. It turned out that it would be advantageous that he should be a director of some of these companies. He was a director of other companies, but that was not mentioned. This one fact is dug out and printed in one of these newspapers —that Mr. MacKay, the chairman of Common Wealth, has been a director of companies A, B, C and D. These companies not being in good repute with the public, the implication was that he was one of the people who had caused the trouble from the beginning, instead of only being. called in in his professional capacity to clear it up.

One does not complain—it is all in the day's work—if newspaper proprietors behave in this way, or give such instructions to their, servants, but when those newspaper proprietors are also Cabinet Minister the position becomes difficult. After all, Cabinet Ministers sometimes take part in by-elections—one expects them to be hard-hitting politically—but no Cabinet Minister speaking on a by-election platform would have stooped to pull off this kind of statement, which is factually true but carries the implication I have mentioned. Yet here is a Cabinet Minister' who, through his power to direct a large number of journalists, is able to do it. It does not feel right to me.

I want to come to what seems to me to be really the most important point. In all Governments, quite inevitably, properly, and healthily, we have from time to time what are known as Cabinet reshuffles. It would be a bad Government which lasted for five years without one or two Cabinet reshuffles. Behind these events as they occur there always lie a number of political issues, but as these issues begin to exert their pressure up to a point when a Cabinet reshuffle begins to be discussed as a possibility, one knows, human nature being what it is, that these political issues are apt to personalise themselves on to the persons of different Cabinet Ministers who may be affected one way or the other. It seems to me to be wrong that among the Ministers who may be involved one way or the other in a Cabinet reshuffle there should be one who wields the great power which the proprietor of several newspapers of wide circulation has. This power manifestly can include the power, which need not even be expressed in suggestion or hint, when a Cabinet reshuffle is made in a way which violently offends the Cabinet Minister concerned, to swing that power from the support of the Government to a position which is against the Government. It seems all wrong to me that a Cabinet Minister should have this power. That is why I raised this matter, so that it may be discussed. I would like to say to the Minister of Information that he perhaps might feel that his connection with a newspaper came into what I have been saying. With great wisdom and propriety, he has entirely dissociated himself from any connection with newspapers with which he was previously associated, and I would like to assure him that in what I have been saying there is not one iota of my thought which is directed towards his position.

The Minister of Information (Mr. Brendan Bracken)

So has Lord Beaver-brook.

Sir R. Acland

The reply to that is, "Tell it to the Marines," because I do not believe there is an hon. Member who could lay his hand on his heart and say that he believed that to be true in fact. In law I do not know what the position may be.

Mr. Bracken

My hon. Friend has said that I have dissociated myself from the newspapers with which I was formerly connected. All official association has ceased. So has Lord Beaverbrook's association with his newspapers.

Sir R. Acland

My tribute to the right hon. Gentleman is that the separation in his case has been in the letter, the law and the spirit. Whether in the case of Lord Beaverbrook the thing has been done in law I do not know, but I should not have thought there was a Member of the House who knows anything of what is generally called Fleet Street who is not perfectly well aware that on matters of major policy the Lord Privy Seal is——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)

I ought to warn the House that, as far as I understand the practice, it is not usual, and in fact is against the Rules of the House, to attack the character of a Member of another place in any way. I simply give that out as a warning, so that any such attack should, not develop in any way.

Sir R. Acland

I do not think it was an attack upon the late Lord Birkenhead, when it was suggested that he had been wrong in writing articles for the Press.

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

We are not dealing with him at the moment.

Sir R. Acland

I hope I am not implying an attack on the character of Lord Beaverbrook.

Mr. Bull

What is the hon. Member doing?

Sir R. Acland

I do not think that among hon. Members of this House it could be very long sustained if it were suggested—whatever the legal position may be—that the Lord Privy Seal exercises no influence whatever on the general policy, or on the personnel of the editors, of this group of papers or that changes are not made directly on the instigation of the Lord Privy Seal. It is news to me and I think it will be news to a great many other people.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby (Epsom)

The Common Wealth mountain has been in labour and has produced a mouse. What is the real charge which has been brought by the hon. Member? I hold no brief either for the "Daily Express" or for Lord Beaverbrook, except that in declaring my interest in the matter, as one says, I can say that Lord Beaverbrook happens to reside in my constituency. I cannot, however, call him my constituent, because a Peer cannot be one's constituent. The whole of the reason for the hon. Member's speech was that the "Daily Express" has attacked the Common Wealth Party and the only way in which the hon. Member could get back at the "Daily Express" was to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I have intervened because I think this is a serious matter to this extent: where are we to stop, if we are to say that individuals who have outside interests shall not be in the Government? It would be a very dangerous thing, just because one did not like this or that individual or his occupation, to say that he was to be debarred, and by inference attacked, as Lord Beaverbrook has been attacked, on the grounds that he was not playing entirely straight.

There is no difference between the position of the Minister of Information, who was connected with a newspaper, and that of Lord Beaverbrook. We accept the word of my right hon. Friend that he no longer has active direction of the newspaper, although he must have stamped his colourful personality upon it, just as Lord Beaverbrook's colourful personality does, to some extent, stamp itself on the "Daily Express." The real reason for the speech we heard is that the "Daily Express," I will not say exposed, but did go into some of the inner workings of the Common Wealth Party. There never was such nonsense, as to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

Anyone who read the remarks of the hon. Baronet when he said he was going to raise this subject on the Adjournment, and who has listened to his speech to-day, will be conscious of a gap and a division between the two sets of observations. When he said he was going to raise the matter on the Adjournment he complained that in the "Daily Express" a propaganda of hatred against Germany was being spread and he gave us an example of a cock and bull story, as he described it, which had appeared in the "Daily Express" the day before, to the effect that 47 R.A.F. officers had been the victims of a mass murder. On the basis that it was a cock and bull story he thought it quite wrong that the proprietor of that newspaper should be in the Cabinet. As we know, in broad outline that was not a cock and bull story. It was unhappily the fact that not 47 but 50 officers had been the victims of a mass murder, not exactly in the circumstances originally described, but in worse circumstances. The original suggestion was that the guards had run amuk and that there had been general confusion. The actual facts were that the murders had been committed in cold blood, as was stated by the Foreign Secretary.

Sir R. Acland

We have very little time on the Adjournment.

The Attorney-General

We have. Indeed, I do not 'complain that the hon. Baronet has raised this matter, not on the basis that the "Daily Express" was producing that cock and bull story, or that he has had to find another cock and bull story, about Mr. MacKay. I was in a position to deal with his original complaint, but he gave me no notice about Mr. MacKay. That is not the way in which one would expect an hon. Member to raise a matter when it relates to a Member of the Government.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

But Ministers do it.

The Attorney-General

One of the fundamental principles of our Constitution is, of course, that the Prime Minister chooses the names which he will submit to His Majesty for the various offices, and of course he may choose names of persons who have some particular, and normally who have some other, interest. He may choose a great landowner, or a man of great prominence in the Co-operative Wholesale Movement, or he may choose a newspaper proprietor. One can give other cases where a man who becomes a Cabinet Minister has relations outside public life in one form of activity or another. It is quite plain that when a man becomes a Cabinet Minister there are many things which obviously he must cease to do. I can assure the House—and the hon. Baronet has produced no evidence that the Lord Privy Seal still takes any part—that he has taken no part whatsoever in the management and conduct of these newspapers since he became Lord Privy Seal. Of course, as the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) said, Lord Beaverbrook has been connected with these newspapers for many years and his personality may go marching on, but he takes no part whatever in their conduct and management. That is right, and he carries out the principles which are rightly applied in this class of case. There are many other classes of activity where it would be right, when a man becomes a Cabinet Minister, quite apart from the question of time, that he should cease to become concerned with their management and activity. There are some cases where a man might take some part, for instance, in managing his own property, but in the case of newspaper directorships and companies, trade, and with minor exceptions, solicitors, he should take no part in the activities of the firm with which he was previously associated. That is what has happened here.

I cannot think that one should lay down as a constitutional principle that in no case should a Prime Minister be entitled to have as a colleague—to submit for His Majesty's approval—someone who owns a small, large or controlling interest in a newspaper. I think there would be no such justification for any limitation on the right of the Prime Minister to choose his colleagues. The hon. baronet suggested that this had something to do with a matter which was raised in the Parliament of 1924 or 1929 when there was a statement made in the House by the then Prime Minister in answer to a Question. It is, that it was undesirable that Ministers should indulge in the practice of journalism, that they should write articles in the papers. It was agreed that they could write more weighty books, on subjects of learning, and so forth, but 'that contributing to day-to-day journalism was undesirable. That has been laid down, and it has been observed. The Lord Privy Seal is not writing articles for these papers, or engaging in the practice of journalism. Taking the hon. Baronet's point, it seems to me that that is a wholly different thing. His point is that a man who has a controlling interest in a newspaper, although he takes no part in the management, ought not to be a Cabinet Minister. I suggest that the hon. Baronet, who really has completely changed his ground since he told us that he was going to raise this matter—although he has, if I may say so, put his point with moderation—has failed to make out any case for saying that the Prime Minister should be precluded from asking someone who is a newspaper proprietor to assist him, in one capacity or another, as a Minister.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

I would like, perhaps a little unexpectedly, to support my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) in one thing. I am entirely in favour of newspaper proprietors quarrelling with each other. The hon. Baronet is a newspaper proprietor. He owns a newspaper called "Town and Country Review," which came to an untimely end, and the remains were purchased by the "Evening Standard"——

Sir R. Acland

The paper was suppressed by the Ministry of Supply. They would not give us the paper.

Mr. Baxter

—for a sum of somewhere around £500. However, a new publication called "The Commonwealth Review, 6d., once a month," is sold. I only want to warn the hon. Baronet that, if this goes too, he will not sell it again to the "Standard" for £500. They say that a "sucker" is born every minute, but you cannot fool a "sucker" a second time. This journal will have to travel on its own merits. I do not think that the hon. Baronet's words were very caustic or very cruel: they were certainly not very effective; but I suggest that he has shown, for a newspaper proprietor, a virginal innocence of how newspapers are produced. There is much authority vested, not only in editors and assistant editors. As he should know, it is the "boys in the back room" who realty get the paper out—these Scottish editors, night editors, and news editors. They do not refer everything to the proprietor. Perhaps the hon. Baronet has done us a good turn in raising this question, because he has shown us that newspaper proprietors always fall out, and I hope that that will always be the case, because, in the feuds of Fleet Street, between the peers and others who own newspapers, there is hope for us who are interested and who dwell in the anterooms of the, great.

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