HC Deb 12 December 1945 vol 417 cc397-401
81. Mr. Driberg

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air if he will make a statement on the action taken recently in connection with the publication in the "Grantham Journal" of a letter from an aircraftman; and what disciplinary action has been taken against those responsible for this infringement of the right of Servicemen to contribute such letters to the Press without permission or censorship' and the right of editors to publish such material without censorship or subsequent inquisition.

91 and 92. Mr. Kendall

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air (1) if he is aware that under King's Regulation 1073, a commanding officer has the right to take action in the event of his disagreeing with a Press communication written by one of his subordinates; and if he will consider modifying this Regulation to prevent a repetition of the situation which has recently taken place in Grantham with reference to A/C Isaacs;

(2) if the attention of his Department has been drawn to the case of Aircraftman Isaacs, who wrote a letter to a Grantham newspaper criticising the manner in which a Remembrance Day church service had been conducted; if he is aware that two visits were paid to the newspaper demanding the return of the letter and that disciplinary action was threatened against the airman; and if he has any statement to make.

95. Mr. Garry Allighan

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air whether he will investigate the circumstances in which officers of the R.A.F. Group head quarters at St. Vincents, Grantham, visited the offices of the "Grantham Journal" and demanded from the editor the original manuscript of a published letter contributed by Aircraftman F. G. Isaac, which commented on a civic Remembrance Day service; whether he is aware that the CO. has notified all men at St. Vincents that they may not write to newspapers without his consent; and if he will make it clear that every Serviceman may write to the Press on non-Service matters.

Mr. Strachey

I will with the permission of Mr. Speaker and the House, make a statement on these. Questions at the end of Questions.


Mr. Strachey

i want first of all to say what the rule is on the subject of officers and airmen writing to the Press. Broadly speaking, the rule as set out in the two relevant paragraphs of King's Regulations, 1072 and 1073, is that an airman or officer is at liberty to write letters to the Press so long as his letters do not concern the Service in any way. What he must not do, without his commanding officer's permission, is to put anything in his letters which criticises or even discusses his own Service.

I have carefully re-read those paragraphs of K. R's and 'they seem to me reasonable and just, and I do not think they require alteration, but I am not sure that they are always clearly understood by commanding officers throughout the Service. For example, it is true that a statement was included in station standing orders at St. Vincents, Grantham, to the effect that officers and airmen must not write to the Press at all on any subject without their commanding officer's sanction. This, of course, was quite wrong. These orders have now been amended and steps are being taken to see that all commanding officers understand those two paragraphs of K.R's.

Now I come to what happened recently at Grantham. A.C.2. Isaac wrote a letter to the "Grantham Journal" in which he criticised somewhat severely the con duct of the ceremony held there on Remembrance Sunday, alleging that the ceremony was conducted not so much for the sake of its proper purpose as to redound to the honour and glory of the Mayor of Grantham. Be that as it may, there was nothing, so far, to involve the Royal Air Force. Unfortunately, the air man's letter went on to criticise the way in which the Royal Air Force church parade, held in connection with the ceremony, was organised. Thus his letter did discuss and criticise his own Service, and I'm afraid that in so doing he did technically commit an offence against Service discipline. Nor do I think that his Commanding Officer could simply have overlooked this offence. It really would not do if serving airmen were allowed to engage in controversy in the public Press about the orders issued to them by their superior officers.

On the other hand, I am bound to say that the Commanding Officer from the outset began to make very heavy weather of the incident. He had Isaac up and asked him if he had written the letter. Unfortunately, the airman—he was very young and very nervous—lost his head and denied that he had written it. It was at this point that the Commanding Officer was led into a course of action which had serious consequences, since it raised the issue of principle of the freedom of the Press. The Commanding Officer attempted to obtain the original of the letter from the Editor of the "Grantham Journal." He first sent the R.A.F. Police down to the editor's office and asked for the letter. When this was quite rightly refused, the civil police were approached and the impression was apparently conveyed in some way to the Editor of the "Grantham Journal" that he could be forced to produce the letter under a Defence Regulation. No such Defence Regulation, of course, exists.

Finally, A.C.2 Isaac himself, accompanied by the R.A.F. Police, was sent down to the editor's office and, on Isaac's own request, the editor did surrender the original copy of the letter. It was over these attempts to re cover the original letter that—in my opinion, and in the opinion of the Air Council—the R.A.F. authorities concerned definitely exceeded their authority. The editor was completely within his rights in withholding the original copy of the letter and the attempt to extract it from him was ill-judged, to put it mildly. Instructions are being issued to all R.A.F. authorities on their relations to the Press in the new situation of peacetime conditions.

Having made that apology to the Press, I would like to add this appeal. I would ask editors in general, and the editor of the "Grantham Journal" in particular, not to encourage members of the Forces to discuss their own Service in the Public Press. The editor of the "Grantham Journal" has, in his quite natural annoyance at what has happened, invited airmen to send him anonymous contributions, contrary to established journalistic practice. I suggest to the House and to the Press that in this rather difficult period of transition for the Forces from a wartime to a peacetime basis, the interests of the men in them will not be served if the Press does this. I hope the House will accept my assurance that this case is not typical of the methods used by commanding officers of the Royal Air Force in dealing with the Press or in administering discipline, and that the Regulations are normally applied with understanding and commonsense. Finally. there is the question of the airman concerned, A.C.2 Isaac. I would at once assure the House that no further disciplinary action will be taken against him.

Mr. Kendall

Can the Under-Secretary state whether or not the Commanding Officer concerned will be told that in similar cases he should not have the airman visited by a psychiatrist to find out whether he is right in his head or not; and' is it not a fact that the Commanding Officer did threaten the young man in this case that, if he were found to be right in his head, he would have to face a court-martial?

Mr. Strachey

There is a conflict of evidence on that point, but I have read a very full and sympathetic report from the doctor concerned in this case, and I think it will be handled in the airman's best interest.

Mr. Driberg

On the general principle, has not the application of these two Regulations been in fact modified since the statement in this House by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) in 1943, and would it not, for instance, be competent for an airman to write to a paper about some general subject such as demobilisation, which, though political in a general way, does affect his own Service?

Mr. Strachey

The answer to that question does not depend on whether the subject is political or not, but upon whether it affects his own Service.

Mr. Driberg

But a general subject like demobilisation?

Mr. Strachey

I think that if he discusses his own Service he had better get permission first.

Mr. Cobb

Will the hon. Gentleman state what action, if any, will be taken against the Commanding Officer at this station?

Mr. Strachey

I think the Commanding Officer will see the statement I have read to the House, and if I was in his place I should not exactly like it.

Mr. W. J. Brown

In view of the fact that what the airman criticised was the church parade, would it not be the case that if the Labour Government had abolished these un-Christian compulsory church parades this would never have arisen?

Mr. Strachey

That is another question.

Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas

Could an air man write about demobilisation in the Army or the Navy without mentioning his own Service?

Mr. Strachey

I should want notice of that question, but as things stand under King's Regulations, I rather think he could.

Mr. Cobb

In the interests of the man himself, will he be moved from this station?

Mr. Strachey

I think some action of that kind will be taken.