HC Deb 26 February 1946 vol 419 cc1879-88

10.29 p.m.

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

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith. North)rose

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)

On a point of Order. Have the Opposition no rights in this House? When they express their views against a proposition such as that which has been moved by the Government, are you not entitled, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, are you not justified, are you not compelled to accept

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I cannot accept that as a point of Order, as the Committee stage of the Bill has now been concluded and Progress reported.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Pritt

On 30th January I asked the Attorney-General whether his attention had been drawn to—[Hon. Members: "Speak up."]—I would explain to the House that I have a very bad cold, a fact which I would have thought hon. Members opposite would have grasped.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)

On a point of Order. It is impossible to hear the hon. and learned Member.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is not a point of Order.

Mr. Pritt

I shall endeavour to make the hon. and gallant Member understand, but—[Interruption]—I do not intend to respond to the wishes of hon. Members opposite, because I have learned by experience— [Interruption ]

Mr. Glanville (Consett)

On a point of Order. Is it in Order for the gentlemen of England opposite to display their ignorance, by refusing to allow the hon. and learned Member a hearing?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That appears to be a point of Order that would only result in disorder.

Mr. Pritt

As I was saying, on 30th January I put the following Question to the Attorney-General: whether his attention has been drawn to a document distributed in England, without any printer's name and address, by a body called the Catholic Social Guild and written by the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, in which the military operations of our Soviet allies against our Nazi enemies are compared to the onward rush of Mongol hordes and our allies themselves are alleged to surpass the worst achievements of Nazi degenerates; and whether he will prosecute the persons responsible for this publication for libel and for distributing the document without the printer's name and address. The Attorney-General replied: My attention has been called to the document in question which appears to have been published mainly in Scotland, in which country I am advised their is no law corresponding to the law of criminal libel in this country. So far as publication in England is concerned, I do not consider, having regard to all the circumstances of this particular case, that I would be justified in instituting proceedings for criminal libel. In regard to the omission of the statutory imprint, inquiries are being made as to where the document was printed, and if, as appears likely, it was printed in Scotland, any question of proceedings will be one for the Lord Advocate."—[Official Report, 30th January, 1946, Vol. 418, c. 241-2.] I think we are agreed that it is of primary importance that we should maintain friendship with our two great Allies, and with all our Allies. This does not mean, of course, that we should maintain silence, but it also does not mean that we ought not to have some restraint, some limitations, in what is said about our Allies. Of course, the Red Army and the Soviet Union in general have been slandered for years, and always, within a few months of the slander, it has been discovered to be without foundation. This was an attack principally on the Red Army. The Red Army is the particular pride of the Soviet people, and it was our particular pride when it was saving our skins. A year ago, "The Times" military correspondent wrote of it: The Red Army have learnt of their popularity in foreign lands which they had thought hostile…. They showed remarkable dignity and forbearance, evoking tributes from many who had heretofore too readily accepted the popular version of the Russian character. Unfortunately, in the course of time, as people's fears of being defeated by the Nazis disappeared, other and less reputable fears took their place, and Nazi propaganda, which, at all times, before and after the military defeat of Germany, knew that its only hope was to split East and West, embarked on a great campaign to tell the British and American forces in Europe that the Red Army was a gang of murderers, rapers and looters, and to tell the Red Army that the British and American Armies were gangs of murderers, rapers and looters. They found a few dupes in many countries, and a few traitors to mankind in some countries, whom they could persuade to believe, or, at any rate, to repeat, these stories. They told endless stories about the Soviet Union and other people, and a good deal of trouble resulted. The particular calumny with which I wish to deal tonight—I will not say it is the worst example I have seen, but it certainly is very bad—is contained in a pastoral letter of the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, published by the Catholic Social Guild in Edinburgh, and it has no printer's imprint. The passage I propose to read contains the foulest slanders. In a succeeding passage, the writer shows that he knows nothing about the things of which he is writing, and is conscious of the fact that people are in a position to contradict him, because he asks his readers not to believe them if they do. He says: The onward rush of Mongol hordes into Europe has revealed a state of savagery and moral depravity undreamed of in our Western civilisation. That is the Red Army advancing into Europe to save, with the assistance of British and American troops advancing from the other side, civilisation from the Nazis. Cruelty and barbarism which surpassed the worst achievements of the Nazi degenerates in Germany are now paraded before the world. Thus the Red Army are made to appear worse than the people who massacred Russians and the Jews, the people who built hundreds of gas chambers in Europe and made themselves the most abominable people in history. Then, he says: Ask those who have had first-hand experience of the Russian concentration camps, and ask those who have been living on the frontier of the Russian Army in Poland. Well, many of us have asked such people, including the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds), and we have learned that these stories are Nazi propaganda without any foundation. Then, this slanderer goes on, obviously anxious lest the truth shall come out: Do not seek the truth from those who, for natural reasons of any kind whatever, have sought to conceal well-established facts. Do not seek the truth from those who allowed themselves to be conducted blindfold into specially selected districts and feast their imagination on dreams of Elysian Fields which do not exist in this world, least of all in territories subject to Moscow." He describes it as "a primeval state of barbarism and degradation." What would be the reaction not merely of hon. Members opposite but of hon. Members in all quarters of the House if "Pravda" wrote that about the British Army, or if "Pravda" or "The Times," wrote it about the United States Army in Europe, or if some reputable newspaper in America or some Hearst newspaper in America wrote that about the British Army? But that is an exact and complete parallel. And what would happen if the "Daily Worker" said it about the American Army, I just cannot imagine. The first proposition I make is that I do not suppose any English lawyer would have any doubt that that was an indictable libel in this country, if published in this country, as it was. It was sent to many Members of the House here in London. Of course, I have sympathy with the Attorney-General. It does not follow, and it is not in my philosophy that you must always prosecute where there is a prima facie case. All I am saying as an English lawyer is—we have had too many in this House tonight but it cannot foe helped—that no English lawyer would doubt that this was an indictable offence. No politician, with any sense of reality or responsibility, would doubt that such things broadcast in this country could do as much evil as almost any other form of slander.

I come to the essence of the answer which the Attorney-General gave. He said that this form of the law of criminal libel as we find it in England, is not to be found in Scotland. I do not know whether the Scots are so singularly pure in expression that there is no need for it there, or whether the wise lawgivers in Scotland thought that the great Scottish sport of theological discussion would be cramped by such legislation. But what follows from that? Is it to be said—and I think it is worth examining this from the general point of view—that if you publish a criminal libel in Scotland and then distribute it in England, you cannot prosecute it in Scotland? Perhaps it would not be very appropriate to prosecute in England. I do not think that the Attorney-General's answer meant that. But it is worth while remembering this. If you once take that line, then all sorts of people, of some of whom perhaps hon. Gentlemen opposite would approve or disapprove in varying degrees, according to their political colour, would proceed to distribute in England libelling literature published in Scotland. I have no objection to Scottish printers turning a dishonest penny if they like which would produce a libel, but it would make our law of libel work extremely badly. There is no technical difficulty about prosecuting in this country, people who are resident in Scotland, or bringing them here from Scotland to stand their trial. Indeed, this particular gentleman has announced his desire to be prosecuted. I do not know whether he knew, that if he was prosecuted in this country, he would have to prove his facts or be convicted. He wants to be prosecuted, and that is the only point on which I agree with him. I do, on that point, urge on the Attorney-General the desirability of reconsidering his cautiously phrased answer.

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Eastern)

Just one question. Is the hon. and learned Member maintaining that the English would have a right to apprehend this gentleman in Scotland, and bring him down to London to stand trial for criminal libel?

Mr. Pritt

Certainly. I would refer the hon. Member to the Statute of 1848. We cannot bring the man here and prosecute him for what he has done in Scotland, but we can fetch him here, and prosecute him for what he has done here. I do hope the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General will reconsider that point. I have, from time to time, looked into libels and slanders both of this and other periods, and I find quite a number have come from Scotland. A great many of them, more than of those published in England, do not bear the printer's imprint. The law relating to printer's imprints is not too satisfactory; it is very cumbersome, but it can be made to work. It remained on the Statute Book, when a lot of other legislation was got rid of, in order to make provision against the sort of thing this document does. What the Attorney-General said was that it was no doubt printed in Scotland, and, if so, it would be a matter for the Lord Advocate. Cannot hon. Members see the loophole? If it is possible to print everything in Scotland without a printer's imprint, if people have to be prosecuted in Scotland, and if you let the print come into England as much as you like, the position will be difficult. It was made clear in a court some fifteen or twenty years ago where a Left wing publisher was involved, that anybody who distributes, as well as prints, can have proceedings taken against him for distributing a thing which carries no printer's imprint. Therefore, I ask whether the Attorney-General does not think he ought to prosecute on that. I hope he will say that this type of slander cannot be published with impunity.

10.49 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

Within recent weeks, two pamphlets have been received, no doubt by all hon. Members of the House, both containing political propaganda, both without printer's imprints', and both from what purported to be religious sources; one of them from a Protestant source, and one from the source which is under consideration now. I think the whole House will agree that it is unfortunate that religious occasions should be used for what is obviously political and partisan propaganda. I deplore many of the statements in this pamphlet, calculated as they are to make for misunderstanding between our own people and the people of the U.S.S.R., to whose efforts, in the common cause during the war, this country owes so much. I feel, certainly at least as strongly as the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt), that there are few things more important to the future peace and prosperity of this country and the world than that we should secure a greater understanding with the people of Soviet Russia; and that we should secure more evidence of good will between the two peoples. Nobody can regret political propaganda of this kind more than I do, tending, as it obviously does, to exacerbate such differences as exist. But, however deplorable, and however intemperate, the statements in this pamphlet may appear to be, that is not to say that the machinery of the criminal law should be used as a kind of political censorship to suppress them. In Scotland, where, as the hon. and learned Member has pointed out, the main circulation of this document occurred, there is, in fact, no law of criminal libel at all. The matter, in that country, could only have been dealt with under the law of sedition; and there is, of course, nothing approaching sedition in it.

In England, although we have a law of criminal libel which might, I do not doubt, be technically applicable to a document of this kind, the wise policy has been followed of using that law sparingly, and of only invoking it in cases of this type where there is some real danger that something approaching a breach of the peace might result. No breach of the peace has resulted in this case, and I cannot think that any of the sound, hard-headed, people of this country, and still less of Scotland, would have been incited to a breach of the peace by intemperate, partisan, political propaganda of this kind.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

Why was it that the hard-headed and intelligent people of Scotland, to whom the hon. and learned Gentleman has referred, were capable of putting, the law into operation when I said something they did not like? If I could get 12 months' imprisonment for expressing an opinion which the other side did not like, surely, there would be no harm in giving this old fellow the same.

The Attorney-General

I have some sympathy with the hon. Member, but it only goes to show that the people of Scotland attach more importance to what he says than, I think, they would be likely to do to what is in this pamphlet. I do not think it would be useful from any point of view to attract added publicity to a publication of this kind, by appealing to the machinery of the criminal law, and appealing to it without, perhaps, any certainty of getting a conviction.

The offence constituted by the absence of compliance with the statutory requirement of a printer's imprint, is an offence of varying degrees. It is, of course, most serious in those cases where a pamphlet is an anonymous one, and nothing appears on the face of the pamphlet to indicate who printed it, who published it, or who wrote it. That is not the case here. The author of this pamphlet has not hesitated to put in his own name, and in the circumstances, while I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for having brought the matter to notice, I think it is one that can adequately be dealt with if, in the ordinary course in which we deal with cases of this kind, a warning letter is sent both by the police here, in the country in which the pamphlet was circulated, and by the police in Scotland.

Mr. Eden (Warwick and Leamington)

On what ground would the learned Attorney-General send a warning letter?

The Attorney-General

On the ground of the technical offence committed. There is no doubt there has been a technical offence here. Our practice in regard to that type of offence, where the authorship is clear and where it appears that there may have been some inadvertence on the part of the printer, often is, after inquiry, to send a warning letter, rather than to prosecute in the first instance. That is the course I propose to adopt in this case.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.