HC Deb 19 March 1948 vol 448 cc2534-44

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I desire to raise certain aspects of a large question, the large question being the working of the Central Office of Information. Nobody appreciates better than I do, having given some study to the subject, the fact that it is quite impossible in the course of an Adjournment Debate to touch on more than one or two of the many important issues which the working of this Office involves. Therefore, I express the hope that this afternoon's Debate may not be the only Debate on this subject during this Session. Indeed, were it not so unappetising a subject, I would describe this Debate as an aperitif but perhaps, in the circumstances, one had better describe it as a reconnaissance.

The two points I desire to put to the House this afternoon are these: firstly, the very big question as to whether it is desirable to have in time of peace, for the purposes of internal propaganda, what amounts to a Ministry of Information. That itself is a big question, and there will inevitably arise from it the secondary question as to whether, if we have what is tantamount to a Ministry of Information, we do not inevitably get that Department involved in party controversy and party politics at the public expense. I desire to put these two points as speedily as I can to the House, and would only say in general that the observations I am about to make do not apply at all to any question of overseas activity, which is a separate question. My observations apply only to activity inside this country.

On the first point, the desirability of maintaining what is in substance, though not in form, a Ministry of Information, in many ways the present organisation is a great deal worse for, if we have a Ministry of Information, we have ex hypothesi a Minister of Information who can answer for his Department. This curious Central Office is apparently brooded over with remote geniality by the Lord President of the Council. It is on occasion answered for by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It was the other day answered for at Question Time by, of all people, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance, and, to complete the confusion, I understand that this afternoon's Debate is to be replied to by the Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. It seems, on the face of it, that there are certain administrative and Parliamentary anomalies about collecting this constellation of Parliamentary luminaries to answer not for a Ministry at all, but for what is modestly described as a Central Office.

Secondly, I suggest that this House and the country should be inclined to watch with some vigilance the working of this Office, for this reason: a Ministry of Information or a Ministry of Propaganda is the usual instrument of a totalitarian regime and, as such, in time of peace it is an innovation in this country and, therefore, should be treated with careful and close public and Parliamentary scrutiny. Thirdly, it is a somewhat expensive form of activity in these days of financial stringency. The Civil Estimates for 1947–48 indicate a gross expenditure of no less than £4½ million for this Office, which is a net increase of £871,000 over the 1946–47 Estimates and, therefore, financially, quite substantial. Its activities are indirectly reflected even further in the fact that the Estimates of the other Departments for publicity, Press and poster advertising, have risen from under £2,000,000 in 1945, to close on 3,000,000 in 1947.

On the question of extravagance, I ask the Under-Secretary to tell the House a little about this document, which I hold in my hand, entitled "Something Done."[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Not, perhaps, the epitaph which most people in this country would pronounce on this Government. It is an affair of no less than 64 pages of the highest quality of paper, produced at the far from austerity price of 1s. 6d. at a time when the ordinary Press is starved of paper of all kinds. Why has it been thought necessary, or desirable, to use this amount of paper to produce this kind of publication at this time, of all times in our national history? It is full of the most admirable photographs of various activities of our national life. The quality of the production is quite excellent, but I am concerned with the reason for it, and why public funds should be used to sponsor a publication which must necessarily compete with the ordinary commercial Press.

The other matter to which I invite the attention of the House is the tendency of this body to indulge in political propaganda. I have been through a great deal of its productions and find that the general tenor of the material it puts out, the briefs for speakers, advertisements in the Press, speeches, lectures and so on, is such as to suggest to the public that the present Administration consists of a number of good and wise men struggling valiantly and successfully against circumstances which they did nothing to create. As in this country one is entitled to believe anything, one is entitled to believe even that, although the comment might well be made, which was made by the great Duke of Wellington when, addressed in these terms, "Mr. Smith, I believe," he replied, "Sir, a man who would believe that, would believe anything."

While people—a decreasing number I think—are entitled to believe that, and, indeed, are entitled to put forward that point of view, what they are not entitled to do is to use public money and the machinery of a public Department to put it forward. It is not the view held unanimously, or anything like unanimously in this country. Another body of opinion appeared at North Croydon last week to be not inconsiderable, a body of opinion which regards this as a Government, which, faced with obvious difficulties, has aggravated those difficulties by a policy of financial extravagance, inflationary economics, and the diversion of the national effort from reconstruction into wanton and reckless schemes of nationalisation. What is objectionable is that propaganda should be used, and financed from public funds, for the purpose of putting forward that view, as against the other. I quite appreciate that the officials of this office are in some difficulty when asked to make pronouncements, or speeches, or write articles on this subject. They cannot be paid by the Government to advocate the second of the viewpoints to which I have referred. There is, therefore, a risk that, in discussing these matters, they will take the first line. It is no reflection on them, although it is a reflection on the system which puts them in this position, that they do so.

I wish to quote, as powerful support for that proposition, no less a person than the Lord President of the Council who, when challenged about a brief from the Central Office of Information said, on 10th March: Almost any statement on this subject is liable to be regarded as controversial.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1948; vol. 448, C. 1232.] Of course. Why, then, use a public office to put forward statements on a subject which inevitably must be controversial? That is surely the issue with which we are concerned in this Debate.

Let me give another example—the briefing of speakers for a series of talks, organised, I understand, for a period beginning rather appropriately on 1st April this year, on the subject of the National Insurance Scheme. There was a meeting held at the Ministry of National Insurance to brief these speakers, who, I reiterate, are paid out of public funds, in order that they might speak with apparent impartiality to non-political bodies up and down the country. These speakers were briefed at this meeting partly from a number of Government publications, perfectly properly, and also from three publications, which I have here, issued by the Labour Party on the subject of National Insurance, National Insurance (Industrial Injuries), and Public Health.

These are very competent propaganda publications of the Labour Party; indeed, if they were not, it would be a very great reflection on the highly paid publicity officers of Transport House, and I am certainly not prepared to make it, for I have the greatest respect for their competence. Surely, it is absolutely wrong, when briefing speakers for the Central Office of Information, to brief them with material which, in its nature and origin, must be controversial in the party sense? When I questioned the Government about this, I received a reply from, of all people, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance, and his argument was that this was quite all right, but that, if we liked, he would also insert Conservative Party propaganda.

Mr. Dailies (East Ham, North)

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it would produce a more complete picture if, at the same time, he produced a copy of the leaflet attempting to denigrate the whole scheme? Would he agree to that.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

No, I would not, because I am going to argue that it is quite wrong that the political party propaganda of any party should be put forward at the public expense. I know that the hon. Member is trying to score a party point which is irrelevant to the discussion. It would be quite wrong for the Ministry of National Insurance and the Central Office to insert the political propaganda of any party, and it is really an intolerably inept answer to say "We will take your propaganda as well as our own." This is a question of public speakers, publicly financed going out with the prestige of impartiality to address meetings like Women's Guilds, Women's Institutes, and so on, throughout the country. The answer of the Parliamentary Secretary on that occasion, and the mentality of the Government which it reveals, indicate to me how great is the danger of infecting this Central Office with party publicity.

I will pass briefly over several others of these productions. One is a film, which the Under-Secretary may know, called "Ours is the Land," in which a perfectly obvious Labour Party candidate, young, charming and attractive—though he is obviously a Labour candidate for reasons other than those—is portrayed, and in which these words are used: They promised us houses in 1935. Look at Paisley and Dunfermline. Now, they have got them. That is sheer partisan propaganda in a film produced at the public expense and displayed apparently impartially al over the country. Another subject which is also controversial is basic petrol—a subject on which the Under-Secretary will recollect the Government were not able to command a larger majority of their supporters than 27. A long publication has been put out to speakers on that subject and I would refer to only one part of it. It is this: Moreover, we have not got enough tankers of our own. Some petrol has to be imported in American tankers for which we pay dollar freight. If that is going to be put out on this subject, surely there should be some statement on why we have not got the tankers, how many were available in 1945 and how many could have been purchased if the fruits of the American loan had been used for that purpose instead of being squandered on films and tobacco.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)


Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It is not nonsense, and if the hon. Gentleman knew the facts, he would not be so quick to say so.

There is just one other matter I wish to raise, and I have warned the Under-Secretary that I propose to raise it. So far as the film production side of the Central Office of Information is concerned, we are entitled to have some explanation, in the light of the Prime Minister's statement this week, for the reasons for the appointment of Mr. John Grierson. He is a very capable producer and his film "Drifters" was a very lovely film. But it is well known on the other side of the Atlantic that there is no doubt whatever as to his affiliations with the extreme Left, using deliberately a neutral term, though both the Canadian and American authorities would use stronger language. The propaganda value of films is enormous as every hon. Member knows, and to have appointed a man with so pronounced views so far to the Left of His Majesty's Government is, to put it again at its lowest, a rash thing to do. It is easy in the production of a film to give a twist and a bias, and an incalculable twist carries an enormous effect to the minds of those who see it, and yet it is awfully hard to notice it in the script. With all respect to the technical capacity of Mr. Grierson, we are entitled to know why a man whose political attitude was so well known should be appointed, who appointed him—we do not know that in the anomalous organisation of this office unless we are told today—and is it intended that he should continue?

I am only too conscious of the inadequacy of the Adjournment Debate for a discussion of this subject, but I hope that in anticipation of providing material for Debates to come we may have answers to certain questions which I venture to raise this afternoon.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. Gordon-Walker)

I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), when he hoped that this was the first of a number of Debates on this very important matter. He was good enough to point out that it was a little odd that I should be replying, though he did it in very nice words, and I should like first to explain to the House how it comes about that I am now speaking in this place. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council has the responsibility for the Government's Information Services in general as distinct from departmental information services, but, with the approval of the Prime Minister, he asked me to help him from time to time in that work. For some months I have been doing that, though this is the first time that it has been announced, and in the course of that work I have had a chance of looking fairly closely into the Central Office of Information amongst other things. That is why I am here to reply to the hon. Gentleman. He limited himself to the field of home propaganda and he put two particular points. I will follow him as closely as I can through the arguments——

Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)

Does the hon. Gentleman not find it rather disturbing that he is responsible in this manner? Would he say what is his function in the Central Office of Information?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

I have no function in the Central Office of Information. No one but the employees of the Central Office of Information have a function in it, but I have the function to advise and assist the Lord President of the Council in that part of his work which deals with the supervision of Government publicity.

First of all, it is untrue to describe the Central Office of Information as a Ministry of Information. It is not a Ministry of Information. The central services operate at the request and under the sponsorship of a number of State Departments. It is not, as it were, a Ministry with a policy of its own; the policy is decided by the various Ministerial Departments who use its services, both at home and abroad. It is, I think, essential that there should be such a common service for the Departments, partly because it is more economic. I agree that expense is very important, and we must watch it. It would be more expensive if we broke up that common system, with common overheads and so forth, and distributed them over all the Departments so that each, when it wanted to make a film, for example, had to set up a proper organisation to do so, or when it wanted to issue a publication like "Something Done" had to set up a particular editing system to do so.

Whether or not the Government have the right and the duty to make films and to spread information in this way is; I think, the principle which really divides us on this matter. I think it is absolutely essential with modern democracies, that the Government of the day, whatever its party position, should have a duty to undertake a far greater field of information work than was ever undertaken in the past. The modern world is extremely complex. The great danger to democracy is that people fail to understand the elaborate processes which are going on around them, especially in a world where extremely complex things, like dollar balances, affect their daily lives. They are in no position even to reach a rational decision one way or the other unless there is far more information at their disposal than was ever thought necessary in the past.

It is also necessary that the Government should, on occasion, undertake work of persuasion. It is essential to get certain recruiting done, for instance, or national savings, or to explain why salvage must be collected; there are certain sorts of work of persuasion.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

The hon. Gentleman said it was essential to help to get savings. Is it not a fact that the Central Office of Information does practically no work at all for the National Savings Movement?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

The Central Office of Information is not identical with the Government's information work. There is other information work done, partly by the Departments and partly by other bodies. I gave examples of the type of thing I had in mind. In that connection, I want to say quite clearly that a very great work of public information has, in my view, been done by the Central Office of Information and other services of the Government in the last two years. I think today people have an infinitely better understanding and knowledge of the problems, than they had two or three years ago, a far better understanding of the complex problems of the balance of trade, the inter-connection of one thing with another, in this very complicated world in which we live. The ordinary people in the street, although we have not done enough yet, know infinitely more of these complex things than they did two years ago, and to that extent we are a better democracy, and we are proud and glad that this work has been done.

I should say a word about the publication "Something Done," which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am glad he agrees with me that it is a first-class production technically; we are at one in that. I also think it is perfectly right that such a publication should be produced. It is essential and right that our people should know what they as a people—not this particular Government—have achieved in the period since the war in the field of jet planes, in looking after children, in the field of television, and so forth. This is work we have achieved as a people and it is right that we should be proud of ourselves. This publication will, of course, also go abroad.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I notice that two hon. Members are reading magazines, which is not permissible in the House.

Mr. Gordon-Walker

It is the publication which is under discussion. I do not know whether that makes it in Order.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is riot in Order to read magazines or newspapers. I notice two hon. Members reading them.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

There is a good deal in what the hon. Gentleman says that it is desirable that the people should know about recent developments. Could that not be done without any of the political risks to which I have referred simply by making more of this paper available to the technical and other Press?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

No, I do not think so, any more than if, in the war, in somewhat different circumstances, instead of producing those Government booklets we had merely given a similar amount of paper to the Press. I do not think it can be done any more today by that means than it could be in the war. In "Something Done" we have a very fine production which is going abroad, though it is sold at home as well.

I turn now to the question of political propaganda. Granted, for the moment, that we must have a Central Office of Information, or something like it, there is a risk of the line between public information and party propaganda being transgressed. I believe it is easy to draw that line, and that the Central Office of Information have, in fact, with great success, drawn the line between claiming credit for a particular party Government for something done and informing the people. Here I am talking about trying to persuade the people to action. I admit that there is a risk, of which the Central Office of Information are aware, and I think it right to say that the risk is being avoided.

Everything the Central Office of Information does is wholly in the open. Everything it does is seen by the public, and everybody can see every booklet it puts out; any party or other organisation can have its lectures, and so on. If there were any hint of bias it would be known at once, and there is no attempt at canalisation into particular parts of the population, or anything like that. The whole thing is completely open. The hon. Member mentioned the very short reference to the direction of labour in "Matter of Fact, No. 5." It seems to me essential that when Parliament and the Government have decided on a thing like the direction of labour, it is the duty of the Government to make that plain and explain it to the people, for it is one of the great things affecting their lives. It would be a dereliction of our duty if we did not so inform them.

I must admit that on the question of briefing speakers on the National Insurance Scheme, the hon. Member is on much better ground. I think it was a mistake to put the three Labour Party publications in the same list with the Government publications. On the other hand, it is right to say that these Labour Party publications are not, in fact, propaganda publications; they set out to describe the workings of the Bill. They ought to have been put down in a different part of the list in order to make quite clear that they were not in any way Government publications. It should be remembered, too, that we are speaking of the briefing of speakers and not the actual speech made to the general public. The speakers are always told that if they in any way show party bias, or if there is any complaint which is substantiated, they will at once be dismissed and stopped lecturing. That must be remembered alongside the other point.

Mr. McCorquodale (Epsom)

Who is to judge? Are the Government to judge whether there is party bias in their own favour?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

No, the people who employ them judge. Just as in any problem which arises in a Department of State, the people in charge of the particular public servants concerned are responsible.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

How many have been dismissed for such reasons?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

In the last year there have been 15,000 lectures, with two complaints which were about the organisation of the meetings and not political bias; therefore, the question of dismissing personnel has not arisen.

I was sorry to hear the hon. Member mention John Grierson, in a speech which was otherwise devoted to the principle, because in this respect Mr. Grierson is in the position of a civil servant who cannot defend himself. He was in charge of Government film making in this country in the 10 years before the war, which was, therefore, mostly under a Conservative Administration; his chief work being at the Post Office when the late Sir Kingsley Wood was Postmaster-General. He served the Liberal Administration in Canada for seven years; he has advised the Governments of Australia and New Zealand; and he is now coming back into British documentaries, which he largely created, to do an essential job in the national interest, and in the interest of our films. I have no doubt whatever that he is by far the best man for the job, and that is why he has been appointed.

Question put, and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.