HC Deb 13 May 1948 vol 450 cc2288-300

3.35 P.m.

Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)

Whatever differences of opinion may develop in the course of this Debate, there is one matter upon which we are all agreed. We welcome back to our midst our much respected colleague the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wake field (Mr. Arthur Greenwood). We are very happy to congratulate him and ourselves on his return.

It has become customary in recent years for Supply Days to be largely, if not exclusively, used for discussions of major questions of policy—the future of an industry or the fate of a nation—and many new hon. Members must have observed with surprise when they first joined our body the calm, almost casual way in which vast sums of money are voted to the Crown with scarcely a word either of commendation or explanation. We make no apology, therefore, for the fact that today we have put down a Vote large enough in all conscience if judged by older standards, but still of modest dimensions when contrasted with the staggering figures to which I have referred. From this side of the House we have recently suggested that important economies can be effected without any injury, and indeed with advantage, to the public interest. Such statements have generally been stoutly denied or violently challenged by Government supporters, but we shall hope to show that in these Votes we have a particular example of the validity of our general contention.

The House of Commons was once the vigilant guardian of the public purse. Expenditure, small or great, was once subjected to rigorous and jealous scrutiny, and I am convinced that we shall need to revert to this older tradition if we are to escape from our present national difficulties. Policy and the expenditure to make that policy effective are closely linked, yet they are seldom, under our present practice, discussed together. We shall try today, therefore, to state what we feel should be the principles governing the supply of official information to the public. We shall have to criticise some of the methods now employed and the expenditure now incurred, but we' do not Wish to over-state our case.

It must be frankly admitted that it would be impossible, in the modern organisation of society, to revert in this field to the rigid standards of Victorian times. By general agreement, and as the result of legislation introduced by all parties successively, the impact of Government today upon the life of the individual covers a tremendous range. By our complex and comprehensive system of social services, of which we are all proud and to the building of which we can all justly claim to have contributed, every man, woman and child in the country is under the immediate care of one or other of the Home Departments. Yet the benefits to which they are entitled are not, as has so often and so falsely been stated, free. Far from it. They are the products of rates and taxation unexampled, whether direct or indirect, in the history of any nation.

Education, housing, health services, industrial compensation, unemployment insurance, pensions and all the rest of these services are the property of the people. The people, who have contributed are the owners and, therefore, they have the right to be informed about them. Moreover, as the result of war, the defence services equally impinge upon the life of every citizen. Compulsory national service, voluntary recruitment, the Territorial and other reserve units, war pensions—all these must be fully understood if they are to be effective. Finally in economic circumstances—whether we like it or not, and we are not now discussing that point—the vast tangle of controls of all kinds over food, consumer goods, raw materials, money, foreign exchange, bank credit and the like—presents such a baffling and discouraging maze that the public expects some attempt at official guidance through an otherwise impenetraable obstacle. "From the cradle to the grave" is, I think, the phrase, and the tax gatherer, like a vulture, pursues us or our unhappy descendants even beyond the grave.

Therefore, we do not complain of—indeed, we recognise the necessity for—an effective system by which the public can be kept informed both of its rights and its obligations. I wish it were more effective. I think that if the Information Services were to concentrate upon their proper function, they could be much more useful at a much more moderate cost. There must be news of major changes of policy or the beginning of new schemes either to benefit or to burden citizens. There must be information as to minor and periodical changes in the rules and regulations governing such facilities or duties. To none of these do we take objection. We would seek only to improve the method of the dissemination of such news and information. We feel, however, that in almost every case this is the duty of alp particular Department concerned, and we think that Parliament has not been ungenerous in making the necessary provisions.

Quite apart from the Votes immediately under review, the Foreign Office has been -granted this year £2,130,000-odd for "Public Information Services." The figure grows higher every year. The National Savings Committee get £477,000-odd—curiously enough, £200,000 less than last year, but perhaps the Government have given up all hope of the Savings Movement. The Ministry of Food gets £532,000—this figure continues to rise. Of course, the Minister of Food needs a great deal of explaining. The B.B.C. Overseas Services get £4,500,000. So hon. Members must not be misled into thinking that some of the expenditure, which I shall presently criticise under these particular Votes, is used, either at home or abroad, on those items. The items of which I have spoken are provided in addition to the £4,134,000 gross which is the cost of the Central Office of Information—the net figures are a little less at £3,540,000 because there are appropriations in aid. However, all those appropriations in aid, with a few exceptions, are really contributions from other Departments and, therefore, equally fall upon the general body of taxpayers.

Moreover, besides all this centralised expenditure, most Departments maintain their own public relations branch. In the Home Departments before the war the cost of these was £97,000; in 1947 the cost was £415,000. Finally, apart from the Central Office of Information, in addition to the £4 million which the Lord President and his friends have to play about with, the estimated cost of Press and poster advertisement of all Government Departments has risen from £250,000-odd in 1938 to just over £3 million in 1947, or £2 million if one excludes the National Savings Movement and the Ministry of Food. It will appear to the Committee, therefore, that on all these accounts the total cost to the nation of news and information which it receives from all Government services at home is of the order of £3½ million to which must be added the £4 million for the Central Office of Information. We spend abroad something in the neighbourhood of £6½ million, to which must be added the British Council costing £2½ million; that is to say, we spend at home £7½ million and abroad £9 million.

This is a generous, not to say a profligate expenditure, and I have no doubt that my researches are not exhausted. There is probably a lot more hidden away somewhere in the massive Estimates of the Departments, but even by incomplete summary reaches impressive figures. A sum of £7½ million for propaganda at home, £9 million for propaganda abroad —is it worth it? Could it be done more cheaply? Could it be done with greater dignity? Could it be done with greater effect? Would it perhaps be better for the public morale if some of the money were left in the pockets of the people to spend as they wish, perhaps on amusement or instruction. Would I be thought prejudiced if I suggested that some of the vast tonnage of paper consumed might be directed to larger daily newspapers, or even to alleviating the strangling shortage of books? Would it be reactionary to propose that the public might be allowed a little more of what they want, and a little less of what the Lord President thinks they ought to have?

In any event, without trespassing upon this dangerous and unorthodox ground, I am quite sure that if the Government would confine their Information Services to the legitimate functions which I have tried to define, the public would be far better served at a fraction of the cost. All that they want to know about the social services, benefits and contributions; all that they want to know about periodical changes in the rationing systems which are of general application—food and consumer goods; all that they want to know about the control of the specialised commodities —iron, steel, metals, and so forth; all that they want to know about their obligations and privileges as concern national service and national defence; all that they want to know about money, exchange, credit and the like—all this could be given simply and objectively by the Departments concerned without all this common "ballyhoo," this crude and amateur system of publicity which succeeds in being vulgar without being funny.

For instance, the public do not require the Central Office of Information snoopers —"social survey investigators" I believe they are called—to call round from door to door asking them such questions as these: "Do you go away for a long holiday, or do you only go for the weekend, or do you go for day trips?" "Who do you go with?" "How much do you spend on fares? How much will you pay for your room? How much will you pay on board?" And then, a splendid question, the results of which must be immensely valuable from a scientific point of view, "Which month do you like most in the year?" I know the idea is to stagger holidays of grown ups, but anyone who has ever had children knows that one cannot stagger the holidays of grown ups until one staggers the holidays of children as well. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] Because it is common sense, one cannot. These are the questions. I wish we could have some of the replies. Though they might not be Parliamentary, they would be expressive.

Nor do people want to see great posters bawling at them from the walls such slogans as: "Do you use a handkerchief?" People would prefer some coupons with which to buy some handkerchiefs. They are moved to nothing except impatience by the "Widow on the Wall" and the new slogan, "Don't get run over." Everyone tries to avoid being run over without these sermons on walls. If I may touch on a more serious matter, I am hound to say they feel frankly disgusted by seeing in the high streets of most towns huge placards urging people to "Avoid catching venereal diseases." Then there is the new splendid slogan put up with the tremendous injunction, "Don't buy white elephants." Is this really fair? Is it a decent reminder of the tremendous white elephant which, deceived by such propaganda, they bought in the summer of 1945? All the necessary information and all the legitimate information can and ought to be supplied Departmentally under the authority of the appropriate Minister. Yet even in this sphere I have seen a regrettable tendency to turn public relations officers for Ministries, as they are called, into publicity agents for Ministers. Sometimes they seem to be attached to particular Ministers—

The Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman is touching on matters which are not covered in the Vote. Departmental matters would not be so included.

Mr. Macmillan

I thought it would be wiser if we abolished or reduced this Estimate departmentally, rather than abolish the Central Office of Information, and according to that Ruling we would have to put down every Vote of every Department. I hoped that you would allow me to put it departmentally, rather than centrally.

The Chairman

If the right hon. Gentleman merely says that in passing, it may be in Order.

Mr. Macmillan

I will pass from it. I will "go to it." I will not "keep at it," but I will "come off it." Whether this is put down centrally or departmentally there is one piece of advice which I would like to give to the Lord President and those responsible. I have a little experience of this. Let them remember that they still have newspapers in which they can disseminate the news freely. Let them remember that any space which is free is worth 100 times the space for which one has to pay. It is the impartial critic who makes the play, not the hired "puff." It is the independent review which sells the book, not the paid advertisement. That is a matter of actual fact, and the more they can get, not by having great posters but by distribution in the old way, through the normal agencies of informing the public, the more effective will the work be.

The Central Office of Information came into being appropriately enough on 1st April, 1946, when the Ministry of Information was closed down. In December, 1945, the Prime Minister made a statement foreshadowing the scope and function of the Central Office: these services"— he told us— should be on a substantially reduced scale as compared with wartime…A highly qualified rather than a large staff…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th December, 1945; Vol. 417, c. 916.] would be needed. In March, 1946, he told us that: Further economies should however be possible, without prejudice to efficiency."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1946; Vol. 420, c. 521.] What has happened? The expenditure has grown year by year. The staff has grown year by year. In 1946 it was 1,600 and today it is just under 2,000. The functions go far beyond the type of information which I have described as necessary and legitimate. The Central Office has become the organ of a vast machine of Government information which can with difficulty be distinguished from political propaganda. Among the activities of the Central Office are the following: the production and distribution of information films at home and overseas; Government advertising in the Press and by posters in the United Kingdom; the designing, producing and managing of official exhibitions apart from trade and art exhibitions—those one would have thought to be of any use—at home and abroad; the provision of a common editorial and translation service for Stationery Office publications, the provision and briefing of speakers for a wide range of meetings throughout the country, particularly in factories. Much of this is not information at all, it is just propaganda. I have no doubt—

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

The right hon. Gentleman has alleged that the Central Office of Information is extensively engaged in political propaganda, by which I presume he means party political propaganda.

Mr. Macmillian

I am coming to that—

Mr. Morrison

I hope he will fortify that with concrete instances.

Mr. Macmillan

I am coming to that. I was stating that it would be difficult to distinguish between them. I have no doubt that the Government and the temporary civil servants in charge of this vast machine try to be objective. I am sure they do. I have no doubt they conceive that it is part of the duty of Government to embark on a kind of mass educational movement to teach the people "the facts of economic life." They feel that the people ought to know all about the elementary economics, of course between elections. They do not tell the people the same at elections. They tell how dollars are got and how exports and imports can be made to equate, and all the rest of it. Nevertheless, the analysis of a problem, whether positively or negatively, almost invariably tends to be one-sided. The Central Office is a Government agency. It cannot very well attack or criticise the Government it serves. It can make no reference to its failures and it must pass lightly over its lack of foresight. The fuel crisis must be represented not as the failure of the Minister but as the act of God. The convertibility crisis of last summer is not due to the improvidence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer but a kind of natural phenomenon like an eruption or a tidal wave.

In addition, they feel it to be the duty of Government to exhort, instruct, and appeal to the people in a period of grave crisis. While that is desirable, and necessary in time of war, when the whole efforts of the nation are concentrated on a narrow and agreed objective—victory—in time of peace these patriotic appeals easily degenerate into partisan propaganda. National appeals are best made by National Governments. It is very difficult, even with the best intentions, to remain objective and unbiased. Whether it be the poster, the pamphlet, the Press advertisement, or the speaker in the factories, objectivity and impartiality are not easily obtained. With the best will in the world, any presentation of what are called "the facts" are bound to be misleading.

After all, we have some experience here every day in the meaning which each side of the House draws from an agreed set of facts. What happens is that all the facts are emphasised which are favourable to the Government, who are represented as a kind of band of heroes struggling bravely against adverse conditions and events outside their control, and all the facts harmful to the Government are avoided or suppressed. Let me give some examples both of prose and verse.

The Government have issued through the Central Office a series called "Reports to the Nation." Some of them are obscure, some of them are silly and some are tendentious. Of the first type—the obscure—one of the most popular, for it has often been repeated as a slogan said: Ten per cent. more will turn the tide. I say it is obscure because this was too much for the intellectual grasp of the Minister of Labour. When he was questioned about what the ten per cent meant, he explained to an enrapfured audience that it was not after all very much—it was only two per cent. each day for a five-day week. Challenged as to the mathematical implications of this extraordinary proposition he found recourse in the excuse, "I am not an Einstein." On this showing he could not even pass a school certificate examination.

Perhaps of all the "Reports to the Nation," No. 13 is the masterpiece of silliness. It is called, "Who'll kill inflation?" It is in verse, and very well illustrated. In this ridiculous jingle about inflation no mention is made of the main criminals, the Government themselves. The director, the housewife, the worker, even the spiv are appealed to in turn to play their part in killing inflation. But who made the inflation? One might improve and enlarge those verses if one had several million pounds with which to advertise them. For example: I, said daddy Dalton, With my cocksure elation And Stock Exchange racket, I made the inflation. We could naturally go on with such verses to almost any extent. Who killed National Saving? I, said Stafford Cripps, With my class warfare raving And capital levy I killed National Saving. Sometimes these propagandists hit on a good thing, something that has a sound human appeal. But that is nearly always withdrawn as being "contrary to the party line." I will give two examples. In July, 1946, a Savings advertisement was issued headed, "A bit of land of your own." It depicted a countryman leaning on a fence, and underneath a pleasing picture were the words: Lucky chap with a little place of his own in the country. It must be grand to own a few acres right away from the smoke and bustle of the town. Harmless enough, one might say, and rather appealing. Not at all. We did not know the depth of partisan rancour. A capitalist, a landowner—and worst of all bought out of his own savings. What are we coming to? Of course, objection was taken and, as they say in America, "objection sustained." On 30th July, the Private Secretary to the Minister of Town and Country Planning wrote to someone who had objected: The Minister does agree that the National Savings Campaign advertisement is inappropriate, and you will no doubt be glad to hear that steps are being taken to have it with-drawn. In answer to one of my hon. Friends in October, 1946, it was stated that the Minister had written: 'I did consider that the advertisement was having undesirable results and had better not be repeated.'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October, 1946; Vol. 428, c. 414.] The subsequent history of the artist and caption writer is not known. No doubt they were duly liquidated.

I will give another example. In September, 1947, a few weeks after the announcement of the abolition of basic petrol, at a time when all the small garage proprietors in the country were faced with closing down, the War Office—note the significance, the date was September, 1947—issued a recruiting advertisement. After talking about the chance a recruit had to learn a trade, it remarked on one of them: He aims to own a garage… Of course, it had to go. It was as well that it did. For a few weeks later there arrived at the War Office as Secretary of State the Minister of Fuel and Power himself.

Sometimes the efforts of the Central Office are very surprising. A friend of mine wrote the other day to renew his driving licence. Judge of his surprise when he received in return not merely his licence, but a booklet, in a stiff paper cover, entitled "Thank you! Fancy meeting you!" Words by McCullagh, whoever he may be, pictures by Fougasse. I pass by the unnecessary waste of printing all this. What is rather extraordinary is something which appears on page 15, which I will read. It is foolish—and quite unnecessary—to take risks with your insurance. The comprehensive motor policy issued by the Car and General gives you complete protection. Write to the Car and General Insurance Corporation, Limited, 83, Pall Mall, London, S.W.1, and embrace the policy of safety first. I admire the private enterprise of this company in getting its advertising done in this way. It seems to be a very good arrangement.

Mr. Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that not a single example he has given is the work of the Central Office of Information, but of the P. R. O. s whom he wishes to encourage?

Mr. Macmillan

All the "Reports to the Nation" are from the Central Office of Information.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Heywood and Radcliffe)

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that Mr. McCullagh is known to him as Conservative candidate for King's Lynn?

Mr. Macmillan

I come to one of the publications which certainly will not be disclaimed, because I believe it is the real triumph of the Central Office itself, apart from all its minor subsidiaries. I refer to the publication "Something Done." The Central Office are fond of producing films. I have referred to that as one of their functions. They are so pleased with these films that there is a great deal about them and of other British films in this magazine which has been circulated. Incidentally, it is a very extravagant production, consisting of 64 pages of high quality paper, which makes my mouth water. It is sold for 1s 6d.—it is very good value, with photographs and diagrams. Many of the articles are inaccurate, but let that pass. On page 37 there is a large "montage" picture in which is shown cuttings to advertise the success of British films. The purpose is to show how well British films, either Central Office films or other films, have been received all over the world. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Certainly. I was only complaining about one aspect of it. At the top of this page is a quotation in German taken from a Swiss or German paper. The first three sentences of the quotation, which are presumably to advertise the value of a film by an English film company state—I am giving a translation— The English film company, Gainsborough Pictures, has an attractive sounding name. We mean, the name of the Old Master is attractive. But what the company offers us with its Madonna of the Seven Moons' is 'blutigster Kitsch.'" I must confess to the Committee that I was prevented in the first place by ignorance and, when it was explained to me, by modesty, from offering a literal translation of this phrase to my fellow Members. Perhaps I might paraphrase it as meaning "Absolute balderdash." I can only say that if my advertising agents used such quotations to advertise my publications I should get rid of them.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

When is the right hon. Gentleman going to give the examples of propaganda?

Mr. Macmillan

I read them to you in your book, "Something Done."

It has been wittily said by Sir Osbert Sitwell that anything that is worth doing is worth doing badly. But since the greater part of the work of the Central Office of Information is not worth doing at all, it is really no excuse that it is badly done. I do not think that I need delay the Committee in any further prolonged way, beyond what I have already tried to show. In the course of this Debate my hon. Friends, who have made a more exhaustive examination of this matter than I have been able to do, will have other questions to put and points to make.

I would sum up by saying that, in our view, instead of contracting—as we were promised by the Prime Minister two years ago—the Government Information Services have expanded. They make excessive and wasteful calls on manpower, production capacity and money. Separate agencies burgeon and proliferate day by day. This expenditure ought to be, and can be, reduced. All these, in present conditions are serious criticism. But there is an even more insidious danger latent in all their development. Government propaganda, in time of peace, is very properly suspect in a free society. The clash of Debate, proposition and counter-proposition', argument and counter-argument, is the very lifeblood of democracy. Ministers have a duty, as well as right, to explain and defend their policy in the House of Commons, in the Press and on the platform.

It is true that, at the present moment, they present a rather contradictory and confused picture, and seem more concerned with purges than with apologies. Hardly a day goes by without some Minister or Member being had up before the stewards to explain his riding. But they must carry out the democratic functions by democratic means. They must defend whatever the Lord President may, from time to time, declare to be party policy with the legitimate machinery and resources of party organisation. By similar means, the Opposition Parties have the right and duty to rebut and, if they can, refute the Government case. But the British people are sensitive and rightly suspicious of the use of the machinery of Government itself, at the expense of public funds, to present, whether positively or negatively, the case of a purely party administration.

They remember that the misuse of Government propaganda in recent times has been inseparable from, and the main instrument for, the sapping away of individual judgment and the substitution of the State machine—no longer the servant, but the master of the people. On the grounds of economy, therefore, we condemn this expenditure. On grounds of the highest public policy we are alarmed at its steady growth and extension. Nor do we think that, even where this technique is being used in good faith—and I admit that in a large proportion, or even the majority of cases, it is being used in good faith—it is very efficacious.

The people are tired of being exhorted, and sermonised, and lectured. They are "punch-drunk" from posters and appeals. They are beginning to present a healthy, even if cynical, "sales resistance" to all this high pressure political salesmanship. They are bored with the professors and long for the return of practical men. They are fed up with targets —they want results.

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