HC Deb 07 November 1949 vol 469 cc868-71
15. Mr. William Wells

asked the Attorney-General whether, in the interests of public order, he proposes to initiate prosecutions for criminal libel against the newspapers and persons who published or procured or were accessory to the publication of reports that members of the Moulders' Union employed by Messrs. Harvey Matthew and Co., of Walsall, sought to prevent their fellow-workers from reading the newspapers of their choice.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

Whilst the reports referred to are, if untrue, highly objectionable, I do not think the institution of criminal proceedings would be justified.

Mr. Blackburn

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. May I point out, as a matter of very great importance, that a Question has been submitted to the Table and rejected by the Table in which I asked what inquiries the Minister had caused to be made into the allegations that a strike had been threatened? I am not quarrelling with the Ruling, but merely pointing out that this is the Rule. I have been told that I have to adopt this allegation which has been made by the newspapers, which the Ministry assure me is utterly unfair and completely false. Therefore, I am in the situation—I imagine my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall (Mr. W. Wells) is also—that I cannot ask a Question about this matter unless I am prepared to accept a lie already told by the "Daily Mail." It is an impossible position for an hon. Member to be in that he cannot ask a Question about this matter in such circumstances.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has made a long statement and I could not follow it all, but I understand that he wanted to put a Question which was an allegation. Allegations are not admitted in Questions. If the hon. Gentleman has any matter to submit to me, I shall be glad to consider it, but quite frankly I could not follow it.

Sir Jocelyn Lucas

May I say that I put down a Question on this very subject and it was accepted by the Table, but I withdrew it because I could not substantiate any allegations.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Further to the point of Order. The hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) first stated allegations and then referred to "lies told by the 'Daily Mail.'" Surely that is not in Order.

Mr. Speaker

It is too complicated for me. I would like to have notice of it.

Mr. W. Wells

Adverting to the original Question, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this story was published in the "Daily Mail" and the "News Chronicle," and that it has been characterised on behalf of both the management and the workers in this highly respected firm as being a complete fabrication from beginning to end, and will my right hon. and learned Friend have some further inquiry made into the matter?

The Attorney-General

I understand that the matter is at present the subject of inquiry and that there are two Questions in regard to it on the Order Paper for tomorrow, which will be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour. In those circumstances I did not think it proper to form any judgment on the truth or otherwise of the reports, since on any view it was not an appropriate subject for criminal proceedings.

Sir Lucas

Is it not a fact that the whole idea was that "Dalrymple" was 20 points ahead of "Templegate" on the naps?

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Does the reply of my right hon. and learned Friend mean that unfounded and manufactured statements of this kind to the prejudice of a large number of people can be printed and circulated without those people having any legal remedy at all?

The Attorney-General

That was not the Question which was put to me, nor did I answer to that effect. I was asked whether the circumstances of these reports were such as to justify proceedings for criminal libel. I saw nothing in them to justify such proceedings.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

How is it that the Attorney-General interests himself in statements made by the newspapers and charges against newspapers? Will he look into the most unfounded allegations which were made by the Minister of Health that certain newspapers published untrue reports when they reported literally what was said?

Mr. Gallacher

If it had not been the "Daily Mail" but the "Daily Worker," you fellows would have been yelling.

Mr. Driberg

Is not this another illustration of the urgent necessity for setting up a Press Council, as recommended by the Royal Commission and by both sides in this House, to investigate such gross deceptions of the public?

Mr. H. D. Hughes

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that solicitors on behalf of the firm denied all the facts published in the national newspapers six days ago? Have any of the national newspapers responsible since made any correction whatsoever, and if not, what redress has the public against the dissemination of false information?

The Attorney-General

I have no jurisdiction over these matters unless a criminal offence is involved. None is involved here.

Mr. Henry Strauss

Is not the answer of the right hon. and learned Gentleman strictly confined to the question which was put to him regarding proceedings for criminal libel? Is it not possible that, if these statements were false, there is a remedy in the civil courts?

The Attorney-General

I do not think that I ought to give legal advice to private litigants on a matter of this kind.

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