HC Deb 22 June 1950 vol 476 cc1751-62

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

5.15 a.m.

Mr. Russell (Wembley, South)

As this is the first occasion upon which I have been successful in the Ballot for the Adjournment I am sorry that at this hour I am asking those who have to stay to remain for another 20 minutes or half-an-hour. I make no apology for the subject I am raising—the treatment of British journalists by Communist countries, and more particularly the expulsion or exclusion of nine British journalists from certain Communist countries in the last five years. May I recapitulate these nine cases, as they were given to me by the Minister of State in answer to a Question about seven weeks ago?

In 1946, Mr. Derek Selby, a correspondent of the "Sunday Times" was ordered to leave Poland on the grounds that he consistently misrepresented the facts. In 1948, Mr. Alec Collett of the "Daily Telegraph," Mr. Alexander Lawrenson also of the "Daily Telegraph," and Mr. Karl Robson of the "News Chronicle" were refused permission to stay in Czechoslovakia; and Mr. Patrick Smith of the B.B.C. and Mr. Christopher Buckley of the "Daily Telegraph" were refused entry visas to Czechoslovakia. In 1949, Mr. Denis Weaver of the "News Chronicle" was refused an entry visa to Poland, and Mr. Eric Bourne of the Kemsley Press was expelled from Czechoslovakia; and last April, Mr. Vincent Buist, Reuter's correspondent, was expelled from Poland, for "unobjective reporting."

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

Would the hon. Gentleman also deal with the case of "The Times" correspondent in Japan and make it ten?

Mr. Russell

My subject is the treatment of British journalists by Communist countries. I shall be ready at some future occasion, if the hon. and learned Gentleman desires, to argue about Japan, Spain or any other country, but if he will forgive me I shall stick to the question of the Communist countries now.

There is the question of the treatment of these journalists inside the countries—when there were any there—since I understand that the "Daily Worker" is the only British newspaper with a correspondent in Soviet Russia at the present time. There was at all times an iron censorship; all messages sent by the journalists had to go through the post office, and it took a correspondent sometimes many days to find out whether a message had actually been sent, and what was the extent to which it had been mangled by the censor in transmission.

In Poland, officials refuse to speak to foreign correspondents, and Government Departments are particularly bad in procrastinating and in refusing to give information, or they refrain from saying anything until several attempts are made to get it in contradistinction to Soviet Russia where they do say "No" straight away. In Rumania and Bulgaria I gather the censorship is very severe, and only in Hungary of the Iron Curtain countries is it apparently quite easy.

It makes me feel indignant—and I hope it makes other hon. Members of this House, to whatever party they belong, also feel indignant—when our fellow countrymen, of whatever profession or occupation, are badly treated in this way when going about their daily business. Some hon. Members may have been listening last Sunday week to the B.B.C. programme called "Scrap-Book for 1904." One of the incidents recalled was that on the Dogger Bank when the Russian Baltic Fleet, on its way to the Far East, fired on the Hull fishing fleet with the result that one trawler was sunk and two sailors killed. Anyone listening to that programme would have heard the commentator say that public indignation reached white heat, but the Government remained calm. The result, so far as I understand, was that complete satisfaction was obtained, with compensation for the injury. I think it is safe to say that in those days no country, certainly no small country, would have attempted to expel any British journalist except for very sound reasons.

The point at issue is: What can we do to stop what one can only call this ignominious treatment of correspondents, whose only desire is to go about their daily business unhindered? The only remedy is some kind of reprisal or retaliation. On 4th May I asked the Home Secretary whether he would consider that in conjunction with the Foreign Secretary. His answer was: No, Sir. We have nothing to hide."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1882.] The same answer was given by the Under-Secretary in answer to the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey) a few days later. I submit that that is rather beside the point. We may have a great deal to hide, but I trust that anything in the way of official secrets is being kept not only from foreign journalists but from anyone who is not entitled to see or to know them. But I am not suggesting that if we should turn out any journalist from an Iron Curtain country it should be because we had anything to hide. Obviously, we have nothing which we wish to hide in our daily life. I only suggest that such action should be considered as a means to stop the expulsion or exclusion of our journalists from Communist countries, which has been going on for the last five years.

I know that there are difficulties in the way, as there are stationed in this country few Communists accredited to newspapers, as most of the news from this country to Eastern countries is covered by Reuters. But those correspondents, unlike ours when they existed in Communist countries, have complete freedom to go where they like and to send what they like back to their own countries. I suggest that it would be a handicap to Communist propaganda organisations if journalists could not provide the realistic background on which the life of this country is distorted in the Communist Press. I suggest that we ought to make these Communist journalists subject to exactly the same difficulties as are put in the way of our journalists in Communist countries.

We could give consideration to Communist magazines run by Communist countries inside this country. There are—and I am quoting from the "Daily Worker"—"Soviet News," "Soviet Weekly," "Soviet Monitor," "Czechoslovak Newsletter," "New Poland," and "Bulgaria Bulletin." There was, until recently, the "Roumanian News," but that apparently has been banned because on 3rd March the British Information Office in Bucharest was closed at the request of the Roumanian Government, and on 17th March this year a Note was sent to the Roumanian Government by His Majesty's Government asking that the Information Office attached to the Roumanian Legation in London should be closed and the publication of this paper suspended. I am encouraged by that. If that is an example of a reprisal, I only hope it will go on.

Then, there are various bodies under various names—usually the phrase "Friendship Society" occurs in them. I do not know what powers the Government have to close down bodies like that, but if the Government have no powers I must not pursue that matter. Is it beyond the powers of the Government to consider whether, in making trade agreements with these countries—and we have made several in the last five years—to make it a condition of the agreement that our journalists be given proper treatment in the course of carrying out their daily business?

In reply to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) last week, the Minister of State gave a long list of persons imprisoned, or who had disappeared in Communist-controlled countries since the war. On Monday last, the Under-Secretary, in reply to the Leader of the Liberal Party, said that the Government take a very serious view of a request from the Czechoslovak Government to withdraw the Secretary of the British Embassy. I am glad that the Government do take a serious view of that request, and I hope that this serious view will be followed up by serious action, because that is the only way of making any Communist Government to desist from a request of that kind.

The "Daily Telegraph" two or three days ago stated that the United States Government are threatening to deport from the United States a Greek Communist, who is a correspondent of the "Daily Worker" at Lake Success at the present moment, on the grounds of abusing his privilege of residence. I suggest that we here go on retaliating until we get complete satisfaction and British journalists are given freedom in Communist countries and allowed to send their messages as Communist journalists can from here.

I do not know whether the Under-Secretary has read a very interesting book, giving an insight into the Communist attitude to this kind of thing, called "The Russian Outlook," by General Sir Giffard Martell. He was head of the British Military Mission to Russia for a year or so during the war, and he got an insight into Communist methods. He wrote this on reprisals: A reprisal, or threat of reprisal, would be understood at once by Russia. She would not think we were being unduly unpleasant. She would merely think that we had come to our senses at last and would wonder why we had not done so long ago. That is the opinion of a gentleman who knows what he is talking about so far as Russia is concerned. A leading article in "The Times" recently said that democracies need not have scruples about taking measures against the Communists when the need arises.

On the second page inside the cover of a British passport—unfortunately I have not the exact wording—there is a sentence asking all people who have to handle the passport in a foreign country to let that British person go about his business "without let or hindrance." Unfortunately, that does not apply in these days in Communist countries. I should like to see the time come when, as the result of action taken by this country, not only British journalists but any British traveller travelling with a British passport will be able to go about their business wherever they like without let or hindrance.

5.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ernest Davies)

I think it is as well that this question has been aired, though I will not say that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it at this hour of the morning. It is useful that this should have been raised, in view of the fact that, as he pointed out, there have been nine journalists expelled or otherwise prevented from carrying on their normal journalistic activities in two countries—six in Czechoslovakia and three in Poland. It is only in these two countries that there have been actual expulsions, but in the other countries—in Soviet Russia itself and other countries behind the Iron Curtain—there have been obstacles put in the way of our journalists visiting those countries and acting as correspondents therein. The main method which has been used has been the refusal of re-entry visas.

The Government, understandably, deplore this systematic hampering of the gathering of news. We deplore the methods which are employed to prevent the collection of information and the dissemination of news in those countries and from those countries. The excuses made are that when the journalists are going about their business inside those countries they engage in "unobjective reporting," but our experience of the reporting in the Soviet Press, and that of the satellite countries, is certainly that it is not objective, to say the least. The methods which are being employed are quite clearly preventing a free flow of information, which is normally encouraged by all civilised nations. We think this is an example of how these Governments do not wish to have the full light of criticism thrown upon them because they fear contact with the outside world and because they do not wish to have information about the West disseminated in their own countries.

But, having said that, when we come to the suggestion which has been put forward by the hon. and gallant Member that reprisals should be taken, we part ways with him. I oppose in principle any restrictions on the freedom of access. It is true we do not have freedom of access to news in those countries behind the Iron Curtain, but that is no reason why we should prevent the free gathering of news inside our own country. We, here, have nothing to hide. On the contrary, we want the Iron Curtain to be pierced and to have people behind the Iron Curtain fully informed as to what goes on in this country, even if the information which reaches them through their correspondents here is not completely objective. It is far better they should have some information than none.

We have an entirely different approach to this matter from that of the Iron Curtain countries. We, in this country, treasure our tradition of the freedom of information, the freedom of the Press, and the freedom of speech, and we think it would be departing from our principles if, at this stage, we put any restrictions whatsoever on the freedom of journalists in this country to move about to collect information and to transmit it to the countries to which they are reporting.

Further, we think that it is far better to allow the collection of news by all types of correspondents, because in the reporting of it one would correct the other, and truth ultimately filters through the sieve of the different accounts which are collected. Our attitude to the freedom of information is that democracy can afford to take a risk in the collection of news, and can offer freedom from any restrictions upon it; whereas, the Communist States, of course, are not willing to take such risks. For that reason, we certainly would reject any suggestion that reprisals should be taken at this stage, or at any stage.

What I would like to ask the hon. Member is: What useful purpose does he really think would be served by retaliation? The hon. Member makes, I think, a mistaken assumption. He assumes that if we engaged in retaliation, then the measures taken against our journalists would be relaxed and it would be easier for our journalists to carry on their work inside the Iron Curtain countries. I cannot accept that assumption. It is not our experience that where reprisals have been taken—and we have been driven to them regretfully—the result has been that the conditions which caused those reprisals to be taken have been relaxed or improved. We would find that we would get engaged in a war of expulsions if we adopted the system of reprisals suggested. We do not think any useful purpose would be served by that means.

Even if we agreed that we should take action against journalists from the Iron Curtain countries in Britain, the question is whether it would be effective, inasmuch as the papers concerned would be in a position to engage British journalists in this country to carry on their work. There are Communists in this country who would be perfectly willing to serve—and there are some who do serve—as correspondents for the foreign Press behind the Iron Curtain, and so to expel foreign Communists or foreign journalists from this country does not automatically mean that those papers will not have any correspondents in this country and that our reprisals will be effective. These are among the reasons why we reject this matter of reprisals.

The hon. Member also referred to the possibility of taking action against such things as the "Friendship Leagues" and other organisations in this country which he considers to be disseminating Communism. I would like to point out that Communism is not a crime in this country, and we would have no right to take action against anybody for disseminating Communism or carrying on Communist activities as such.

Mr. Russell

I did not suggest it because they were disseminating Communism, but simply as a reprisal.

Mr. Davies

That is even less reason for doing it—in my view far less reason. We have not necessarily the power to take the action he asks us to take in the case of the "Friendship Leagues." They are British clubs and British organisations and we have no grounds for taking any action against them whatsoever so long as they keep within the legal activities which clubs are entitled to.

While I repeat our position, that we deplore the actions which have been taken against British journalists overseas through expulsions, through the refusal of re-entry permits and in other ways, we do not think that the position would be improved by taking reprisals. We think it would be wrong in principle to take them, and we will not take any steps which in any way interfere with the freedom of information and the freedom of the dissemination of news in this country.

Mr. Bing

Could my hon. Friend perhaps deal with a matter which is worrying some of us—the considerable restrictions placed upon "The Times" correspondent in Tokio. Can he make any statement on that?

Mr. Davies

I replied to a question on this point only this Monday. The position is not quite what my hon. and learned Friend appears to think. As I told the House on Monday, the position is simply that the Supreme Commander in Japan drew the attention of the United Kingdom Liaison Mission there to the fact that he considered that certain statements made by Mr. Hawley were inaccurate statements. We informed "The Times" of this matter but, as I have said to the House, we gave no advice to "The Times" whatever, we made no suggestions of any action that should be taken and, in our view quite rightly, "The Times" has taken no action in regard to the matter. This is a matter between "The Times" newspaper and their correspondent, and we certainly would not take any action to interfere with the freedom of "The Times" correspondents to carry on their normal journalistic activities.

Mr. Russell

Was the Note sent to the Roumanian Government on 17th March a reprisal for their request of 3rd March?

Mr. Davies

That does not quite arise out of this question of journalists. I cannot answer it now. There is a difference between our taking reprisals against Government information offices here. If our Government information offices are closed down in one country and we decide to close their offices down here, that is a different matter from taking reprisals over individuals who are journalists.

5.42 a.m.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth. East, and Christchurch)

Why do the British Government feel bound to transmit a complaint from General MacArthur to "The Times" newspaper? It seems to me that "The Times" correspondent has kept them pretty fully informed about General MacArthur's feelings, and I think the intervention of the British Government here is altogether wrong. I am amazed that a general so distinguished as General MacArthur should take the trouble to complain about a newspaper correspondent. One of the glories of the American Press is that they send their correspondents everywhere and expect them to have the right to speak their minds freely and to write as they like.

I consider it is a form of pressure which is altogether unworthy of the British Government to transmit a complaint from General MacArthur to "The Times."

The British Government is not a post office for General MacArthur. I do not like this, and it seems to me to be an interference with the rights of the Press. I feel very strongly about this matter. I hope this will not occur again. If General MacArthur has any complaint to make he can make it to his own Government, the Government of the United States, and perhaps they will will transmit it to the British Government. I very much doubt whether the American Government would approach our Government direct in this matter.

I hope our Government are not going to adopt this attitude of compliance with General MacArthur in his complaint about a correspondent. I do not know the rights or wrongs of this business, but I thoroughly object to the British Government acting as the bearer of a complaint from the commanding general in Japan to "The Times," or any other newspaper in this country. I am very glad to see that "The Times" has taken a resolute line about this matter, and I think that most British newspapers thoroughly endorse their independence.

Mr. Davies

We also endorse the independence of "The Times" and all other newspapers in this country. I think the right hon. Gentleman is being a little less than fair in this matter. After all, General MacArthur is the Supreme Commander in Japan, we have a Liaison Mission there, and he made his complaint to us. We thought it was only courteous for us to pass on the information we had received. As I have said quite clearly, we took no action in the matter other than to inform "The Times" of what General MacArthur had informed us. I think it was quite courteous to do that, and quite reasonable to do that. We gave no advice and we took no further action. We were one authority dealing with another authority, and when that authority makes a complaint to us about something it is only fair to inform the other people that a complaint has been made, without exercising any pressure and without interfering with the independence of the party to whom we passed the complaint.

5.44 a.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

Many of us on this side of the House agree with the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken). We do not feel that it was the duty of the British Government to pass on this complaint, although that it was, if you like, a duty of General MacArthur. Finally, I would say in the half-minute that is left that on both sides of the House we welcome the objective point of view that the Foreign Office have expressed in this Debate, because we must maintain the complete freedom of the Press, whoever the journalists may represent.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Thursday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Fourteen Minutes to Six o'Clock a.m.

Back to