HC Deb 01 August 1952 vol 504 cc2023-38

7.32 p.m.

Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North)

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for the opportunity to raise again the question of the pernicious and harmful effects of the circulation of American-style comics in this country. My only regret is that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones), with whom I am associated in raising the matter, is, for personal reasons, unhappily unable to be here today to support me.

When I last drew attention to the harmful effects of the circulation of American-style comics, I received from the Joint Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department a rather anodyne and complacent reply, but since that time the amount of attention and the extreme anxiety which has been shown throughout the country about the deleterious consequences of the publication and circulation of this type of comic paper has encouraged me to bring the matter once again to the attention of the Joint Under-Secretary of State in the hope that he will he willing to initiate some further action.

Let me say at the outset that in raising the matter I am not advocating any form of literary censorship. As one who is personally engaged in the profession of writing I must declare a personal interest, but even if that were not so, I should still say that I regard literary censorship as always harmful. I consider that any form of censorship for literature which has ever been established has been harmful in its consequences and a laughing stock before history.

I want to make one other point, and it is that although I refer to these comics as American-style comics, they are printed and published not only in America but also in this country, and I should be the last person to allow the term "American-style comic" to be used as an excuse by those who seek some stick with which to beat the Americans for adding another weapon to their armoury. On the contrary, it has already become clear that in America itself parents and teachers have the gravest anxieties about the circulation of this type of reading matter and the effect which it has on children.

I am informed that in Cincinnati a board has been set up known as the Evaluation Committee for Comics—a voluntary board—which has as its purpose to try to assess the various comic papers which are published and to try to give some kind of guidance to parents and teachers in this matter. Even in this country a small and valuable committee of writers has been formed with the idea of giving similar guidance to parents, teachers, and the publishing trade.

But the problem is rapidly becoming a national one, and for these reasons it seems to me that it would be wholly inadequate were the handling of this problem left in the hands of a few voluntary workers, and my purpose tonight is to apprise the Joint Under-Secretary of State, the House, and the country generally of the exact nature of this problem, and to urge that some more drastic action should be taken in order to deal with it.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State has already said that the importation in bulk of these comics from the United States and from Europe has been stopped, and I welcome that affirmation, but although that is the case, the importation and use of matrices manufactured abroad has continued, and comic papers which are being published in this country are being printed from the material which either has been imported or is being imported to this very day.

It is notorious that, in order to make the substantial profits which the purveyors of this reading matter are, in fact, making, they have to publish runs of between 50,000 and 100,000 copies, and it has been estimated by the committee to which I have referred that no fewer than 30 million objectionable copies of comics of this style are put into circulation each year, and businessmen who see the profitability of this trade are enlarging it, so that we may in future, unless some action is taken, expect that that figure of 30 million—that threatening figure of 30 million—will expand, and probably eat well into the current market for comics, which has been estimated at 400 million copies per year.

Let me, without wishing to harrow the House, give some illustrations of the type of comic paper which is being printed in this country. I want to quote only from some of the captions to these strip cartoons that are used in these papers in order to give the House an idea of the sadism which is the dominant characteristic of these so-called comics. Let me quote one paper called "The Manhunt," which has a characteristic caption which says of some unfortunate person: He was dipped into a chemical vat … his skin quickly tightened and split. Already starved, he looked like a skeleton when he was pulled up. Now here is another from the same paper: Letty leaps forward, hurls herself straight at the glittering harpoon-head. She screams … gurgles … chokes. The hero hits the villain over the head with a log and says: You murdering mucker. I'd like to take you apart with my bare hands. Finally there is a picture of a cross over a grave marked "Letty."

That is the type of comic paper which is being sold in shops and purchased by children of all ages. I do not want to multiply the examples, but I should just like to give a typical example of the sort of caption used by those papers which can have a horrifying effect. Let me quote from a comic called "Eerie": The Thing picked up the body of the unfortunate girl and threw it into an underground pit filled with sulphurous smoke.… From out of that pit rose corpse after corpse … shrunken … withered.… I could go on indefinitely giving examples and illustrations of this kind. I do not want to do so, and I merely give them to give the House some idea of the terrifying effect which not only the captions but—perhaps even more—the illustrations in those comics have upon children. I do not want to use too many examples of the actual magazines, but here I should like to show the House a type of the pictures used, and in a comic which is being sold literally in hundreds of thousands up and down the country today. Here is a picture of a skeleton with a half naked girl in some kind of container, and underneath is written: The Horror from the Pit. The Werewolf of Marsham Manor. The King of the Living Dead. The Subway Horror. I do not intend to develop the illustrations I have already quoted. I think I have already said enough to show that at the present time there is no protection at all for a child from this type of reading matter.

Up and down the country parents and school teachers are deeply exercised in their minds about the consequences of these publications on children. It is perfectly true that they were brought to this country in the first instance by American forces. They were widely read by American troops, but very rapidly it was found by publishers—disreputable publishers in my view—that there was a considerable market for this type of horror and sadistic literature; literature which glorifies the brute, literature which undermines the law simply because it suggests that the superman is the person who should take the law into his own hands and mete out justice in his own way. The most sinister thing about these publications is that they introduce the element of pleasure into violence. They encourage sadism; and they encourage sadism in association with an unhealthy sexual stimulation.

Now, no one is able at the present time to say whether there is any association between material of this kind and juvenile delinquency. Nobody can say so simply because there has not been an adequate inquiry. But what one can say is that individual magistrates up and down the country have found that certain juvenile delinquents who have engaged in acts of violence do use this type of so-called comic material as their favourite reading matter.

Only a few minutes ago my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) informed me that when he was sitting on the bench only recently he was obliged to mete out justice to a number of juveniles who were charged with attacking another child on Hampstead Heath. Later on it was discovered by the court that they had in their possession American-style comics of the kind I have just described, and their crime was in fact imitative. They had seen the glorification of violence as illustrated in these comics; they had seen how the heroes used the rope, the dagger, the knife and the gun: they had seen how they were glorified, and they simply imitated the example of the heroes portrayed in these lurid publications.

There is clearly an obvious case for inquiry by the Home Office. I submit to the Under-Secretary that it is not enough for him simply to say, "Well, we must leave the matter to the parent and the school teacher." The fact is that some parents have both the enlightenment and the time to guide and direct the cultural tastes and interests of their children, but there are many parents, working parents in particular, who are so occupied with the daily struggle for life that they have not the opportunity of giving this detailed instruction, this detailed care, to the child in its cultural pursuits. Consequently, I can well imagine that a child on its way to an elementary school walking along the back streets of any town in the country—because this thing has become a national big business—will be attracted by the garish covers of these magazines and so-called comic papers in the shop windows, and will go in and purchase them.

One of the most alarming facts of this particular situation is the tremendous amount of profit which exists in their sale. It has been established by the committee, which I have already quoted twice, that the average cost of the matrices for a whole publication of this kind is something like £60 or so. When we consider that many of these publications are sold for 6d. or 1s. 0d. and that the number published is between 50,000 and 100,000, it is easy to see that there is considerable profit on this type of vice.

No one wants to interfere with the liberty of free speech or with the liberty of the adult to read whatever he wishes. As adults we have the responsibility and the obligation to discriminate between right and wrong and good and bad. All that I am asking the Joint Under-Secretary to consider is whether or not children should be protected from the insidious and pernicious effect of this type of reading. I submit that it is not enough for him to say, "We will simply leave it to the parents and the teachers." That is not enough.

Not only does this matter require time, but it also requires to a great extent the opportunity of purchasing the right kind of reading material for children. Therefore I submit as a practical proposal to the Joint Under-Secretary—and I hope that he will take this into account—that the Home Office should set up a panel of educationists, of parents, of lawyers and magistrates and all those who are concerned at this problem, not for the purpose of censoring publications but to do precisely what is being done by the Evaluation Committee in Cincinnatti, namely, to draw up a list of comic papers as they appear, specifying all those which are unexceptionable, all those which are objectionable and all those which are so seriously objectionable that they may well do damage to the child. If he will do that he would make a substantial start towards persuading not only parents and teachers—I know he wants to do that—but, even more than that, persuading the trade to take the necessary action not to handle material of this kind.

Already reputable firms like the leading distributors will not touch this type of sadistic pornography, but none the less there are a large number of retailers up and down the country who will do so. I submit to the Joint Under-Secretary that a panel of the kind I have suggested, and for which there is already wide support in the country, would be able to reinforce the guidance which he has already recommended and with which he has stated he is in sympathy.

Before I conclude, let me say this. Many of my own generation remember the comics which charmed our childhood like "Comic Cuts" and "Rainbow," with characters like "Jumbo" and anthropomorphic characters which did nothing but good to those children who read about their antics in those multicoloured publications. It is not my intention in any way to discourage the publication of comics of that kind. On the contrary, it is my purpose to suggest that one of the objects of the Home Office in putting down the publication of this shameful type of reading matter should be to give such guidance to parents, to teachers and to the publication trade generally that eventually we may once again have wholesome publications for our children.

7.49 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

I am glad indeed to have the opportunity of supporting the case which has been so ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman). Like most people in this House, I am against censorship of all kinds for grown-ups, but we have always been able to reconcile our passion for freedom with a desire and determination to protect our own children. By law, we say that a man may go into a public house, but we prevent a child from going into a public house. By law we permit the showing of a film like "La Ronde" which equates men's sexual emotions with those of a monkey, but we prevent all children under 16 from going to see it.

One of the most important tasks of our educators at the moment is to preserve as long as possible our young children from the full impact of the cheap and commercial civilisation into which they are plunged once they leave school. I believe that we shall soon have to do something to protect delicate and tender minds from the harmful effects of some films—even though the films have received a "U" certificate. Any hon. Member who saw the exhibition in the Library of infra-red photographs of the reactions of young children to the more violent scenes that they saw at the cinema must agree that we shall have to do something very quickly to implement the recommendations which the Wheare Committee recently made on the need for providing the proper kind of films for children and for protecting the youngest of our children from witnessing scenes of violence.

I only wish we could record in the way those infra-red photographs did some of the effects of the impact of the nastier comic literature on the minds of our children. I suggest that that impact is probably not unconnected with the enormous number of crimes—some 28,000— reported in the Home Office's recent set of criminal statistics as having been committed by children under the age of 14.

We are not spoil-sports. We would not even say that the charge that we make against the worst type of American comics is because of their pornographic content; it is the fact that they link sex with violence, that they have a brutalising and degrading effect on the finer emotions, and that, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, they are sadistic in their approach to life and almost glory in cruelty.

Children take things literally. They accept the grown-up world as it is presented to them on trust from adults. I believe the State ought to behave like a good parent to its children and that we should take some care that the intellectual and emotional food which is provided for them in the State is wholesome.

We are living in an age when we give our teachers a far more difficult task than ever before. It is a world of crazy and cheap values. In such a world we are asking our teachers to help the children to appreciate the finer points of life, the value of kindness, tenderness, thoughtfulness, restraint and delicacy, the importance of the choice of words, the magic of Shakespeare, the joy of craftsmanship, the value of accuracy in scientific experiments, the beauty of a sunset or a storm, and the rich depths of human relationship.

Yet the moment young children leave school at 4 o'clock—indeed, sometimes even under the school desks before they leave—they are being submitted to the emotional impact of a scene of lust, violence and slaughter not unlike that provided in the "News of the World" on Sunday but reinforced and made far more effective by the methods of illustration and the crude captions that are used. If we can protect our children from whisky and horrific films we can surely protect them from the brutality of the worst comic papers, even if it means—I go further than my hon. Friend here—that we should deprive our grownups of the doubtful pleasure of reading such sensational literature more critically.

If we are not careful our youngsters will lose much of what civilisation has handed down to us. I believe, for example, that we have only maintained the English Christmas, we have only maintained all the wonder of Christmas carols and the traditions around Christmas by the work of Charles Dickens 100 years ago, on the one hand, and by the work of our teachers in our schools in this century on the other.

We should assist our schools in their struggle, against heavy odds, to preserve what is a very rich culture. I understand—I am not an economist—that there is a law in economics to the effect that counterfeit currency in time pushes out of circulation the higher and more genuine currency; and unless we are careful about this matter it seems to me that the cheap and sensational will push the finer literature out of the minds and experience of our children. We want to keep our English ways. What we get from America is not the best of American life, the natural American culture that exists in a million homes in that country, but all that is worst from America both in scenes portrayed in the films and in this particularly cheap and nasty literature which is coming over.

We have our own comics, we have our own good fun, our own long pattern of children's literature, of children's stories and of children's mythology. It seems to me that we shall be doing the children of England and doing our own culture a great service, and that we shall be helping the teaching profession if the Home Secretary will in some way or other begin to indicate that his Department is prepared to grapple with this problem.

7.57 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I am very glad that my hon. Friends have introduced this subject In the House tonight, because I know that it is causing a great deal of anxiety among the parents of this country and many of them just do not know what action to take. I can remember being a member of the libraries committee of the Glasgow Town Council for a number of years, and there were often derisive references to the committee who censored books for the adult population, particularly when the newspapers reported that each magistrate had to read through the book. Very often, when the result was the banning of a book, and publicity was given to it, it was found that we were really giving a great boost to the book concerned.

It seems a far cry to these days when, going through the city of Glasgow, I find these terrible magazines being prominently displayed, but, may I say, not in reputable shops. I wonder whether it would not be very easy to stop this trade or traffic. We must all be agreed that the time has come to do something about it. We took such measures regarding literature for adults, and now we are permitting this kind of literature to circulate freely in our secondary schools and in our public schools—and I use the adjective in both senses of the word.

They come in surreptitiously inside a school bag; and, strange to say, by word of mouth all over the school the shops that sell them become known. The children go to those shops and bring these magazines even into their own homes. I am afraid that very often when Johnny is upstairs, supposed to be studying higher French, or lower French, mother may make an investigation and will find that this kind of literature is more attractive.

They are sold in all kinds of peculiar places, such as fish and chip shops and stamp collecting shops. Shops have opened up in thoroughfares which are quite unfrequented and hitherto would have been regarded as a very poor speculation for a shop site. These shops have opened up in many of our cities and mainly in back streets. It would be a good thing, I think, if they could be raided occasionally; or even if it were known that the police could make a swoop and take the whole of their pernicious literature. It would be very gratifying indeed if the Government could see their way to take active steps to stop the poisoning of the minds of our children and of our adolescents.

8.2 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I am glad that this subject has been raised and that I have the opportunity of giving the point of view of the Government upon it. Perhaps I should say that I can properly speak only for England and Wales. The law in Scotland is different, and, therefore, I cannot give a full answer to the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann). She will have to tackle one of my hon. Friends about it on another occasion.

I quite agree with what has been said by hon. Members, that many of these magazines and publications are of a most objectionable character. I do not think there is any doubt about that. The hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) referred specifically to one or two. Many of them are in the worst possible taste, to say the least of it, and verge on the obscene.

But there is nothing new in children liking adventure stories with a strong element of violence in them. For generations they have revelled in such stories without suffering any apparent harm. The works of Stevenson, Henty and Ballantyne, and many other authors, contain scenes of great vigour and, indeed, of violence. I think they have been enjoyed by children and have certainly not done them any harm.

The peculiarity of the publications we are now considering is the emphasis they place on violence as such. Second—and this I think is of great importance—they 'have reduced the letter-press to almost insignificant proportions. The ordinary "comic," while it may not be of very much value in itself did at least teach the children using it to read, but with these publications it is almost unnecessary to be able to read in order to get the sense of what is depicted. They also use a crude and alien idiom to which all of us take exception.

The question posed by all hon. Members who have spoken is: what Government action is desirable in the circumstances? I think that first I must answer another question: what Government action is possible in the circumstances?

There are three kinds of action which have been canvassed. First, there is the physical action—the prevention of the import of these publications. As I told the House in answer to a Question by the hon. Member for Coventry, North recently, there have not been any imports from America at all material times. There has been a general prohibition of bulk imports of this class of publication. That prohibition has not been for the sort of reason that we have been discussing. It has been for currency reasons. Nevertheless, there has been a prohibition.

It is true that a certain number of these publications may have found their way here. Separate copies may have been brought by different people, and so on, but there have been virtually no imports from America. On 11th March of this year the import of these publications—and by that I mean publications of this class generally and not of the objectionable type only—has been forbidden from Europe as well.

It would probably be true to say that the old stocks are running out, that the previously concluded contracts are coming to an end and that very few indeed of these publications are coming here from Europe. It is probably true to say that virtually all the publications now being sold are printed and published in this country. Therefore, so far as the physical prevention of imports is concerned, nothing more can be done, and I do not think that the hon. Member really suggested that it was possible to do more. There is the possibility of the statutory prevention of the publication and sale of these comics.

I think that I should say something about the legal position in England and Wales. Obscenity is a common law offence which is punishable as a misdemeanour. There is no statutory offence of obscenity. There is the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, but that merely provides a special statutory remedy enabling the police to seize and destroy obscene matter with the consent of the court. The court would have to be satisfied that the matter was obscene within the common law meaning of the word.

If a document is obscene there is no difficulty about taking appropriate action to suppress it. So-called American comics have been submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions on a number of occasions and he has always firmly advised that they could not form the basis of a successful prosecution. They are not obscene within the meaning of the law. It has been suggested that it might be desirable to amend the definition of the word "obscene" and to extend it in some way to cover these publications.

I want to say a few words about the difficulty involved there. The hon. Member for Coventry, North referred to them as American comics—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is approaching the sphere of legislation.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I do not propose to suggest legislation. I am merely stating the law on this subject and the difficulties which arise because of the law. I do not think that I shall step over the boundary. Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman if he made it clear that legislation on this subject is virtually impossible and that, therefore, his comments would come within the rules of order on Adjournment debates.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has anticipated what was in my mind.

The very phrase used—"American comics"—shows how impossible it is to define this type of publication. They are not American, as everyone agrees, and they certainly are not comics in any sense of the word.

Mr. Edelman

I think the actual term is "American-style comics."

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Even so, I think the expression "American-style comics" is quite inapt to describe these particular magazines.

It is true, of course, that attempts have been made in other countries—and the hon. Member for Coventry, North mentioned it in a Question the other day—to deal with this matter by statute. In particular, there is a Canadian statute which banns Any magazine, periodical or book which exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially the commission of crime, real or fictitious. Presumably, that is the best definition that the Canadian Legislature has been able to devise to deal with this subject.

I think it will be immediately obvious to hon. Members that, if there was such an Act on the Statute Book here, it would be quite inapplicable to deal with what we are now considering. If I remember rightly, Tom, Tom, the Piper's son, Stole a pig and away he ran, and any child's book which had a picture of Tom and the pig would, by statute, be obscene if we tried to implement such an Act here. Conversely, of course, a large number of the comics deal with matters which are not, in any sense, crimes. They contain loathsome pictures of warfare and violence, but not necessarily of criminal matters. If we tried to deal with that matter by legislation, we should only exclude a certain number of subjects and the others would appear just as before.

There have been other attempts made, but I can assure the House that they do not appear to be any more satisfactory, and I think it is fair to say that it is virtually impossible by statute to seek to define what it is that we want to control in this context.

Mr. Edelman

I wonder if the hon. Gentleman will give the House the benefit of his knowledge on the experience of Sweden, which, I believe, also banned the publication of this type of literature.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I have made inquiries about that. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get the exact terms of the Swedish Act, but I am advised that it is in such terms that, if it were on the Statute Book here, it would be treated as unenforceable by our courts. They have a different system of justice on the Continent of Europe and their interpretation of laws is generally of a less strict character than ours here, and it may be that what is possible in Sweden in that respect is impossible here. I have not the exact words with me, but I am advised that the wording there would be quite inapt for our purpose here.

The other method by which Government action might be taken is to set up something in the nature of a censorship. Hon. Members opposite said very firmly that they were entirely against the censorship, and I was glad to hear it. I am certain that that would be the almost unanimous view of this House.

When it comes to making definite suggestions, a good deal of what they have suggested came very nearly to something like a censorship, and an analogy was made, I think by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King), with the film censorship. He asked why we could not have something like that. May I say, in the first place, that the censorship of films, of course, only classifies films. There are the U, A and X films —Universal, Adults Only and Horrific. Of course, it might be possible with a very large staff to classify magazines and other literature of that sort in this country, but that would not get us very far.

The real essence of the film censorship is the ultimate power to forbid children or others to go into a cinema. It is quite easy to forbid a person to go into a building, whether it be a cinema or a public-house, but it is entirely different to forbid the sale of particular articles. I think that hon. Members will see on reflection that if one once starts to forbid the sale of particular articles as classified, one would at once have to have something like a licensing system for newsvendors and bookshops which would mean being two-thirds of the way on the road towards a general censorship of literature.

Therefore, the suggestions which have been made—and I have no doubt made in perfectly good faith—really imply that there would have to be something like a censorship set up. I believe, as the hon. Member for Coventry, North rightly said, that all censorships are either oppressive or ridiculous, or both, and that anything remotely approaching a censorship would be anathema to this House.

I beg the House to keep a sense of proportion with regard to this problem. At the risk of being charged with complacency, I think there has been some exaggeration of this matter. Take the case of Alan Poole, the Borstal absconder who shot a policeman and was himself then killed resisting arrest. In that case it was reported in the Press that he had a library of 50 of these comics. Indeed, a social worker said that he had a collection of over 300.

The Home Office were extremely interested in this matter. They did not take it for granted. We asked the police if we could have these publications so that we could see and try and trace the connection. But, in spite of all that publicity, we found that this particular lad had one "Western" in his possession, and that not a very alarming one. That was the position.

To demonstrate the misunderstanding, may I say that since I answered some Questions in this House on the subject I have had a considerable "fan mail" saying, "Stop these publications coming in." I think the hon. Member for Coventry, North would agree that the one thing I made perfectly plain in my answer was that we had stopped them. That shows that there is some misunderstanding and some exaggeration. It is easy to lay the blame for the present quantity of juvenile crime on these publications, but I think it is evident from this debate that no real evidence of a direct connection has been brought forward. One can make assumptions, but we have no evidence.

I shall be glad to receive any evidence which any hon. Member can bring forward, and it will certainly receive the closest attention in the Home Office. I reiterate that the changing social and economic conditions of the country have thrown, and are throwing, a greater responsibility upon the Government in matters affecting moral welfare. Nevertheless, responsibility for the moral welfare of a child must primarily rest with its parents and teachers. There is a limit, and a proper limit, to what the law or a Government Department can do in this field. I have tried to indicate that that limit is a fairly narrow one. I believe it lies within the power of parents and of teachers to see that this undoubtedly unpleasant form of literature does little or no harm to our children.