§ Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Amendment to Question [28th November, 1952], "That the Bill be now read a Second time."—[Mr. Simmons.]
Which Amendment was, to leave out from "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
this House, whilst urging the establishment without further avoidable delay of a voluntary Press Council, declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which, contrary to the recommendations of the Royal Commission, seeks to impose by statute directions on the newspaper industry which is already engaged on formulating its own proposals."—[Mr. Ian Harvey.]
§ Question again proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ 11.13 a.m.
§ Mr. John Rodgers (Sevenoaks)
It was on 28th November that the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) introduced a Bill to establish a Press Council. It may perhaps not be within the recollection of the House that just before 4 o'clock I started to speak and to express the great thanks we all felt—on both sides of the House—to the hon. Member for providing us with an opportunity of discussing this very important subject.
Anything which affects our Press is of vital importance, not only to the House of Commons, but to the country as a whole and we should be grateful to the hon. Member for giving us this change of debating the Press. It would be agreed by hon. Members on both sides that the Press emerged from our day's debate on that occasion with flying colours. This was not to be doubted as it also emerged with flying colours from a very much more sensitive inquiry by a Royal Commission set up some time previously.
We all welcome the opportunity which a debate on a Measure such as this gives us to express our profound gratitude to our friends in the Press Gallery for the way in which they report our speeches so fairly and accurately and those other journalists of Fleet Street who amuse, educate and entertain us and, above all, journalists of the provincial Press who do so much to uphold the high standards of British journalism and rightly earn the 749 unofficial designation for the Press as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Working in collaboration with Members of Parliament, they do much to make our political democracy work as well as it does. Therefore, we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Brierley Hill.
Some of my hon. Friends accused the hon. Member of introducing this Measure as a stooge of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison). I do not know whether that is true or not; I will give my own views in a moment. I am very sorry that the right hon. Member is not in his place as I realise that the whole future of the British Press, as shown by his speeches on the White Paper on the question of a Press Council, is very near his heart. Obviously, there must be an important reason why he is not here to continue to take part in the debate on this subject.
I thought it a little ungenerous of my hon. Friends to suggest that the hon. Member for Brierley Hill was merely introducing the Measure and was not vitally interested in the subject. I know he is and that he has informed the House that he was a working journalist and, therefore, took advantage of his luck in the Ballot to introduce a Bill to bring forward the proposal for a Press Council. Personally, I accept his assurance that he did not discuss this matter with his right hon. Friend until three or four days before the debate of 28th November.
On many occasions in the past the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South has stated his doubts about certain aspects of the British Press. After all, he was largely responsible, I believe, for the establishment of the Royal Commission to inquire into the set-up and conduct of the British Press, out of which the Press emerged so successfully. I accept that the hon. Member for Brierley Hill brought in this Bill entirely because he believed from his own practical experience that it had merit. In introducing this Measure, the hon. Member expressed the view that the time of hon. Membersshould be utilised to secure effective legislation likely to confer benefit on the whole community.He went on, in support of his Bill, to say,The Bill is designed to implement the one recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Press, and the will of Parliament, as expressed in the Motion carried in the House without opposition on 29th July, 1949.750 The hon. Member appealed to hon. Members on both sides of the House to put aside party considerations. He said:… this is a non-party, non-partisan Measure,and claimed that it should be discussed entirely on its merits. There should be no Whip from either the Government or Opposition benches and not even a semiofficial Whip and I entirely agree with his approach to the matter. I think this is of such importance that it transcends all party political considerations and that we should look at the Bill entirely on its merits.
The hon. Member also said—and this caused me surprise—that quite a number of hon. Members supporting the Amendment were interested in advertising and newspaper production. He said:I hope they will declare their interest today."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1952; Vol. 508, c. 962–3.]I should like to declare my interest, if it is necessary, as a director of an advertising agency for 15 to 20 years. I do not know why I have to declare it as advertising is completely omitted from the Bill. There is no reference in the Bill to representatives of the advertising fraternity, but it may be that Clause 5 would allow consideration to be given to advertising matters which affect the Press. Therefore, I am only too happy to declare my interest, if interest it is. in the advertising side of the newspaper business. In addition. I wish to declare another interest. I am a trade unionist, as I am a member of the National Union of Journalists, but, like the hon. Member for Brierley Hill, I am afraid that my emoluments from that profession would not keep me in tobacco—and I am virtually a non-smoker. I can claim very little interest even on that side, though I should like the House to know that I have been a member of the National Union of Journalists for years.
The hon. Member for Brierley Hill said that he introduced the Bill with the object of maintaining and improving the moral, ethical and technical standards of British journalism. I agree with the findings of the Royal Commission on the Press—and I know that I carry the hon. Member with me—when it said:It is generally agreed that the British Press is inferior to none in the world. It is free from corruption: both those who own the Press and 751 those who are employed on it would universally condemn the acceptance or soliciting of bribes.Furthermore, the Royal Commission found—as I know from working knowledge to be absolutely true—that there is no evidence whatsoever, and there never has been, that advertisers ever exert pressure to secure the adoption of a particular policy. Incidentally, advertisers make our free Press possible, a fact sometimes forgotten by hon. Members opposite when they launch into attacks on advertising and its function in the modern State. The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) appears to be dissenting. Perhaps he would like to give that evidence. If so, I will give way.
§ Mr. Tom Driberg (Maldon)
I am grateful to the hon. Member. If he seeks evidence he has only to look for some examples which I gave in my speech in the original debate on the Motion to set up a Commission.
§ Mr. Rodgers
I prefer the findings of the Royal Commission, who investigated the charges made by the hon. Member and found no evidence whatsoever.
§ Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)
I would refer the hon. Member to the evidence given to the Commission, for instance by Mr. Hannen Swaffer, of pressure by advertising interests. I think it is true that there was evidence of a newspaper having given way to pressure.
§ Mr. Rodgers
With considerable knowledge of the field, and as one taking part in the expenditure of several million pounds a year in advertising, my experience is that no attempt has ever been made by the mass of advertisers in this country to bring any pressure to bear on the editorial policies of the Press. This fact was confirmed by the findings of the Commission.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
Is the hon. Member aware that the liquor trade vested interests exercise great pressure on the Press?
§ Mr. Hughes
I could give evidence of that in connection with a paper with which I have been associated for many years. It was "anti-drink" and it was 752 always boycotted by the liquor trade vested interests.
§ Mr. Rodgers
In a free economy it is obviously possible for advertisers to withhold their advertising revenue and go to those papers which suits their own interests better. That does not mean that they interfere with the editorial policies of the Press. Those who choose to support teetotalism in their newspapers will not be frustrated in their endeavours by the distillers or brewers.
The only definite recommendation which emerged from the Royal Commission's findings was the recommendation to establish a General Council of the Press. I believe that the hon. Member for Brierley Hill, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps consciously, misled the House a little when he failed to point out that the Commission expressly stated that the Council should:… derive its authority from the Press itself and not from statute.The hon. Member tried to persuade the House that the Bill was implementing the recommendation of the Royal Commission, whereas the words of the Royal Commission, that it should:… derive its authority from the Press itself and not from statute.are the very reverse of the attempt made by the hon. Member to introduce statutory legislation to bring about the formation of a Press Council.
It is a quite categorical recommendation on the part of the Commission that, if possible, the Press Council should be established by voluntary efforts within the Press itself rather than by Members of Parliament. It is true that the recommendation to set up a Press Council was supported by both sides of this House on 28th July, 1949, when it was urged that the Press should get together all sections, owners, proprietors, editors and journalists, and take the necessary action to bring about the formation of a Press Council.
It is legitimate to ask ourselves today why there has been this delay. It is some time since July, 1949, and I believe we can say that the delay has been a little too long. The hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer), who is very knowledgeable on the subject of the Press, and who I am sorry not to see in his place today, expressed astonishment that 753 newspaper proprietors, who always show the utmost speed and decision, had waited three and a half years before they introduced a plan for a Press Council. Incidentally, they produced the first plan on 30th July, 1952. But the hon. Member for Deptford maintained that when they produced it they presented it to the bodies representing journalists on a "take it or leave it" basis.
It is, perhaps, quite natural that some of my hon. Friends opposite—if I may so call them—are suspicious of the motives of some of the newspaper proprietors and believe that the newspaper barons have been the "niggers in the woodpile" and have been largely responsible for the delay in the formation of the Council. I admit that they have been a little dilatory in getting this matter under way. Speaking as a member of the National Union of Journalists, of which the hon. Member for Brierley Hill is also a member, I must say that to a certain extent the Union itself is responsible for some of the delay.
I say with some knowledge of the facts that the National Union of Journalists have been playing power politics and have been influenced to some extent by block votes. At all events, I acquit the proprietors of main responsibility for delay and I accuse both sides equally of being dilatory in this matter and of not expressing more speedily the will of Parliament, which was made known in 1949.
It is most important that the basic freedom of the Press, which we have won only after centuries of struggle, should be thoroughly safeguarded. That is why I sincerely favour the establishment of a voluntary Press Council as opposed to the statutory body envisaged in this Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Storey), who is also knowledgeable on the subject of the Press, thatA free Press can only be led; it cannot be forced. Any attempt to impose a Press Council upon the industry by legislation would be a first step to a Government-controlled Press." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1952; Vol. 508, c. 1020–21.]That is something which I am sure no hon. Member in any part of the House would wish to see.
We should resist by all possible means any attempt by this House to impose by statute a Press Council on the Press of this country. But today it is not even 754 necessary that we should proceed with these proposals. Since we debated the subject in November, the Press interests concerned have drawn up a draft constitution for a Press Council which I have in my hand. This has now been approved by all the parties concerned. I understand that one or two minor amendments have been suggested. I believe that those were discussed at a meeting yesterday afternoon, but I have not been able to check what slight amendments have been made to the printed constitution set out in the document which I have in my possession.
I would ask the House to realise that this voluntary Press Council—the constitution is now published and available to any hon. Member who cares to write to the various organisations concerned— is scheduled to be formed by 1st July of this year and already the question of obtaining names for the Council is being actively considered. The original scheme of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association envisaged 10 representatives of the owners, seven representatives of the editors and eight representatives of working journalists. The present draft slightly changes that representation. It allows for 10 representatives of the owners, eight of the editors and seven of the journalists.
Originally, the National Union of Journalists stuck out for parity of representation with the owners and they wished to reduce editorial representation to five. I am glad they have dropped that plea and come in on this general scheme, and that agreement has been reached on the proportion of representation on this voluntary Press Council. I believe that the hon. Member for Brierley Hill, who, I am sure, has the interests of the Press at heart, ought to withdraw his Bill now and allow the voluntary scheme promulgated by the interests concerned to come to a successful fruition.
Quite apart from the major objection I have stated, that the Bill is contrary to the entire spirit of the findings of the Royal Commission since it departs from the voluntary principles which they stressed as being so important, I believe the Bill as drafted—if I may say so without offence—is bad and contains very objectionable features. It can be criticised on grave constitutional grounds. I know it may be argued that some of the points 755 I shall raise could be taken care of in Committee. But let me go through some of the obvious drafting mistakes in this Bill.
First, there is the constitution of the Council. Under this Bill the Scottish Newspaper Proprietors' Association is entirely omitted and—
§ Mr. Rodgers
I agree, why? There is no reason why they should be and, indeed, the voluntary association includes them.
Secondly, there is the inclusion of the Press Association, which is quite ridiculous in so far as that is entirely controlled by the Newspaper Proprietors' Association and the Newspaper Society. The Institute of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists are separated in the Schedule of the Bill, and yet not all members of the Institute are editors. Indeed, the vast majority are not and, therefore, that makes nonsense of that part of the Bill. Furthermore, in recent years there has been talk of a merger between the National Union of Journalists and the Institute. I ask the hon. Member for Brierley Hill if in the event of such a merger, the Guild of British Newspaper Editors would be the sole body to select editorial representatives? That would be the logical conclusion.
I could go on to refer to many more parts of the Bill to show that the sponsors are not really acquainted with the organisation of the British Press. To some extent they are ignorant of its workings and its financial set-up, and I am afraid—although I absolve the hon. Member for Brierley Hill—that they are actuated by a desire not so much to help as to harm the British Press. Most of the objectives set out in the Bill for the Council to achieve have been accepted by the voluntary scheme. Ten objectives are set out in Clause 3 of the Bill. Of these, six have been accepted by the voluntary scheme, namely, paragraphs (a), (b), (c), (d), (g), (h) and (i),
What are the objectives in the Bill which are rejected by the voluntary Press Council? They are in the main those contained in Clause 3 (e), (f) and (i The objective set out in (e) isto examine the practicability of a comprehensive pension scheme.756 I am sure that, on consideration, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite will think that this has been rightly rejected by the sponsors of the voluntary scheme, because it cuts across wage negotiations between the trade unions and the employers' organisation; and in any event there is already a voluntary scheme available to the industry which was established as far back as 1928.
Another objective omitted from the voluntary scheme is that in paragraph (f):to promote the establishment of such common services as may from time to time appear desirable.That has been omitted because it is quite unnecessary. There are, and have been for many years, long before there was any talk of a Press Council, a great many voluntary common services established in the newspaper industry. There is the purchase of newsprint, for example, which came about owing to war conditions. There is the enormous amount of research into printing and into the composition of ink, and the like, which is done in the common interests of the trade. There is no need for a Press Council to obtain the objective of securing a common service in the interests of the entire Press.
The third objective omitted from the voluntary scheme is that the Council as set up by statute wouldrepresent the Press on appropriate occasions in its relations with Her Majesty's Government, with the organisations of the United Nations and with similar Press organisations abroad.No wonder that this brought forth the strongest attack from my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Baxter). There have been, I believe, far too many junketings abroad under the Socialist regime at public expense, and this would seem to be merely an opportunity of allowing a good many other people to go junketing to United Nations, and U.N.E.S.C.O. and all over the place; and to achieve nothing except to exacerbate feelings between the various countries.
What is the Press? I maintain that as stated in this Clause the Press does not exist. I would ask a question of the hon. Member for Brierley Hill to clarify why I say that. Suppose a paper differs from the majority in its attitude towards a matter of public concern, as for example, the "Daily Worker" well might do. If it differs from the majority of 757 the so-called Press is it to have no representation on this body which is to talk with representatives of Her Majesty's Government, and attend United Nations meetings at New York or wherever they may be held? Or, because of its minority, is it to secure representation on its own? If that be the case I can see a great many little papers being started in order to secure a representation undeserved by the popular support they command. Altogether, this is a nonsensical Clause and, to my mind, is quite rightly omitted from the voluntary scheme.
Then I come to my own major objection to this Bill, the part which cuts right across the idea of a voluntary scheme. That is Clause 5, which states:Subject to the provisions of the Act the Council shall have power to do anything which in its opinion is calculated to facilitate the proper discharge of its functions.I must confess that I consider this Clause confers powers on the Press to do anything it likes. In fact, were this Clause to be included in the Statute Book, nothing would have been seen like it since the days of the Star Chamber. It is really a most monstrous Clause and quite rightly omitted from the voluntary scheme.
I appeal to the supporters of the Bill to withdraw it in view of the co-operation which has at last been achieved among the various sections of the Press, who have evolved what may be considered quite a workable scheme. I appeal to the hon. Member for Brierley Hill to withdraw his Bill, first, because I think it is badly drafted. That may be because it was rushed through; I do not know. All the way through it is obviously badly drafted.
Secondly, it is an insult to the Press of the country in view of the findings of the Royal Commission. Thirdly, and most important, it is now totally unnecessary in view of the fact that voluntary negotiations have produced this draft constitution, which, I believe, is infinitely superior to the proposals in the Bill, and which, most important, are totally in keeping with the findings of the Royal Commission which was set up by the Opposition when they were in power.
I urge hon. Members opposite to get rid of their bogies about the evils of the British Press. A good many right hon. 758 and hon. Gentlemen opposite owe a great deal of their standing in the country to the support they have obtained from the local and national Press. The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) owes far more to the attention which he receives from the Press than to the utterances he makes in the House. Yet he is always attacking the Press. He does that not because he dislikes publicity—he loves it and glories in it—but because, as I believe, he hates the freedom of the Press. He is a slight totalitarian and is for ever attacking the Press.
§ Mr. Rodgers
In deference to my hon. Friend I will omit the word "slight." Why newspapers pander so much to these self-seeking publicists I have never yet disovered, but, nevertheless, I would rather that they published the pretentious frothings, as they often are, on subjects about which the right hon. Gentleman knows very little than attempt to curb the freedom of the Press by the establishment of a statutory Press Council.
I urge hon. Members opposite seriously to contemplate where this step would take them if they insisted on forcing through this Measure and on shackling on the British Press a Press Council which, if set up by statute, would not have the support of the elements of the British Press which alone can make such a Council effective and bring about the results which both sides of the House desire.
We have a Press which, in its independence and fairness, in its basic freedom from political control—and I exclude such papers as the "Daily Herald," which are far from objective in their reporting and are an extraordinary example of bad journalism; I except them specifically; but apart from that paper, the whole British Press shows an objectivity in reporting which is a great credit to the country and to the industry. In spite of its occasional shortcomings it maintains a standard which is higher than that anywhere else in the world. In fact, I say without hesitation that our Press is the best in the world and the envy of the world. We should be careful lest we take any step in the House which would detract from very high prestige which the British Press has so surely deserved.
759 I ask the hon. Member for Brierley Hill to withdraw his Bill, to let the voluntary Press Council come into being on 1st July and to see whether that will not bring about the objectives envisaged in the findings of the Royal Commission. I believe that voluntary effort, in whatever sphere, is always to be preferred to Government action. Government action should be only a last resort and never a first resort. It is, therefore, with deep sincerity that I appeal to the hon. Member for Brierley Hill to withdraw the Bill and to allow the voluntary Press Council to come into being on 1st July and to work out its destiny.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Tom Driberg (Maldon)
There was a slight misunderstanding in the final words of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J. Rodgers). I do not think anybody suggests Government action to control the Press. Whether this Press Council were set up voluntarily, as is now certain, or whether it had been done by statute, it would, of course, have been an independent body. It would not have been a Government-controlled body in a political sense.
§ Mr. J. Rodgers
What makes me afraid of the proposal in the Bill is the possibility of people outside the Press world being appointed, for instance, to the position of chairman. This could— I do not say it would—lead to political appointments which would be detrimental to the freedom of the Press.
§ Mr. Driberg
I will come to that argument a little later. I know the point which the hon. Member has in mind, but I was merely joining issue with him on his suggestion of Government control as such. I do not think that the appointment of a minority of lay representatives, even if they were political appointments —which I do not think they would be— could be said to constitute Government control of the Press Council or the Press.
To come a little further back, in the second or third of the hon. Member's perorations he seemed to deplore the non-existence of any dependable Conservative newspaper. This suggests a very unfortunate state of affairs and an appalling dereliction of duty on the part of the Conservative Central Office—unless, indeed, they realise that there is no need 760 for them to exercise direct political control over any newspaper, since most of the rich men are on their side anyway, including most of the newspaper proprietors, and these do their work for them without there being any need for the Central Office to intervene directly.
That is a happy state of affairs for hon. Members opposite but less so for us, and particularly less so for my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), to whom the hon. Member referred. I do not know whether he suggests that the kind of publicity which my right hon. Friend normally gets from the mass-circulation, anti-Socialist newspapers is a useful or helpful type of publicity. I will not join issue with him in his assessment of my right hon. Friend's views and attitude, which he described as totalitarian, except to give a blunt denial, as one who probably knows my right hon. Friend a good deal better than does the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, and who has frequently quarrelled with him about what seems to me his incurably old-fashioned liberalism.
I would beg the hon. Member for Sevenoaks to refresh his memory of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Press. If he does he will find that with the long lapse of time, which he admits there has been, some of the finer balances in that very carefully drafted Report have become somewhat stilted in his mind. He devoted a substantial section of his speech to excoriating parts of the Bill in very severe terms, as did the Attorney-General earlier in the debate, I would point out, with great deference, that the particular Clauses and phrases to which they take most exception are for the most part quoted verbatim from the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Press. As the hon. Member for Sevenoaks will be aware, that Report and its recommendations were accepted unanimously by Parliament, without a Division. Admittedly it was in the previous Parliament, but both the Conservative Opposition, as it was then, and the Labour Government were committed to approval of the recommendations contained in that Report; so I do not think that the Attorney-General and the hon. Member for Sevenoaks are making a very valid point in belabouring the phrases which seem to them to be so exceptionable.
§ Mr. Hylton-Foster (York)
Surely the hon. Member does not suggest—and I am asking for information—in support of the words complained of in Clause 5, that they are derived from the Report of the Royal Commission, I understood that it was a kind of dental operation which came out of the Dentists Bill.
§ Mr. Driberg
I quite agree, and that is why I did not say all of them; I said most of them. I was not going to dodge that particular argument; I do not dodge arguments, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows. I had intended to deal with that one later in my speech, but I will deal with it now. As I ventured to say when I interrupted the Attorney-General on 28th November, that Clause, quite apart from any technical necessity for its inclusion by the draftsmen—and I do not understand about that side of it—seems to me to have quite the contrary effect to that sincerely feared by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks: it seems to me to be a limiting and safeguarding Clause. This is a rather remarkable example of how two people can read the same set of words and make them mean exactly opposite things. The Councilshall have power to do anything which in its opinion is calculated to facilitate the proper discharge of its functions.That is, surely, a limiting Clause; in other words, the Council shall not have the general power to do anything, but shall have the power to do only whatin its opinion is calculated to facilitate the proper discharge of its functions.It cannot roam over the whole field of propaganda, radio, television and every aspect of public relations and so on. Its primary function, the first of its functions, is to safeguard the freedom of the Press. Therefore, obviously, it could not take any action fundamentally contrary to the freedom of the Press. It could not, for instance, exercise such a rigorous discipline as the suppression of a newspaper or something like that, which seems to be the apprehension in the mind of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks.
§ Mr. Rodgers
The hon. Member's interpretation is the exact opposite of my own. In such a case, would the Council be empowered to prevent a man from earning his living as a journalist?
§ Mr. Driberg
I should think not, unless, indeed, he behaved in so flagrant a way as one former hon. Member of this House, who was a disgrace to this House and to the profession of journalism, and against whom this House imposed the severe penalty and extreme sanction of expulsion. I would not like to give a reply offhand to what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not envisage the Press Council as having the power, so to speak, to "hire and fire." I do not think that will be within their province at all. In any case, there will be representatives of the journalists on the Council.
I may perhaps interpose here that I hope very much that, when the new Council does get to work on 1st July, all its members will try genuinely to act impartially and judicially. It would be disastrous if they were to vote as blocs or groups in accordance with their respective sectional interests, whether of journalists or proprietors, and I am sure that they will not do that.
§ Mr. Ian Harvey (Harrow, East)
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the new and voluntary Press Council, which we are all very glad to know is to come into being on 1st July. Does he not feel that the pursuance of this Bill in this House is likely to be detrimental to that happening, and would it not be better to follow the advice given by my hon. Friend that the Bill should be withdrawn?
§ Mr. Driberg
Hon. Members opposite keep on trying to make my speech for me. I have given way for three interruptions, all dealing with points which I was going to make in an orderly sequence. At present, I am still trying to struggle through the prologue to the notes which I had made for my speech—a prologue excited by the speech of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. We would all agree that these debates are better when one does take some trouble to deal with the preceding speech: set, prepared speeches are both boring and un-Parliamentary.
I was explaining that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks did not seem to have a very clear recollection of some of the things said by the Royal Commission on the Press, and I dealt with that point— his objection to Clauses which were merely quotations from the recommendations accepted by Parliament.
763 Secondly, when the hon. Gentleman made a general reference early in his speech to the Royal Commission, he said that the British Press as a whole "emerged very successfully" from that inquiry. Of course, by saying that, the hon. Member shows that he has succumbed to and is helping to perpetuate a myth which is, in itself, one of the most striking examples of Press distortion. The Royal Commission did not give any general vindication to the British Press. It gave a very cautious and balanced Report, erring, if anything, on the side of extreme caution and moderation, but anybody who studies some of the things it says, and, in particular, the report on the contents of newspapers accumulated in the Appendix, would certainly not agree that the Press as a whole—the popular Press, the mass-circulation Press—emerged completely unscathed from that ordeal. In fact, the morning after the Report appeared, many of the newspapers—not all of them—made precisely that mistake, to use a charitable expression. They said that the Press had been vindicated; they implied that it had emerged completely unscathed.
This was not true, either in general or on the particular point which the hon. Member went on to talk about—the question of pressure by advertisers, one of the matters stressed most strongly in our original debate on the Royal Commission. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to give way to me when speaking just now, and I said that, if he cared to have some examples of the kind of thing he was asking for, he would find them in my speech in that original debate. I now refer him further to what I said in my oral evidence before the Royal Commission, in Cmd. 7500, starting with Question No. 11,444 and extending for a column or two.
§ Mr. Driberg
I am sure that hon. Members do not want me to make my speech any longer than it need be.
Everything that I have said on this question, I have always qualified by saying that that pressure from the advertiser is certainly much less acute now than it used to be before the war; that, 764 of course, is one of the fortunate byproducts of the newsprint shortage and the shortage of space. When the hon. Member goes on to say, as I think he did, that the Royal Commission examined the evidence, and that the evidence submitted by myself and other journalists was rejected or repudiated, that is not really in accordance with the Report.
In the references which they did make to specific instances of alleged advertising pressure—some of them, admittedly, quite trivial and quoted merely as indicative of the general trend and atmosphere—the Royal Commission quoted the instance and said that such-and-such a witness alleged this or that, and then quoted the automatic denial of that evidence by the editor or manager of the newspaper concerned; but so far as I recall, did not, in any instance, deliver a verdict as between the two. They simply set the allegation and the denial side by side in the same paragraph.
Then, at the end of the section of their Report that deals with advertising, they say:We have reached the following conclusions on the subject of advertising influence on the Press: (1) We have some evidence that individual advertisers occasionally seek to influence the policy of a newspaper or to obtain the omission or insertion of particular news items. Any attempt by an advertiser to exploit his position in this way is to be condemned, and we are glad to record that such attempts appear to be infrequent and unsuccessful.But they do not deny that such attempts have been made. There is no suggestion that the whole allegation is complete rubbish, as I think the hon. Member rather tended to suggest in his speech.
I need not read the whole of that section because it will be familiar to hon. Members, but the Commission have "no evidence of concerted pressure by advertisers." I do not think anybody suggested that. Thirdly, they say:So long as newspapers do not pay without advertising revenue, a newspaper may well think twice before it adopts any policy which is likely to reduce advertisers' demands for its space.That is quite obvious and that, indeed, was the gist and tenor of much that many of us said. We were not particularly blaming the advertisers or the papers: we merely instanced this relationship with the advertisers as one of the factors tending to limit what we regard as true freedom of the Press.
765 The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Ian Harvey) asked me what I thought about the position with regard to this Bill in view of the development that has occurred since this debate began last November. Obviously, the announcement that the Press Council is being set up has a direct bearing on the course of this debate, but I am not one of the sponsors of the Bill, and it is not really for me to anticipate what view my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) may take if later he should succeed in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, and is allowed to speak briefly a second time, by leave of the House. He may ask leave to withdraw the Bill; or he may feel that it is desirable to have the House formally on record in support of his Measure. I do not know; that is up to him and the other sponsors of the Bill, of which I am not one.
My own view is that the setting-up of this Press Council is to be welcomed so far as it goes, but I do not feel very optimistic about its effectiveness. So far, its functions, its methods of inquiry, and its sanctions, if any—which I doubt —are rather vaguely defined. It may be that whoever is to speak for the Government today, whether the Joint Undersecretary of State for the Home Department or the Attorney-General, will be able to tell us rather more about the functions and powers of the body now being set up than we already know.
The difficult aspect of it, I quite agree, is the question of sanctions and discipline, and whether it is possible for any such body, voluntary or statutory, to impose any effective sanctions other than exposing the offender to public obloquy. I should have thought that if we were having a statutory body such as is proposed in this Bill, and such as was envisaged as a possibility by the Royal Commission—they said that a voluntary body was far preferable, but some of their members thought that a statutory body roughly on the lines of the General Medical Council would be harmless and might be useful—the one sanction which might be granted to it would be the power to oblige an offending newspaper to publish prominently the Press Council's own censure on it. That might at least have some slight deterrent, or even, if one likes, punitive effect. But as things are, the Press Council which 766 is to come into being on 1st July will have no sanctions at all, so far as I can see, unless the Attorney-General corrects me later on.
There has also been some mention already today of the undesirability of what the hon. Member called "outsiders" coming onto the Council. He said it would be a deplorable thing if we had lay or what might be called consumer representation on it. I do not agree with him there, and I do not think that the National Union of Journalists agree with him there. Certainly the Royal Commission on the Press do not agree with him there.
Of course, as he will be aware, part of the recommendation of the Royal Commission was that there should be a lay chairman and about 20 per cent. lay representation on the Council. I still think that there is a great deal to be said for that, and I hope that the voluntary Council, when it is functioning, if it finds that it would now and then like the opinion of some reasonable and sensible lay person, will not hesitate to broaden its scope and to co-opt members, if it has the power to do so. I see that the hon. Member has the proposed constitution with him. He may, perhaps, tell me if it has already made provision for that. If so, I think it is a good idea.
There are various matters affecting the freedom of the Press, in the full sense of the phrase, on which it is right that the opinion of ordinary members of the public should be consulted: after all, the freedom of the Press, fundamentally, is not freedom for editors or proprietors or journalists to write whatever they like to write. The freedom of the Press is one of the basic civil freedoms of everybody. It is the right of the public to get true news and fair comment. That is what the freedom of the Press means.
There are some aspects of that on which I should have thought that everybody would agree that a lay opinion was better, or, if not necessarily more accurate or wiser than that of somebody engaged in the business, at any rate obviously more independent. For instance—I will just quote one example—the Newspaper Proprietors' Association has a pretty powerful and effective closed shop in many respects, which is recognised by some of the most exalted institutions in the land. I do not want to be more specific than 767 that, but the result of the regard shown to the N.P.A. by these exalted institutions is that the readers of magazines with very wide circulations are debarred from seeing pictures, articles or descriptions of this or that function which they might very much like to read about. That, surely, is an infringement of the freedom of the readers of those particular magazines.
§ Mr. Driberg
I have been giving one example with great taste, delicacy and discretion, using the word "exalted," which, as those who have read Sherlock Holmes know, is the word used to indicate certain high circles and institutions. If the hon. Member is so insensitive that he does not see what I mean, then it is just too bad. He is very thick-witted today.
§ Sir H. Williams
The hon. Member alleges that certain things happened. I ask him to give an example. He says they are so exalted that he cannot give an example. Is it so exalted that he is bringing the Crown into this debate?
§ Mr. Driberg
I was giving an example, but the hon. Member was too dim-witted to understand what it was.
May I now reiterate one or two of the main principles and considerations which, in the first instance, led some of us to sponsor this project? All of us who negotiated and sponsored this project from the beginning were working journalists—not my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison). We sponsored and initiated the original debate on the Royal Commission; we were not likely to do anything calculated to injure the freedom of the Press and of our own profession.
I may just mention again one or two of the general principles and considerations which moved us at that time and subsequently led Parliament to agree, without a Division, to the recommendations of the Royal Commission. One of the points was the monopolistic tendency that we alleged. We did not, of course, use the word "monopoly," which would have been inapplicable. I think the Royal Commission bore out to some extent what we said. They said: "Of course, there has been a tendency to merging, to chain-ownership," but they 768 did not take as severe a view of the danger in this respect, so far as it had already gone, as we did. In the original debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, Central (Mr. Webb) gave a very good example from experience in his own home-town, the City of Lancaster, of the infringement of the freedom of the Press that merging can mean. The Royal Commission did not go so far as we did, but they did say that it would be undesirable if there were any further tendency in this direction:We should deplore any tendency on the part of the larger chains to expand.We have already complained of the long delay that there has been in setting up this Press Council—three-and-a-half years or more. During that time, this process of expansion has gone on, and if the Royal Commission were still functioning they would presumably find this tendency deplorable. That, I suppose, is one of the first things that the Press Council will have to look into, the fact that local newspapers have been continuing to vanish during the last three-and-a-half years, to be bought up, to be merged in these great trusts and chains. I was very glad to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about provincial newspapers. I believe that some of the smaller, independent local newspapers are the real stronghold of the freedom of the Press and of genuine free comment in our Press.
The whole subject of the freedom of the Press is too big, too philosophic to tackle in a speech in a debate. The larger the units the less likely it is, in a way, that there will be genuine freedom. I would very much rather have a relatively large number of small newspapers competing with each other, and with smaller circulations. We find in the smaller newspapers and weekly reviews that do exist the most genuine freedom of comment today. It is perhaps no accident that those are the publications least attractive to advertisers.
The millionaire Press as such is not necessarily a free Press. I do wish people would not so often talk as if it were. I see that the United States Ambassador was making some remarks on the conventional lines last night in London. I hope he has read the book recently published here about Mr. William Randolph Hearst, whom he 769 would no doubt hold up as a model of the "free Press" man. "Freedom" used in that sort of context becomes almost a meaningless word, except in so far as it merely means freedom for the rich man to do what he will with his own, which does not seem to me to be a particularly exalted concept.
The Royal Commission spoke about distortion and bias. In editorials, of course, some bias is inevitable and expected, but in news-reporting, and particularly in sensational headlines, a quite untrue and tendentious picture is too often given. Some selectivity is inevitable. It is impossible to have an absolutely objective newspaper. But there is a borderline, which it is easier to recognise than to define, between fair bias and unfair bias. I am afraid that there has not been much improvement in this respect in the last three-and-a-half years since the Royal Commission sat. I do not under-estimate the difficulty which the Press Council will have in trying to tackle such a job as that. No doubt they cannot do it in a general way. They will have to wait until some complaint is referred to them—not an isolated or trivial case, but a sustained vendetta or something of that kind. Then, I hope, they will go into it pretty thoroughly.
I am sorry to have gone on for so long; I apologise to the House. I was led away by interruptions at the beginning. The main point I should like to end with is something that, I am afraid, no Press Council can deal with—the apparently incurable frivolity of a large section of the Press. The bigger the circulation the more it seems to be thought necessary to cater only for what might be called the "Light Programme" type of mind. That is a profound misconception on the part of the Press. After all, among the readers of newspapers which have a sale of many millions there must be an intelligent minority. We can note the example of the B.B.C., which in its 30 years' existence has exercised an educative influence on a very wide public indeed. I referred just now to the "Light Programme" type of mind as a common, everyday illustration, but the B.B.C., over the years, has done a tremendous job in educating musical and other taste; indeed, in my view, it is because of that B.B.C. policy that it is now possible for big-circulation newspapers like the "Daily Express" to 770 devote quite considerable space to news and critiques of concerts, ballet, and other subjects not usually considered "popular."
Having just mentioned the "Daily Express" newspaper, with which I used to be connected, I would put in one word here which I should have said earlier. The recent conduct of the "Express" newspapers was a very creditable example of the way to treat advertisers who try to interfere with one's policy; I mean the battle which the "Express" group had against the film advertisers. I was only sorry that it was supported in such a lukewarm and tardy way by the other newspapers—I do not know why.
As I was saying, I think that the "Light Programme" attitude is mistaken policy. Newspapers can afford to cater for the intelligent minority as well as for the vast majority. It is rather depressing when every column on every page of a newspaper seems to be addressed exclusively to morons and calculated to inflame their lowest appetites. One should never "write down." It is true that the values dominant in any society must be the values dominant in its Press, since the Press is an institution characteristic of the society in which it exists: none the less, the Press should not lag below the general level of society; it ought to give a lead, as the B.B.C. has done.
I hope very much that the Press Council may fulfil a positive as well as a negative function, and therefore I welcome its initiation so far as it goes. We will watch it, and if we find that it is not working effectively, then I hope that Government supporters also will join with us in considering whether it would be possible to work out some statutory arrangement which would not infringe Press freedom but might make the work of the Press Council more effective. After all, that was envisaged as an alternative possibility by the Royal Commission, although they came down on the side of the voluntary Council.
I would only add—and this is my final peroration—that there has been a little misunderstanding about the attitude of some of us on this side of the House who are journalists. I am a newspaperman; I love the craft of journalism. I want to be proud of the craft as it is 771 exercised throughout this country. At its worst it can be a disgrace: at its best we are already proud of it. The Press is a unique institution—a craft, a trade, an art perhaps, and a great industry. Is it too pretentious to hope—without undue solemnity—that its practitioners may increasingly come to regard it as a vocation also?
§ 12.21 p.m.
§ Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)
I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who thought that I was a little dim-witted because I asked an elementary question when he was alleging advertising pressure. He never quoted a single example of a newspaper which had succumbed to advertising pressure.
§ Mr. Driberg
If I had gone on to quote the examples which I have already quoted elsewhere, my speech would have been even more inordinately long than it was. I referred the hon. Member to the specific references in the Reports, which he can look up for himself.
§ Sir H. Williams
The hon. Gentleman had 37 minutes in which he said nothing. If he had spent another five minutes saying something, it would have added to my enjoyment. I should like just one little example. It is some time since he gave his evidence, and I should like to be informed. Can he give one example to prove his case? We had a mysterious reference to "exalted persons." What that meant I have not got a clue. That is apparently why I am dim-witted. Do I gather that certain people go to the newspapers and say, "Please do not say where I was last night"? Is that what is meant? In what way is it a closed shop? If I had some money I could start a newspaper. I should probably lose it, I know—
§ Sir H. Williams
A great deal, especially if it was like the "Daily Worker," which is losing a lot of money. The "Daily Herald", of course, ceased to be a Socialist newspaper when it was run by capitalists.
The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) said how dreadful the beer interests were and that they had 772 tried to coerce him. They did not try to coerce him at all. What is the use of advertising beer in a newspaper which only circulates among non-beer drinkers? That is stupid. Obviously, one advertises in a newspaper which is read by the class of people to whom one wants to sell an article. Not even the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) would advertise "Coca-Cola" in a newspaper which was read by people who never drank it and could not be persuaded to drink it.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
Surely if people are not drinking it, and there is any persuasive power in advertising, they are the sort of people to whose attention the advertisement should be drawn.
§ Sir H. Williams
Now we know why the brewers ought to advertise in the journal which used to be published by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire. We are making a little progress.
I do not think there is any need for a Press Council, either voluntary or statutory. The whole thing is a lot of nonsense. If the Press had had a little more guts they would not have offered a voluntary Press Council. What is it going to do? I noticed that the hon. Member for Maldon did not talk very much about what is proposed in the Bill. I do not know whether any of the supporters of the Bill are to speak today. They are all absent, except one.
Let us look at the Bill. Clause 3 says that the Council shallkeep under review any developments likely to restrict the supply of information of public interest and importance.That is the "exalted person," point I presume. It goes on to say:to improve the methods of recruitment, education and training for the profession of journalism.Some people do not know that they are going to be journalists when they are educated; that may be a good thing, but I do not know how they can be taught.
Next:to promote a proper functional relation among all sections of the profession.I do not know what that means. Does that mean that an editor must not set up the type and that each man has to do his own job? That happens, anyhow. I do not know what it means, and I do not 773 believe that the people who wrote the words know what it means.
§ Sir H. Williams
It is no use shouting about the Royal Commission to me. I do not know its members. I am not impressed just because somebody says that the Royal Commission said so and so. I am entitled to use my own judgment. When I read leading articles they often say, "We think so and so." It is not "we" at all. It is Bill Smith who lives in Balham, and you take no notice of him when you meet him in a railway carriage. We should not over-estimate the importance of the journalistic "we" —not even when they write in the "Daily Express," or used to.
The Bill goes on to state that its objects include the promotion oftechnical and other research.Everybody wants to promote research these days. Most of the people who talk about it have not the foggiest idea what research means. The real definition of research seems to be to look for what is not there and find it. The really great research has been carried out at trifling cost. There was Faraday at the Royal Institution, in Albemarle Street. I do not suppose he spent £100 in discovering the principles of electro-magnetic induction, which is the basis of all modern science. What does "other research" mean? And so we might go on through the Bill.
I have some criticisms to make of the Press. The Press are privileged. They have the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act which is very important. Newspapers can do things which we cannot do, except in this Chamber. They have their great Defamation Act, of which I was one of the supporters last year because I thought it was desirable in the public interest that they should have it.
But consider the rights of the private individual. I think the journalists are worse than the editors. If a newspaper publishes a false statement which is libellous, the newspaper apologises to avoid an action, but if a newspaper publishes a piece of public information which is wrong and someone telephones them, as I have often done, they never correct the mistake because the journalist does 774 not want to admit to his editor that he has made a mistake. If we ever have a Press Council I hope they will chase some of the journalists who hate being corrected.
There is not a Member of Parliament who has not grumbled that he has been misreported. Sometimes he has been and sometimes he has not. I knew one eminent Socialist who is dead now. He was a nice old man. He was one of the real Letters. He and I were great friends. I remember having lunch with him with another less Left-Wing Socialist and we were having a chat. He said, "After so and so has made a big speech he is always well reported and he rushes out in the morning to buy a paper to see exactly what he said."
I think that is true of all of us at times —except the people who read their speeches, and they do not make speeches; they read essays. There is too much reading of essays in this House. Of course, one is always accurately reported then, but it is rather boring. If one makes a speech and it is misreported, it may be a slip on the part of the reporter. Sometimes the context of the rest of the report shows that the journalist has made a mistake, but if one writes to the editor he replies and says, "We have examined our reporter's notebook and we are assured that that is what you said." They will not apologise. We ought to scarify them for that. If they have made a mistake why should they not correct it?
One of the interesting parts of the modern Press is the chatty column which talks about the activities of this person and that person. Occasionally, I see a mistake in a certain newspaper. I ring up a journalist friend of mine about it and he says, "Thank you very much," and that is the end of it. That is moral cowardice on the part of journalists. I cannot see that this Bill will do much about it. Certainly, what I am saying will do more than this Press Council will do in a dozen years. I know that the Press will not be very pleased with me. Tomorrow's newspapers will probably not report what I am saying now. They will probably say, "Sir So-and-So also spoke."
§ Mr. George Jeger (Goole)
If the hon. Gentleman refers to Clause 3 (d) he will 775 see that one of the powers of the Council would be to receive complaints… about the conduct of the Press or of any persons towards the Press and to deal with these complaints in whatever manner seem to it practical and appropriate.
§ Sir H. Williams
I have read that. What is the use of that? There is no penalty. [Interruption.] I did not draft this Bill; the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) drafted it.
§ Sir H. Williams
The hon. Member shakes his head, but he has put his name to it. As a rule, when I put my name to a Bill I draft it myself, although I sometimes get advice on redrafting. What are these most amazing powers… to deal with these complaints in whatever manner may seem to it practical and appropriate"?I do not know. Perhaps that is the charter of Grays Inn.
We really ought to be precise in these matters. A little criticism by public persons may be very effective in dealing with the Press, but the vague generalities of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) will certainly not. I hope that this Bill will not become law, because I do not think it will do any good. Modern legislation seems to require that everybody in every trade should have a nursemaid. Even Her Majesty's Government suffer a little from that disease, and the Iron and Steel Bill and the Transport Bill provide for such nursemaids. I do not believe in them. Let us have the good, straightforward influence of competition. That will do far more good.
If somebody is defamed let us make sure what he was defamed about and when. Let us make a specific charge and not one of a vague and general nature. We have had 37 minutes of generalities from the hon. Member for Maldon. He said nothing which was precise. I am a little tired of it. Let us throw out this Bill and cease wasting time on what was a futile Royal Commission and what is a futile Bill based upon their Report.
§ 12.34 p.m.
§ Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)
The hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) put some excellent points 776 on behalf of the case for a Press Council and then appeared to deny all the arguments he had put up. What concerns me about this debate is the suspicion which has been evinced from the other side that a Press Council as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member the Maldon (Mr. Driberg) in some way means Government interference with the Press. That is not so. I can speak with some personal interest in this question, because my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) and I have been associated with a newspaper which is one of the few which have been suppressed by Government interference during the present century.
The suppression of a newspaper is not an unmitigated disaster, provided it is not suppressed for too long. Our newspaper was founded and edited by a distinguished former Member of this House —Tom Johnston—but despite the distinction with which he edited it it was not as well known as it should have been, until it was suppressed by another distinguished former Member of this House— David Lloyd George. We might well put up a plaque in that newspaper office, referring to him as our greatest circulation manager. By suppressing us he put us on the map in a way in which we had never been before.
This Press Council, as proposal originally by the Royal Commission and as suggested in the present Bill, in no way raises the question of Government interference. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon has already said, the Press Commission was initiated not by a Socialist Government with a desire to interfere with the Press, but by the journalists' own union, from whom the original request came. While the voluntary Press Council which is now being set up is welcome so far as it goes, it is only a very wishy-washy shadow of the kind of Press Council that was proposed by the Royal Commission, because it ignores one of the most important of their proposals. The Commission said that there should be a lay membership—a lay Chairman and other lay members.
The newspapers—and hon. Members opposite have been echoing their point of view—have complained that this is outside interference. That is not a valid point, because in a very important sense the public are continuous participators 777 in the production of our newspapers. I am not referring merely to the fact that the public buy the newspapers, but that the lives of the men and women of this country, and of other countries, form the very stuff of which newspapers are made. That means that the public have a special interest in the kind of newspapers which are produced.
The good deeds and the bad deeds of our citizens are the things which make up a newspaper. Unfortunately, it is more often the bad deeds about which we read. The golden rule in Fleet Street often seems to be that vice is news but virtue is not. That is not wholly the fault of the newspapers; it is partly a question of public taste.
The fact that newspapers are so intimately concerned in reporting the behaviour of ordinary citizens is the basis for the argument that lay membership of the Press Council is so necessary to its proper function. In recent years we have had some deplorable examples of the intrusion into private lives by newspapers. In recent years my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey) was himself a victim— while he was a Member of the late Labour Government—of a most disgraceful smear campaign in the "Evening Standard." So far as I know there was never any adequate withdrawal of that attack, although it forced a quite unprecedented rebuke from No. 10 Downing Street.
Not only Socialist politicians are liable to be subjected to these very unfair personal attacks. Recently, I have been reading the biography of the late Stanley Baldwin, by Mr. G. M. Young. He describes a particularly notorious example of the unfair Press treatment of a politician. It was Mr. Baldwin, a Conservative politician and not a Socialist, who uttered the famous and bitter words about the Press—that it enjoyed the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, the exercise of power without responsibility.
I do not want it to be thought for a moment that I am seeking to defend politicians, as such, from the Press. Politicians are legitimate subjects of Press criticism and they obviously cannot afford to be too thin-skinned about the matter. One of the important jobs the Press does 778 is to give Ministers and other politicians and other people in power a good kick in the pants from time to time, but it is important that that sort of criticism should be directed responsibly.
There have been some very bad examples in recent years of the way in which the Press intrudes in private lives. There was recently the case of Mr. Maclean and Mr. Burgess, the two diplomats who are missing. I recalled seeing in one of the Sunday newspapers a photograph of the children, I think of Mr. Maclean, coming home from school. It seems quite disgraceful that a matter like that should be visited upon innocent children. One of the most important duties the Press Council could have would be to review that sort of thing. I do not see the Press Council's performing its duties adequately unless it has quite independent and non-political lay representation. That is essential.
A fundamental part of this problem is that a good service of news is one of the most important social services a modern community can have. It is very necessary that we get accurate information on what is going on in our country and the rest of the world, and good responsible comment on how we should behave in relation to it. But while the Press ought to be one of our most important social services it is in fact, in many branches at any rate, a very profitable big business, part of the big business of entertainment.
We are very fond of talking about a free Press, but my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, in a previous debate on this subject, pointed out that a millionaire Press was not very free, and that it took £2 million to float the "Daily Herald" as a popular newspaper, one of the last new popular newspapers to come on the scene, and that in those circumstances the newspaper proprietors' business was one of the biggest closed shops, with one of the highest entrance fees, in industry.
That presents some serious problems for our democratic life. I sometimes find myself looking back longingly to days before I was born when newspapers were much more numerous and had smaller circulations. There is something to be said for bringing about smaller circulation newspapers, though I do not fully know how it can be done. We should 779 try to promote the extension of nonprofit-making newspapers, an extension of the kind of trust ownership that already exists for some of our most distinguished newspapers and periodicals. The "Manchester Guardian," the "Observer" and others are already operating as public trusts rather than as a profit-making business.
There is a constant tension between the two functions that at present so many of our newspapers try to perform, the job of providing a public service and the task of making very big profits for private individuals. It results in this, that a journalist out on a job is often forced to ask himself not "Is it true?" but "Will it titillate?" The question is not, "Is it significant?" but, "Will the story sell? "That is the kind of thing that the Royal Commission had in mind in making a great many of the criticisms it did of the Press. It is important to remember that although the Royal Commission said nice things about the British Press it also said some very critical things.
The reporting by the Press of the inquiry into its own behaviour was so inadequate that one of the most distinguished journalistic members of the Royal Commission, Sir George Waters, a former editor of the "Scotsman," was forced to say afterwards that the Royal Commission was not a vindication of the British Press, and that newspapermen should read the Commission's Report more closely to see in what ways they were failing to serve British democracy and the needs of the British people.
Neither a statutory nor a voluntary Press Council is the final solution to the problem. I think it will help, but in the last resort this is an educational problem. It is a question of raising the level of public taste, a question of making people more and more aware that every time they pay three-halfpence or twopence for a newspaper they are voting for that particular kind of newspaper. I should like to see take place in our schools an extension of education in how to read a newspaper. It seems to me it is one of the essential parts of citizenship that people should be able not merely to read between the lines but to read beneath the headlines, because the kind 780 of headlines in many newspapers constitute one of the most misleading developments in newspaper technique that have taken place in the last generation.
I turned up this morning the newspapers for the morning after our recent transport debate in this House, and I discovered that on Friday, 24th April, the "Daily Herald" carried on its front page the headline, "Tories yield on all night transport row." That is the way they summed up the proceedings, in which so many of us took part in the early hours of that morning. The "Daily Mail", on the same morning, summed up the proceedings as "1.0 a.m.: Churchill flays them again." Anyone travelling that morning on a bus and looking over someone's shoulder and seeing the one headline and then looking over the shoulder of someone else and seeing the other would hardly have thought that the two newspapers were reporting same thing in the House of Commons.
A useful job could be done in our schools in training young people how to read the newspapers, how to separate news from comment, and in training them to improve the standards that they demand from the Press. That is the long-term solution of this problem that concerns us all. The Press is a central problem in a modern democracy, particularly in a country like Britain. We are facing in our country very big changes in our methods of earning our living. Many of our citizens are having to transfer from one kind of job to another. In the past these sorts of economic changes took place under the lash of unemployment. In other parts of the world today these changes are taking place through ruthless State coercion.
In this country we feel we can adapt ourselves to modern conditions by means of persuasion and consent. If we are to carry it through properly, one of the most important means at our disposal is an independent and responsible and constructive Press. Carrying out these kinds of changes also involves a greater degree of centralisation, and more planning rather than less. It involves a danger of bureaucracy. There again, one of the most important defences of the ordinary citizens is an independent and vigilant and responsible Press. Unless we have a Press that can live up to the demands of a modern democracy it will be very much 781 more difficult for us to solve our problems.
I do not think that a professional Press Council will meet the situation. It ought to be welcomed as far as it goes, and I certainly wish it well. I believe that if the Press Council, by itself, is to do a good job it is essential that it should have thoroughly independent and thoroughly non-political lay members who will represent the public interest, which is such an important part of the newspapers of this country.
§ 12.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Hylton-Foster (York)
I confess that I know no more about the Press than the ordinary person who reads it, and who very often suffers under its lash and very seldom receives any meed of praise from it. I hope, therefore, that the House will forgive me for intervening in this debate.
I do so because lately I have had occasion to make a special study, in quite a different connection, of the way in which various professions run their affairs and attain the best professional standards. I have had occasion, in that connection, to see how the system works and, also as an advocate, how it deals with miscreants who have to appear before various professional bodies from time to time. It is on that basis that I venture to intervene at all.
I had the misfortune to be outside the House for some time this morning and I may have missed some of the comment upon the voluntary scheme. I was very much interested in the views of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson), because I understood him as being one of the first speakers in the House today on this matter to raise an objection to the voluntary scheme as an effective instrument for the purpose for which this Bill is intended.
I listened with great attention to his objection because as I understood it— and I hope that I followed him correctly —it is that the voluntary Council does not embody lay-representatives and, therefore, that the members of it would not give sufficient attention to the thinking public, they would not prevent the dressing up of news to appeal to the most unthinking minds, or secure that there should be a move in the direction of newspapers of smaller circulation. In 782 all these matters I would desire to follow him, but I am quite unable to follow him in his view that the absence of the lay representative would prevent the Press Council from being able to assist towards those ends.
It seems to me that a successfully established voluntary Council without lay representatives would be just as good in connection with these functions as a statutory one containing them, and, in my belief, a great deal better. I will try to urge why. Sometimes one does hate the Press. Sometimes they do things that rightly result in public reprobation, but I cannot persuade myself that the Press, as the sum total of the profession, approve these things and the professional conduct which so much revolts the hon. Member and revolts me, such as intrusion on private grief. We know perfectly well that the Press as a profession resent that as much as anyone and are out to do their utmost to put a stop to it.
I would say that if the profession of the Press on both sides, management and unions, have themselves decided that the right body for getting rid of misconduct of that kind is the voluntary body set up in this scheme, I would not regard them as having got the structure of the voluntary body wrong. If they thought that lay representatives would help them in obtaining certain right standards for the profession, it is open to them to invite lay representatives to join the body of this scheme.
Speaking as someone outside the profession, I do not think that we ought to say that the body which they themselves have selected as the right kind of body to discharge these duties should add to it lay representatives. They are probably the best judges of what is right in that matter.
§ Mr. Thomson
The point, of course, is that there is a very real difference of interest between the producers of the newspapers, journalists, editors and proprietors, and the public. After all, they are reporting on the public and there is an old Fleet Street adage that dog does not bite dog. It is for that reason that I fear that a Press Council, as at present proposed, without lay representatives would, in fact, protect the members as a whole from public complaint rather than 783 help to protect the public from any misconduct on the part of particular newspapers.
I follow what the hon. Member says and I am obliged to him for making his point clear.
Dog, in my view, does bite dog. The patient has a very different interest from that of the doctor, but, oddly enough, the doctors provide one of the best possible disciplinary organisations for themselves. The client has a different interest from the solicitor, but solicitors, oddly enough, provide one of the best disciplinary organisations for themselves. So dog does bite dog in matters of professional standing, and I believe that the great profession of journalism ought to be capable by itself of creating the right organisation and looking after its own standards, and, where given the chance, to choose for itself the right controlling body on a voluntary basis. They have now arrived at the point where they have chosen their own staff for this tribunal, and I should very much regret it if this House stepped in the way and, by this Bill said, "You are choosing the wrong team; they do not know their job."
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
Is there not this difference, that the solicitors' organisation and the doctors' organisation are in a position to impose very heavy sanctions? This body is in a position to impose no sanction. The only sanction it can impose is public opinion. Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman feel that it would be a good deal stronger if it had some of the prestige and force of a person such as the Lord Chief Justice as chairman?
§ Mr. Hylton-Foster
I do not deny the distinction and I do not run away from the validity of the hon. and learned Gentleman's point, but I would say that the profession is about to set about this matter and, therefore, let it have a go and do not impose on it a series of statutory powers for which the profession is not asking. Let us see how it works out when the prospect of this thing being started into being is as close as 1st July.
I want, before concluding, to go back, although I have no wish to repeat arguments stated in a rather warmer 784 temperature on the afternoon of the 28th November last by the Attorney-General. I am unable to take the view that Clause 5 in this context is not gravely dangerous and would be difficult to justify. I speak with diffidence because I see the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) sitting below the Gangway, but I am encouraged because he has not got the actual text before him. I do not desire, in this instance, that dog should bite dog, but what these words mean to me—and I hope ultimately to get the agreement of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg)—is that if this Bill were passed the Council would be entitled to do anything which it thought might make the proper discharge of its functions easy. No one would be able to gainsay it, because it would be what, in the opinion of the Council, would be easier and what, in the opinion of the Council would be…calculated to facilitate the proper discharge of its functions.—whatever they may be—and which would be the measure of its powers and there would be no court of law to check it in any way.
I do not want to go through the Clause reciting the words. I have no objection to the functions as they stand, because, broadly speaking, they are in the voluntary scheme, as one would expect, as well as in the statutory scheme, but when a body is created with vaguely defined powers as wide as these and when Parliament, having created the powers, sets them out in terms whereby, in effect, in my belief, they could not be challenged in any court of law at all. I believe that the House, in passing a Bill of this kind, in anything like this form, would be going too far in an endeavour to secure right standards in the Press.
In the courts of law we have a process which is known as "jollying along." It is what one does to a witness before one stabs him with a surly question. I hope that the promoters of the Bill will be prepared now to rest on their laurels and claim all the credit they can for "jollying along" these people into agreeing about a Press Council. Now that we have got so near to having the Council started on a voluntary basis it would be the greatest possible pity to impose it by statute, and I hope that the House will not take that step.
§ Mr. Driberg
Before the hon. and learned Gentleman sits down—I was not sure whether he had finished that section of his speech—may I say that I am afraid he has not yet convinced me. He has not really taken my point about what the function of the Council is. The first of its functions is to safeguard the freedom of the Press as such. Therefore, the Clause is really a limited one because it has not got unrestricted arbitrary power. The powers are limited to the discharge of the functions of the Council, including the maintenance of freedom, so it could not suppress newspapers, and so on.
§ Mr. Hylton-Foster
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me. I appreciate that he says that this is a limiting Clause, but, in fact, it is not. The body which is to be set up by the Bill is a creature of statute and it would have no existence and no power without the statute. So, far from being a limiting Clause, it is the only Clause from which the Council would derive powers. It is a conferring Clause.
§ Mr. Hylton-Foster
The words in the context are words of limitation in so far as they operate, but it is no good supposing that the House would enact something to provide that the Council to be created should have all the powers which the Council itself thought it was appropriate that the Council should have. There must be something to define the powers.
I do not want to weary the House and develop the argument further. The hon. Gentleman has supplied me with a supreme instance. I have been unable to find what limitation there would be other than that of good faith, bona fides, in the Council's entertaining an opinion as to what was or what was not calculated to facilitate the proper discharge of its function relating to the freedom of the Press. It is as wide as anything could conceivably be and as vague as anything could conceivably be. I shall not improve the point by repetition, and, indeed, it was all said last autumn. I am sorry if I have not convinced the hon. Member for Maldon, because I believe what I have said to be true and these provisions to be dangerous.
§ 1.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
Earlier in the week, the House was engaged in discussing the professional conduct of the Bar. In the course of that debate play was made of the view that barristers belonged to the oldest profession in the world. There was some demurring on the benches near me and it was said that that was really the claim of the solicitors. In this debate nobody has made that claim for the journalists.
I used to belong to the profession of journalism, but, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), I have not had the unfortunate experience of being in the gigantic machinery of the big millionaire Press. However, when he says that the advertisers do not influence the policy of a newspaper, I believe he is staking too large a claim. I mentioned in the course of an intervention earlier that the vested interests in drink exercise a very great pressure on the Press through their disposal of advertising money.
Perhaps the House is under a slight misapprehension as the result of a remark that I made. It is true that the drink vested interests did not try to bribe the newspaper with which I was connected, because they did not have a chance. All along our policy was rigorously against inserting any whisky, or beer or other intoxicating drink advertisements. But a newspaper which adopts the attitude that the advertisements of the vested interests in drink are not in the interest of the nation starts with a very heavy handicap indeed, and I submit that it cannot seriously be challenged that a big vested interest which has hundreds of thousands of pounds in advertising revenue at its disposal can easily influence the policy of a newspaper, and that it takes people with very strong minds to hold off such big vested interests.
The same applies in the case of the tobacco vested interests, which have a huge advertising organisation. At present there is a controversy in medical circles as to whether or not smoking or excessive smoking is one of the indirect causes of cancer of the lung, and I believe that there will come a time in that controversy when there will be pressure by the advertising vested interests.
787 I believe that in those circumstances we have to qualify to a considerable extent what we say about the basic freedom of the Press. The basic freedom of the Press is an illusion. It is useless saying that a small section of minority opinion can run a great newspaper these days. A great newspaper is an elaborate commercial and industrial organisation which has millions of pounds of capital at its disposal. In these circumstances we ought to look rather closely at the elusive phrase "the freedom of the Press."
Journalists are no worse than the members of any other profession under capitalism. Under our present commercial system they have to write things with which they disagree. The doctors prescribe things to make money, and the scientists are in a way prostituted in the interests of war. Under our present get-rich-quick private enterprise system every profession is more or less prostituted, and my claim is that journalists, who have been described as harlots, are really no worse than anybody else.
However, I demur from the assertion of my hon. Friend that the British Press is the best in the world. Are we not liable to be a little too conceited in that respect? I suggest that very often when people speak so glibly about the British Press being the best in the world they do so because they do not know any other Press. Some of the British newspapers— such as "The Times," the "Manchester Guardian," the "Observer," the "Scotsman" and similar newspapers which take a more serious view of politics and social life—are very good, but there are also some great American papers, such as the "New York Times" and the "Christian Science Monitor." Every country has its responsible newspapers, and some of these newspapers are very responsible indeed. But when we get the Press at its worst, the British Press can be very bad. That remark was not intended to synchronise with the arrival of the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Baxter), who has just entered the Chamber.
I believe that an intelligent foreigner looking at the British Press at present— say, an independently-minded American from the Middle West, or an independently-minded Russian, or someone 788 from any other part of the world—and looking at our newspapers would say that a large section of the British Press is a conglomeration of the Coronation and crime. In a civilised society I do not believe we should lay so great a stress on either. We have to face the fact that a large part of the Sunday Press is not contributing to the national welfare or national edification at all but is a cesspool of crime and sex.
So long as that continues, and so long as we have papers with large circulations which devote such a large amount of space to murder, rape and all the violence and luridness of sexual crime, I think we shall be unable to say with real sincerity that our Press is the best in the world. In that respect it is inferior to the Russian Press. I know we can make the claim against the Russian Press that it is a totalitarian Press and does not publish minority opinion. But on the great sociological issues, and from the point of view of what is necessary for building up a country and a serious analysis of economic issues, when one comes from reading "Pravda" and "Izvestia" and reads the Press of this country one is astonished and revolted at the flippancy and sensationalism which exalts triviality and ignores serious issues.
I believe that if we had a Press Council such as is outlined in the Bill—and I am glad that there is to be some attempt to establish a voluntary Press Council—the British public, instead of being preyed on and exploited by the sensationalists, might be genuinely interested in real news and comments. I welcome the Bill and hope that the discussions in this House will lead to an improvement of the British Press so that it will be able to claim that it is at least as good as the Press in other parts of the world.
§ 1.14 p.m.
§ Mr. George Jeger (Goole)
The hon. and learned Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster), in attempting to criticise the Bill, paid particular attention to Clause 5. In fact, that was the only Clause he did criticise. I suggest to him that the objection he raised could well be raised during the Committee stage of the Bill and that if he thinks it necessary to improve the wording of Clause 5 that should be done then. I am sure that he had no objection to the rest of the Bill. 789 Therefore, I hope he will give it his support this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J Rodgers) eulogised the Press. There was a great deal of truth and substance in what he said, but I am very sorry that he went so far. He was far too sweeping. The Press is not entirely as pure and un-defiled as he attempted to make out. The Press, in fact, has admitted that by its voluntary acceptance—though somewhat tardily, as is agreed on all sides of the House—of the desirability of having some sort of Press Council, in one form or another, to supervise its activities and act as a guide for future conduct and to uphold the high ideals of the Press generally.
The fact that some of the Press is clean and carries out its functions in a responsible fashion should not blind us to the fact that some organs of the Press are entirely the opposite in their attitude towards serious questions of the day and towards the democratic way of life to which most of us adhere. In this Parliament we legislate, not against the bulk and mass of the people in our country, but against those very few who break the laws, or are inclined to be bad citizens. Similarly, this proposal for a Press Council is not aimed at the whole of the Press, but at that small section which at times tends to betray its highest ideals and pander to the lowest feelings of the largest mass circulation.
The recommendation of the Royal Commission for the establishment of a Press Council was made somewhere about four years ago. This late desire on the part of the Press itself to fit in with those recommendations has been exhibited, I suggest, only because of the mass of complaints that have been levelled at the Press in letters to hon. Members of this House, in letters to the Press itself, and the frequent occasions on which hon. Members have put down Questions to ask when the Press Council is to be formed. But for the action of my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) and his sponsors in bringing forward this Bill to establish a Press Council in a statutory manner probably the Press itself would have gone on delaying the issue and would not have brought forward proposals for a voluntary Council. I think we can gauge their attitude over 790 a voluntary Council by the rather slow manner in which they have been stirred or jollyed into action by the presentation of this Bill. If they arrived at their decision so slowly one wonders whether, if they do set up a voluntary Press Council they will be as slow to act under the provisions and constitution they propose to lay down for that Council.
It is undoubtedly true that there is a bias on the part of large sections of the Press. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks, who is a member of the National Union of Journalists, is, of course, a victim of that bias. I think that came out clearly when he referred to hon. Members who had previously contributed to debates on this subject. He referred to two hon. Members on this side of the House and took care to say that they were not in their places. When he referred to an hon. Member on his own side he omitted to say that that hon. Member was not present. Perhaps it was unconscious bias, but that is the kind of bias we are encountering every day in the Press, a bias in favour of hon. Members opposite and against this side of the House. It is just the omission of one word, or the omission of a phrase, but it has a cumulative effect and one which I think a Press Council, which should be formed not merely from members of the profession, but also with a few laymen on it, could consider. They could look at these things from an unbiased, outside point of view.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks also referred to many of us on this side of the House owing our positions largely to support given us by the Press. I am sure he did not mean that, but meant that we hold our position here in spite of the attitude of the Press, not because of its support, as very few of us get any support from the Press. If I may quote a personal instance, I will do so, as this is one reason why I wish to intervene in this debate. We all have our local newspapers in our constituencies. I happen to be the victim of a local newspaper in Goole. It is owned by a local family which professes to be independent and to take no part in politics, but is well-known privately to be supporters of the Conservative Party. At Election time the "Goole Times" gives unlimited support and reports to the Conservative candidate. At the end of about two columns 791 of reports of speeches by the Conservative candidate the paper publishes three or four lines to say, "The Labour candidate also spoke at so and so," without reporting a word.
§ Mr. Jeger
That sort of thing goes on between Elections too, so that when one political party inserts advertisements of a propaganda nature they are published, but when my party attempts to reply with small advertisements of a similar propaganda nature we are told that they do not coincide with the policy of the paper and that we must desist from submitting them. At the same time, the paper continues to publish the Conservative advertisements. This is a case of a local newspaper not adhering to the principle of independence to which it professes.
The distortion of our speeches is a very common complaint. We all complain of that, but I think that few other hon. Members are able to produce copies of their local newspapers in which their names have been entirely suppressed from reports of their speeches and of Questions asked in this House about constituency and local affairs. But that is the way in which local bias can operate when the editor or the proprietors of a local newspaper wish to exercise it. We all know, from the history of the Press, how the present Prime Minister was penalised in Dundee for a number of years and his name was never published in the predominant newspaper of that area. I am very proud to share that distinction, or that form of attack, with the Prime Minister but, at the same time, however facetious one may be about these incidents, no one can say that they are in accordance with the principle of fair play in the Press.
An hon. Member in my position has no redress against that type of difficulty. If one writes to the editor one receives a rude reply, and if one tries to get into 792 contact with the proprietors one is told that they are interested only in the revenue from advertisements and that the editor is given a free hand. But if the Press Council is established we can bring complaints under Clause 3 of this Bill to that Council, who can make whatever representations are fit or seemly to the Press people concerned and ask them to conform with the dignity and standard of responsibility which we should all like to see in local newspapers.
I hope, therefore, that the House will give a Second Reading to the Bill, which will convey to the Press generally our desire that there should be a greater sense of responsibility as outlined in Clause 2. That is an essential Clause of the Bill. It states:The objects of the Council shall be to safeguard the freedom of the Press, to encourage the growth of the sense of public responsibility and public service among all engaged in the profession of journalism …I can see nothing but good coming from the establishment of a Council of this kind which will uphold that dignity and responsibility which we would all like to see in the Press of our country.
§ 1.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Southgate)
It is only with the leave of the House that I can speak, and I shall be very brief, because I spoke before in this debate at some length. I opposed this Bill when it came before the House previously because it seems to me a great mistake for Parliament to impose its will upon the Press which, with all its faults, must be free if it is to perform the function for which it has been created.
Since that time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Rodgers) pointed out, a Council has been set up and I think that it would be the greatest mistake, at this hour when the Press have acceded to the views expressed earlier in Parliament, if we should appear to impose our will upon it. I think that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), who is wrong on many subjects, will be with me in this respect. It will be nothing but sterile. It will do no good. It will appear as a belated attempt at pique, or even revenge. Now that the Press have set up the Council and have conceded the will and the points put forward by Parliament, it would be a great mistake to pass this 793 Bill. I wish that the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) would consider the advisability of not proceeding further with it.
I should like to say one or two things about the Press. The hon. Member for Goole (Mr. G. Jeger) said that there was a bias against Socialist Members in the comments made by newspapers, and, worse still, in the way in which the speeches of Socialist Members were omitted from the papers. I know that to leave his speech out is the greatest harm that a newspaper can do to a politician. The politician would rather have distortion of his speech than be ignored.
I know that sometimes we must be careful not to report anything that happens in the Palace of Westminster except in this Chamber, but I have heard comments by my own colleagues in the Tory Party about the "Sunday Express" which go rather beyond libel.
§ Mr. Baxter
My colleague "Cross Bencher" does not please the Tories, and apparently does not please the Socialists, which may suggest that he is a good journalist.
§ Mr. Baxter
I imagine that he pleases the editor.
We talk about a Press Council, about invoking the will of Parliament and about the direction of the Press, but in the end the only possible censorship of the Press in our community is that which comes from the public itself. The hon. Member for South Ayrshire talked about mass circulations based upon vice, squalor, rape and sex crimes of every sort. We know that that is true. But the blame does not lie only with those who produce those newspapers. It lies with the public of this country, many of whom, under the guise of hypocrisy, say that they buy the newspaper for this or that. I am not speaking now of any one newspaper. But take away the sensationalism and the sex sensationalism, would those mass circulations be achieved? The public cannot escape responsibility.
794 In this country we have a completely incorruptible Press. In all my years of editorship in Fleet Street—
§ Mr. Driberg
I am with the hon. Member in what he says about sensationalism, and I said something similar in my speech. But since he has mentioned the "Sunday Express" and at the same time has said that mass circulation cannot be obtained without sex sensationalism, surely he will agree that the "Sunday Express" is one paper which has shown that mass circulation can be achieved without these sordid contents?
§ Mr. Baxter
Naturally, as an old colleague of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) and indeed his first editor, I am very glad to hear that tribute paid. But what I meant was that these papers to which I have referred would not achieve their vast circulation without those conditions—unless they found some other way of doing it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the "Sunday Express." Whatever charges may be made against the "Express" newspapers for being too harsh, or too critical or anything like that, there are one or two things about them in respect of which I am very proud to be associated with them. One is that we may say anything against Lord Beaverbrook, and it is published. He would never side-step anything said against him. Another thing is that with his background of the manse—which has produced some very great financiers—he has said, "We will publish lively newspapers and vigorous newspapers, and papers which appeal to the popular taste. But we will not go in for pornography." And I am proud to have been associated with him throughout his career.
I am grateful for having been allowed to speak for these few minutes. I am proud to be a journalist in England, and I am proud of great sections of the British Press. I am, frankly, ashamed of some sections. But, when Fleet Street has gone so far towards meeting those who wanted a Press Council, I think it would be a blunder if, at this late stage, we should try to invoke the will of Parliament. It would be a cardinal blunder. The hon. Gentleman opposite who has worked very hard on this Bill would do a favour to the cause of journalism generally if he would acknowledge what has happened, and withdraw his Bill.
§ 1.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
The appeal which the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Baxter) made at the beginning and at the end of his speech may well meet with a response from my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons). That is a matter for him. But I think those of us on this side of the House appreciate that the voluntary action taken by the newspaper industry in setting up this voluntary Council in a few weeks' time is a step which is welcomed everywhere. It would not perhaps help to impose on the newspaper industry a statutory Press Council when they have already taken a voluntary step towards the same thing. We shall all watch with great interest how this voluntary Press Council works and whether it will achieve the purpose which it seeks to achieve, and which this Bill, had it received the assent of the House, would also have sought to achieve.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Mr. G. Jeger) I have no complaint about the standards of objectivity and impartiality of the local Press in my constituency. No Member of Parliament could be better served than I am by the three independent local newspapers in my constituency. I have nothing but praise for the impartial and accurate reporting and for the generosity of these newspapers in the space they allow to all political parties.
But if these local newspapers were swallowed up by one of the big chains of the biased Press I should say that at once my own position in the Sowerby division would be very different. We all appreciate that, and happy is the Member of Parliament who has no complaint to make against his local newspaper. He feels that he is having a square deal, and can put his point of view to his constituents without distortion, without inadequate reporting and without any bias discernable or indirect. I am happy to be one of those lucky people.
I belong to a profession which has probably been more abused and misrepresented in the Press of Britain than any other. I belong to the wider field of the Civil Service which has been described as "hordes of civil servants," as "parasites," as "limpets," as "barnacles" and as a section of the community which is a threat to the very 796 health of our economic life. I am sure that many of the sentiments and comments of the Press are echoed by hon. Gentlemen opposite. Still worse, I belong to a body of professional men, the Income Tax officers, who are even more exposed to the abuse and criticism of the Press than any other body of civil servants.
I have long recommended to the Inland Revenue Department a prescription for immunity from Press criticism which I obtained years ago from the Post Office. It was during the time when the late Sir Kingsley Wood was Postmaster-General, and the Press were criticising the telephone system, the telegram system and our postal services generally. All at once the criticism ceased, and I asked some of my friends in the Post Office how that miracle had been achieved. They replied, "It was easy. The Postmaster-General decided to take advertising space in the Press, and since then the criticisms have ceased."
I consider it a pity that the Inland Revenue have not yet responded to my suggestion that they should advertise. "You want the best Income Tax, we have it"—" Come to us with your troubles, and we will put them right"—" If you are dissatisfied, if you wish to be taxed more, we will oblige you." All sorts of headings for advertisements occur to me—
§ Mr. Houghton
—and those with an imaginative turn of mind can work up a whole field of advertising technique for the Income Tax people. Seriously, although we may feel there is no useful purpose to be served by pursuing the Bill before the House there is, I think, a useful purpose served in ventilating our general views about the Press.
The hon. Member for Southgate said, very truly, that the whole responsibility does not lie with those who edit and write for the newspapers. The public have a responsibility, but we in this Chamber are better able to express the collective opinion about the Press than are the public themselves. What facilities have they for doing so? Letters of criticism to the newspapers are frequently not printed, and letters correcting inaccurate information are frequently ignored. How is the 797 public to deal with the sordid, squalid and revolting accounts of the Christie case which have monopolised pages and pages of our evening and daily Press in the last few weeks? How does the public control this mounting effort of the Press of Britain at the present time to work the Coronation into a national psychosis? Those are things which the public are helpless to correct, and it is only by the kind of debate that we are now having in the House that we are able to express those points.
My criticism about the Press of Britain is that it has no sense of proportion. I believe that in many respects it has high standards of intellectual integrity. It has high moral standards and a keen sense of duty. Those desirable things are present in the minds of most of those who run our newspapers, but there is a disproportion of space allocated to news which the newspapers apparently think will sell— and we have to bear in mind that at the back of the newspaper industry is this trade in news; they are selling news to the public, selling the contents of their papers to the public. In the last analysis they are profit-making undertakings; and one has to look at the last analysis when examining the weight to be given to the moral and other aspects of newspaper management.
I hope that the newspaper proprietors, the editors and journalists will take heed of much that has been said in our debates. We only hope that their sense of responsibility will lead them to respond to the valid criticisms made, of which surely they must be conscious. One thing at least can be said of newspapermen; they are not unintelligent. They should be able to discern in our debates the legitimate and weighty criticism which has been made of some of their activities. Quite apart from the establishment of the voluntary Press Council, I hope we shall be able to note some improvement in those respects in which we think the Press at the moment is open to criticism.
§ 1.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
It is fitting that from time to time we should have debates on the use which has been made by the Press of the traditional liberty of this country, for the greatest and most majestic exposition of the liberty of the Press was made to this House by John Milton in the year of Marston Moor. It 798 was a House which did not listen to the most sonorous words which were ever uttered on this great subject. The Members had no intention of listening to it. In fact, Milton must have known when he started on the task that his words were not for immediate consumption but that, ringing down the ages, those words, addressed to this House, would have a profound effect on the liberties of human kind.
The Press must not be surprised if, on occasion, we like to have a talk about them, since every day they talk about us. They sometimes complain that we do not show a proper respect for them. There stands on the Journals of the House the famous Resolution of 1762, which says that it is a breach of Privilege for anyone to report our doings without getting the authority of Mr. Speaker. I think that if a Motion could be moved today it would probably be to the effect that it is a breach of Privilege if the Press do not report fully all the speeches made in this Chamber, particularly when the views of individual Members are sought.
I have no complaint personally against the Press. I rejoice that when I speak in the country they never report me. I never bring a hand-out, because it is dreary enough to write a speech but it is still worse to read it; and the effect on the audience is sometimes even more soporific than my best efforts in this House. If I never get reported I can make the same speech over and over again, which is a great saving.
The other day the Press suddenly burst forth with the information that I had consulted my doctors—plural—and had received the advice to confine my speaking efforts in the future to this House and to do nothing outside. Let me tell hon. Members that I have no doctors, in the plural; I have one doctor under the National Health Service. If I went to him he would say, "Three months' rest is what you want"; but I can always prescribe that for myself. There is no truth in the statement published by the Press. I have not been to the doctor and I am glad to say that he has not been to me. We ask ourselves where such a statement as that originated and why the newspaper should think I am important enough to include it. They must have wanted something to fill up the three bottom lines of the column in 799 which they reported that earth-shattering piece of information.
§ Mr. Baxter
We have known the right hon. Gentleman for years and we know that he is always fair. Does he seriously think that at a given moment an editor in Fleet Street said," We have not enough to fill the paper. Suppose we say something about Chuter Ede?"
§ Mr. Ede
The point I was making was why news about me should be thought to be worth printing. The hon. Member, who makes a sufficient drain on the sense of humour of the House at times, should try to help a fellow comedian out when he is doing his best to appear light-hearted on the day which announces the death of the Simplified Spelling Bill.
The Press of this country undoubtedly exercises a very considerable influence, but I sometimes wonder whether it influences opinion as much today as it did in the last decade of the last century and the first decade of this, when leading articles were read and when the opinions of journals were canvassed and not merely the opinions of the two or three which are now sometimes called the quality Press—when the "Daily News" was regarded as an exponent of Liberalism to the same extent that today the "Manchester Guardian" is so regarded.
I sometimes wonder whether what seems to me to be the decline in their influence is not due to the fact that the public have a lower sense of the responsibility of newspapers than they had in those days, for I cannot think that some of the things which are offered in the way of opinion can really be directed towards thoughtful people even when they are in columns headed "Opinion."
We have the right, as guardians of the liberties of this country, equally with the Press, to expect so great an engine as the Press to be conducted with a sense of responsibility in its comments on public affairs. Today, public affairs from all over the world come to us hot foot and as soon as the event has occurred. I read last year the papers which had been published of the Earl of Pembroke who held the title during the time of the American War of Independence. In his diary were records of his anxieties about Lord Cornwallis and his troops weeks 800 after Cornwallis had surrendered, but the news had not reached this country. Today, the happenings in the remotest parts of the world come into the newspaper offices within seconds of important events happening. With that speed, with which they have to contend, surely an added responsibility should be felt by the newspapers.
I sometimes think that what the newspapers regard as the standard of taste in the country is one of the most appalling criticisms of my own profession as a teacher, because, after all, the public of today are the children who were in the schools in the days when I was a practising teacher. We are, therefore, no matter what our views may be, confronted with the fact that, in a world in which democracy, as far as this country is concerned, has the last word—as was triumphantly vindicated yesterday—these organs of public opinion find so large a mass of people who ask for so low a standard and who are content with it as to make it difficult sometimes for serious-minded people to sort out the wheat of fact from the chaff of opinion with which it is very often surrounded, even in what are alleged to be the news columns.
I have said this because I feel that, in this matter of the Press and its relationship with public affairs, we all have our responsibilities, and we can only discharge them, no matter what the particular responsibility happens to be, if we recognise that. I regret that, at long last, when the Press have formed their Press Council, they have not thought fit to include some representatives of lay opinion, because what I have been trying to establish is that there is a reflex between the general public and the Press which has to be understood and appreciated by both if the best is to be done by either. It is a good thing that they have got as far as appointing a Press Council at all, but it would have commanded a greater amount of confidence from the thinking parts of the public if it had not been entirely confined to the practitioners in this profession. I therefore regret that the recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Press has been ignored in the make-up of this Press Council which they have established. I hope that, as time goes on and as experience is gained, and the need for a breath of outside opinion to be heard inside the room in which the 801 deliberations of the Press Council take place is shown, this defect which exists at the moment may be remedied.
We have had today a number of speeches from both sides of the House which indicate how keen an interest is being taken in the subject. The new Press Council has been established on this voluntary basis. My hon. Friends on this side of the House have expressed their views on its defects, and a cheerful optimism has prevailed in some quarters on the other side as to what it is to be able to do. After all, most institutions are never quite as good as their supporters think, and never quite as bad as their opponents believe. Therefore, this being a very human institution, we can rest assured that there will be plenty of room for improvement in it as time goes on, and one can only hope that there will be more desire on the part of its components to improve than is generally shown by human beings when they have managed to get some institution started.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) was invited by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Ian Harvey) to withdraw the Bill, but, of course, there is something that stands in the way of doing that. There is an Amendment which has been moved, and which is the present Question before the House, and it is always a bad thing to try to arrange bargains across the Floor of the House, especially when the usual channels are not available to act as brokers. However, if the hon. Member who moved the Amendment will withdraw it, he might find a response on the part of my hon. Friend. This is, of course, a Private Bill and a Private Members' Day, and I am always in favour of peace, but not at any price. If the hon. Member for Harrow, East will put the price on the Table, he might be astonished to find how much it would buy.
§ 1.57 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Lionel Heald)
I should like to say a few words of an entirely non-controversial character, following the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). First, I should like to say a word or two to the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons), who, when he first spoke on this subject on 28th November last, said this: 802I am convinced that if we can today put party political feelings entirely on one side we can, with this Bill, unite hon. Members in all quarters of the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1952; Vol. 508, c. 962.]If I may say so, I think that is exactly what the hon. Member has done. The result of his handling of the matter, and of the very reasonable and temperate way in which he opened the discussion, has been that hon. Members have followed in his wake. On the earlier occasion, the atmosphere was not quite so peaceful as it is today, and, as I was involved to some extent then, I appreciate very much the change of tone and temper that is in evidence today, and to which I hope I shall myself contribute.
I think we all agree with the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) that the power and influence of the Press constitutes one of the great problems of democracy of today. If that is so, is it not also true to say that there is a great deal to be said in favour of having a voluntary organisation rather than a compulsory one? I think that hon. Members on all sides will agree with that. Some doubt has been expressed whether such a voluntary organisation will be effective. I would say, "Let us give it the opportunity."
We have known in this country, for instance, in reference to the censorship during the war, of which some of us had very close personal experience in operating the machinery, a voluntary censorship, and, when it was first instituted, it was said that it would be impossible and that it would never work. In the end, it was such a success that people from all over the world regarded it as the most miraculous thing. During the whole of the war, practically nothing was published which could do the slightest damage to our cause, and, after the war, our intelligence information and investigations in Germany showed that there had been the greatest complaint about their inability to get any information from our Press. So there is a voluntary institution which has worked. I believe we would also agree that such a thing as a sense of proportion, which has been said to be so necessary, is not something which one would be able very easily to inculcate by statute.
We now have the opportunity of having a voluntary Press Council, and, so far as I am concerned, I proceed upon 803 the assumption that the facts which have been given to me are accurate, that the voluntary Press Council will come into being on 1st July and will hold its inaugural meeting in that month. That being so, I very much hope that it will be possible for us to give it a chance of working and to give it the blessing of the House. Some of us may be more optimistic than others as to the success it is going to have, but let us at any rate unite together to give it the best chance.
§ 2.1 p.m.
§ Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)
An appeal has been made to me to withdraw the Bill, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) pointed out, there is one obstacle in the way, though that, I understand, is going to be removed. If I am inclined to withdraw the Bill, it is not because I have lost any faith in the principles behind it; it is because a new set of circumstances has arisen. We only failed to get the Bill on the Closure Motion by the very narrow majority of eight votes when it was last before the House, and I think we have established a fairly good claim to support for the principles which it incorporates.
In opening the debate today the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J. Rodgers) referred to the suggestion made, I understand, in the House, and in the Press, that I had brought forward this Measure in the guise of a stooge of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison). I do not complain, because the hon. Member for Sevenoaks was quite pleasant and genial in the way he put it. As a matter of fact, I would say to him that the tone of the debate on both occasions has been one which I think we all appreciate and which shows that we can discuss these problems in an atmosphere of friendliness.
But, as far as being the stooge of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South is concerned, I would point out that, after all, my right hon. Friend and I both belong to the same political party and we both have the same political ideals. Is it remarkable, therefore, that when I have the luck of the Ballot—I am not a gambler and it was the biggest surprise of my life to come out No. 1—being a member of a party which believes in the principle of the 804 Press Council, and also being a member of the National Union of Journalists, which initiated the idea, this Bill should be the child of my success in the Ballot?
The voluntary Press Council which we are now to see definitely established in July this year is, in my opinion, being established as a result of the introduction of the Press Council Bill in the House last November. A. J. Cummings of the "News Chronicle," writing immediately after that debate, said:One good thing the debate has done is to make it reasonably certain that the newspaper industry will now establish its own voluntary Press Council and speed up the process. It has become an honourable duty to do so. There are difficult problems, as I know well enough, in the attempt to produce a fair and practicable plan; but I don't think any one of them is insuperable.That article was headed, "The Press Should Now Get Cracking," and, apparently, as a result of our debates in this House and of the threat of a statutory Press Council, they have got cracking and we now have the voluntary Press Council almost an accomplished fact.
I do not think that as at present constituted the voluntary Press Council will do the job as well as the form of Council suggested in the Report of the Royal Commission on the Press. I said during the debate that I did not mind whether it was a voluntary or a statutory Council so long as it was capable of doing the job. Whether it is capable of doing it has yet to be proved. An independent chairman and lay members were very strong recommendations of the Royal Commission, and I think one must realise that the voluntary Press Council will be a kind of closed shop so far as the Press are concerned.
I have here a letter from a journalist who was a Lobby Correspondent in this House, who went out to Australia and who is now back in this country. In it he refers to the tendency on the part of the Press to cater for the lowest appetite of the public and all the rest of it. He says:The economic power of great groups of newspapers restricts the field of employment open to journalists and the deliberate engagement of the journalist ready to supply this sort of thing makes it extremely difficult for a professional standard to be built up. Whenever a challenge is issued, the big bosses shelter behind the respectability of the big provincial Press. It is just like the widows and orphans who always turn out to be owners 805 of slum property when it is to be compulsorily acquired.But a Press Council would give a journalist another authority to invoke against the malpractices of bad publishers and proprietors … The trouble with bodies appointed within the confines of the trade is that these seldom give protection adequately to members. In Australia, much point is made of the work of the Ethics Committees of the Australian Journalists' Association. But these cannot clear their members' minds of prejudices formed inevitably in day-to-day work with fellow members who will appear as key figures in cases referred to the Ethics Committees.He seems to imply that we really ought to have this lay representation for which we ask in the Bill, and which the Royal Commission advocated.
But in spite of the defects which I see in the voluntary Press Council—and I come back again to the point which I made in my opening remarks in introducing the Bill—the statutory Press Council has been decried almost unanimously from the other side of the House. Hon. Members opposite will not give it the lickings of a dog; they have not a good word to say for it. I still think, however, that a statutory Press Council would have a greater standing as far as privilege is concerned, and I am pleased to see that that view is upheld by A. J. Cummings who, writing in the "News Chronicle" on 5th May, said:It is also unlikely that any of its pronouncements can (at present) be 'privileged' in law.I am suggesting that a Press Council which is all the time going in fear of the operation of the law will be more fearful of doing the right thing than a Press Council which has privilege behind it. In spite of all the defects that I see in the voluntary Press Council, I have come to the conclusion that, it having been set up and we having played our part in bringing journalism this far along the road we want to go, this resting place on 806 the road towards the ultimate goal, it would be churlish of us to persist in the further stages of this Bill at this moment.
We ought to give the voluntary Press Council a chance to prove its worth, efficiency and competence to do the job to which it has set its hand. I give warning here and now that if it fails some of us will again have to come forward with a Measure similar to this Bill. I am willing now to ask leave to withdraw the Bill, if the Mover of the Amendment is willing to do likewise.
§ Mr. Ian Harvey (Harrow, East)
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) extended to me in very cordial terms an invitation in regard to the Amendment which I moved on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself. I, too, should be churlish if I did not accept that invitation. I would express our appreciation of the sincerity with which the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) put the case. We have listened with interest to many of the speeches on the other side of the House, many of them made by hon. Members with great experience of the operations of the Press.
I do not think that the Members of the proposed Press Council will regret anything that has been said either in this debate or the previous debate, and we all accept the reservation of the hon. Member for Brierley Hill with regard to future developments. In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment standing in the names of myself and my hon. Friends.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn: Bill withdrawn.