HC Deb 13 November 1958 vol 595 cc714-24

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

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)

It is a matter of regret to me that the subject of this debate is a charge brought by my hon. Friends and myself against the B.B.C. for transmitting a biased and false account of the General Strike to the schoolchildren of this country. I should have thought that the one occasion on which bias should be absent and where the facts should be objectively stated was in the transmission of lessons to schoolchildren. I hope to prove that the lesson delivered on 22nd October, called. "Stanley Baldwin: The General Strike of 1926"—was a poisonous travesty. The B.B.C., for whom in many respects I have great admiration because of the good work it does, seems to have fallen down badly in this matter.

Before these transmissions are made, a synopsis of the lesson is issued to the school teachers and, I presume, to the pupils. I quote from this synopsis. It says on page 14—"Modern History. Autumn Term, 1958"— For years the Government had been paying a subsidy to the coalowners on every ton of coal mined to enable them to pay the miners the wages agreed upon by the miners' unions in the various coalfields. That is a lie. It states that this had been going on for years. In actual fact the subsidy did not commence to be payable until 1st August, and continued for ten months. Why was it phrased in that way? Here is a further quotation: The miners and the other unions were thus attempting to force the Government to spend part of the taxpayers' money on a coal subsidy. That is a lie. The miners never made such a demand after 1925. The T.U.C. and the General Council did not make such a demand. It never featured in any demand made by the miners in connection with this dispute. That is the sort of outlook which permeated die whole of the broadcast.

Through the good offices of the Librarian of this House, I have been able to get a copy of the script, and it is a very queer copy. It is a copy which contains a number of obliterations. Let us take the opening as it was first of all made by the man who, I presume, was responsible for the broadcast. He says this: The General Strike of 1926 arose out of a dispute in the coal mining industry. It was a very big sympathetic strike, intended to help the coal miners who were having a dispute with the coal owners. That section of this script was obliterated. The reference to a sympathetic strike to help the miners was obliterated from the transmission. One finds time after time throughout the script these obliterations, and it seems that each obliteration from the script contained a partially sympathetic reference either to the T.U.C. or to the miners. The script starts, as indicating what was transmitted, in this way: Our story must begin in the year 1925, the year before the General Strike. In that year also there was a dispute in the coal mining industry, in fact, disputes were occurring every year between the private colliery companies who worked the mines and the miners trade unions. It is surprising to me to call that merely a dispute. If the matter had been made clear further on perhaps there might have been some justification for it, but, to describe what happened between the miners and the mine owners as a dispute in 1925 is like describing what happened between Hitler and Czechoslovakia as a dispute between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Worse is to follow. The so-called dispute is described by the voice of a coal owner saying: In the past year, that is 1924–25, the export market for coal has dropped disastrously, coal prices are falling and must fall still further. An increase in wages would be suicide. It would destroy the whole coal industry. We ask coal miners to accept lower wages. Is that what the coal owners asked for? It was not what the coal owners asked for at all. It was not merely a cut in wages, it was a cut of 13 per cent. It was not merely a cut in wages that was asked for, it was the abolition of the Miners Federation of Great Britain as the negotiating body, the non-recognition of the miners national union. They went a step further. The coal owners were also demanding something which was entirely illegal, that the miners should work an extra hour a day. There may be some excuse for all this, but it seems amazing. The thing is made worse still when another coal owner's voice is used to say: While we are in business we must make a profit. We cannot pay the present wages unless we do make a profit. In South Yorkshire the miners average wage is four pounds five, in South Wales it is four pounds two. In Northumberland the average wage is three pounds ten a week… I do not know where the script writer got that from. The B.B.C. ought to be more careful. Why did it not look at the Report of the Secretary for Mines? Instead of the Yorkshire miners having an average wage of £4 5s., it was £2 16s. The miners average wage in South Wales was not £4 2s.; it was £2 15s., and the miners average wage in Northumberland was not £3 10s.; it was £2 7s. All this could have been checked. Why was it not checked? What was the purpose of falsifying the wages which the miners of this country were receiving unless it were to put them in the position, in the historian's eyes, of being able to afford a reduction in the miserly wages that they were receiving?

The narrator's voice is then brought in. He says, Thus a whole year before the General Strike the mineowners had said the miners must be content with less wages and longer hours. But the miners had very powerful and well-organised trade unions. They said, 'No,' and all the other trade unions agreed that the miners were right to say ' No,' and they told the Government that they would all strike together at the same time. But the miners were not going to strike. The miners were going to be locked out. If there were to be a national strike it could arise only if the coal owners locked out the miners. There was no attempt made at all in the script to put the facts fairly and clearly in the minds of the children who were to listen to it.

Let me continue a little further. I read that the trade unionists were prepared for a general strike and the Government were not. If anyone reads Mr. Jimmy Thomas's biography or the speech which he made in the House on the following Wednesday, they will see that Mr. Jimmy Thomas said that never in his life had he crawled so much and talked and pleaded so much in order to avoid a strike. Yet we are told in the script that the trade unions were challenging the Government; not that the mineowners were challenging the Government, but that the trade unions were challenging the Government. The truth was that the Government were not prepared to back the coal owners at that stage, and that the sparking off of a general strike could be done only by the coal owners locking out the miners.

Then the narrator describes how Baldwin had agreed to pay a subsidy of £10 million to the mining industry for the purpose of the Government getting ready to back the coal owners. He might, incidentally, have mentioned that the £10 million was in fact £24 million and that it was in a year in which the coal owners made a profit of £26 million.

I am afraid that this is a biased account of what happened—an attempt, in effect, to put the miners in an ugly light and to create disrespect for the miners' union in particular and for the trade unions of the country in general.

I turn to page 5 of the script. This is amusing. It describes what was happening in a Yorkshire district. There is a description of a miner listening to a dance band. The miner and his wife are made to talk to each other, and the wife says to the miner, I hope the Government will climb down. I don't want to he on strike pay again. Life's hard enough as it is. The miner is made to reply, Don't talk soft, lass. We need a fight to a finish this time. It's time we taught the bosses a real lesson. These are men living on miserly wages, with trade union funds not enough to pay 10s. a week for two weeks! To describe a lock-out of the miners as a strike as if the miners were responsible and as if it were the miners who wanted to get the Government down, not the coal owners who wanted to beat the miners down and force down their standards of living, is monstrous.

Next, the narrator says, "The miners are out." He does not say that the miners are locked out but, "The miners are out." Why not "locked out"? Why was not that phrase used?—because they were locked out. The narrator says, But the general strike did not start for another two days. Talks dragged on through Sunday and Monday. But it was too late for a settlement. Then at the bottom of that page of the script, page six, there is obliterated this reference to why it was too late to get a settlement: The Editor of the Daily Mail at once rang Mr. Baldwin and told him what had happened, and he at once broke off talks with the trade unions. He said he would not talk with them whilst one of them was actually on strike. Soon all the big newspaper offices had to close down. But that was cut out.

Who is the censor at the B.B.C. headquarters? Did they consult the Tory Central Office? Here was the answer to why the talks broke down.

On the following Wednesday in this House the late Mr. Lloyd George charged Mr. Baldwin with having unnecessarily broken off negotiations, and when a deputation went back to Downing Street after Mr. Baldwin's letter terminating the negotiations they were told by the servant that Mr. Baldwin had gone to bed and was not available for any further talks to avoid a general strike.

There it is. It was the Government who wanted a fight, the Government who acted at the behest of the coal owners. I have not time to deal with the rest of this script, this travesty of history, this poisoning of children's minds against the trade unions of this country.

Norman Mackenzie in his latest book said it was impossible for anyone to whitewash that horrible period known as "Baldwin's Britain." I remember it. I was on strike. I was victimised by the very people this B.B.C. script attempts to justify. Norman Mackenzie did not reckon with the B.B.C. They have poured the whitewash over the Baldwin Government and their relations with the miners of this country.

I do not place on the Assistant Postmaster-General any responsibility for all this. He has to give the reply which no doubt the B.B.C. has supplied to him. In this matter, if I may say so without presumption, he has my sympathy. However, I want to ask him some questions.

Why was it not made clear that it was the coal owners who were the aggressors? Why were the coal owners' demands falsified in this script? Why were the real miners' wages not disclosed Why was the non-recognition of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain not brought out as one of the coal owners' demands? Why was it not brought out that the coal owners were demanding an extra hour on the shift, on the day's work, an hour which at that time was entirely illegal and prohibited by law? Why did the B.B.C. refuse to include in the script the fact that the bishops of organised religion in this country who pleaded in a statement for a settlement were under a threat by the gentleman who subsequently became the Prime Minister of this country and they refused to allow it to be made? Why were the facts favourable to the miners cut out in the script? Why was the opinion of Sir John Simon given so much prominence in the script that a general strike was illegal when, after the strike, every legal authority of any standing said that this opinion was quite wrong?

There is something seriously wrong with this section of the B.B.C.'s activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) has the same sort of complaint to make about the lesson which followed this one—

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

On 1931.

Mr. Ness Edwards

—about the 1931 crisis, which contained the same sort of bias and heavy loading against the Left as against the Right, with no objectivity at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley), who lived through this period with me, looking through this script, said, "I could not have been alive then, if it happened like that." He played as much part in the General Strike as I did in the miners' lockout. It does not look like history; it looks like propaganda. It does not look like education; it looks like fabrication. I am sorry indeed that the B.B.C. should fall from its very high standards to try to create a nation of little Tories by so-called lessons of this sort.

11.11 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

Nobody can accuse the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) of having failed to make his point with vehemence and nostalgic enthusiasm. It might help the House if I were to state, first of all, a broad principle affecting this matter which bears directly on what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying. The principle, as briefly as I can put it, is that in matters of programme content, in matters of what the B.B.C. puts out over its sound radio and television circuits, it is to have, so far as it is possible for this House to give it, complete freedom to decide for itself. The Governors of the B.B.C. in the first place, and this House only later, if we were wildly offended, would have the right to examine objections of partiality on the part of the Authority.

The second thing which the House ought to bear in mind is that there is a clear injunction laid upon the Governors of the B.B.C. to seek to attain impartiality in the content of the programmes that they decide to put out. Here again, when allegations of a failure to observe this impartiality are made, the first line of responsibility is with the Governors of the B.B.C. to examine the charges and again, only if we are wildly or seriously offended in this House, is it our job to see where they are alleged to have gone wrong.

These two broad principles cover this programme, and since for the first time we learn tonight that other programmes in this series are concerned—

Mr. G. Thomas


Mr. Thompson

There are avenues open to hon. Members to make their views known on these things, and I know that the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) is not reluctant to take them.

Mr. Thomas

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Mr. Thompson

No, I want to be able to do justice to the right hon. Member for Caerphilly.

This series, then, is covered by these general principles. I am sure the House will agree that it is right that efforts should be made by an authority like the B.B.C. to put over school programmes. Secondly, I am sure it is right, subject to whatever checks and balances and considerations are appropriate in each case for the B.B.C. to use its resources to put over programmes dealing with modern historical events.

Mr. Ness Edwards

Hear, hear.

Mr. Thompson

I am quite sure that the House would agree, having accepted those two propositions, that it is right for the B.B.C. to deal with events even though they may be modern enough still to contain the currents of modern controversy. Therefore, what the right hon. Member for Caerphilly has to do is to show that the B.B.C. has failed either in this specific case alone, or in others of the same series, to aim at—and he went much further than that—impartiality.

Mr. Ness Edwards


Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

And accuracy.

Mr. Thompson

To aim at impartiality, objectivity and accuracy in the preparation of the script.

First of all, the B.B.C. is putting out a programme lasting 20 minutes, and that includes the opening and closing announcements, noises off and all the trimmings that make a programme a complete unity. Secondly, it is dealing with an audience of an age ranging from 13 to 15 years with a limited capacity for understanding the nuances of anything that may be said or written.

That is the market in which the B.B.C. is operating with these programmes. The right hon. Gentleman went much further and suggested that the B.B.C. failed to attain objectivity. He then dragged in the Conservative Central Office, and the only deduction we can draw is that he was casting an imputation on the B.B.C. of having deliberately sought to distort history— a much more serious charge than that of having failed to attain objectivity.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He has a copy of the script. The B.B.C. knows that it is within his power to ask for a copy of the script; it knows that its programmes will be listened to over a very wide range of the population, containing people of every conceivable shade of political opinion and every shade of experience in this very period with which it was dealing. Does the right hon. Gentleman seriously ask the House or his hon. Friends to believe that in these circumstances the B.B.C. was deliberately trying to distort history?

Mr. Ness Edwards


Mr. Thompson

The right hon. Gentleman had a very full opportunity—let us regard my question as rhetorical.

Mr. W. E. Padley (Ogmore)

Monumental ignorance.

Mr. Thompson

Let us then deal with this question. The right hon. Gentleman went through the script and picked out one or two examples, saying that this bias ran right through the script. What was he really complaining about? Was he not really just looking for something on which he could hang the case? He complains about this being called a "dispute," and described it in somewhat extravagant words. But in other parts of his speech he referred with approval to the Annual Report of the Secretary for Mines, and I would draw his attention to the heading on page 8 of that Report, which sets out to deal with the dispute in the British coal mining industry in 1926, and which refers to it throughout as a dispute. If the right hon. Gentleman is really going to rest his case on that kind of point we will never get anywhere in understanding modern history, or, indeed, any other kind of history.

We then come to the detail of the programme itself. Was it really likely that an audience of children, aged 13 to 15, listening to a programme that is to last no more than 20 minutes, could be expected to understand the complicated wage structure of the industry. [Interruption.] Was that really so? I did my best, with a very marked measure of success, to avoid laughing while the right hon. Gentleman was speaking, because I respect his feelings in this matter. He was good enough to suggest that it might be a good thing if I were to prepare myself with a book on the subject, on which I did not know as much as he did. I read the book, by Mr. Julian Symons, called "The General Strike", an authoritative account of what happened. This sentence occurs at the top of page 33, dealing with the work which the Samuel Commission was to perform: Four wise men sit down to consider the working of an immensely complicated industry; an industry which has a whole terminology of its own; in which the wage structure is so complicated that days of explanation are required before it is understood… And the passages in the script relating to the wages earned by the miners might have been taken from the pages of "The General Strike" by Julian Symons. I have just read the book. It is probably some little time since the right hon. Gentleman read it.

The B.B.C. does not put out a controversial programme, or one on a controversial subject of this kind, with its coat trailing and inviting it to be trodden on by those who look for flaws in the case. Mistakes—yes. I do not suppose for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman would claim that a mistake, even by the B.B.C., whose standards are so high, should be impossible. Reference to the words "years of subsidy" is a slip of the tongue or pen such as could happen to anyone. I hope the House will accept my assurance that it is so.

Mr. G. Thomas

It is a history lesson.

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Member has some experience in teaching, and I should have thought that he would, with the modesty that we all admire in him, have been the last person to claim that it was impossible for a teacher to make a mistake. The B.B.C. does not rely only on the spoken word that goes out over the radio. The radio programme is only part of the lesson, and the lesson itself is supported and aided by the documents to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, which do not fill in the background but are intended to guide the teacher of the class to seek the rest of the story and prepare to tell it properly.

So far as we can discover, the schools broadcasts are listened to by very large numbers of schools and are enthusiastically received with practically a complete absence of complaint on grounds of partiality. The debate tonight is almost the first example that is known to the B.B.C. of a charge of positive partiality being directed against it in a matter of this kind.

I very much hope that the House will allow me to conclude by saying that I hope the confidence of the Governors of the B.B.C. in putting out this kind of programme will not be in any way deterred or inhibited by the things which have been said tonight, and I hope they will accept the assurance, from one who has now gone into it with great care and at great length, that I am satisfied that they do their best.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes past Eleven o'clock.