HC Deb 02 February 1961 vol 633 cc1184-8
44. Mr. Mayhew

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the proposed merger of Odhams Press Limited with Thomson Newspapers, he will now advise the setting up of a Royal Commission to inquire into the Press, with particular reference to the growth of monopolistic control.

45. Mr. Donnelly

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the Thomson-Odhams merger he will now agree to an inquiry into the Press in accordance with the Resolution of the House of 2nd December, 1960.

46. Mr. Prentice

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now appoint a committee to inquire into the Press in accordance with the Resolution of the House of 2nd December, 1960, in view of the new situation created by the Thomson-Odhams merger.

47. Mr. W. Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister, in view of the recent further concentration of control of the Press in the hands of fewer people, whether he will now implement the Resolution of the House of 2nd December last on this matter.

52. Mr. Wyatt

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now advise the setting-tip of a Royal Commission to inquire into the Press, with particular reference to the growth of monopolistic control over national newspapers and magazines, in view of recent events in the newspaper industry.

The Prime Minister

I am still considering whether an inquiry would be useful and, if so, what should be its scope and character.

Mr. Mayhew

Has the Prime Minister seen that Odhams Press has today stated that it would like an inquiry as a matter of urgency and also that the other parties have said that they would welcome an inquiry? May I, therefore, ask him what assurances he has had that the Mirror group would not suppress the Daily Herald, other than the private assurances of a single individual who is fallible and mortal?

The Prime Minister

All those matters which have just come to my notice are, of course, relevant factors in reaching a decision as to what should be the scope and character of an inquiry, if any.

Mr. Donnelly

In view of the fact that both Mr. King and Odhams Press have said they would welcome an inquiry, what is the Prime Minister waiting for?

The Prime Minister

I saw the statement of Odhams. I have not seen the other it must have come out just as I came into the House. As I say, these are factors which ought to be considered in the character of an inquiry as to its scope, if it takes place, and particular transactions are, of course, matters for the directors and shareholders concerned.

Mr. Hamilton

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that there is great concern in the country at the declining number of daily newspapers and the possible further acceleration of that decline before very long, and that in the circumstances the influence of the provincial Press becomes more important? It, those circumstances, will he resist the pressure from his hon. Friends for the establishment of local commercial radio stations which would have the effect of weakening the provincial Press at this time?

The Prime Minister

I think that a rather different question, but if there were a large-scale inquiry no doubt that might be considered in it.

Mr. C. Osborne

If an inquiry is to be held, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the statement made in last Sunday's Observer editorial, that far more of the smaller newspapers could continue in existence if the restrictive practices that obtain in the printing unions were to be modified?

The Prime Minister

That, of course, is also important. The whole economics of newspaper finance and the printing industry are, of course, very relevant.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on this question of an inquiry he seems to be holding back behind everybody else? The chairman of the Daily Mirror expressed his welcome for the idea of an inquiry some days ago, both in a statement and on television. Odhams has now expressed its welcome for the idea of an inquiry as a matter of urgency. The custodians of the public interest in this are the right hon. Gentleman and the Government. Would he, therefore, say why he still holds back when all the interested parties are keen? Is he aware that if he holds back long enough he will be able to say, "There is now no point in it because the damage has been done"?

The Prime Minister

All those considerations have, of course, occurred to me. They relate to quite separate questions. One is whether the Government have a right—which I am certain they have not—but whether they will have a legal right to interfere with any particular transaction under the law as between shareholders or employee interests. The other question is whether this transaction is symptomatic of a situation which would require, as I tried to say on Tuesday, a more general review of all the underlying points which have led to this kind of development. It is to that matter that I am giving my attention and I hope to make an early statement.

Mr. G. Brown

Can the Prime Minister give some idea of what he thinks "early" in this affair will be?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, neither very long delayed—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—nor too wantonly hurried on. But I should have said some time during the next Parliamentary week.

Mr. Wyatt

Has the Prime Minister made any request to the parties concerned either to hold up the proceedings for a merger permanently or pending an inquiry? Would he ask the Pilkington Committee to consider also whether, as a matter of urgency, no national newspapers ought to be allowed to have any holding in television stations? Does he realise that it is the scandalous way in which the I.T.A. dished out licences which has given huge profits to newspaper owners and thus enabled them to go round buying other newspapers?

The Prime Minister

The answer to the first part of the supplementary question is "No". With regard to the second part, as I said on Tuesday, we are taking steps to bring this special point to the attention of the Pilkington Committee and ask it to deal with it.

Mr. Grimond

Arising out of the Prime Minister's last answer but one, may we take it that he is considering an inquiry not ally into the future of the industry but into the particular deal concerning Odhams? If that is the case and it is included, would not it be reasonable to ask the participants in the deal at least to hold up until the Prime Minister has announced his decision?

The Prime Minister

No; Sir, that is just the point. I am not at all convinced that the Government have a right or duty to intervene in a particular transaction. What I think they may have a right and duty to do is to say whether certain tendencies should now be considered as a whole. It will then be for those who enter into those transactions, should such an inquiry take place, to decide what would be the correct and wise step to take.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report in the Press that, if the Daily Herald is to be taken over, the members of the General Committee of the T.U.C. would prefer it to be taken over by Mr. Thomson rather than by the Daily Mirror group? Is it not pleasant that they should seek the umbrella of a Conservative proprietor, and would not the difficulties of the Daily Herald be solved if it were turned into a popular Conservative paper?

The Prime Minister

It was only as I was coming into the Chamber that I saw on the tape machine the further Odhams statement. I did see that it referred only to the periodical problem.

Mr. Wilkins

May I remind the Prime Minister—[HON. MEMBERS "No."]—this is no laughing matter for the printing operatives—may I ask whether he will bear in mind, in trying to come to a conclusion as to whether there should be an inquiry or not, that it is not merely Odhams which is concerned that there should be an immediate inquiry, but all the members of the Printing and Kindred Trades Federation, which he knows something about? They also are very anxious about the outcome of this merger.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, that is just the point, that it is the economic, industrial and general situation in this industry which may cause sufficient reason for anxiety that it should be properly inquired into. I am very much concerned about certain tendencies which may lead to making these things so expensive to produce that they will be forced out, with consequent effects upon the lives and employment of the men in the printing industry, and whether, perhaps, there are not things which the industry itself could do enormously to increase its productive efficiency.

Mr. G. Brown

So that there is no misunderstanding about the Odhams statement about an inquiry, will the Prime Minister look again at it—I have a copy of it with me—when he will see that it specifically refers to the merger in the newspaper and magazine fields and asks for an inquiry to cover the lot?

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman will read on, it says that the periodicals give cause for anxiety because there would be 300 of them under one hand, and therefore the likelihood of a closing would be in the periodical field.

Mr. Brown

No, that is not so.