HC Deb 11 March 1963 vol 673 cc935-40
3. Mr. D. Foot

asked the Attorney-General whether Her Majesty's Government have considered the effect upon the Press and the profession of journalism of the decisions in Mulholland v. Attorney-General and Foster v. Attorney-General; and whether they will set up an inquiry to consider whether any change should be made in the law regarding confidential information received by journalists in the course of their professional duties.

4. Mr. G. M. Thomson

asked the Attorney-General what changes he pro- poses in the law relating to contempt of court in order to protect journalists performing their duties.

5. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Attorney-General if he will consider the state of the law under which journalists may be committed to prison for refusing to divulge the source of their information, with a view to amending legislation.

6. Mr. Lipton

asked the Attorney-General if, with a view to preserving the freedom of the press, he will introduce legislation to amend the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921.

The Attorney-General

The Government are aware of the importance of the issues involved in these two cases and fully appreciate the desire of journalists to preserve the anonymity of those who give them information in confidence. The occasions when a journalist can be required to disclose the identity of his informant are extremely rare and do not in practice arise in the ordinary courts of law. They occur only when it becomes relevant for a tribunal or a committee of either House of Parliament to inquire into the truth of an allegation made by a journalist. The work of the tribunal or committee would obviously be frustrated if the journalist were privileged from disclosing the sources of his information. The Government consider that in such cases the overriding public interest is the discovery of truth. I will naturally consider any representations made to me, but I must make it clear now that I can hold out no hope of amending legislation.

Mr. Foot

Arising from that reply, does the hon. and learned Gentleman not appreciate that, even though the law affords no protection in practice, communications made to journalists by politicians and others have been regarded on both sides as being absolutely confidential. [HON MEMBERS: "No."] Does he appreciate that the effect of these decisions may very well he to impair the relationship that has hitherto existed between Ministers and the Press and hon. Members and the Press? In those circumstances, does he not think that there is a case for some inquiry?

The Attorney-General

I quite appreciate that it creates difficulties in the relationships in particular between hon.

Members of the House and the Lobby as well as in other circumstances. On the other hand, the number of times that this has arisen in the last eighty years is about six—only in very special circumstances, such as a tribunal or committee of one or other House—and I am bound to say that I do not accept that the difficulty which arose in this case is likely to create any substantial difficulties in the relationship between journalists and their informants in the future.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

Since Parliament set up the Tribunal under which these journalists have been gaoled and since the journalists have been gaoled for refusing to do what we in the House of Commons expect the Lobby journalists to refuse to do, is there not at least a moral obligation to investigate the serious and difficult issues raised by these questions?

The Attorney-General

If the hon. Member is suggesting that the investigation should be by way of inquiry, I would not have thought that that was necessary, because the facts and circumstances are sufficiently well known to all persons concerned. Obviously it is a matter for discussion and thought, and I have already given to the House the conclusion of the Government on it.

Mr. Shinwell

As the Vassall Tribunal was created for the express purpose of preventing any infringement of national security, can the hon. and learned Gentleman say whether the refusal to disclose information on what undoubtedly were questions of a somewhat trivial character and not bearing on the subject of security, in any way retards the right and, indeed, the responsibility of the Tribunal to come to a rational conclusion? Since there was no infringement of security as we understand the term "security", would not the Attorney-General agree to consider amending legislation?

The Attorney-General

Of course, the judgment whether or not the answer was necessary or not was the judgment of the Tribunal, but I should remind the House that one of the articles that one of the journalists had written said that it was sponsorship by two ranking officials which led to Vassall avoiding the strictest part of the Admiralty's security vetting, and that was a very serious allegation indeed of breaches of security within the Admiralty.

Mr. Lipton

Does not the Attorney-General realise that it partly gives his case away when he says that this kind of case does not arise in the ordinary course of justice, which is just what a lot of people are complaining about? Does he not also realise that the liberties of every citizen are to some extent diminished while these journalists are in gaol? Does he think that the administration of justice would be helped or impeded if police officers, for example, were compelled to divulge their sources of information?

The Attorney-General

This is the difficult balance of public interest between the risks to persons who receive confidential information but may be required in the course of the administration of justice to disclose it, and the converse balance of the interest of the general public in the administration of law. It must be remembered that to every extent that an individual, be he a journalist or anyone else, is entitled not to tell the whole truth, innocent third parties may get less than justice.

Mr. Peter Emery

Does my hon. and learned Friend realise that not one of the Press editorials dealing with this specific case has openly suggested the possibility—and I repeat the "possibility"—that in fact these stories were fabrications and that there was no source to which they could be attributed? Would he, therefore, consider in any matter of revision the safeguarding of the public to ensure that they are not open to stories being put out under the cloak of an attributable source when there is no source to attribute those stories to?

The Attorney-General

This is one of the difficulties. No one can know, in the particular circumstances of the case, what was the source these two journalists had, and perhaps the House will remember that Mr. Leo Maxse exactly fifty years ago was heavily criticised for making public allegations that he refused to substantiate.

Mr. H. Wilson

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that we shall want to debate the whole matter very seriously indeed when we have the full report, or such part of it as is published, of the Tribunal, because only then, I think, will the House be able to form a final and full judgment on the question? In view, however, of the very serious concern felt in all parts of the House and in the country about the particular subject of these questions, and in view of the very great concern shown about the whole working of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, under which this House imposes these rules on the judges and others—and on the Attorney-General; I understand the difficulties—will he not, at any rate, agree that it is now high time to have an inquiry —either an independent inquiry, or, perhaps better, a Select Committee of this House—to examine the whole question of the aspects of the Act, what amending legislation is needed and, particularly, the conditions laid down by this House in these unique cases on those who conduct these inquiries and those who come before them?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion that this matter should really be postponed until the report of the Vassall Tribunal is received; and with that I agree. As to amendments that may be necessary to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, that matter has frequently been debated before and there are many open questions which I am sure need consideration. As to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act affecting the position of the journalists, that Act does provide that every witness before such a tribunal shall have the same privileges and immunities as any witness before the High Court. Therefore, the question involved in the case of these two journalists goes to the general rules of evidence in all types of case, both criminal and civil.

Mr. Wilson

I do not think that the Attorney-General quite took my point. I did not suggest that this matter can be left until the report is available but said that the House will want to go into this and all other important issues when we have the whole report available to us. But has the hon. and learned Gentleman really understood the concern caused by the fact that as it is the House of Commons that set up this Tribunal it is the House of Commons, or Parliament, that is responsible for the working of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act? Is he aware that the concern in this House of Commons and outside, not only about the journalists but about other aspects of the Tribunal procedure, is such that there really is a case now for a full-dress investigation into the whole question of the powers accorded by Parliament in relation to that Act?

The Attorney-General

I am sure that we ought always keep the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act under review, which creates difficulties. The exact method by which we conduct the investigation we may, perhaps, consider on another occasion.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the narrower point of the imprisonment of the two journalists, I beg to give notice that at the appropriate time I should like to seek leave to raise the matter under Standing Order No. 9.