HL Deb 29 April 1907 vol 173 cc479-82

My Lords, I rise to call the attention of the House to the conclusion of a speech made in it by the First Lord of the Admiralty, on the 13th July, 1906, in -which he said that— His Majesty's Government were anxious to deal with the question of publication of news in war time in a way that would be both good for the country and satisfactory to the Press, and I may add that, only a fortnight ago, the Prime Minister, in another place, said the subject would be dealt with early next session"; and to ask the Government what steps they are taking to carry out this undertaking. As I have already brought this question before your Lordships on four different occasions, and as no one attempted to dispute the facts or to refute the arguments that I then brought forward, I shall not take up the time of the House by much repetition of the same or similar facts and arguments. I have already quoted the opinions of Nelson, Wellington, and Napoleon, and I have touched on the experiences of the Japanese war. If it was necessary to do so, I think that I could find incidents proving the necessity of secrecy during hostilities in every war of which we have any historical record.

Since I first raised this subject, I know of only one man who, either by his voice or by his signature, has attempted to prove that unrestricted freedom of publication of news should be permitted during war. Naval officers differ on many points, but on this point they all hold the same opinion and consider legislation necessary. Of course one can scarcely expect the same degree of unanimity among journalists. But the better portion of the Press are in favour of an alteration in the law. In June last year the Newspaper Society appointed a sub-committee to draw up a draft Bill on the subject. All measures of importance are opposed by some of our newspapers, and if we were always to wait before bringing Bills into Parliament until the Press had come to an agreement about them, we should be worse off than the Medes and Persians.

The defence of this country is not a mere question of paying taxes. We must put our house in order as well, and pass laws which will enable those taxes to be spent to some purpose. If, while our laws remain unaltered, we were attacked or went to war in self-defence, we should greatly increase our chances of defeat, and should thoroughly deserve our punishment. In neither House is the Opposition likely to object to a reasonable measure which would lie dormant until war clouds gathered round us. I hope that the Government will take courage, grasp the nettle, and keep their pledge of last year. If they do so, they are certain of the support of the best portion of the Press, and of the commonsense of the nation.


My Lords I entirely sympathise with the view which the noble Lord takes. It is quite impossible for any man who holds the office that I do not to feel supremely alive to the danger of the dissemination of news, either just before the outbreak of a war or during a war, which would be an injury to our forces engaged in that war.

But, my Lords, I cannot quite go the length that Lord Ellenborough wants. I do not think it is possible to hold out a hope of being able to deal with this question absolutely immediately. In the first place there is a great number of Bills blocking the path; it would be very difficult to add to that number now, and it would be very difficult to pass the Bill that would be required without a considerable amount of discussion. I think I can show, even by the recent history of what has been done in regard to this question, that it is desirable that some further consideration should be given before a Bill is absolutely presented to Parliament. The British Press is, I think it will be agreed, greatly to be praised and greatly to be trusted for the way in which it does check the publication of news that is likely to do harm and cause danger to this country.

I do not think the noble Lord gave a quite correct account of what was done last year. It is true that a committee of the Newspaper Society was appointed last year, consisting of three distinguished gentlemen connected with the Press, together with the solicitor of the society. They met and drew up eight resolutions on which, they said, a Bill might be framed. The report of this committee was referred to a general meeting of the Newspaper Society, and at that meeting Mr. Walter moved this resolution— That this meeting cordially approves the action which has been taken by the Newspaper Society in appointing a sub-committee to confer with the Committee of Imperial Defence, fully endorses the principles accepted by the sub-committee to govern any legislation dealing with the dissemination of news in time of war and when war is imminent, and authorising such sub-committee of the Newspaper Society to continue to act and to consider any Bill that may be drafted on the subject. But to that resolution an amendment was moved and carried as follows— That this meeting cordially approves the action which has been taken by the Newspaper Society in appointing a sub-committee to confer with the Committee of Imperial Defence in regard to the principles that should govern any legislation dealing with the dissemination of news in time of war and when war is imminent, and authorises such committee of the Newspaper Society to add to its members and to continue to act and to consider any Bill that may be drafted on the subject. A further resolution was passed in these terms— That the conclusions of the sub-committee be submitted to a future conference before the Bill is introduced into Parliament. I think it is very desirable that we should, as far as possible, carry the chosen representatives of the Press, most of whom, I think, are prepared to support such a proposal, with us, and the suggestion I make is that I should have a Bill drafted and referred to the law officers for their opinion. Then it would be referred to the sub-committee of the Newspaper Society, and, after that, it would be considered by the Newspaper Society itself. I believe this would be an effectual measure, and that it would do much to enable us to work with the representatives of the Press—a co-operation which I look upon as most im- portant. We have no reason to think that we shall not have the help of the Press, and it is very desirable that we should have them with us. I hope my suggestion will receive the commendation of your Lordships.


My Lords, I am afraid we have not advanced quite so far in this matter as the noble Lord held out hopes of last session.


It was not my promise.


No, but the noble Earl quoted the Prime Minister's expression of his hope that a Bill dealing with this subject might be introduced early this session. I quite appreciate the very great difficulty of carrying that through, and I do not desire to press the matter unduly. If the noble Earl is of opinion that the course he has now suggested is the best course, I certainly shall raise no objection. I am only glad that we are taking some step towards the end we all desire to attain.