HL Deb 11 March 1915 vol 18 cc704-15

My Lords, I rise to ask the Secretary of State for India whether His Majesty's Government will lay on the Table of the House a list of the persons who are employed in the censorship of news, other than naval and military intelligence, and in the censorship of private correspondence between this country and foreign countries; and if they will also lay copies of the instructions given to the persons aforesaid to guide them in the discharge of their functions as censors.

I need hardly say that I put this Question with no wish to add in any way to the difficulties which naturally surround the office of censor. It is no purpose of mine to do that, or to indulge in any criticism with regard to particular cases in which the censorship may have been injudiciously exercised. As we know, cases are frequently mentioned in private conversation and sometimes in the Press in which complaint is made of the way in which the censor acts. I do not wish to enter into any of those cases. But I hope the Government will meet the request which I have addressed to them and dispel some of the darkness with which the position is surrounded.

I have had the opportunity of conversing with a number of members of your Lordships' House and with a good many others as to the general feeling entertained with regard to the censorship, and I find that there is a certain amount of uneasiness, no doubt arising from ignorance because we have never been vouchsafed any information as to the principles on which the censorship is guided nor been given the names of the persons who discharge those duties. I have read the debates in the House of Commons on the subject, and after doing so I have known very little more than when I took the paper up. Those debates have always turned on particular grievances alleged by some Member, but no information has been given as to the principles on which the censorship is conducted, still less as to the persons by whom this important function is discharged. Darkness I will not say produces suspicion, but it certainly does not strengthen confidence; and the more our confidence is strengthened the better it will be for us all. I hope, therefore, that His Majesty's Government will see their way to tell us who the censors are, and give us information regarding them which will enable us to feel confidence in the wisdom and tact with which their important functions are exercised.

As noble Lords will have seen, I have excluded any reference to the censorship in connection with naval and military intelligence. We are perfectly willing to leave everything to the discretion of the Executive in these as in other matters; it is their interest to see that no information comes out which could possibly benefit the enemy, and by that discretion I think the country should let affairs be guided. What I want to call attention to is the censorship as it is exercised with regard to other intelligence—intelligence of general interest from foreign countries; with regard to the discussion of questions relating to our home or foreign policy; and especially with regard to foreign private correspondence. The establishment of a censorship for private correspondence between this country and abroad is a perfectly new thing and involves a great deal of very delicate handling. If all the letters that any one in this country addresses to or receives from a person abroad—an intimate friend, perhaps a member of his own family—are liable to be opened and read by a censor, it becomes extremely important to know that those to whom a function of so much delicacy is entrusted are men, or women (as I believe women also are employed) entitled to our confidence—that they are persons of judgment, of experience, and of good feeling. This is a new departure so very new and strange that we desire to be reassured about it.

I could give, were it worth while to take up your Lordships' time, many instances of passages having been cut out from telegrams sent to newspapers or from letters addressed to private persons in which that which had been deleted was most certainly known in foreign countries and would not have been in the least harmful if published here. But I do not want to rest this case at all upon particular instances. We can all make mistakes; "accidents happen in the best regulated families." I admit that even an experienced censor might now and then strike out something he could safely have left in. But whatever accidents we may be ready to allow for in particular cases, we ought to know the general principles on which the censors act, and the instructions they have received for the discharge of this very difficult duty. I cannot doubt that such instructions exist. And if that is so, why cannot they be produced for the benefit of the House? But however carefully instructions are drawn a great deal must depend upon the discretion of the persons who are entrusted with the carrying out of them. No instructions could be drawn so precisely as to cover every possible case which would arise, and a great deal must depend on the good sense and tact of the censors. Therefore I come back to the high importance which attaches to the selection of those who are to exercise this discretion.

May I say that I am not here to take exception to any particular person who is acting now as a censor? It so happens that I am acquainted with only one person who is so acting. He is an extremely suitable person, and he is in the military branch of the censor's work. I can conceive no one more tit to discharge its duties. It is not with any intention of taking exception to any of the persons who are believed to be exercising this function that I make my remarks. What I desire is that the Government should supply us with grounds for reposing such confidence in the censor that when something has been done which appears to us to be unwise or unnecessary we should feel, "Well, after all, the censor is probably right; he has had some experience, and is more likely to know what it is unsafe to publish than can any one of us individually." Therefore I hope we shall be reassured by being informed of the names of the persons acting in this capacity, in order that we should be able to feel that they are likely to be at least as wise as ourselves in the matter.

Let me add something about the transmission of intelligence from abroad. I gather that a good deal of this intelligence is suppressed by the censor. There may be, of course, intelligence not naval or military which at a given moment it may be undesirable to publish. That must be admitted. But there is a strong prima facie presumption in favour of publishing intelligence which is not naval or military, and which it is desirable that the country should know. Let me take an instance from what is passing in China and Japan. Very important negotiations are believed to be going on at this moment there. A conference, I believe, is being held between the diplomatic representatives of those two countries. Very scanty intelligence, however, reaches us here, so scanty, indeed, that one is led to suppose that some of it is prevented by the censor from appearing. Though China and Japan are not at present in the centre of the picture, those who have followed the politics of those countries know that the questions which are being canvassed between them are of the greatest possible importance. In fact, I do not think there is anything which is likely to be a matter of more cogent interest to this country and to the world during the next few years than questions relating to the internal and external politics of China. Consequently, it is very desirable that people in this country should know from week to week what is passing in China and Japan. If we do not know now, then when the time comes that these questions become acute and when it is possible, after the present war, to direct attention to them, the country will not be in a position to understand those questions, and to indicate to the Government a line of policy or to judge any line of policy which the Government for the time being should follow. In a country like ours where the opinion of a free people is in the last resort the guide of the Government, it is of real importance that the people should have all the information that is needed, and can safely be given, to help them to follow the course of foreign politics and have an intelligent knowledge of them.

I will take another case—the case of public opinion as it manifests itself in a large country like the United States. Now there, if anywhere, public opinion is supreme. It is more important as regards the United States to know what is the public opinion of the country than it is to know the view of the Government, because sooner or later—generally very soon—the view of the Administration for the time being will conic into accord with the public opinion of the country. Therefore it will be a thing much to be regretted if cablegrams or letters of correspondents coming from such a country as the United States are to be so cut down or interfered with by the censor that they fail to give to us here a just and complete picture of the movements of public opinion in that country. It is of the highest moment to us that we should know how thought and opinion are moving, particularly at a time when there are questions being discussed between the Administration there and our own Government here. In order that we may judge of the course that ought to be followed by the latter we should know the public opinion of the United States as well as be in possession of diplomatic documents proceeding from its Government, and we cannot have that information if cablegrams and the letters of correspondents are unduly interfered with and cut down by the censor. Whether that is so or not, of course I do not know. I am only putting this as a hypothetical case to illustrate my proposition that it is prima facie desirable that the people of this country should have the fullest knowledge upon all these matters, and that a strict censorship, which may be entirely laudable and necessary where it relates to naval and military intelligence, should be kept within the narrowest limits possible when it relates to intelligence not within the naval or military spheres.

I would sum up by saying that I can imagine cases in which harm would be done by a disclosure of public opinion and passing events in other countries, but they would be very much fewer and very much less serious than the cases in which this country would suffer by not having a proper knowledge of what was going on. I have wished to treat the matter in no faultfinding spirit. I make no accusation against any one. I merely desire to state to your Lordships the situation as I understand it, in the hope that the Government will see their way to give the desired information, and in the belief that if they do so it will tend to relieve the state of tension that exists and be a source of satisfaction to the general public.


My Lords, I am sure that none of us can complain of the manner in which my noble friend has introduced this important and difficult subject of the censorship. He draws in his Question a clear distinction between the censorship as directed upon the dissemination of military or naval intelligence on the one hand, and intelligence of a general character on the other. But as my noble friend himself indicated in the course of his speech, the two spheres are liable to overlap. There are a number of matters dealing, for instance, with trade in respect to which information of importance might, if communications were allowed to pass uncensored, be transmitted to the enemy. There might, indeed, be further cases where untrue statements respecting the trade of this country might be considered as having an untoward effect in affording encouragement to the enemy. Therefore when we speak of a military and naval censorship we have to hear in mind that those terms must be rather loosely, and not too closely, taken.

My noble friend's Question invites us to lay on the Table of the House a list of the persons who are employed in the censorship of news, other than naval and military intelligence, and of correspondence. I am afraid that I cannot oblige my noble friend with a list of those names. They approach probably a thousand in number; the document, therefore, containing them would be most voluminous. But apart from that, it is considered by the Departments concerned that it is not desirable to subject those individuals whose duty it becomes to examine private correspondence of all kinds to the probability that their personal acquaintances in many cases might endeavour to use them for the purpose of a complaint about a particular instance of censorship with which they themselves might not be actually concerned. There is no desire whatever for secrecy in this matter, but it is certairly felt by the Departments that a publication of this kind would not in itself be desirable for that reason.

Then my noble friend asks whether we will lay copies of the instructions given to these persons to guide them in the discharge of their functions as censors. I should prefer not to lay the actual instructions that have been given, for this reason—that these instructions include the enumeration of some of the positive advantages which may accrue to us here by the examination of correspondence. It is not desirable, as I think my noble friend will agree, that the enumeration of such positive advantages as we obtain in some cases should become common property. On the other hand, I am very happy to give my noble friend the general gist of the instructions, especially in stating the objects to be avoided and the more negative advantages to be obtained. The general object of this censorship is to prevent the possibility of anybody communicating information to the enemy or obtaining information with the object of its being communicated through some other channel. Any information which could be regarded as likely in any way to jeopardise the success of our own operations or of the operations of our Allies, would, of course, conic under that head. A further object is to prevent the spread of false reports, reports likely to cause disaffection or of a seditious character, or of statements of a kind likely to prejudice the relations of the Crown with other countries; in general terms, to prevent anything passing which would be inimical to the successful prosecution of the war. Then, of course, a large part of the instructions is naturally taken up with the kind of military and naval intelligence which must not be allowed to pass. But the instructions are strong in saying that there shall be as little interference as possible with private correspondence as such; that whether letters be of a general private character or of a commercial character they are not to be stopped even when they come from a hostile source or even are addressed to a hostile source, provided their contents be in then selves harmless.

There are also certain restrictions regarding letters written in languages which cannot be easily translated. A letter written in Finnish, for instance, or a letter in Swahili, would probably run the risk of being hung up for a considerable time in case it should contain any information of a dangerous character. But instructions are given for the free admission of newspapers of all kinds from hostile countries, subject, of course, to this restriction, which I am sure my noble friend will recognise as a necessary one. It is quite possible to make a rough-and-ready cipher out of a newspaper and thereby communicate information which ought not to be allowed to pass; but subject to an examination of that kind, no restriction whatever is placed upon the delivery of foreign newspapers from enemy countries to this country. In the case of pamphlets a somewhat different system is followed. Where the contents of the pamphlet are thoroughly hostile, for instance making an attack upon some institutions or upon the policy of this country—those pamphlets are in all cases receivable by the editors of newspapers, reviews, and magazines in this country, and also by a large number of other persons of whom a list is prepared and kept—in cases where the pamphlet is considered to be of a thoroughly objectionable character its free passage and dissemination is not allowed. There was a case, I think, of a newspaper of Fenian views in Ireland—now, I imagine, suppressed—which for a time practically published nothing except excerpts from hostile publications of this sort; and as soon as it was found out that that was being done, the pamphlets were stopped on their way before the proceedings were taken—I think I am speaking accurately—for the suppression of the newspaper. That I give merely as an instance.

Then there is the question of items of news from foreign countries. My noble friend mentioned two important instances—namely, that of the interesting relations between Japan and China at this moment, and the statement of public opinion in the United States. I have no reason to suppose that any items of news or expressions of opinion dealing with those two subjects would be interfered with by the censor, unless, of course, there was interwoven with them something of a character which could be taken as having damaging reference of the kind which I have mentioned to the conduct of the war. But I will make it my business to inquire and will inform my noble friend as to those particular cases, of which I fully admit the general importance. Then as regards general private correspondence from abroad, the instructions to the censors are, as I have said, to interfere as little as possible. My noble friend will realise that people writing from abroad may sometimes make a statement dealing perhaps with naval or military matters which to them appears to be absolutely harmless but which on its arrival here might have an inconvenient or possibly even a dangerous meaning attachable to it, and it is a possibility of that kind which makes the general inspection of letters necessary.

As my noble friend has pointed out—and he spoke with great generosity of the censors' work—it is impossible to avoid certain mistakes of tact and of judgment being perpetrated by some of the very large number of persons who have to undertake this duty, which must often be infinitely more tedious than it can be interesting. We ought to remember that in engaging in a censorship of this kind we are attempting something entirely novel. There has never been, so far as I know, in any country anything of the kind attempted before. There has been a censorship of war news at the Front on several occasions in comparatively recent years, and there has, I think, on one or two occasions been exercised a cable censorship between different countries; but there has been no attempt to supervise correspondence generally, and I suppose that the necessity of undertaking that task on this occasion has been brought home to us by the extreme proximity of the war—I am speaking in the local sense—by the vast facilities that now exist for communication of all kinds, and by the wide powers which prevail for the dissemination of news in all ways through the Press; because the Press, of course, has in many cases access to and control of the publication of news which in the strict sense is private.

That is as much information, I am sorry to say, as I am able to give my noble friend. I hope I shall have satisfied him to some extent by stating the general principles on which this work is being done, and I have no doubt that as the weeks and months go on the work is better and more skilfully done, with fewer possibilities of lapse, and by the time the war is over and the censorship no more needed I have very little doubt that the work will be carried on in a manner which is almost perfect. But I hope it is reasonable to state that we believe that the grounds of complaint by the public, although they exist no doubt in individual cases, are not either numerous or serious.


My Lords, I wish to say a few words upon this subject because I think it is rather important. I believe that, having regard to the numerous channels through which communication can be passed from this country to another, any censorship is bound to be ineffective in preventing news going from this country to other countries. When you reflect that there are newspapers, that there are books, which may be sent with markings, understood and so forth, quite apart from the multitude of letters which no thousand censors could possibly supervise, it seems to me that you cannot expect the censorship to be effective for the purpose of preventing news that you wish to keep back getting through. Had there been any possible principle upon which a matter of this kind could be conducted, I have no doubt that the noble Marquess would have stated it, but he really has not been able to tell us because it is quite impossible to lay down any principle. All you can do is to give a certain number of people authority to do an unprecedented thing in this country—namely, to open private letters and exercise their judgment as to whether those letters should be allowed to go forward or not. I believe you can do very little good in any way of that kind, but you may do a great deal of harm. You may cause suspicion that information is not given; and there is a good deal of suspicion in the country now that information is not given as it should be. This country is brave enough and steadfast enough to be able to face anything that comes, and I am sure it is a mistake to keep back information. All this shows that this is an extremely difficult subject. I am quite certain that no one wishes to make any reflection upon the censors or on any one else, but I think that you would be able to preserve confidence better if you would give us the names of the people to whom is entrusted this difficult and delicate task. I do not see any reason for withholding them. There is nothing to be ashamed of in the work which those gentlemen or ladies, whoever they may be, undertake. I do not see in the least why they should be shrouded in secrecy. Let them face their duties. They will not be hardly judged by the public. It will cultivate the idea among the public that there is something to keep back if you are not prepared frankly to give the names of those who are exercising this extremely delicate and difficult duty, especially as it is not within anyone's power to lay down more than a general direction that the censors must be prudent, considerate, and fair. I hope the Government will reconsider their decision not to publish the names of these censors.


My Lords, the noble and learned Earl who has just spoken has taken the matter into a little wider field, and I should like to support the general purport of that part of his observations. Surely we can lay down this rule very clearly that, where it is a matter of withholding information from the enemy, the military authorities must be the supreme and only judges. I would not for one moment in any degree impair their power to withhold information which the enemy might not possess, or, indeed, which they thought he might not be able to acquire. But there is a certain class of information which we know the enemy must possess. If the enemy takes 500 British prisoners, that fact is not unknown to the German General Staff; or if they take a British trench, that fact is not unknown to the German General Staff. What I think the noble Earl who has just spoken and many of us complain of is that whereas those facts cannot by any possibility be unknown to the German General Staff they are not properly explained to the people of this country. I wrote a letter to The Times the other day on this subject and I have had communications from friends of mine in the Press Bureau who have pointed out to me that, so far as information of that kind is concerned, they have no responsibility, at all—that the military information that is published is furnished to them by the military authorities, and, I understand, in the exact language in which it is to be published. What they are responsible for is every action in respect of any criticisms on that published information and in respect of any information that comes through unofficial channels. If the Press Bureau has no sort of control whatever over the military information published, or even over the words in which it is published, then I quite admit that that part of my criticism ought to be directed not to the Press Bureau but to the military authorities. I do not hesitate to say that in that respect we are just as good judges as the military authorities, not of what ought to be withheld from the enemy which the enemy may not know, but when it is information which the enemy must know we are entitled to exercise our own private judgment and to say that it is a mistaken policy to conceal any portion of that, or any degree of its gravity, from the people of our country.


My Lords, the question of withholding of items either of military or naval information, or, indeed, of public news of any kind, is not a question, strictly speaking, of the censorship at all. It becomes more possible to do it through the existence of a censorship, but it has, as the noble Earl opposite pointed out, nothing whatever to do with the Press Bureau. It is a matter of the particular information supplied by the Department concerned; and, of course, it is entirely open to anybody to argue, as the noble Earl has just argued, that on the whole more harm may be done by the withholding of certain information than by its publication. The noble Earl mentioned an instance of a hypothetical capture of prisoners by the enemy, known to them but not published; and he stated that in a case of that kind such an announcement ought to be made. I should not go quite so far as he did in saying that we civilians are quite as good judges of the necessity or the desirability of a publication of that kind at a particular moment as are the military authorities themselves. And I would remind him of this, that there are items of information which it would be undesirable for the enemy to know, and if their ignorance of them can be maintained even for a limited time, for a matter of weeks, some military or naval advantage might thereby be gained. That is in itself, I think, a defence for the withholding of information from time to time. But that is a somewhat different subject from that upon which my noble friend Lord Bryce questioned me. As regards the particular point of the names, I can assure my noble friend Lord Loreburn that I will communicate again with those who are more especially affected by it than I am myself. But I think they will continue to hold the view that it is not advisable that these people should run the risk of being individually approached and, if I may use the phrase, "got at" by some of those who consider that they have cause to complain of interference with their correspondence.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Marquess for what he has said and for the promise he has given, in response to the appeal from Lord Loreburn and myself, that this question of giving the names will be reconsidered, I should like to express my own opinion that any possible and conceivable risk, which I think would be very remote, of the evil that has been indicated as likely to arise from giving the names would be quite disproportionate to the amount of good such information would do and the confidence it would tend to inspire.

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