HL Deb 04 May 1915 vol 18 cc906-10

EARL RUSSELL rose to ask His Majesty's Government in what circumstances a reporter was prosecuted for sending a report to a newspaper editor, by whom the report was published, what damage was done to the interests of this country thereby, and what steps it is suggested that a reporter ought to take before communicating with his newspaper.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Question which I have placed on the Paper refers to the case of the reporter who was prosecuted at Portland. It has been pointed out to me that there may be some little difficulty in discussing the matter, as it is sub judice in the sense that an appeal has been lodged. But I think those difficulties can be removed, for two reasons. The first is that I understand the appeal is to Quarter Sessions, and therefore there is no question of any jury to be influenced by our discussion. The second reason is that I do not propose to found anything I have to say on the circumstances or facts of the individual case, or on the guilt or innocence of this particular reporter.

Personally I have little doubt that almost everything could be made an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act. To stand and look at a view if that view were a fortification would be an offence under the Act. I express no opinion to-day upon that point. But I am anxious to ask His Majesty's Government what are the circumstances and the methods in which they think that these powers should be exercised. This question was raised in another place, and an answer was given which I have perused but without being very much enlightened by it. I discovered, in the first place, that the particular gentleman in this case desired to be tried by a jury of his countrymen, not perhaps unnaturally, and that His Majesty's Government met that desire by prosecuting him at Petty Sessions before magistrates, which procedure did not involve a jury. Therefore this reporter's desire was not complied with. I did not discover exactly what the offence was that he had committed, but I will take the general case. What is it thought that a reporter ought to do? I am talking, of course, of a reporter who is carrying on his ordinary duty, and whom there is no reason to suspect of being anything but a loyal subject. He collects news and sends telegrams containing that news to his newspaper. That, as I say, may very well be an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act. But is he to be prohibited from sending the news if the news is of a character which some local officer thinks undesirable? I understand that in this particular case an officer—a naval officer—was asked whether he could say what harm the news could do or whether its publication mattered, and he replied that he could not.

These large powers have been entrusted to His Majesty's Government with universal consent. We are all perfectly willing to submit to dictatorship and tyranny for the purpose of the prosecution of the war, but that is no reason why we should not keep an eye upon the particular powers exercised and question whether they are being exercised reasonably and intelligently. It has come out that the initiation of prosecutions of this character depends upon local military officers; that the prosecutions are not in any sense sanctioned by the Home Office or by any central Department, but depend on the view taken in any military district by the particular military officer in command. If that is so, it is perfectly obvious that you will get a very diverse operation of the law. For if there were an officer—if we have any such—of the Prussian type of mind who regarded militarism as being above all to be considered and military duty as the only thing to look at, you might, of course, get prosecutions ad libitum under this Act for all sorts of offences. But I am perfectly certain that His Majesty's Government do not desire, any more than the general public of this country desires, that prosecutions of such a kind should take place. Everybody must wish that these powers should be exercised reasonably and with some regard to the necessity for their exercise.

In cases where a reporter sends a telegram to his newspaper the telegram is published, I suppose, to the editor, and in fact, though not technically, to the telegraph officials. But unless that telegram contains something which on the face of it anybody could say was undesir- able to send—information about the movements of the Fleet, or the movements of troops, or anything of that sort—is a man to be prosecuted for sending it when he has no opportunity of consulting any one first as to whether he should send it? Has he, in fact, an opportunity of consulting any official as to whether or not he should send it? Its publication to his editor can presumably do no harm, because the question whether the editor puts it into the newspaper or not is for the editor himself to decide; and the editor is kept in possession of all the orders and rules made by the censorship, and is a person who could be easily got at if he did publish information which it was undesirable should be published.

What in these circumstances is it suggested the reporter should do? Probably the truth of the matter is that in this and possibly in some other cases there has been an excess of zeal. If that is so, I venture to think that the situation would be much better met by His Majesty's Government saying that they did not desire to interfere with the legitimate collection and sending of news and that they regretted that unfortunate cases sometimes occurred, than by defending as absolutely right and proper every case, no matter how ridiculous, which does arise. While everybody is willing that autocratic powers to an unlimited extent should be exercised where necessary, we all want them to be exercised reasonably; and we should not make ourselves ridiculous by putting them in force in an unreasonable way against persons who are doing something which is perfectly harmless.

I should be glad if His Majesty's Government could indicate some way in which questions of this sort could be considered by some central authority or superior tribunal which was possessed of other things besides a desire to do its duty—which was possessed, may I say, of a little tempering of common sense and a little humour in the matter. The object of my Question is to raise that point, and to ask whether steps cannot be taken to avoid any of these absurd things happening in the future, because if they occurred often they would altogether discredit the use of these exceptional powers—a result which I am sure none of us desire.


My Lords, as my noble friend has stated, the particular case to which he refers in his Question is at the moment under appeal, and therefore it is very undesirable to discuss it. But the speech of the noble Earl took a more general complexion, and I hope I may be able to answer some of his chief points without making any reference to this case which would in any way be calculated to prejudice it. I would like to point out to the House that cases of this kind are undertaken because they are in contravention of No. 18 of the Regulations made under the Defence of the Realm Act. That Regulation provides that no person shall without lawful authority collect, record, publish, communicate, or—and I think this is rather important—attempt to elicit any information with respect to movement, numbers, description, position or disposition of any of the forces, ships, or war materials of His Majesty or of any of His Majesty's Allies—in short, any information which might be directly or indirectly useful to the enemy. There is no question that these are very wide powers, and I quite agree that the use that is made of them is a matter which is a very fit subject for discussion.

From the point of view of the Government Department—the War Office in this case—who instituted these proceedings, you have to look at the matter from two different points of view. First of all, we know by this time that there are certain classes of information which are absolutely ruled out from publication. I need not go into them. But there are certain operations in this war to which no reference is ever by any chance made in the newspapers. They are pretty clearly defined. I am sure that every ordinary reader of the newspapers knows them quite well, and I should be doing very far from justice to reporters as a whole if I were to suggest that they were not just as much aware as we are of those subjects which are for this purpose entirely taboo. That is the first point, that you have these particular classes of information which it is known may not be published. When a man collects and attempts to publish any kind of information which falls under those headings, he has to a certain extent himself to thank if he gets into trouble.

There is the other point of view, and it is one of great importance to a Department like the War Office. It is this. It is not the sending of the information to the newspaper to have it published that is in all cases the action against which you have to guard. A man may represent himself as a reporter, and say that he is coming to collect information for the newspaper which he represents. But if it is of importance that information on the particular subject should not-get to the ears of the enemy, far the best and most effective way is to prevent the information being collected, and for that purpose the words "attempting to elicit any information" have been specially put into the Regulations. When it comes to dealing with information of this kind, by far the safest way is to take steps that people shall be deterred from coming round and attempting to get it. I quite agree, as I said at first, that these are very wide powers and may be used in an arbitrary way.

This, I think, is the only case of the kind that has come up, which goes to show that in the view of the War Office the kind of information which has to be treated like this is to a great extent limited. I am sure that I am expressing the view of the War Office when I say that it is not their intention to take action of this kind except in regard to information concerning matters which have to be treated with the greatest secrecy. That being so, and it being perfectly well known what those particular classes of information are, I do not think the steps which were taken in this case and which would be taken again can be treated as being either too arbitrary or too severe.