HL Deb 04 May 1915 vol 18 cc910-26

VISCOUNT BRYCE rose to ask the Lord Privy Seal whether, having regard to the undertaking which he gave some weeks ago that further consideration would be given to the requests made in the House for information regarding the administration of the censorship, he can now supply to the House some further information regarding the organisation of the various branches of the censorship and the classes of persons employed therein, and whether he can lay on the Table a general statement of the directions given or rules laid clown for the guidance of the censors in the discharge of their functions, including a statement of the rules in force regarding the admission to this country of printed matter from abroad.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, some of your Lordships may remember that five or six weeks ago I took the opportunity of asking the noble Marquess who leads the House for some information with regard to the persons who conducted the censorship and the rules and principles upon which the censorship is conducted. The noble Marquess then made an interesting statement which unfortunately was very imperfectly reported in the newspapers, so that it does not appear to have come to the knowledge of most of those who care about the subject and desire to have some information with regard to it. In the course of the discussion an appeal was made to the noble Marquess by my noble and learned friend beside me (Lord Loreburn) and, I think, by other noble Lords, that he should endeavour to consult the authorities who direct the censorship and ascertain from them whether some ampler information could not be given to the House than that which he then felt himself at liberty to give. The noble Marquess was good enough to say that he would consult the authorities, and that after a time he might possibly be in a position to say something more than the very small satisfaction which on that occasion he was able to give to our curiosity.

I propose, therefore, to repeat the Question now, and to mention the particular points upon which, if I am not mistaken, both your Lordships' House and the public generally would desire to be informed; and I would venture to suggest to the noble Marquess that if he could see his way to putting that information in the form of a printed statement which could be laid upon the Table it would be convenient, not merely because our debates are sometimes imperfectly reported in the newspapers, but also because it is not very easy for any one who wants to know precisely how the censorship is working to turn back to the file of a newspaper for a particular day. It would be a great deal easier if we had it in the form of a Parliamentary Paper, which a man could keep by him for his information whenever it was necessary to refer to it.

Such a Return as I have suggested might take the following form. It might contain information as to the number of persons employed in the United Kingdom in the work of censorship, and go on to state the method by which they are selected, the qualifications which are required from them, and the supervision that is exercised over them. And then it should further state the directions given or principles laid down for the guidance of the censors, including a statement of the rules regarding the admission of printed matter from abroad and the sending out to foreign countries of matter printed here. I notice that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, also has a Question on the Paper which relates to the same matter, and perhaps if this does not sufficiently meet the point on which he desires to be informed he will be good enough to say so.

What I feel that we want to know about the censorship is this. What are the methods which the censors follow? What are the methods that are employed in selecting the persons to be censors? What are the qualifications which a censor is expected to possess? And, in particular, how those who make the appointments satisfy themselves that the censors possess the kind of discretion which is needed to administer these very wide and very large powers—in fact, that sort of common sense to which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred in the remarks which fell from him a few moments ago, and which, as we all feel, must be applied wherever large discretionary powers are given. Here let me observe that I am referring particularly to the case of those who work for the Press Bureau and those who work in supervising the private correspondence which passes between this country and other countries, because I think we may fairly take it that as regards military and naval intelligence those who make the appointments must first have taken careful pains to satisfy themselves that the persons whom they appointed were eminently qualified for that function. I am sure we should all agree that we do not want to be censorious—to be captious, let me say—with regard to the exercise of the censorship upon naval and military intelligence. We know, of course, that there are often things stated in the newspapers of other countries which are not stated in our newspapers. Some of my friends tell me that they find more in the newspapers that come to them from the United States than they find here. I had a letter a few days ago on that point from a very experienced and eminent diplomatist who was many years resident abroad in our Diplomatic Service. He told me that when he wanted to know the news he was obliged to go to the French and Italian newspapers rather than to those of this country. Of course, incidents of that kind may sometimes happen, but I do not want to press that point. If there is any question as to whether things can be safely given or not, I think it would be much safer to prevent their being given rather than run the risk of their being given and doing harm. Therefore, I do not think we wish to dwell on any suggestion that the censorship with regard to naval and military intelligence may have been applied in a too rigorous and not very practical way.

But considering the great power which is exercised by the censors, a power quite unknown to all previous times in this country, considering their very large number, which was given by the noble Marquess in the previous debate as exceeding one thousand, and considering that their names are not given in the Estimates presented to the House of Commons, it is really important that we should, if possible, be satisfied that due care and pains have been taken in selecting these persons and that they are people in whose discretion we can repose full confidence. If the noble Marquess sees a difficulty in giving the names I will not go so far as to press for them. But surely something should be done, I will not say to satisfy, but partly to assuage the curiosity we feel with regard to these unseen masters who open all our letters and decide what we are permitted to know.

The other part of the inquiry I have to put relates to the directions or instructions which are given to the censors to guide them in the discharge of their duties. I presume that such general directions must be given. The noble Marquess on the previous occasion said he thought it would be rather difficult to specify all these instructions in a formal way in a Paper to be presented to the House. If that is the case, of course I will not press for it; but I think we should, at any rate, be given some indication of what are the general principles and directions upon which the censors act. I would like in particular to have these three points elucidated. Firstly, to what extent the censors are directed to eliminate from anything to be published in the newspapers criticism of His Majesty's Government. There have been debates in the other place upon that, but, I think, on individual instances, and they did not go so far as to lay down a general principle. In the next place, it would be desirable that we should know what principles are applied to the censorship of news of a political, not of a military kind, coming from foreign countries. I instanced when we discussed the matter before the cases of certain omissions which had been made from the news sent to this country from Japan and China about the negotiations which were in progress there—a matter on which it is extremely important that the people of this country should be fully informed, because, as your Lordships know, very grave questions may arise, questions which may require great tact and judgment to deal with, when the more urgent question of the present war has come to an end. It is very desirable that we should follow the whole of those negotiations with the amplest knowledge. In the same way it is very important with regard to the difficulties that arise as to points of international law between ourselves and neutral nations, particularly latterly with the United States, that we should know what are the opinions entertained in that country. We should not merely be guided by what we know of the views of the United States Administration, but also by what we know of the public sentiment of the nation. I am glad to say that since the previous debate—though I do not think in any way connected with it—there has been a great deal more information both with regard to United States opinion and the negotiations in the Far East than we had before. Therefore I am very far from complaining of what has been done with regard to those questions now. But, of course, the question has its general bearings.

Lastly, I think your Lordships and the country wish to know what precisely are the regulations which are now in force under which the censors act with regard to the admission into this country of printed matter from abroad—newspapers, pamphlets, and so forth. Personally, I venture to believe that the more we let in the better. I do not think that we gain anything by suppression in these matters. Of course, the question has two aspects. It relates, on one side, to printed matter coming into this country which is intended to be passed on to neutral countries and possibly to influence public opinion there. I will not deny that there may be cases in which statements can be so palpably false, or malicious, or dangerous, that it may be thought necessary to arrest them here and not let them get any further. Such cases may arise. But, speaking broadly and generally, we have been led to believe during the last few months that the efforts of the propaganda of the enemy in neutral countries have done him little or no good, and that in many cases they have positively helped the Allied cause. I think it is also clear that the friends of the enemy in neutral countries have ample material at their disposal, and certainly no want of zeal in using that material, by which they can propagate there as many falsehoods and misrepresentations "off their own bat," so to speak, as they could by any communications passing through this country.

The other aspect of the matter is, of course, how this printed matter affects people here. Is it not very desirable that we should know all the case the enemy can make? Through the kindness of friends in neutral countries I have had the good fortune to receive a good deal of matter which has come from Germany upon the subject of the causes of the war and the method of conducting it, and there has not been a single one of those statements of the German case which it has not seemed to me would be very desirable and wholesome for our people to read, because they put the flimsiness of their case in the clearest light, and they put the unabashed shamelessness of their methods in such a manner as is calculated to shock the opinions of any honest and humane man. So far from injuring us, all that has come through from German propaganda has tended not to raise our opinion of the veracity of that Government but certainly to increase our sense of the ruthlessness with which it carries on the war. I therefore do not see, speaking broadly and allowing for possible exceptions, that we are likely to suffer from allowing a pretty free entry here of matter from the enemy quarter. Let me say again, before sitting down, that I fully recognise the great difficulties with which the whole question of the censorship is connected. I have not the slightest desire to press His Majesty's Government in the matter, and it is to give them an opportunity of making a statement which will tend to assuage public curiosity rather than to be censorious that I have ventured to offer these few remarks.


MY Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, in the first place, for the patience which he has exercised in not pressing the Government unduly for an early reply on this subject, and also for the great moderation with which he has presented his case this afternoon. So far as I can I will endeavour to satisfy my noble friend. I quite agree with him that it will be more convenient if the principal substance of this answer takes the form of a Paper which can be laid upon the Table rather than that of a very long Parliamentary reply, for the thoroughly sound reasons which my noble friend indicated. I shall, therefore, hope to be able soon to lay on the Table a Paper containing at any rate a considerable part of what my noble friend requires. Those concerned with this question of the censorship, as my noble friend will well understand, have been exceedingly busy, and it has therefore taken them a little time to draw up anything like a full statement of all the circumstances. Perhaps it would be as well, however, if I make a few observations now in reply to various points which my noble friend has raised.

The object, of course, of the censorship is partly military—that is to say, to prevent information of military value leaking out and reaching the enemy. It also has the object of trying to obtain, so far as possible, information which the enemy would not desire us to acquire, and to prevent the general dissemination of information not purely military in character which might be of use to the enemy or might be of disadvantage to ourselves or to our Allies. There is one point upon which I think the possibilities attaching to a censorship had never been realised until this present war. I refer to the part which the censorship is able to play in connection with financial and commercial transactions in preventing the enemy, or any persons living in enemy countries, from acquiring information which would be of advantage to them financially or commercially. A very large part, it will be found, of the censorship is taken up with the examination of financial and commercial messages, whether by telegraph or letter; and not an inconsiderable part of the discontent which has been expressed with the censorship has been, very naturally I think, founded upon the inevitable inconvenience which has followed the close examination of commercial correspondence of different kinds.

There are three branches of the censorship which are administered independently but are all closely co-ordinated and under one general system of supervision. There is the cable censorship, then there is the postal censorship, and, finally, the one to which my noble friend alluded as not the least important—namely, the Press censorship. The cable censorship is controlled by an officer of the General Staff. He has a great many subordinates. Although there is such a number of cable stations in this country and throughout the Empire, yet it has been ingeniously managed that the actual censorship does not take place at very many of them. There are about 120 cable and wireless stations in different parts of the Empire, and of course there are all the stations, both telegraph and cable, in this country. This censorship in particular has proved to be a difficult one to conduct, because, as the House knows, there have been all sorts of occasions when it was assumed, or at any rate it was alleged, that information of great value to the enemy had passed either by wireless or through the cables. On the other hand, there were continual and loud complaints of the interference with commercial activities by means of the supervision exercised by the censorship. I should hope by now that it has been found possible, by allowing the use of various codes, to diminish that inconvenience at any rate to a great extent. But the prevention of the transmission of news which may so easily affect the Navy is obviously most important, and I hope and believe that those who have been prejudicially affected in their private affairs by the care which it has been necessary to exercise have realised that they are suffering in a good cause. The censors have to look at something between 30,000 to 50,000 telegrams every day in the United Kingdom, and that is obviously no light task.

As I indicated just now, one of the principal objects which the cable censorship has to keep in view is the prevention of any form of trading with the enemy's country, and a large part of their duties is concerned with that task. Therefore any transaction—whether the subject of it be contraband or non-contraband, or a simple article of trade—which refers to or deals with a resident of no matter what nationality in the enemy's country, is liable to be stopped and examined. That applies to all persons—to British subjects, the subjects of our Allies, and the subjects of neutral States—if it is supposed that there is any possibility of the particular transaction concerned proving even indirectly of benefit to the enemy. There are about 180 of these censors in the United Kingdom, and there are 300 to 400 in other parts of the Empire. A large number of them in this branch are retired military officers, but not all; there are a certain number of civilians.

The next branch is the postal censorship. There is, of course, the general result of delay in all mails which are liable to censorship. Letters sent to an enemy country must be enclosed in a cover addressed to a neutral country. The following categories of letters are all liable to censorship. I say nothing about letters either from prisoners of war in this country, or from British prisoners in other countries; those, as we know, are in each case censored in the country in which the prisoner is. All letters, not merely from those actually forming part of the Expeditionary Force but in the area of operations, are liable to be censored. From certain foreign countries and to certain foreign countries all letters are censored. All Press messages which are not sent by cable and newspapers are liable to censorship. Also all commercial correspondence with foreign countries. I say nothing about the military censorship, became it is not upon that that my noble friend has laid the most emphasis. Certain classes of persons are exempt from censorship—all letters addressed to members of either House of Parliament at the House pass uncensored. But it is not possible to issue a list of individuals whose correspondence is free from censorship, for obvious reasons. It would be impossible, for instance, for the censor to look through a long list of persons before deciding whether a particular letter ought or ought not to be opened. On the other hand a great number of letters are opened and not censored, in this sense that it is seen from their character and that of the person to whom they are addressed that no interference with them is necessary. Therefore all those letters which arrive as having passed the censor have not necessarily been read; and I think it may be assumed that the complaints of those who allege that their letters have been read out of curiosity by those employed at the censor's office are not likely to have much foundation. I imagine that the work of reading a number of letters, a great many of them probably in more or less illegible handwriting, must become so absolutely nauseating to those who have to undertake it that, far from desiring to add to the number of letters which they peruse, I should think they are more likely to be tempted to let letters which ought to be read pass without close examination. It has also, I believe, been complained that a number of letters have passed the censor coming from enemy countries which ought not to have been allowed to pass. But the censors do not hold the view that the mere reception of a hostile, or possibly abusive, letter is likely of itself to undermine the loyalty of the recipient, and therefore a large number of these letters are allowed to go by.

Then as regards newspapers. No restriction whatever is placed upon the transmission to newsagents and reputable dealers of newspapers in bulk from any country or to any extent. Therefore those who—I think the noble Earl (Lord Selborne) was one—complained that they were not able to obtain a paper at a particular newsagent's should lay the complaint against the newsagent and not against the authorities. I have explained before that newspapers sent to private individuals are likely to be delayed, for obvious reasons; and I think I also explained on the former occasion that some restrictions are exercised in the distribution of pamphlets, but not such, I should hope, as to interfere with the convenience of those who desire to import into the country such pamphlets as are not of a character which at any ordinary time might be liable to be stopped by the Police. There are about 700 censors of letters and newspapers. They are mainly civilians, and have been carefully selected under the direction of the War Office authorities. Every possible inquiry has been made in each individual case, and in every case also responsible persons have answered for the character and integrity of those who have been chosen.

The third and last stage is the Press Bureau proper. Of that, as we know, the Solicitor-General has undertaken the control. He has two experienced assistants known, I have no doubt, to many members of your Lordships' House—Sir Frank Swettenham, who had a distinguished Colonial career, and Sir Edward Cook, who is well known as a writer and publicist. My right hon. friend has about fifty assistants, naval, military and civil. The naval censors have been selected by the Admiralty, the military by the War Office, and the civil by the Director. All Press cable messages pass through the office and are censored there. They are censored in accordance with instructions, some received from the War Office, some from the Admiralty, some from the Foreign Office, and some from other public Departments. When the conductors of newspapers desire, articles and illustrations are censored in the same manlier, but that, of course, is a voluntary act on the part of those responsible for the newspapers. Those who publish either an article or an illustration without submitting it do so in one sense at their own peril, because they are, of course, liable in an extreme case to the penalties provided under the Defence of the Realm Act. Various confidential notices have been issued from time to time to the Press by the different Departments concerned. It is important to note that those instructions are not issued at the instance of the Press Bureau itself, but of the particular Departments concerned. That, of course, is due to the fact that the ultimate power of the enforcement of the instructions rests with the Department and not with the Press Bureau. There have been certain cases, not very many, where some newspapers have apparently quite with deliberation published news to which objection can properly be taken on the ground of interference with military operations or of prejudice to ourselves or our Allies. But those cases have been very few. There have been, of course, an infinitely larger number of cases where conductors of newspapers have honourably refrained from publishing information which might be regarded as damaging by the authorities.

I come now to the last part of my noble friend's Question. I shall be happy, in the statement which I propose to lay on the Table, to include, so far as it is possible, the directions given or the rules laid down for the guidance of the censors in the discharge of their functions, including statement of the rules in force regarding the admission into this country of printed matter from abroad. My noble friend will understand that I cannot promise that all the instructions which are issued by the various Departments will form part of this White Paper, because there are some which are of a purely confidential character and the publication of which, in the opinion of the authorities, would be highly undesirable. That I am sure my noble friend will understand. But so far as I can I will include in the Paper all possible instructions, and I will also venture to repeat in the earlier part of the Paper some part of the facts and figures which I have been giving to the House, in order to make it as complete a statement as possible compatible with the public interest. I quite agree with my noble friend that it is undesirable that there should be any sort of mystery about the matter. We know that a large number of persons have to undergo no little inconvenience in their private affairs and in business relations owing to the necessity of enforcing this censorship. I say nothing of the baffled curiosity of a large number of persons, because that, although one may sympathise with it, is not in itself an important matter in these times. But I should like my noble friend to believe that, so far as possible, we are anxious to meet his wishes and to give the public all the information in our power about these hampering restrictions.


My Lords, I gather from some of the remarks of the noble Marquess that as regards foreign newspapers no supervision is exercised if they are sent to a newsagent, but that there is supervision if they are sent to individuals. No doubt the noble Marquess will be able to explain that point, but I do not quite understand why it should be so. I presume that the object of exercising supervision over foreign newspapers is to prevent them becoming the vehicle, through a cipher, of communication from spies in one country to spies in another. But is it not easy for the spy to go to the newsagent and procure the paper from him? You do not really stop what you ought to stop, which is a communication passing from a German spy in Germany to a German spy in this country. Perhaps the noble Marquess will explain to me whether there could not be some more stringent step taken to prevent that.


The main object, as I understand it, of preventing the free transmission of newspapers to individuals unopened is as the noble Lord has stated. But he will, I think, see that it is not altogether easy to carry on a cipher correspondence through a copy of a newspaper which you buy at a newsagent's or a bookstall. The common method, as I understand, by which a newspaper may be made the vehicle of a cipher is by a certain system of marking a particular copy of the newspaper. The attempt to carry on a cipher correspondence through the actual substance of a newspaper is, of course, of a different kind; and it is exceedingly hard to see how any method of examination by a censor could prevent that being done, supposing an elaborate system of cipher communication to be invented. Nothing but a complete prohibition of the passage of the paper would ensure that. But there is, of course, a further point. It is very easy to conceal written matter in a folded-up newspaper, and if people were allowed to receive packets of newspapers directed to private individuals a large amount of correspondence might pass which would be entirely uncensored. As a matter of fact, I believe a considerable number of private persons have permission to receive foreign newspapers. I have no doubt that the noble Earl himself, if he desired to take in any number of foreign newspapers, would find them delivered daily at his house. But it has been thought wise to impose this particular restriction.


My Lords, we are much indebted to the noble Viscount who initiated this discussion, both for his own contribution to it and for having elicited from the noble Marquess much the fullest statement that has been given to the public on this subject in either House of Parliament; and we shall be glad to see that statement incorporated in a Paper to be laid on the Table. It is clear from what we are now told that the Press Bureau has developed into a highly organised institution. They have now nine months of experience behind them, and it is evident that the necessary work they have to do is being done with less friction and with more convenience to the public than was the case at first, and I think we are beginning to understand better under what conditions the censorship itself works. Those of us who know Sir Frank Swettenham and Sir Edward Cook know that you could not possibly find two men better qualified to exercise their functions, not only with great technical knowledge and skill, but with that fund of common sense without which any censor must surely come to grief.


Hear, hear.


But what we now are aware of is this, that the censors have really very little personal discretion as to the principles under which they act. As I understand the noble Marquess, they act under instructions given by the Government Departments and for which, therefore, the Cabinet is responsible.


At the same time a considerable amount of latitude in dealing with any particular subject, any particular letter or pamphlet, must be allowed to the censor who actually examines it. It would be impossible to say that the latitude is always exercised with the same discretion by every one of this great number of individuals. I think it is important to bear in mind that when all is said and done much depends upon the individual.


Quite true. When you have a body of one thousand persons they cannot all be equally endowed with common sense or with the power of wise judgment; and no doubt sometimes they might interpret the instructions given them by the Government Departments in a manner of which the heads of those Departments would not approve. I fully admit that. But what I want to lay down is this. We understand that they act on general instructions received from the Government Departments, and for which, therefore, the Cabinet is responsible. We have thought all along that much news is withheld from the public which ought to be given—for instance, the deeds of regiments, of brigades, and of divisions, of which in the earlier part of the war we were told practically nothing but of which we are now being told something; but we still think that too little light has been allowed to the country at large as to the wonderful deeds of the regiments in which different parts of the country are interested. And, what is more serious in my judgment, we have thought and still think that that part of the news which is not agreeable to us is too little emphasised, and that too often great losses which have happened, quite inevitably, in the course of the military operations have been concealed from us. I must in fairness admit that we have been told more about that, too, lately; but I do not think that the change would have taken place had there not been criticism in the Press and in Parliament.

In his remarks this afternoon the noble Marquess has partly answered a Question which I have on the Paper for to-morrow. He has told us definitely that newspapers from enemy countries may be imported into this country by a newsagent and sold to the public in the usual manner. I do not know whether he is able to answer to-day the second part of my Question—namely, why so often extracts from foreign newspapers, which would have been inserted in our journals by their editors if they had been allowed to, have been excised by the censor. What is the objection to extracts from foreign journals appearing as such in the columns of our newspapers? If the noble Marquess can answer that question now, then I can take my Question off the Paper and I need trouble him no further. But I may remind him that there was one very important point put by the noble Viscount (Lord Bryce) which he forgot to deal with. It is a matter which I think he will agree is of the greatest importance. I refer to the point that the censorship should not be used as a means of suppressing criticism of His Majesty's Government. It has certainly been alleged—I do not know with what truth—that the censorship has excised, or has forbidden newspapers to publish, matter which those who wished to publish it allege to be nothing more than a criticism of the conduct of His Majesty's Government, or, in some indirect way, a reflection upon their manner of carrying on the war. I am quite sure that the last thing His Majesty's Government would wish would be that the censorship should be used for any such purpose. But it will be to the great advantage of the whole country, and most of all of His Majesty's Government, if the noble Marquess would take this opportunity of answering the noble Viscount's question.


As regards the second part of the Question which the noble Earl (Lord Selborne) has on the Paper for to-morrow, I think he will be wiser to leave it on the Paper because I am not in a position to answer it at this moment. I do not know what the circumstances are in which extracts from foreign newspapers have been stopped from appearing in the English Press. But I will inquire as to that. With regard to the second point, I can assure the noble Earl and my noble friend that it would be altogether contrary to the desire of the Government that anything in the nature of a criticism of our proceedings as a body, or a criticism of individuals, should be suppressed; and I am bound to say, particularly as regards the latter, that my impression is that there has been a tolerably free issue of criticisms of some of my colleagues, as well as of our general action as a body. I can inquire, of course, from my right hon. friend the Solicitor-General as to whether any case has occurred in which it could be colourably stated that criticism of such kind had been forbidden; but I confess that I am quite certain of what his answer will be. It is, of course, possible—I think the noble Earl will see that it is a conceivable case—that some passage might have been subjected to censorship which did contain an imputation against His Majesty's Government or some member of it, but which also contained other statements which made it improper to allow it to be published. But, as I stated in my former remarks, the submission of all articles, not only of this kind but of all kinds, is purely voluntary on the part of newspapers; and I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that any case can be produced in which the censorship has interfered with purely political criticism even though couched in terms which many would think excessive and some might think offensive, because it is obviously not the business of anybody to interfere with the free expression of opinion however undesirable from various points of view such expression may be.

House adjourned at half-past Six o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.