HL Deb 14 November 1918 vol 32 cc124-38

LORD BURNHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the censorship of the Press, of cablegrams, and postal correspondence is to be continued, and, if so, for what period of time and under what conditions.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question that I have pot upon the Paper is one of a kind to which you are accustomed. It is a Question with a purpose and I am free to confess that my purpose is to obtain, at the earliest possible moment, the restoration of the primary rights of private citizenship, which have been abridged so largely and so necessarily during the war. I refer to the Censorship. As your Lordships know, the Censorship is of three kinds There is the Censorship of printing and publication; there is the Censorship of inward and outward telegrams; and there is the Censorship of correspondence. Now the Censorship has never been a popular institution in this country. At the best it is a clumsy contrivance, and at the worst it is a hateful and disabling expedient, There is no right, I believe—I speak in the presence of many noble and learned Lords, and I therefore speak subject to correction—there is no right in the hands of the Government of exercising any censorship at all in regard to any of these spheres to which I have pointed. The last attempt in the 18th Century was, I think, repudiated by the Courts when they condemned the general warrants for search and seizure.

The present Censorship is exercised entirely by virtue of the Regulations made under the Defence of the Realm Act. The reason I have thought it necessary to draw attention to the matter now, with a view to their immediate relaxation, is that we are said to be very close to the Prorogation of Parliament, and I think it would be very unwise to go to a General Election under the present conditions of Censorship as regards all three of the matters of which I have spoken. Of course, in regard to publication, there are always the provisions of the general law which throw upon the publisher the responsibility of his action. It is laid down in the text book by Black-scene, that if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal he must take the consequences of his own temerity.

I amalluding, of course, nor to any general liability to prosecution by the authorities, but to the special fetters which have been placed, during time of war and for military necessity, upon the printing and publishing of news. The organisation of the Censorship is a vast one. There are no less than 6,000 persons, men and women, employed at this moment in the censorship of, telegrams and correspondence. So far as the newspaper Press goes, the main part of the Censorship is exercised by means of the Press Bureau and a false idea has got about that any of the blunders that may have been committed, or inconveniences which may have been caused, are attributable to the Press Bureau.

As a matter of fact, the Press Bureau is a line of communication between the newspaper Press and the Departments of State, especially the War Office and the Admiralty I think myself the country owes a great debt to Sir Frank Swettenham and Sir Edward Cook and the other officers of that Department for the manner in which they have tried to discharge their duties to the satisfaction of the Press and with a rare conscientiousness during the course of the war. If there has been dissatisfaction the real blame must rest elsewhere, and I fancy they have been made scapegoats for other Departments of State. At present, as a matter of fact, there is a general restriction on whole departments of news which cannot be justified I think, now that the Armistice has been set up.

Only yesterday, at a conference of the whole newspaper Press of the country at which I presided, a resolution was carried in these terms— This conference desires to represent to His Majesty's Government the urgent necessity in the national interest of the immediate suspension of the Censorship on all foreign and inland telegrams addressed to newspapers, and the cancellation of the various Regulations prohibiting the publication in the Press of shipping and weather reports and kindred matters, other than naval and military movements. The conference further desires to represent that the existing system causes long delays which are now unnecessary and calculated to entail serious loss and inconvenience. It is quite obvious that at this moment it is an absurdity not to allow to be published in this country weather reports which are not merely satisfying to private curiosity but a very great benefit to the agricultural interest.

With regard to news as to shipping, whilst it may still be necessary to make reservations in respect of ships of war, it would be a great convenience to the business community and to the ordinary run of commerical affairs if that restriction also were taken off. These matters, of course, all fall under the Regulations made under the Defence of the Realm Act. At present nothing has been done to relax them. I quite admit that in reference to the movements of troops it may still be necessary to keep up the present system for a short time, and of course until the conclusion of peace. That, however, does not apply to commercial matters, and I think His Majesty's Government ought at once to consider whether in the work of reconstruction there ought not to be a general release from all hindrances which stand in the way of the resumption of our normal life. That is in regard to publication.

In regard to the telegrams coming in and going out, there also, I think, a good case can be shown for altering at once the system that now prevails. I was told by two of the editors of important papers that one had received a telegram in which only three words were left out of 500, and the other one in which only 200 remained out of 400 words. That has been done constantly during the war, and there may have been a reason for limiting the knowledge that even reached the editors of daily newspapers, but in that case the military necessity has passed away.

It is no good going back to what has been done in the past; the thing is now to meet the convenience of the present, and I cannot believe that it is necessary—in fact, I am sure it is not necessary—any longer to prevent news sent by special correspondents from various countries abroad from reaching their destination in the offices from which they have been accredited. May I say also that I think that applies very largely to commercial telegrams? It may be necessary in some cases to keep part of the present system working for a short time, but, as the one thing at which the Government aim is to release the industrial forces of the country so that they may work at their full efficiency, all these fetters and hindrances ought to go, and go quickly.

One always doubts how far, even in the past, the censorship of cablegrams has been wisely exercised. I heard Admiral Sims, speaking in public the other night—and I asked his permission to repeat his words here—say that the restriction on the outgoing telegrams to America had kept the United States in ignorance of what we were doing for a long period of time, and, in his opinion had actually prevented the formation of the sentiment that would have brought America earlier into the war. I am no judge of that and I do not in the least profess to dogmatise on the subject. I am only quoting what he said. In any case what I said in regard to incoming telegrams also applies, I think, to outgoing telegrams.

Now that the necessity has passed away, the fetters ought to be to a large extent removed. When you get to correspondence it is slightly different, but I think the same argument applies to a large extent. Every letter that I receive from a special correspondent abroad of the journal with which I am associated is opened now at the General Post Office by some young lady who has the advantage of reading what is intended for our consumption. I have heard of cases in which the information obtained by means of the opening of correspondence has been extremely useful and it may possibly be that there is a necessity for doing it to some extent now, but one recollects that in the past the censorship of correspondence and the opening of letters have led to an unpleasant and irritated state of public feeling in several familiar episodes of history. Now that the war has virtually come to an end, although this power may be a great convenience to the Government, still I suggest that it should be exercised as little as possible, and that the staff dealing with these matters should at once be reduced to very small proportions. I cannot think that it is necessary to have the enormous number of men and women attending to it now that there may have been during the war.

Bureaucracy always likes to have powers which it, rightly I dare say, thinks it can use in the public interest. It is a very convenient thing for the Government to have power to do all this. But is it wise to continue it a moment after it is necessary, and having regard to the change, the enormous catastrophic, change, in the military situation? We certainly in this country do not want to sit on the safety valves. I am the last person to take a pessimistic view of the present trend of affairs, and I do not think any such view is justifiable, but I do say that the sooner we get back to the ancient habits of British freedom the better, and in this House those precedents have always been held in high esteem, and I am sure that in what I have mentioned shall have the general sympathy of your Lordships.

EARL RUSSELL had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether all regulations interfering with freedom of speech and writing will be at once withdrawn. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I have a Question so much on the lines of Lord Burnham's, that it will probably be convenient if I deal with it at the same time, and as part of the general discussion. The noble Lord has confined himself chiefly to matters connected with the Press and to correspondence. Your Lordships may, perhaps, be a little surprised to hear that personally I have never myself resented any reading of one's private correspondence. I agree that in normal times it is an odious thing, which one would protest against. But probably we all feel that we do not mind how much our private correspondence is interfered with, provided any harm which may have occurred can be prevented. No honest man would mind an official, even if that official be represented by a young girl of eighteen, reading his private correspondence if anything is to be gained by it. The time for that has now gone, especially as applied to what the noble Lord emphasised—namely, Press telegrams. I think they might now be allowed to go without mutilation, because as a rule they are received by more or less responsible people, who would not be likely to publish anything that it was undesirable to publish.

But I want to carry it a good deal further than that, to something which I think matters more. Interference with your cablegrams and correspondence produces a certain amount of delay, and perhaps irritation, but it does not prevent the expression of opinions. I want to see at the earliest possible moment those regulations withdrawn which interfere with the free expression of opinion, either by speech or writing, in this country; and there is an eminent necessity for doing this in view of the fact that we are to be confronted, in the shortest possible period, by a General Election. A General Election cannot be conducted with even any pretence of fairness unless everybody can say what they think about political affairs. I have not that fear which the Government have had all through the war regarding the expression of opinion of an unpopular or a small minority. I think if anybody were to be found bold enough to say that he approved, say, the sinking of the "Lusitania," he might very well be left to the judgment of those who immediately surrounded him, and of the country at large. Or if any pacifists were to be found who were to maintain that they did not approve of the terms of the Armistice, and that they were afraid of the terms of peace; or if a man were found who said he though Germany had had very hard measure, and things of that kind—those people would be such a small minority that they could safely be left to the judgment of their countrymen.

I urge upon your Lordships and the Government that it is very much safer that these things should be said than that they should be bottled up. If they are bottled up they are likely to lead to dissatisfaction. If you punish people for saying that sort of thing, you increase their importance; you are, as the noble Lord said, sitting upon the safety valve. I think in this country we are least of all likely to give way to that unrest in an extreme form, that anarchy, which we have seen fall upon the countries of Europe; but the best way of avoiding it is to give us our old liberty of speech. And as it has never in the past led to bloody revolution in this country, I do not think it is going to do so now. I saw that the noble Lord whose advent we welcomed to-day to this House, only yesterday or the day before said that a Committee of the Home Office was going to be set up to deal with these questions. But we want no Committee. These are matters of our ordinary liberties, which we so much value. We do not want to know what any Committee thinks about it, but rather what the people think about it.

Let me take the regulation which requires that no political pamphlet of any sort shall be printed until it has received the imprimatur of the Press Bureau. That is a regulation which ought to have been withdrawn last Monday; there is no excuse now for its continued existence. There is the regulation about making statements to the prejudice of discipline and recruiting. There is no recruiting now; and as to statements prejudicial to discipline, do noble Lords realise how that has been interpreted and applied by magistrates? It has been applied to utterances of the most innocent character. If you mean by statements prejudicial to discipline statements inciting to mutiny, let the Regulation as it stands be withdrawn at once, and let some regulation be made, if it is necessary, preventing soldiers inciting to Bolshevism. I do not think it is necessary, and I do not think such statements are likely to be made by any number of our countrymen, and if they are made they will not be listened to. We want to be free, at the earliest possible moment, to express opinions of all sorts, including unpopular ones, including such expressions as that the war is a war of capitalists. The best way to deal with them is to let them be said openly in the market place. Do not let us be afraid of these people.

There is another matter in connection with this Election. The Press Bureau, which exists for the dissemination of the censorship on news, must be abolished at the earliest possible moment. We have seen an unholy alliance between Mr. Lloyd George and Mrs. Pankhurst, an alliance of a mysterious character which is still supposed to exist, and we cannot have an official bureau of Government views at an Election. We do not want anything corresponding to what is called a "made Election" in other countries. Let all the sources of propaganda with public money disappear at once before there is an Election, and the earlier the better. I put the Question standing in my name, and if I do not receive a satisfactory answer I shall have to raise it again.


My Lords, the censorship of the Press cannot with safety be abrogated until the conclusion of peace. As however, military operations are at a standstill, it has already been found possible to cancel a number of restrictions. I am rather surprised that the noble Lord did not seem to be aware of them. Your Lordships will find that the Press are now able to refer to the numbers of units and to the place where they have been seen.


Nothing is known by the Press at present.


I understand that has been issued, and that they will now be allowed to say such and such a battalion was seen at Lille and is having a good time, and so on. I believe orders are about to be issued by the authorities in France permitting officers and other ranks to write home and say where they are, and no doubt that example will be followed in other countries which have recently been theatres of war. The advisability of further relaxations is being carefully considered, but they are necessarily contingent on the fulfilment of the terms of the Armistice. I think your Lordships will realise the force of that when you consider what may or may not be known with regard to the German Fleet. There has, for a long time past, been no censorship of the Press on behalf of the Foreign Office, and as soon as the naval and military conditions of the Armistice have been fulfilled, it will no doubt be possible to abolish all such restrictions as were intended to prevent the leakage of naval and military information. As regards the naval censorship, it will be impossible to make any radical change so long as the blockade continues. I do not think the, House or the country have the faintest idea as to what has been achieved by the censorship during this war. It has been customary to abuse the Censorship Department, and many jokes have been made at its expense, but I firmly believe, if the public realised the immense value of the work that has been done in that Department which, as the noble Lord quite truly says, is a very large one, ridicule would give place to unbounded admiration.

If I may for a few moments I will lift the veil which I think the Censorship Department has drawn very tight around itself. The ladies and gentlemen who are working there many hours a day, day after day and year after year, have to plod through innumerable letters, many of them by no means easily legible, and with such concentration that they can notice any phrase which is not exactly what it seems, but by a sous entendu may give information to the enemy, or information which, in the interests of the Allies, should not be known. It is quite true that the Navy has swept the seas clear of German ships, but if that alone had been done the blockade would not by any means have been as effective as it is. It is impossible to go into the question of what is contained on neutral ships. It is impossible to search them all at sea, but, when goods are transferred from one part of the world to another, at some time, by some method, either by letter or cable, information has to pass from one country to another stating from where those goods originated, and what is to be their final destination. Without the Censorship it would have been quite impossible to prevent trade between South America and Central Europe through Holland and Scandinavia. It is entirely by the Censorship that indirect trade with enemy countries has been so largely stopped.

During this war practically every case of contraband has been founded on evidence supplied to the Prize Court by the Censorship. I may tell your Lordships that the value of prize cargoes, exclusive of ships, is believed to be over thirty millions sterling. But for the Censorship traffic in contraband would certainly have increased by leaps and bounds. The Censorship has also been an essential instrument for enforcing restriction on financial and commercial dealings of a kind prejudicial to the Allied cause. All the more important cases of trading with the enemy have been founded on evidence chiefly collected by the Censorship Department. It has prevented contracts being entered into with the enemy for the purchase of goods which have been stored in this or other countries for post-war delivery. It has assisted the prevention of investment abroad. The banks, by most loyal co-operation, have assisted the Government to a very great extent, but mistakes, of course, occasionally arose which sometimes the Censorship were able to correct. In any case the banks would have been unable to stop notes and cash being sent by post, because they would not have passed through the banks as would a cheque. The Censorship has prevented the dispatch of securities abroad for sale, and has assisted the supervision of imported securities, thereby eliminating the sale for enemy interest. It has stopped enemy remittances to the value of about seventy millions sterling. It has prevented the export of small goods through the post such as diamonds (obviously in many cases invaluable for machine tools). The black list of suspect firms has been drawn up largely as the outcome of information supplied by the Censorship Department.

Finally, in regard to the control of imports, it has supplied essential information with regard to dealings all over the world, thereby assisting various Government purchasing bodies. Your Lordships will realise, in regard to the many interests of war of which the Government is either sole agent or very often part agent, how valuable the information is which enables them to keep the market at a steady level, and to prevent speculation which would raise the price very considerably not only against this country but against private individuals in the country. The Censorship alone has prevented speculative purchases by option hunters which has been forbidden under section (30a) of the Defence of the Realm Regulations, and only by the Censorship of letters and cables could that most necessary of the Defence of the Realm Regulations against profiteering have been carried out. The Censorship has been instrumental again in checking speculative operations in such products as wheat, oil, seeds and other commodities, and has assisted our own and other Governments in these matters. It has also assisted in the proper distribution of foodstuffs and essentials. It has enabled not only our own Government but even Allied Governments to distribute articles in which there was a shortage to the best advantage, and has prevented goods being bought and sold in order to raise the price in certain countries for the benefit of those who had no objection to making money under such circumstances.

I think that it is quite true to claim that it has formed the chief, and in many cases the only, executive instrument for preventing speculative transactions in war materials, food supplies and raw material, in controlling prices, in estimating available supplies of the essential commodities, and in assisting the various purchasing bodies in framing their policy and carrying out their work. It will be obvious, and I think that your Lordships will agree, that during the period of transition from war to peace, so long as it remains necessary for the Government to exercise control over essential supplies, it may be imperative to retain some form of cable and postal censorship. I am sure that everyone in the Censorship Department itself will be only too glad to bring their labours to an end at the earliest possible moment, but it is impossible at the present time to give any definite date for the end of their work, or as to the occasion on which the whole of the Censorship Department can be closed down.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just spoken covered a part of the ground which was opened up by the few questions of my noble friend Lord Burnham and of my noble friend Lord Russell, and covered that section of it very completely; but he has not attempted in his reply to make a complete answer to the different contentions put forward by those two noble Lords.


I propose to give Lord Russell an answer.


I have not had an answer.


I understand that the noble Lord intends to touch on the other side of the subject, but so far as the question of the Censorship is concerned, of which the noble Earl gave so full a defence, it was a defence against an attack which, as a matter of fact, was not made. Neither my noble friend behind me nor my noble friend below the gangway made an attack on the Censorship as such. On the contrary, they both expressed the view that it has been not merely necessary during the progress of the war but that its operations have been of great value. As it happens, I am able to confirm that with more knowledge than most people. For a considerable time I was Chairman of the War Trade Advisory Committee, which is a body comprising representatives of all the Service Departments and the Departments concerned with the blockade. We met frequently, and I am entirely able to support what was said by my noble friend opposite as to the services rendered in the different directions of national defence and of the carrying out of the blockade by the Censorship. In all these matters the Censorship, of cables and of letters and communications of all kinds, was, I believe, carried out with the utmost possible care and the greatest possible efficiency, and I am very glad that the noble Earl has been able to set on the records of your Lordships' House an account of the services which that Department has performed, and for which the thanks of the country are due.

Nor do I think it would be disputed that to a certain extent during the present continuance of the blockade and during the actual progress of the Armistice some restriction may be necessary. That, I think, will not be disputed by anybody. But I think we are entitled to ask that those restrictions should be on the lowest possible scale compatible with national security, and I do not think it can be disputed—this applies to the points raised by the noble Earl below the gangway, just as much as to those raised by Lord Burnham—that it is an official temptation to maintain restrictions of this kind in a larger degree and for a longer period than may in the general opinion be really necessary. When a man has had charge of a key to a door he is not very willing to give up that key to the public; it is only human nature, and it is certainly human nature as expressed in the conduct of Departments of all kinds.

Therefore I feel that both the noble Lords are entitled—and I desire to support them in doing so—to point out to His Majesty's Government that the tendency to maintain restrictions of this kind, all of which have a certain convenience in helping to carry on the work of Government (because, as we know, in all Departments we should be able to carry on our work more easily if we had more absolute power)—that this temptation to maintain restrictions does exist, and it is one against which His Majesty's Govern- ment will have to guard themselves, and regarding which it may for some time to come be the public duty to put pressure upon them. I feel this strongly myself—and I believe it is a view that will be shared by most thoughtful people outside—that, while unwilling to press the Government to depart from anything that can be shown to be necessary, the burden of proving the necessity of maintaining restrictions of all kinds rests upon them.


My Lords, I will give a very short reply to my noble friend below the gangway (Earl Russell). I have been a political associate of his for many years, and I cannot say that I am in any way surprised that he has raised this subject. I did not know myself that the Home Secretary had answered this Question yesterday—I thought it was Mr. Bonar Law a day or two ago who said that the matter was under the consideration of His Majesty's Government. As my noble friend has said, the Secretary of State has appointed a Committee to go into the general subject. That Committee met to-day at five o'clock, and, I should think, very likely is sitting at present. The first subjects that they propose to deal with are the particular subjects mentioned in my noble friend's Question, and I think he may rest assured that there will be no delay in coming to a decision.


The answer is satisfactory as far as it goes—that is to say, I understand the noble Viscount to hold out some hope that I shall be satisfied by a Report in a few days. But we have so very few days of Parliamentary time now, and the matter is so urgent that I think it is only fair to give him notice that, unless some announcement has been made, I shall feel it my duty to put the Question down on Tuesday and raise the matter again, when I shall give the specific Regulations one by one to which I wish to draw attention.


Would the noble Viscount answer the specific questions which I put? I asked whether there would now be liberty to publish weather reports and shipping intelligence, so far as concerns all commercial shipping; and I asked, further, whether inward telegrams addressed to newspapers, instead of being cut to pieces by the cable censors, would be allowed to be delivered as they were received.


I hesitate to give an answer about the weather reports, but it is quite clear from what has been said by my noble friend Earl Stanhope and my noble friend beside me, that the Government are ready to give an undertaking that as soon as these restrictions and regulations can be relaxed they shall be so relaxed. Lord Burnham dilated upon the terrors of a bureaucracy. I am no advocate of bureaucracy. But I must say this, that there is this huge Department of press and letter censorship. In addition to that, there is the Press Bureau. Further, there is the cable censor, and, on the other hand, the editors and the staffs of the great newspapers. So far as I am concerned I think it is a triumph of good management on the part of the editors and their staffs on the one hand, and the Press Bureau on the other, that the ordinary newspaper readers—I, for instance, who read many newspapers every day—is quite unaware of the fact that any Censorship exists; and when we hear that there are cases of telegrams running to 500 words, of which only two are left en clair, and another of 200 words and only two words are permitted to pass through, the answer is that the newspaper editor was not employing a man who knew his business. As soon as the regulations can be relaxed they will be relaxed. The Home Secretary, as has been announced, has called a Conference to look into these matters. I would remind your Lordships that there has been throughout this war a tremendous desire to act in harmony with one's Allies, and one is anxious that all these things should be done with their knowledge and assent, so that these relaxations could be made as free and as widespread as possible, as well as at the earliest possible moment.


My Lords, may I call attention to one instance of the kind of unrest which has been pervading the public mind about the Censorship? Is it necessary that there should be this veil of secrecy as to what is going on in Holland? Is there no communication between this country and Holland? Surely the whole of civilisation has a right to know where the ex-Emperor William II of Germany is, what he is doing, how he bore himself in the last moments of the exercise of the office he has laid down, and since; and where his son is. Surely that is nothing to do with the movements of the Fleet, or the exercise of our rights under the blockade. Do no Dutch papers come here, or are they stopped the same as German newspapers were stopped? Why should we not have newspapers of all countries here? I dare say the noble Earl cannot give answers now to these questions.


No, I cannot. The Armistice was signed only three days ago, and there has been a great deal to occupy the attention of people who have to settle these questions in the interim. I can only give my noble friend the assurance once more that there is every desire to relax these regulations as soon as possible.

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