HL Deb 15 March 1928 vol 70 cc468-93

LORD NEWTON asked if His Majesty's Government contemplate taking any action in connection with the censorship of films. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking this Question of the Government, I am well aware that it has already been answered in another place. At the same time I do not think the last word has been said upon the subject and in this Assembly we sometimes have better opportunities of discussing questions of this sort than elsewhere. The reply of the Home Secretary to some questions put to him filled me with astonishment amounting almost to stupefaction, because he announced that he was completely satisfied with the present position of the censorship, although two of his most distinguished colleagues, with whose action I entirely concur, my noble friend Lord Birkenhead and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, have both emphatically expressed the opinion that the particular film under question ought not to be exhibited. Yet in face of that fact we find that every local authority in the country has the power to exhibit the film whatever may be the opinion of the Cabinet.

Now this question of the censorship, or rather of the opposition to it, is more or less of an old friend. It is always more or less easy to work up a Press "stunt" in connection with opposition to the censorship, just as you can get up a "stunt" in connection with anonymous letters or channel swims or any of those things which appeal to the average reader. When this movement was exceptionally powerful a good many years ago, the Government of the day appointed a Joint Committee of both Houses, which was presided over by Sir Herbert Samuel and of which I was a member. We sat for a long time. I went into it with an open mind and I left it firmly impressed with the conclusion that, so far from suffering from the censorship, what we suffered from was that there was not enough of it. The second conclusion I arrived at was that the people who denounced the censorship most loudly were the very people who would regret its absence more than anybody else.

There appeared before that Committee a succession of very talented and eminent people, consisting of writers, dramatists, critics, actors, managers and persons of that kind. Nearly all of those gentlemen were strong opponents of the censorship, and they claimed that their subjection to the censor constituted an outrage, not only upon themselves but upon the whole community. They argued somewhat in this fashion. They said: "We are not only extremely clever and talented people, but we are extremely sensitive. We have no regard whatever for the feelings of other people; but with regard to our own feelings we are extremely sensitive, and if we have to produce our masterpieces before a sort of soulless clod in the shape of a censor we look upon it as an immense and intolerable insult that we should be called upon to revise a sentence or alter an adjective, and we refuse to do anything of the kind." They further claimed that the very existence of the censor constituted a check upon genius and that there were a number of people who were dissuaded from writing plays on account of his presence. When they were asked to name anybody who had not written a play in consequence of the existence of the censor they were unable to name anybody. It is not uncharitable to infer that if people do not write plays it is not because there is a censor in the background but because they are unable to do it. I find it impossible to sympathise with the exaggerated sensitiveness of these authors and other people.

I am, in a very humble way, an author myself and such works as I produce are liable to the censorship of a Government Department; but it does not weigh upon me in the least. It does not worry me in the least. It does not affect my peace of mind at all, and it has no effect upon me. I do not know why it should have more effect upon these talented gentlemen than upon myself. I suppose it is because I am a singularly dull and unimaginative person, and I class those gentlemen who are afflicted with the presence of a censor lurking in the background with the princess in the fairy story who was unable to sleep on account of the pea under the twelve mattresses. I class them with those persons whom I have never encountered, but of whom I. have often heard, and who are rendered prostrate, so to speak, by the presence of a cat in the room, or even in the house where they happen to be residing. The result left upon my mind is that nobody would be so miserable as these talented gentlemen would be if the censor were to disappear.

Consider what advantage they derive from it. If they do not write anything at all, they can always plead that they do not do it on account of the censor. If they do write anything and it passes the censor, then they are in the same position as anybody else, but if, on the other hand, their immortal work is rejected by the censor, then the air resounds with their cries, they summon their trade unionists and assistants, they call upon their friends and tell people to write to the Press pointing out that it is much more moral and stimulating for people to appear nude on the stage than in the garments of every-day life. They get questions asked in the House of Commons and run a tremendous Press "stunt," and finally make a great deal of money out of it, because they persuade publishers to publish their work with an inscription saying it is censored, and it obtains a large sale with a certain class of the public. What these talented people never seem to have been able to realise is that the play-going public consists of two parts. There is one small section which sympathises with these talented people, what I may call the highbrow section, whose numbers are infinitesimal. They seriously believe that the stage has a great mission, and they are people who are prepared and- quite able to look after and protect themselves. On the other hand the great mass of people who go to plays and music halls are people who go there simply for entertainment, and the censor exists as a kind of rough protection to them—that is to say, people who do not desire to see the ordinary conventions violated. That is a fact which has not been realised.

All the Inquiries that have taken place with regard to stage censorship have pointed out that censorship of some kind is desirable, and the result of our Inquiry was that the Lord Chamberlain became the censor. So far as I know the system has worked perfectly well. The highest tribute I call pay to my noble friend Lord Cromer, who is at present Lord Chamberlain, is that we never hear him mentioned at all. I do not think I could say anything more to his credit. I do not think one person in a thousand who goes to a play has the faintest idea who the censor is, and probably has not realised there is a censor at all. But all this is preliminary and bears upon the question of stage censorship only. In the days when we sat there were no such things as films in existence, but does it not stand to reason that if a censorship is necessary with regard to the stage, it is infinitely more necessary with regard to the cinema? I suppose that for every person who goes to the play or a music hall there must be at least a hundred or possibly a thousand who attend cinemas. The number of attendances in this country at cinemas approximates, if I am not mistaken, to something like a thousand million per year, which gives an average attendance of 25 times a year in the case of every man, woman and child in the country.

We all recognise the potentialities of the cinema of the present day. We know what an enormous influence can be exerted by it. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that if it were possible to manage the cinemas without any check at all, and with sufficient intelligence, and sufficient purpose, it might be possible to bring about a revolution and possibly a war. The frequenters of cinemas here present, amongst whom I recognise the noble Lord, Lord Olivier, who confesses he is a frequent attender, are familiar with the usual procedure. After the advertisements, veracious or otherwise, have been disposed of, there appears a pompous and pretentious announcement upon the screen proclaiming that the film which is about to be produced has been approved by the Board of Censors. I should like to call attention to this curious fact. This Board of Censors, consisting of people whose names I am unacquainted with, is presided over by a Member of Parliament, and yet we are constantly being told—being told every day in the Press or elsewhere—that the one thing this country will not stand is political censorship. The second remarkable thing about this Board is that it is appointed by the trade itself and paid by the trade.

In addition to that, I feel bound to point out that Mr. T. P. O'Connor, who is the presiding genius, is in my opinion, whatever his merits may be, temperamentally quite unfitted to be a censor at all. Mr. T. P. O'Connor is the purveyor, or the originator, of a particular form of journalism in which every woman is faultlessly beautiful and in which every man is represented as a sort of intellectual giant. I cannot help feeling that any one who takes such a generous and benevolent view of human nature is unfitted to discharge the duty of a censor. It seems to me you require a different kind of man altogether, and that what is wanted from a censor is not so much that he should be a person of culture, but that he should be a person possessing plenty of common sense, and a thick hide. I lay especial stress upon the latter qualification, because, whoever he is, he is sure to be one of the most unpopular men in the country.

The thoroughly unsatisfactory position in which the film censorship stands at the moment is illustrated in connection with the film called "Dawn," about which we have heard so much. This particular film is being produced by people who allege that their sole desire is to perpetuate peace and inculcate the blessings of peace by demonstrating the horrors of war. I may be uncharitable, but, personally, I have considerable distrust of people who start with this kind of declaration. I have no doubt that the producers of the Hollywood version of the New Testament announced that they were animated solely by religious motives. The gentleman who brought over an empty box not so long ago, which he claimed contained the body of Lord Kitchener, also announced that he was animated by patriotic motives. The persons who are producing this film, as I have said, profess to be solely interested in the question of preserving the peace of the world, but I should have thought myself that it would have been perfectly easy to demonstrate the horrors of war without dragging in the case of Miss Cavell, and I heartily share the dislike which has been expressed in so many quarters at an attempt to make money out of the tragedy of a singularly heroic woman. To put it quite plainly, what all these people are after is money. They are not animated by any altruistic sentiment at all. What they are after is to make money, and I observe that this was admitted in an interview with a very important film magnate the other day, who roundly stated that sentiment in such cases must always give way to business.

The position with regard to "Dawn" is this: The attention of the Foreign Secretary was, unofficially, drawn to it by the German Embassy as they had, and the representatives of any other country would have had, a perfect right to do. The objection, I take it, was a two-fold objection—in the first place, that the film was calculated to provoke ill-feeling between the two countries; and in the second place, that it was an inaccurate representation of the actual facts. The Foreign Secretary is obliged to admit that he has no power in the matter at all, but he proceeds to call in Mr. T. P. O'Connor, M.P., either in the character of an old friend or of an English gentlemen, and represents to him that it is undesirable that the film should be shown. The film consequently is suspended. But then it appears that Mr. T. P. O'Connor and his Board have not got any power either. Power really rests with any local authority in the country. They can defy Mr. T. P. O'Connor's Committee and the Foreign Secretary and everybody else, should they choose to do so, and we are, as I understand, now confronted with the spectacle of all the local authorities in the country—headed by the London County Council, a representative of which I see beside me—who are going to sit solemnly in conclave to decide whether this film should be shown or not.

I need hardly point out that there has been a prodigious uproar in the Press, there has been an imbecile cry of German dictation, and a determined attempt on the part of certain people to revive what I may call post-War hatred. I think that one of the most deplorable features of recent years has been these attempts which are occasionally made to revive what I call post-War hatred. Although they are confined, I cannot help thinking, chiefly to sensational journals of the Bottomley type and to ferocious old women—I notice that people who actually took part in the War do not indulge in these sentiments at all—they are capable of doing a great deal of harm. I would put to these people who talk about "German dictation" an analogous case. Suppose the Germans, for instance, were to produce a film of the Baralong, embodying their own ideas on the subject. Would not the people who are now so actively engaged in advocating the exhibition of the Cavell film be the first to protest? Would they not say at once that it was the duty of our Government to protest against any misrepresentation of this particular incident? We know now, from statements made by Sir Austen Chamberlain in another place, that this Government has frequently made representations of this kind to other Governments and that our wishes have been, to a great extent, acceded to.

What emerges from this very unedifying conflict is this, that whilst the Home Office, according to the statement made by the Home Secretary, has the power to prohibit the exhibition and even the introduction of films which are likely to cause trouble in this country, when it is a question of a film causing trouble with another country the Home Secretary has no power at all, nor has anybody else. We are, therefore, reduced to the ridiculous position which I have already pointed out, that we are absolutely at the mercy of any local authority, which can flout official opinion to any extent that it chooses. For my part I have long been convinced, although I do not think there are many people who share my opinion, that some form of State censorship is necessary in this matter. Although I am very much against the multiplication of officials, I cannot help thinking that there ought to be some responsible person to deal with a question of this kind. He need not cost anything, because the trade could be made to pay for it.

I recognise that opinion to a great extent is against me and it is no good asking for the impossible, but what I am going to propose to my noble friend who represents the Home Office is a very reasonable compromise. What I suggest to the Government is that if they are, as asserted by the Home Secretary, absolutely content with the present position, if they are absolutely satisfied with the working of the Board of Censors under Mr. T. P. O'Connor, M.P., let them go on with that Board and let that Board deal with questions of morality and decency and questions of that kind. But what I desire particularly to suggest is that, if it is proposed to exhibit any film which may have an injurious effect upon our relations with any foreign Power, it should be referred at once and automatically to the Lord Chamberlain and that his decision upon the matter should be final. I suggest the Lord Chamberlain, although I know he will not like the suggestion, because he is a non-Party Minister, because he is a permanency, if I am not mistaken, and because he discharges this particular duty with regard to stage plays and discharges it, as I have already pointed out, with complete success. If this very reasonable suggestion is adopted then the Government will be released from the somewhat humiliating position which it now enjoys, and we shall be relieved from the Press polemics which play so large a part in proceedings of this kind and which in the end do almost as much harm as the exhibition to which we so strongly object.


My Lords, the noble Lord has referred to the London County Council and to the fact that I am a member of it. I am not going to say anything on behalf of the London County Council in this matter, but I have been for a time a member of the Theatres and Music Halls Committee of the Council and I have seen something not only of the censorship of that committee but also of the trade censorship. Speaking for myself, I am of the firm opinion that a municipality is not a suitable authority to be a censor at all. For one thing there is no uniformity. It is not more than about five years ago that I, with others, went to the Home Office to attend a conference of the greater municipalities of the North and the London County Council to discuss whether we could not arrive at some uniform system of censorship. We found that there were as many opinions almost as there were municipalities represented. I can remember that the representative of Manchester was strongly of opinion that Manchester would not come down to the standard of London. The only result of that conference was that a working agreement was come to between the London County Council and Middlesex, which still obtains.

I do not think that the smaller boroughs which have to exercise censorship are in an enviable position. I remember discussing this matter with the representatives of a seaside town, a county borough, with a population of about 60,000. Their attitude was this: "A great many films come down to us because we are a seaside watering place and are billed in our town. We do not know what they are and we have not time to do anything or get to know anything before they are shown. Therefore we are not exercising censorship and we cannot." These local authorities, great and small, have been elected for administrative purposes. This question of censorship is a judicial matter, and I suggest to your Lordships that a local body, elected by popular vote on the Party system, is not the best body to exercise a censorship.

The position of London is a peculiar one because, whereas all the other authorities are police authorities, London obviously cannot be a police authority and therefore they have to depend on the trade censors. Be it observed that a film need not be shown to the trade censor at all. It is only voluntarily shown. The noble Lord alluded to the trade censorship and I should like to correct one impression concerning that censorship. I have seen the staff of that censorship at work, I know of whom they consist and I have the very highest opinion of the conscientious way in which they do their work. Your Lordships may imagine a comparatively small room with four films on a diminished space going at double speed and two men at one end and a man and a woman at the other keeping touch with those films and trying to see whether there is anything wrong about them. If they suspect anything, they have the film stopped and it is put on again at half speed. I have seen the greatest conscientiousness shown in this matter.

My noble friend Lord Newton spoke of the chief censor, Mr. T. P. O'Connor. I believe that Mr. O'Connor fulfils a very useful purpose, because he is respected as the Father of the House of Commons, he is a journalist, he knows a great many people and he is in a wide sense a man of the world. I can imagine that many heads of censorship might be worse than Mr. O'Connor, but I would call attention to the fact that there is one failing about Mr. O'Connor that is common to all of us, and that is that he is not immortal. I do not think that it will be easy to find a person so suitable for this particular and curious job as Mr. O'Connor. There is an enormous responsibility attached to this film censorship in London, because it is not worth while financially to import a film into this country unless you can show it in London. Accordingly the censorship of London is a matter of great importance to the country as a whole. I do not think that any local authority or municipality, or the London County Council itself, is the right authority to act as censor of films, because I do not think that it has a wide enough purview.

I have two cases in my mind of which I should like to tell your Lordships. They both date from about five years ago. One was a question of whether a film should be shown which had relation to the family life, the ancestry and the circumstances generally of one of the ex-Royal Families of Europe, and the Foreign Office sent us a message containing their views. We saw that film and we banned it. It was never shown, it has never been shown, and it is not going to be shown. But what struck me as a -curious question was why the London County Council should be the ultimate authority to ban a film which really raised a, question of international importance. Let me quote another case which, I think, was more important still, because it concerned a subject which interests the Churches and philanthropists all over the world and is a matter of the very greatest moment. A film was introduced into this country by a lady who is known as a protagonist of the cause of birth control. Dr. Marie Stories went to the trade censor and asked that her film should be allowed to be shown in this country. Mr. O'Connor refused, and the matter came before the London County Council. We banned that film, and it was never shown. We turned it down, but the reason why we did so, and the reason that we gave, was that we were not going to pass a film which the censor had banned. That was a curious final decision of a local authority—and we had the final decision—but it was much too big a question for any municipality; as big a question, I should think, as any Government would want.

I have no right to express any opinion as to what the London County Council wants in this matter. I am speaking as a private individual, but I think I can and should tell your Lordships that at just about the same time, about five years ago, the London County Council asked the noble Marquess, the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the late Lord Curzon of Kedleston, whether he could obtain information for them in regard to the practice in other countries. He produced this information in a very short while. I think he obtained it mostly from the representatives of foreign countries in London, which was probably a quicker way than going to our representatives abroad. One sees in the result a great variety of systems in regard to the censorship, and the systems seem to follow the national characteristics of the country. Bureaucratically-minded countries have more of bureaucracy, and less bureaucratically-minded countries rely to a very large extent on public opinion. Thus we find that Austria, Denmark and Sweden have a State censorship, and Hungary has a State Commission. One of the most interesting and apparently practical methods is that which obtains in Germany. The Federal Government of Germany—not the state Government but the Reichstag Government—appoints an official as Chairman of the Board of Censors, while another member is appointed by the film industry, another by the representatives of art and literature and two by welfare and education authorities. The censor operates in only two towns, Berlin and Munich. This system obtained in 1922 when this information was given and, to the best of my belief, it obtains still. It seems to be a modification of purely bureaucratic control.

The country which must interest us most is the United States of America, because most of the films come from there and the Americans are the dominating people in the film industry. The information that we received from that country, in 1922, was in the form of a letter from Mr. Hayes, of the New York Motion Pictures Producers' and Distributors' Association of New York, to Mr. Adee, the Second Assistant Secretary in the Department of State at Washington. It appears from this letter that there is no national board of censors, but there are a number of States which have censorships and they include some of the principal States, such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Virginia and Maryland. They are censors on specified questions; that is to say, sexual matters, vice, crime, and violence. Most of these States allow an appeal to the Courts, and the municipalities of America will often take advantage of that. There is a good deal of litigation in consequence; but the real, big matter in America is private effort. What are called committees of citizens view films before release, and they are described as the National Board of Censorship. They claim to comprise eleven millions of people, which is a rather tall order, but in point of fact they are representative of all the Churches of America, and of practically all the welfare and philanthropic societies of America. Those committees of citizens view the films before release, and the producers pay six dollars a reel in order that they should be shown to them. Just as in this country it appears that the Government is not anxious to be a censor, so in America Congress has more than once refused to be censor, or disregarded it, and I venture to think that this voluntary censorship is far the most dominating thing in the United States of America.

In support of what Lord Newton has said, I venture to ask His Majesty's Government to say that municipalities are not the most suitable people to be censors. I quite understand that the Home Office does not want to be a censor, just as no other Government Department does, but surely something can be devised between the system of Germany and the system of the United States—something which is neither German nor American, but English. I cannot believe that we can go on as we are, and I rather think it is "up to" His Majesty's Government now, before things get worse—and difficulties increase every day—to do something to evolve some system which is going to cover the ground. I do not think the municipalities will be able to do it much longer.


My Lords, I dislike censorship instinctively, whether in the sciences or in the arts, though I cannot disguise from myself the fact that the greatest periods of literature in this country, sometimes, and elsewhere too, have been coincident with the most savage censorship. Moreover, although I dislike censorship in principle, I really cannot see that there is very much grievance against my noble friend the Lord Chamberlain, who has important functions relating to stage plays. It is customary for us to scold the Lord Chamberlain, to laugh at him, to hold him entirely responsible for stage failures, and to hold him up either to ridicule or to execration; but, as my noble friend Lord Newton has pointed out, for every time we hear the Lord Chamberlain blamed, or blame him ourselves, we may be sure that he has done something for which the clean-minded public as a whole would be grateful, if they only knew what he had done. Taking the public attitude as a whole, the Lord Chamberlain is a safeguard, a source of strength, and I am sure that were his responsibility removed we should not be long in regretting it.

Of course there is, apart from the Lord Chamberlain, a definite censorship in this country with regard to literature and pictures. It is not exercised by such a body as that over which the Lord Chamberlain presides, but by the police. Censorship does exist, and is constantly put into force, beyond that exercised by the Lord Chamberlain. During the last few years this new film censorship has grown up. Lord Monk Bretton says it is very conscientious. I am sure he is right, but it is irresponsible, amateur, and unprofessional. If we have a grievance against the censorship of plays, there is a Minister in Parliament to whom we can appeal, and whom, if necessary, we can censure. No such thing applies to the censorship of films, which is far more important. The whole situation has greatly developed during the last few years, and it is round this particular film that the new orientation of censorship has to be adjusted. I know nothing about this film. I have no doubt it, would have had the odious captions and advertisements connected with films, although I hope it would not have played down to the new standard of opulence and vulgarity associated with Hollywood, the home of films. Perhaps the only thing to be said for it is that it was associated with an incomparable artist; but it was "inexpedient"—that was the word used by the Secretary of State. His personal influence was sufficient to prevent the Censor of Films giving his sanction to it, and, however much we may try to conceal the fact, the initiative of the censorship of this film came from Berlin, and the executive of the censorship is exercised in London.

The point is this: if the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, when he pleases, without seeing the film, without attempting to discover really what it contained, or imported, can ban an enterprise upon which the promoters say they have spent £20,000 or £30,000, why should not the Secretary of State for War, or the First, Lord of the Admiralty—just as important people—equally step in, if they see something derogatory to the Army or the Navy being exhibited? I can very well understand the Colonial Office saying that a film ought not to be produced in this country, owing to an injustice which it may do to native races under British control. The same thing might be said of all the Departments, but probably the Home Office can most easily ascertain and ban an offensive film. Is that possible state of affairs to continue? Lord Monk Bretton quotes us the example of censorship in the United States, the last place in the world we should go to for models of censorship. He tells us, unofficially it is true, that the London County Council wonders if it is the right authority to settle and control exhibitions in London, whereas in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Glasgow different authorities may exercise a different judgment.

Briefly the result of this ban on the Cavell film in London is such that a wholly new situation has arisen—a situation which cannot possibly continue if tolerable freedom is to be allowed to promote films. Their promoters do not know who is going to control them, and that must have a paralysing effect on an enterprise which this House and Parliament as a whole has only quite recently been doing its utmost to promote and to foster. The question is very difficult. I have no solution, but the matter is of importance, and of growing importance, and my only suggestion is that now, before more Secretaries of State intervene, before the problem becomes more complicated by unexpected and unofficial, official or semi-official decisions, an Inquiry into the situation should take place. Let us have a Joint Committee of the two Houses, let it be discussed in a sensible, businesslike way before a body where evidence can be taken, where all these interlocked and difficult problems can be considered in relation to one another, and let us hope that a solution can be found. I hope, at least, we shall not be asked to concur in a state of affairs which seems to me to be highly unsatisfactory, and which certainly should not be allowed to continue.


My Lords, I must say that I agree with the noble Earl who has just sat down. This matter is a very interesting one. I have listened carefully to the speeches which have been made, but I have not heard one word said about what the trade thinks of this business. I have taken some little trouble to find out what the opinions of the trade are on the matter, and the trade, after all, has to be considered, because it is composed of the people who spend money in producing or proposing to exhibit, and who must be concerned if somebody should conic in from outside and suddenly say: "You are not to do this." As far as I can gather, what they are anxious for is security—to know where they are, and to know that some person will not be able to butt in from outside, and suddenly say: "This thing is to be stopped." I inquired about the working of the present system. On the whole, apparently, it has given satisfaction. The President was appointed by the trade itself, and he appointed the Advisory Committee, and, although the President himself may, as somebody said, not be immortal, yet I think that my old friend has a world-wide acquaintance with men and human kind generally, and that his broad mind applied to this subject is of great value. But it is of importance to have the matter upon some permanent basis, and for people to know where they stand.

It is true, as Lord Monk Bretton said, that each nation works out these things for itself, but an example may be given in this country to our Dominions, some of whom have very quaint methods of censorship. Lord Monk Bretton has given some illustrations, and other illustrations were given last year in a most amusing and illuminating article written by the noble Lord opposite, Lord Olivier, with regard to the customs in Kenya, Mauritius, and some other places. He pointed out that, as for the native races, they had no particular interest in legs, or in the subduing of women, both of which they considered matters of everyday occurrence, but that they did take an interest in pageants or the movements of machinery or of troops, or things of that kind. I think that an Inquiry as to what would be the best system in Great Britain would be of great value in order to put the matter upon a permanent basis, so that it should not depend upon the life of the present censor and so that some system should be introduced which would not be bureaucratic interference, and which would not put into the hands of one municipality, perhaps a small one, the entire authority for stopping the production of a cinematograph exhibition in their town. As Lord Monk Bretton said, in London they wanted to come to an agreement, but one of the cities which has caused great difficulty is Manchester; another, I am informed, is Norwich. Thus, you get two Cities—two important Cities, no doubt—at different ends of the Kingdom coming in with different views, preventing a general agreement, and possibly giving a bad name to a particular film because of the particular views which particular councillors in a particular City may hold. It is to the interest of the trade, and, I think, of the public at large, that an Inquiry on the lines that my noble friend Lord Crawford suggested should be held.


My Lords, it must be admitted that censorship is not popular in this country. It is contrary to the strong traditions of independent action which we all possess, and to a spirit of liberty which we pride ourselves on thinking we enjoy—which we do not enjoy as much as we think we do, but we like to preserve what is left. Consequently from time to time complaints are raised against the censorship—not due I think entirely, as Lord Newton thought, to the injured vanity or conceit of authors whose plays have been rejected, but to a wider feeling that the proper censorship of any publication is by the stimulation of a healthy public opinion against the performance of anything that is bad, and that in the cultivation of such an opinion you have the surest and the most permanent censorship that can be devised. Of course, if you do not do that, to some extent the people are led to think that whatever they see is necessarily right. As a matter of fact, very often what they see is particularly wrong, and it is not the fault of the censor, it is because, in spite of whatever you do, you may get representations, either on the film or on the stage, which on one view appear to be harmless, and on another are really most mischievous.

I therefore think that the country will be unwilling to extend censorship beyond a reasonable limit, and the real point for us to consider here to-day is whether there is upon the production of films any censorship that is reasonable, or whether some ought not to be set up. I think that the whole question is well illustrated by the discussion that has taken place with regard to this film "Dawn." In one sense "Dawn" is the representation of a great tragedy and of a noble life. I have seen the film myself, and I do not think that any one could object to the first two acts of that film. They are perfectly fair to the Germans, and they do show the remorseless and relentless way in which the operation of war presses down upon people who are doing what is their obvious duty as Christian citizens. This woman, out of the pity of her heart, rescued forlorn and fugitive soldiers, and by doing this she broke an international law which she knew existed, and rendered herself liable to be killed. Any more severe indictment of war and the horrors of war and all the rules and laws of war than that cannot be devised. And yet I do not think that any one will doubt that it is nothing but a simple and accurate statement of affairs. That we should not have killed her is another matter, because we are not in the habit of killing women, but that she had earned the penalty of death is a thing which she admitted, and which, I think, no international lawyer will deny.

So far, therefore, as the first two acts of this film are concerned, I very much doubt if any one could find fault with them. It is in the later act that you find what, no doubt, is the final climax of the story, in which the appeal to every morbid anti horrible sensation is prolonged and accentuated beyond all endurance. If I had power I most assuredly would not permit the production of that last act, both because I think it would give just offence to people whose actions it misrepresents and because I think it does nothing but pander to tastes which had better not be gratified. In those circumstances, what is it that has to be done? The film raises three questions. First, is the private life of any one to be made the subject of production for public gain without the power of any one to stop it? Secondly, is this to be done when the main purpose is to over-emphasise an unhealthy incident? And, thirdly, is it to be done when the result of the performanee may be to disturb foreign relations that ought to be continued on the basis of peace? I think those three questions cover the whole question of the censorship and of what has to be done.

At the present moment, as tie noble Lord, Lord Newton, has pointed out, what is done is something that is almost ridiculous. The Foreign Secretary feels that this is a film which ought not to be exhibited, and no one can speak with greater authority upon the matter than he. I do not know whether the County Council have passed their opinion yet, but they apparently are the ultimate tribunal. So far as I can see, the Film Censorship Committee does nothing except act as a body to make recommendations. If you think of it, if there is to be any control at all, a more phantastic arrangement it is impossible to imagine. The Foreign Secretary, however much he might protest, would have no power whatever. He could not forbid the film. The Committee could not forbid the film. The only thing that can be done, apparently, is (hat the County Council can refuse a licence for its performance—a licence which conceivably might be refused here and granted elsewhere. So that the mischief can never be controlled at all under the present set of circumstances.

If it be once conceded that films should be controlled—and I fear in the present state of public and international peace some control is necessary—it is clear to me that it ought to be controlled by one body which is universal over the whole kingdom and not by a series of local bodies who have a merely limited jurisdiction. It may be impossible to set up such a body, but there is much force in the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, that there should be an Inquiry into the whole matter to see what should be done. Most of the attention in regard to these matters is concentrated on the immoral influence of these films. I think it is concentrated on the wrong point. I thoroughly believe that what I said just now is true—that the best way to meet it is by cultivating a sound and healthy public opinion against it, and I do not despair of that opinion being cultivated if once free play were given to the exhibition of the pictures. It has often struck me as a very remarkable fact that if you take the literature of Greece and Rome as a whole, remembering the times in which it was written, the complete and absolute freedom of every person who wrote, and the laxity of what we should call moral relations both in Athens and in Rome, there is extraordinary little in the whole mass of classical literature to which reasonable objection can be taken. There are the books of Virgil and Homer and many of the Greek plays in which there is not a word that can be objected to from the first line to the last. Why? I think it is because these plays were rejected or accepted by the popular voice of an enlightened audience, and that is the soundest and safest form of censorship that can possibly be had.

However, it seems agreed at the moment that that cannot be trusted and that something must be done. If something is to be done, I most warmly support the proposal of the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, that an Inquiry should be made to see what is the best course to adopt to secure one consistent and universal censorship over the whole country. It is perfectly preposterous to suggest that- a play may be properly banned in London and properly exhibited in Manchester, or vice versa. The people in London and Mar chester do not differ like that. Also, it is not a local matter but a national one, and if films are to be brought under national control there ought certainly to Le one body, and one body only, which should be responsible.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken always makes up his mind very clearly and I am moved in this instance to agree with him that it is perhaps desirable that there should be a general Inquiry into the matter under discussion. The noble and learned Lord, however, seemed at one time to say that it was necessary to have a censorship and at another time to say that the best thing was to leave the matter to public opinion. In the present instance of the film "Dawn" that really seems to me what has been done. The character of the film was brought to the notice of the Foreign Secretary. It was brought to the notice of a very eminent publicist, the noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead. That great publicist expressed his opinion in a very influential journal, and the opinion so expressed cannot fail to have attracted the attention of local authorities to the fact that here is something questionable in the film. That is a real control by public opinion. The Foreign Secretary, the noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead, and the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken have expressed the strong opinion that the last act of this film ought not to be exhibited. Those are expressions of opinion which have constantly been made and which would naturally, and will in this case, influence the decisions of the local councils.

I do not want to go into the whole question of the censorship. We are dealing now with films only and not with the censorship of plays. But as regards the censorship of films, I think it acts fairly well at the present time. While I was rather horrified to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Monk Bretton, of the extremely perfunctory character of the investigation that is made by local bodies which have to pass these films, so long as they are passed by the Board of Censors and public attention is called to any undesirable feature in them I think the present system acts pretty fairly. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, made a definite suggestion. He said that he did not want to go into the whole question of film censorship, but only wanted the Government to set up some system by which films likely to create international dissatisfaction or annoyance, or which might become political questions, should be submitted, I understood, to the Lord Chamberlain as censor. I think the noble Lord suggested that authority. But how is the Lord Chamberlain, who is to be the first person to judge, to know whether any film raises a question of political irritation or not unless he examines all the films? I am sure that the Lord Chamberlain's Department would have to be very greatly increased in order to deal with the mass of films that would come before it. I am afraid that it would be really distorting and magnifying the proper functions of the Lord Chamberlain to thrust upon him this novel and enormously enlarged duty of censoring the whole of the film production of the country, and I do not think he could undertake it.

Regarding political films, it seems to me that the present arrangement, although anomalous, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Buckmaster, pointed out, does not work badly, and if such a play as "The Mikado" was put on the screens now I feel pretty sure you might have a similar representation from the Japanese Government to the Foreign Secretary that it was a manner of treating the august person of the Mikado which was offensive to Japanese sentiment. In such a case I think that public attention would be called to the fact and that the local authorities would see it was a film that should not be licensed. Consequently, I am not at all dissatisfied with the present arrangement of the film censorship, but if we are to do anything, I think it is quite impossible that the Government should say: "Oh yes, we will undertake that any political film shall be referred to the Lord Chamberlain." I do not think that the Government would be prepared to undertake that responsibility. Consequently, if there is to be an alteration, if it is thought in the country, as I do not myself feel it is, that there is some necessity to alter the film censorship, then by all means let us have an Inquiry such as was suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Crawford. I cannot think that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that a censorship of political films eclectically selected by some person not named should be set up, is a desirable one. I think the noble Lord has rather fallen between two stools in making that proposal.


My Lords, I think there has been a most interesting discussion on a very important subject. I do not propose to enter into all the suggested remedies which have been made and supported with great eloquence by those speakers who have preceded me. I would like for a moment to remind the House of the exact position of the film censorship at the present time. The responsibility for controlling films in this country rests entirely with the county councils and the county borough councils. That responsibility was given to them under an Act of 1909. There was no censorship at all at first, but after that time these local authorities had power to make certain stipulations in regard to the character of the films that were produced in the places which they licensed for their production. At that time objections were raised on the part of the trade to those restrictions, and several cases were brought before the High Court. It was finally decided by the High Court that the local authorities had full power to issue licences and make those restrictions which they thought proper to make.

The trade was very much dissatisfied, because this left them in a position of very great uncertainty, so they themselves suggested that there should be a film censorship. They, in fact, set up a film censorship of their own in 1912, under the late Mr. Redford. That was a film censorship very much like the one which acts to-day. Mr. Redford was given a salary by the trade, and he appointed four assistants, and they censored the films. The local authorities agreed with this arrangement, and decided, when this Board was finally sanctioned in its later form, that no films should be exhibited in places of amusement which they controlled unless they had received the sanction of the Board of Film Censors. The Board of Film Censors had not the final authority, but they certainly gained very much in power from the fact that no films were allowed to be displayed which had not their imprimatur. That, of course, did not prevent films which they had not passed being submitted to a local authority and passed by that local authority. There was the case of "The King of Kings." The Board of Film Censors refused to give that film a certificate, but the film was afterwards submitted to the London County Council and the Middlesex County Council and was allowed to be exhibited.

The Government took up the matter in 1916. There were a great many meetings between the Government and the two parties principally concerned—the licensing authorities and the trade—but they failed to reach an agreement. Then the trade took the matter in hand, and appointed a Board, of which Mr. T. P. O'Connor, whom we all will admit is a man of ripe experience, as Chairman. He has appointed four assistants, three gentlemen and one lady, and they compose the Board. It is their duty principally to examine all these films. They are people of absolute independence of character and education, and are very well qualified to carry out the duties which they have undertaken. They have an admirable secretary, who is very well acquainted with the film industry, and I should say their duties—and I think my noble friend opposite (Lord Olivier) will agree with this—though they are very difficult duties, have been, in the circumstances, performed extraordinarily well, and in an absolutely independent manner.

I think that is exemplified by this fact. If the trade had no confidence in the Board, and did not think that the Board's certificate would carry weight with the local authorities, they would not submit films to be reviewed by the Board; and, on the other hand, if the local authorities had found that the Board had failed in their duty and had passed improper films, their confidence equally would have been withdrawn from this Board of Film Censors, whose position then would be an absolutely untenable one. I think the opposite is the case, and that is to some extent proved by the experience of the Home Office. In the early days the Home Office was in constant receipt of complaints about the character of films, and they had to make inquiries. At the present time complaints are very few and far between. The character of some of these films cannot be described as very exalted, but it is impossible for the censor to make a good film out of had material, and it is not the censor's duty to do so. It is the duty of the Board of Censors not to give certificates to films which are of a degrading character.

Some remarks have been made in the course of this debate that it would be very much better to have one universal film censor for all films. I think that is open to a good deal of objection. There are differences between localities. A film which might be not in the least shocking in London might be very shocking in Scotland. For instance, one has seen pictures of fishing matches in England on Sundays taken part in by 300 people, and also fishing matches taking place in France on Sundays. I cannot imagine anything more shocking to a Scottish audience than to see 300 people, French or English, fishing on the Sabbath. That is perhaps a trivial case; but there is certainly a difference in localities. As regards the advantage of the present system, that is certainly a point to be considered. I did not observe during this debate that any suggestions have been thrown out as to what this body should be. The Secretary of State at the present time has the power to interfere with subversive films.

The Government have already considered the whole of this matter most carefully, and with regard to the Question which has been asked by my noble friend Lord Newton, whether His Majesty's Government contemplate taking any action in connection with the censorship of films, I am afraid it would be quite impossible for me to go beyond what has been already stated by the Home Secretary in another place—namely, that at the present time His Majesty's Government, having fully considered this matter in all its bearings, do not contemplate taking any action in connection with the censorship of films. I have perhaps rather lamely stated the position of the, Government on the question, and I have perhaps rather lamely defended them, but there is a great deal more to be said for the present system than I have put before your Lordships.


My Lords, if I venture at this late stage in the discussion which has taken place this after noon to encroach upon your Lordships' time for a few minutes, it is because reference has been made by the noble Lord who put down this Question and by others to my Department—references at which I cannot help feeling gratified when I remember that on the last occasion that I had the privilege of addressing your Lordships on the question of censorship it was to reply to certain criticisms. As to the suggestion that the censorship of films should be referred to, or in any way be controlled by, the Lord Chamberlain's Department, I would like to tell your Lordships that the volume of work connected with the censorship of plays is increasing annually. If there were any question of referring the censorship of films to the same quarter, I feel that I should not be able to perform the duties efficiently and effectively. The films are such a growing industry that they require that the censorship of them, if it is necessary, should be the work of one who can devote his whole time to them.

I think one of the points which the noble Lord, Lord Newton, raised was that of referring to the Lord Chamberlain questions of doubt on political subjects in connection with films. It occurs to me that if any such question of doubt arose it could be equally well dealt with by the Chairman of the Board of Film Censors. The Lord Chamberlain, like everybody else, is not infallible. He makes mistakes and he has to take advice. One of the things that helps me in my present duties is that I do take advice from people, in different directions. It seems to me that it is equally open to the Chairman of the Board of Film Censors to take advice in the same way that I should feel bound to take advice if the matter were referred to me. As to the general work of the censorship of films, certainly the staff of the Lord Chamberlain's office, as I think my noble friend Lord Olivier said, would have to be very largely increased in order to do it. I, personally, should deprecate very much any movement in the direction of the Lord Chamberlain being asked to undertake the duties of film censorship. I cannot help thinking that some other machinery for the purpose should be devised. It is in order to make it clear to your Lordships that I think anybody in the position of Lord Chamberlain would be opposed to the suggestion that I have risen to express my views on the subject.


My Lords, I was quite prepared to hear objections stated by my noble friend to the proposal which I made, but I should like to point out that the suggestion that the Chairman of the Board of Film Censors should act in this matter does not meet the difficulty at all. Everybody who has spoken this afternoon has pointed out that he has no power at all. The noble Lord can do what he likes with regard to stage plays, but the Chairman of the Board of Film Censors has no authority at all. As for the reply of my noble friend who answered for the Government, he has made practically the same statement as was made in another place—namely, that the Government are perfectly satisfied with the position. Perhaps they are, but everybody who has spoken in this debate, if I am not mistaken, has expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the position and has also expressed the opinion that the present state of things cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. I do not think that my noble friend Lord Desborough made any allusion whatever to the suggestion made by my noble friend, the Earl of Crawford, that a Committee should be appointed to enquire into the question. I am not going to say anything about that now, but I hope the noble Earl, or somebody else, will on a future occasion return to this subject, and if he presses for the appointment of a Committee of Inquiry I feel fairly sure from what has been said this afternoon that he will get his way.