HL Deb 01 February 1945 vol 134 cc900-10

4.29 p.m.

VISCOUNT TRENCHARD had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the fact that false impressions of the operations on various fronts are engendered by the non-publication in the Press of official communiqués, they would consider the publishing in the Press of communiqués from the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, from Italy and, if possible, from the Russian front; and whether the German communiqués could not be published in full; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I put down the Motion standing in my name because I think the subject warrants the attention of your Lordships' House. Important official communiqués are issued, I believe daily, by the Supreme Commander in France and by the Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean and yet it is impossible for the general public as a whole to be able to read or hear them. I think your Lordships will agree that these communiqués are official documents of outstanding importance—at least I hope they are—and I think the public ought to have an opportunity of being able to procure them daily with a minimum of trouble if they wish to do so. At present the public cannot get them without a great deal of trouble, if at all.

In the last war and indeed all through the centuries we have had Despatches from the Commanders in the field. We have not been allowed those Despatches in this war but we have had communiqués although the public cannot see them. I know that occasionally a communiqué or part of it is published in some of the evening newspapers. Part of it may be printed in one edition, another part may be printed in another edition, and in yet another edition no part at all is published. You cannot see the communiqués in the editions of The Times which are obtainable in London. I believe they are in what is called the early edition, which is really the provincial edition which it is almost impossible for the ordinary man to get in London. I have looked through a good number of provincial newspapers and I have asked my friends to look through others. They have not been able to find the communiqués pub- listed daily and in full. Reuter's publish the communiqués on the tape in the clubs, in your Lordships' House and in the big hotels, but most of us have not got the petrol to go to the club or a big hotel and your Lordships' House does not sit every day.

Are we giving up the time-honoured custom of publishing the communiqués as we have given up publishing the Despatches of the Commander-in-Chief? We have not even got Despatches about Dunkirk and Crete and other places. Are we giving up the publication of Despatches without protest from anybody? communiqués are still issued, but they are not made available to the public as a whole. In case I might be in error in regarding communiqués as a Government issue, I looked up the report of a debate in your Lordships' House in June, 1943, and I see that the noble Lord, Lord Templemore, in replying to a Motion moved by my noble and gallant friend Lord Milne, did refer in passing to the official communiqués in two places, so evidently the Government still look upon them as official communiqués. But if communiqués are difficult or impossible to obtain it is not much good issuing them. It must take considerable time to prepare a really reliable document. It may be said that war correspondents' despatches are written in more attractive language than official communiqués which have to be very correct, very certain and very guarded, but I feel that the latter undoubtedly give many of us a truer picture of the whole front. Official communiqués are anyhow more authoritative and more reliable.

I do not want in any way to disparage or criticize the value of war correspondents' despatches or reports. They are written under very difficult conditions and they are most interesting, but the official communiqué is bound to give a truer picture of the general situation than can be got from the Press or from the British Broadcasting Corporation. The war correspondent sees one small section of the fighting and he describes what he sees in that Particular section. He keeps up with our troops under fie, he travels from place to place under appalling conditions, and in the confusion of battle he may get place names wrong. He cannot be expected to know what is being done elsewhere. Therefore the picture given by a war correspondent may create a wrong impression of the whole battle.

Recently I have looked through a lot of the Press reports from the Western Front. When the Germans broke through in the Ardennes a false impression was given, and was almost bound to be given, by a lot of the reports and maps published in the Press. The impression given was that the Germans were surrounded, or about to be surrounded, that they were about to be put in the bag. That impression would not have been given if when the war correspondents' despatches were published the official communiqués had been published at the same time. These communiqués made it clear to anybody who studied a map at the same time that there was no chance of that happening. A large number of people I met thought we were going to be able to encircle vast numbers of the German panzer and infantry divisions that had broken through, whereas so far as I could see from the official communiqué there was never any suggestion of this being possible or coming about. Quite naturally once people have been given an erroneous impression they are disappointed and perhaps depressed when they see that we have not taken a large haul of German prisoners. This makes them criticize unfairly the command of the operations. Had the communiqués been available for everybody to study they would never have anticipated an encirclement and would not have been disappointed when this did not happen.

I have recently read a very interesting book—the most interesting I have read for a long time—by a newspaper correspondent who described a similar sort of false impression that was engendered, at least so I think, by the non-publication of the official communiqués. He describes the appearance in 1941 of such headlines as "Rommel Surrounded," "Rommel in Rout," "Germans Desperately Trying to Escape British Net," giving the same impression that a lot of people got over the recent offensive in Belgium. I feel that this may have arisen from the war correspondents being given by the Public Relations Officers a general picture of the war. That general picture may be given in more attractive language than the official communiqué but this false impression would never have come about if the purely cold military documents—the official communiqués—had been issued regularly at the same time. There is never any need in this or any campaign to raise the hopes of the people by wishful thinking. By it a tremendous disservice is done to the fighting soldier. His problems and difficulties become misunderstood. He is praised for successes he has not achieved and his real victories are often lost in an aftermath of disappointment.

I have had the privilege of meeting many officers who have come home from the fronts at different times on leave and they have told me how sometimes hard fighting is described at places where they did not have to fight at all. I know of one place which was described as having been taken at the point of the bayonet. I met some of the young officers who were at that particular place—it was about two years ago now—and heard that they walked in without firing a shot. I do not want it to be thought that I am criticizing the Press. I realize too well the war correspondents' difficulties and I realize that they give us vivid and interesting descriptions of battle that we could not hear from any other source. I do not want to stop them but to help them. It is the duty of the Government to see that the official communiqués are also published and made available to the public describing the position in purely military language.

I know the practical difficulties of newspapers. Paper is very severely rationed in this country to the Press, but surely the Government could allow them more for the publication of the communiqués by savings in paper made in other directions. For instance, the Government should prevent the vast numbers of circulars I get and other people get on all sorts of subjects which come out daily on very good and very thick paper. Is there no more saving that Government Departments could make themselves by not allowing such a mass of paper to be used on documents not half as important as the official communiqués? It would be interesting to know if the Government can tell us what proportion of paper available goes to Government Departments, how much the Press use, and how much is used by other publications. I feel that the Government would be serving the nation well by issuing more paper to the Press for publication of official communiqués. Sometimes I wonder if the shortage of paper and non-appearance of official communiqués has anything to do with hush-hush. Perhaps we have a dim hush-hush like dim lighting, and that we do not have everything published; we discourage its publication. I do not wish to detain you very long, but I do seriously ask the Government whether they will not take some steps to see that these communiqués, in the exact official wording, are made available for all the world to see.

With regard to the B.B.C., I consider it more important that the official communiqués should be published in the Press than announced by the B.B.C. But it may be that I am prejudiced in this matter, as I am a better reader than listener. Anyhow, the B.B.C. never give the official communiqués in the official language, as I notice that they do other Government announcements such as police messages and food rationing orders. The B.B.C., apparently, think that they give them out in more attractive form. Well, I simply ask: Do they? In another place, just about two years ago, when the Minister of Information was asked if he would ensure that the North African communiqués were read out verbatim in the B.B.C's Home Service news, every evening, not paraphrased or not replaced by descriptive telegrams from war correspondents, the Minister replied: No, Sir, the B.B.C's aim is to be understood by all its listeners, and it would be a mistake to assume that to read out the official communiqués verbatim is necessarily the best method of securing this. I wonder, sometimes, whether we shall not some day have broadcast the noise made by a cuckoo clock instead of the chimes of Big Ben on the ground that that is a better method of letting the public know the time.

As I have said, to-day the ordinary man has no chance of seeing these official communiqués. Nor have the troops. I say that it is not fair to the troops, who like to see their own official communiqués in the Press, nor is it fair to the man in the street who is liable to get a distorted view of the war with, at times, a serious reaction on morale. I have here a copy of the New York Times. There you can see printed in full all the communiqués, not merely from our own front but from all the fronts, and also the German and Japanese communiqués. All these, I believe, are published in full daily. I have also in my hand communiqués which, despite the shortage of paper, the Russian Embassy are able to issue here in London. They are printed in full in their Soviet War News. These communiqués are most interesting as are the ones published in America. We, apparently, are the only country which does not think that these communiqués are important enough to justify us in taking some steps to ensure their publication, in full. Though I fully recognize, as I am sure all your Lordships do, the practical difficulties of bringing about the publication of the official communiqués I do urge that something should be done. The Government may ask "What steps do you suggest? "Well, it is up to the Government. Surely it must be realized that it is important that these communiqués should be published. I do ask the Government that they should, at any rate, give this matter some consideration with a sympathetic feeling for the large body of people who would like to see these communiqués published regularly.

4.44 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by apologizing to the noble Viscount and to the House for the unfortunate fact; which no one regrets more than I do, that my noble friend the Minister for Economic Warfare is detained elsewhere by urgent Government business, and is, therefore, unable to reply, as he usually does, to a matter relating principally to the Ministry of information.

I think it might be of interest to the House if I were to start by describing the actual machinery now used for linking the Allied military authorities, in the different operational theatres in Europe and the Far. East, with the many agencies for the dissemination of war news in Allied and neutral countries. This will show, I think, that the true facts about the conduct of military operations are easily available fur all who want them, and that if the course of events is, as the noble Viscount has suggested, either misreported or not reported at sufficient length or not reported at all, it is not for lack of effective liaison between the Commanders in the field and the public Press. S.H.A.E.F., S.E.A.C., and A.F.H.Q., Italy, issue official cominuniqués at regular intervals to newspaper representatives at Command Headquarters in Paris, Kandy and Rome. They are immediately carried by the British, American and other news agencies all over the world, and supplied simultaneously when required by the Press at home, by the News Division of the Ministry of Information. The Russian communiqué, to which the noble Viscount also referred, is issued at frequent intervals from Moscow, and General McArthur and Admiral Nimitz issue similar bulletins about their operations against the Japanese from their respective headquarters in the Pacific. The German High Command communiqué is monitored on the radio by all the news agencies, and is, therefore, also available in full for any newspaper that may wish to publish it.

I believe that this brief account will, at least, convince the House that there is no lack of official liaison between the Commanders in the field and the Press, and that all the communiqués to which the noble Viscount has referred in his Motion are already available for, and easily accessible to, every newspaper in the country.


My Lords, may I intervene? I did not quite catch what the noble Earl said. Did he say the public as well as the Press?


I am coming to that in a moment if the noble Viscount will forgive me. But whether these news bulletins are to be reported in full, or in part, or not at all, and how the war news as a whole is to be presented to the public in the daily Press, are really matters for the newspaper editors themselves and not for the Government to decide. We are, I think, proud of the fact that in spite of the inevitable encroachments on our traditional liberties brought about by the demands of the war, we have yet succeeded in keeping a comparatively free radio and a completely free Press. The Government can criticize the Press as strongly as they like—and there has been quite a lot of that going on just lately in both Houses of Parliament—but, after five years of war, the Press is still free to hit back with impunity, and it still seems to give a good many more knocks than it receives.

Private Members of Parliament have the same opportunity of criticizing their critics, an opportunity of which the noble Viscount has taken full advantage this afternoon—and I have no doubt his views, to which everyone listens with the greatest respect, will be weighed very seriously by those who publish war news. But so long as we continue—and this is of course a matter of high policy and public opinion—to respect the independence of the Press it would be improper for any Government Department to attempt to dictate to editors as to the form or the substance of their reporting of war news. What the Government can do, and what they do to the best of their ability through the Ministry of Information, is to guarantee that the Press has access, without any unnecessary delay, to the latest reports from all the war fronts. I can assure the House that the last thing we want is to exchange the harmless and informative role of a sort of Cook's Tourist Agency for the sinister power of a Ministry of Propaganda directed by Dr. Goebbels. The decision as to whether war news is carried by any particular newspaper and in what form it can most easily be digested by its readers is, therefore, a responsibility of individual newspaper editors and proprietors. They can only discharge this important responsibility, after full consideration of all the factors involved, by the exercise of their own unfettered judgment.

In this country, fortunately, they can be trusted on the whole to use their judgment with a proper sense of responsibility towards the public. The general level and tone of the British Press, as I am sure the noble Viscount will agree, are remarkably high. We could draw comparisons, but I do not think that any of us would wish to do so. All the papers published in this country are anxious to carry the fullest possible service of war news, whether in the form of official communiqués or, as some of them do, of detailed reports from their own special correspondents accredited to the various war zones.

It should not be forgotten, however, that there are in these days certain limiting factors which often make it necessary for editors to "boil down" and summarize lengthy war reports, and perhaps not to give them adequate prominence in their papers. There is the very serious paper shortage, which has reduced many newspapers to half their pre-war size and even less. Then there are the many other news items about which the public like to read, and which jostle one another for mention on the front page, including sometimes political news and occasionally even reports of debates in your Lordships' House. I think that if the difficulties under which newspapers work in war-time are really borne in mind by their critics, it will be granted that they have done their best to present the news of the war in a full and accurate form to the wide public which relies on them for information.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, at this late hour I do not want to detain your Lordships, but I am afraid I cannot call the reply satisfactory. I am not saying that the Press do not do this work as well as it is possible for them to do it, but it is no use the Government passing the responsibility over to the Press. During the war the Government have taken responsibility for everything else. They have cut down the amount of paper available for the Press, but they have issued the Beveridge Report, which anybody can buy. Are these official documents to which I am referring important or not? If they are important, the public should be able to buy them for, say, a halfpenny, if they want them. It is no use the Government saying that it is the responsibility of the Press. The Press, with the limitations to which they are subject owing to the paper shortage and so on, limitations imposed upon them by the Government, have done well. It is no use saying that the Government cannot do anything when we have seen that the Government can issue the Beveridge Report, the account of the Battle of Britain, the account of the war in the Mediterranean, and so on. How, after all that, is it possible to say that these official communiqués are not going to be issued, and how is it possible to throw the responsibility on to the Press?

It is the business of the Government. if the Government do not think these things are as useful as what is issued by the Press, and do not want them published, then there is no need to go to the length of drawing them up every day all over the world and sending them over the tape for only a few people to see; there is no need to employ all the staff required for that purpose. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion, but I am thoroughly dissatisfied with the present position, and I do not stand alone in that; there are large numbers of people who want to see these communiqués published. I do not ask the Government to give orders to the Press. I am certain that if the Press had the paper they would do what they did in the last war and publish these things fully. Some of them, including even some of the evening newspapers, do their best as it is. It is no use the noble Earl on behalf of the Government (I dare say with his brief given to him) trying to make me say that I am accusing the Press. I am not accusing the Press; I am accusing the Government of evading their responsibility. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at five minutes before five o'clock.