HL Deb 10 February 1959 vol 214 cc58-68

5.32 p.m.

LORD BIRDWOOD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the extremely conflicting attitudes adopted by British and Czech journalists in reporting conditions after a recent exchange visit of journalists arranged through the Foreign Office, and bearing in mind that the result has been only to mislead the public in both countries, whether they will refrain from organising or encouraging such visits in the future. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name. In doing so I have a rather difficult task, in that I have to ask the House to reorientate itself from the very stimulating and slightly acrimonious discussion on economics to a background which I think could be described as psychological. I chose the process of the Unstarred Question, because, as it seemed to me, this particular matter fell between two stools. It concerns a particular situation and as such your Lordships would not expect a full-scale debate on it. On the other hand, there is, in my view, such a lot behind these particular events, and certainly much more than can be brought out in the normal process of Question and Answer and supplementary.

The story, as I know it, runs something like this. In mid-November of last year four Czech journalists came to this country and three journalists simultaneously went from this country to Czechoslovakia. I do not know whether this was fortuitous or whether it was chance, Nevertheless it was an exchange, and it had the official stamp, in that a fortnight's programme was laid on for the Czechs in this country—an elaborate programme, including, of course, the usual excellent hospitality in Lancaster House and so on.. It is, I think, significant that the Czech invitation coincided roughly with a Czech National day, the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Czechoslovakia on October 28. It seems that perhaps the Czech Government wished to offset the criticism which normally would have come from the British Press in this country, of people who have spent much of their lives in defaming and falsifying the great work of men such as Benes, Masaryk and Stefanik. I will quote from certain of the resulting reports on return. The first example I wish to offer can be regarded merely as unfortunate. The representative of the Daily Telegraph interviewed a certain Father Plojhav, a so-called priest of a so-called church. The interview, so far as the priest was concerned, was devoted more or less the whole time to slandering his former Archbishop, Archbishop Beran. Archbishop Beran has for a long time been under permanent detention without trial; nobody knows exactly where he is. Six years ago the late Cardinal Griffin in this country paid him a great tribute. What I would ask your Lordships to note is that the British correspondent did not record that Plojhav, who was his sole informant, was himself suspended and excommunicated from the Catholic Church several years ago.

More significant, I think, is the general comment from British Pressmen on the general conditions in Czechoslovakia. If I may, I will read to your Lordships certain rather sharply-contrasting passages. The Daily Telegraph says: People have money in the savings banks and now a system of personal loans has been introduced to make it easier to buy the more expensive goods. The Economist says: … an overcoat or a suit will make a much bigger hole in the average wage-packet—which is officially put at 1,300 crowns monthly—than it would in Britain. There must be a good many people earning about, or less than, the average wage who still do not find it too easy to make ends meet. The Daily Telegraph says: In no other Communist country, not even in Russia, is it possible to see so much building both of industrial plants and of housing in such a small area. The Economist says: … housing is short and prices are high… In Bratislava, money which some local Party members think might be better spent on housing is being spent on reconstructing the ruined royal palace that dominates the city from a hill above the Danube… The Daily Telegraph says: As far as I could judge, the B.B.C. news broadcasts beamed to Europe are used by provincial newspapers here as their main source of reliable and speedy news from the West. The Economist says: Meanwhile the Communists in Czechoslovakia maintain their power through what seems to be an extremely efficient secret police, and protect it through the thorough exclusion of dangerous contacts and thoughts. Those are slightly conflicting views. I am not necessarily questioning the truth or otherwise of them; I merely draw attention to the fact that they represent different shades of opinion, the kind of conflicting comment which we in this country should expect. But I would emphasise that, since those are conflicting views, they represent individual views and are therefore typical of the democratic way in which we set about reporting conditions in a foreign country. In so far as the British public are concerned, I think they would come to the conclusion that the truth about Czechoslovakia is extremely elusive.

I would compare those views, where they happen to be eulogistic, with what the Czechs seemingly think about their own situation. At the end of January the newspaper Pravda published in Plzen, the great city of the Skoda works, quoted a reader who was commenting on living conditions in his own country and who, after describing his desperate search for a few household commodities around the town, concludes with this statement: Somehow I cannot understand this. There are huge turbines and an artificial satellite of the sun is in outer space. Such miracles come from the hands of the people. Are they not able to make such a simple thing as a switch, a rod, pipes for water and mains, saws and stockings? That I cannot believe. Where does the fault lie? It would seem that, where our journalists were impressed by what they saw, the Czechs themselves are not quite so satisfied with their own situation. I could elaborate that point by quoting Czech criticism of powerhouses, of "absenteeism" and so on.

What do the Czechs say about us as a result of this visit? I think it is agreed that our journalists are quoting freely, fairly and objectively. I should now like to quote from the first report which appeared on December 8 in the trade union daily paper Prace by Mr. Jan Stern. After protesting about a lack of knowledge of Czechoslovakia in this country, he concludes by paying a tribute to our great hospitality and the number of people who shook him by the hand as he said "Good-bye", and that sort of thing. He said: We could easily come to an understanding with these people, but these people have one great fault—they do not yet decide British policy. He repeats, rather ominously, the word, "yet". Apart from the fact that that extract displays a complete misunderstanding of democracy as we understand it in this country, I draw attention to the implication of the rather sinister hint in the word, "yet."

On December 21 the same writer took a far stronger line. After referring, rather patronisingly, to the fact that we did not slavishly imitate American motor cars in our designs, he said this: That does not mean that brutal American immorality is not seeping through the rotten shell of English Puritanism… There is also that England which dropped bombs on Port Said and which is madly and indiscriminately shooting in Cyprus; that is the England which rules. But where is the England which labours behind machines, goes down the pits, strikes, fears further sacking and demonstrates against war? Where is the England which is to rule in the future? He goes on to describe Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. He says that he spoke to a Negro: 'Explain to me a simple thing', insisted a Negro while talking to an adversary, how is it that when I come to Britain I get the worst job, and when a Briton goes to India he gets the best? Further, as regards the march on Swaffham the other day, he refers to the police. He says: On December 6 some 150 demonstrators protested against the construction of rocket bases in Norfolk. The police, together with soldiers, threw themselves on the demonstrators. They started to beat them up and knocked them down into the thick layers of fresh concrete. After such a free and democratic exchange of views at the building site, many beaten people remained lying on the ground. That was the tone of his criticism. The same writer, in an article entitled "Picture of London", described his encounter with a beggar in the park. He says: In the evening, not far from glittering Piccadilly we saw sitting on a bench in a park a heavily breathing fellow with a beard. He was covered with a dirty tarpaulin and his feet were in a paper sack. We woke him up and he looked at us. 'What, do you sleep here?' Yes, I do sleep here. 'Are you unemployed?' I used to work. Now I am without a job. You can sleep quite well here.' Britain, however rich and technically advanced, cannot maintain for all her citizens work and roofs over their heads … To know for sure that to-morrow will be better than to-day and that then it will be better still—that is the path towards Socialism. I suggest that the familiar substitute of the word "Socialism" for "Commun- ism" is a deliberate and fairly skilful confusion.

Finally, my Lords, I have one more quotation—that of another Czech journalist, called Oplustil, in Rude Pravo, in an article entitled "Fog over London". After expanding on the poverty of this country, on colonial oppression, on the brutal subjugation of India, on a college for coloured students from the subservient Commonwealth nations (as he calls them), on the exploitation of Kuwait and so on, he draws attention to a feature which will be familiar to some of your Lordships outside the entrance to this House—your Lordships' car park. He said this: English slogans should be the name for the various public notices, which would be worth compiling into an almanack. They tell more of Britain than its most eloquent M.P.'s about the class distinctions, which are not forgotten even in front of the building of the so-called national Parliament, which in its care for their Lordships goes so far as to reserve parking space 'For Peers only'. Here he reinforces his argument with a photograph: there is a Humber Snipe parked in front of the offending words, "For Peers only."

It seems to me that you and I perhaps can afford to smile over this kind of reporting, but unfortunately the people in Czechoslovakia believe these things. When a journalist has to seek out a tramp in a park in order to prove that Great Britain cannot house or feed its people, the Czechs in fact believe that we are underfed and under-housed as a nation. The difference between the two systems of reporting is that our reporters report objectively and are probably even inclined to be generous. In contrast, the men from the other side know exactly what they have to report before they arrive here. That being so, I ask the question as to whether it is really worth while asking them. If they know the type of article, and we know the type of article they are going to publish after the visit, I cannot understand the value of their coming here.

There is, of course, the grave issue of ideology behind this. May I quote what a German Minister said to me the other day? He made the rather terrifying comment that a democracy, by virtue of its nature, by virtue of the fact that it will look at all sides of the question, by its mere tolerance, will always lay itself open to danger when it is up against an adversary which enjoys a totalitarian system: and that totalitarian system will always win merely because it will exploit that very inherent process within a democracy. The German Minister, in fact, used his illustration to indicate the grave danger that East and West Germany would have if ever the ring was cleared and they started on equal terms from scratch.

This is no time for a homily on ideological values; but I should hope that that kind of grave, sombre background will be borne in mind if and when such visits are ever contemplated again in the future. I have purposely worded the terms of my Question severely. I should not wish to insist that these visits should always and for ever be closed; but I hope to hear from the noble Earl the Leader of the House that next time there will be much more caution exercised, and that some indignation may be apparent at the misrepresentation of our people to a people whom in happier times we regarded as our friends, and whom we regarded as the fair flower of democracy in Europe before the war. That is the purpose behind my Question.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, as my noble friend has said, he adopted the device of an Unstarred Question because he wanted to say a number of things which he would not have been able to include in a supplementary, and I do not in any way complain of his procedure. On the contrary, I think it is a good example of what an Unstarred Question should be.

My Lords, a group of Czechoslovak journalists were, as he said, invited to this country in November as guests of Her Majesty's Government, and at about the same time a party of British journalists visited Czechoslovakia on the initiative of the Czechoslovak Government. Technically, for the noble Lord's information, this does not come under the heading of what is usually known as an exchange scheme. It so happened that the two invitations coincided, but it was not technically under the scheme for exchanging visits of journalists.

I do not think my noble friend would dispute the fact that our objective in bringing foreign journalists to Britain and in sending ours abroad is right, because the more we get to know about each other's countries, and the more journalists get to know, the better it must be, or should be, for public relations. I should think that the House would probably agree, too, that it is right that we should try to arrange visits by journalists from this country to the Communist countries, and vice versa; but, of course, in so doing we have to accept, I think, that there is a risk that a journalist from a Communist country, when he returns home, will toe the Party line and will produce the kind of misrepresentation of which the noble Lord has given us examples to-day. Certainly, I think that when in future we try to organise visits of this kind we should do our best to find journalists who have open minds and who will report objectively, as I think our people do.

Nevertheless, even though we were to do our best to vet people who come and select people who will report objectively, there is no doubt that we shall from time to time find people going home to their countries and reporting false information. I personally feel that this is a risk we have got to run. At present the chances of getting behind the Iron Curtain into countries in sympathy with Russia's point of view and Russia's policy are very limited, but there are some. Therefore, I should hope that, while this discussion has been useful to us—and we shall take note of what the noble Lord has said when arranging future visits—he will not go on to ask us to limit visits or to say in general that we think that they are not valuable.

I have inquired into this visit and there is no doubt that when the Czechoslovak visitors were here their visit created considerable interest in Czechoslovakia and stimulated people to want to go and see for themselves what is going on in Czechoslovakia. Some of the people who met the Czechoslovak journalists who came here said that in their opinion there was no doubt at all that the journalists had been impressed by what they saw in Britain. One must remember that in a totalitarian State it may be quite impossible for a journalist, whatever he feels, to write what he feels and immediately on his return to tell the truth as he sees it; but in the long run a visit to this country, we believe, cannot fail to influence the view of the individual, and we hope that, in the long run, he, as a journalist, will begin to tell at least some of the truth about conditions in our country. Therefore, I am sure the noble Lord will not press me to say that we would limit these exchanges. On the contrary, we want to expand them; and, while taking note of what he says, I hope that the House will support me and the Government in the belief that any way in which we can get contact with the Communist countries is valuable, although we admit that we take the risk of misrepresentation with our eyes open.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Earl the Leader of the House on his very wise reply. I am sure that he is right in refusing to limit these exchanges of journalists and others in the way he has indicated. I think the noble Lord. Lord Birdwood, is wrong in first of all suggesting that this type of thing is completely characteristic of the result of these exchanges. I have not myself had much contact with the Czechoslovak situation, but I have seen some of the reports which have been taken back by journalists in the U.S.S.R. which, although they no doubt contain a certain amount of this routine "clap-trap" of the Suez type, and that kind of thing, have in other ways been very informative. If the noble Lord had the opportunity of seeing a film which was made by the Russians about two years ago and which I believe was very widely shown in the U.S.S.R., he must agree that it gave a very reasonable, objective view of life in this country at the present time and can only have done good to the masses of Russian people who saw it and who have not the opportunity of coming here.

On the only occasion I have been in Prague since the Communist coup d'état, the information I had was that there was a great deal of listening to the B.B.C. broadcasts, even at that time; and I have no doubt that to some extent that is still going on. The Czechs are an exceptionally intelligent people and have a long history of living, as it were, underground. I do not for a moment imagine that rather silly reports such as those which the noble Lord read out carry much conviction to a very large number of the Czech people. In fact, they may have exactly the reverse effect, and it may well be that, taken in conjunction with listening to the broadcasts, the effect will be to discredit the journalists and the newspapers in Czechoslovakia, rather than persuade the Czech and Slovak people that the sort of life which is going on in this country consists of large numbers of unemployed people sleeping out in the parks and that sort of thing. I should say that they would take this sort of thing with a very considerable grain of salt. I therefore feel that the Government policy in regard to this matter, not to clamp down on these visits, is a very wise one indeed, and I hope that they will maintain it.

5.59 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, did not seriously suggest that we should discontinue these mutual visits. I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Home, is perfectly right, and I am very glad that on his return—and we are very glad to see him back—his first speech should be one with which we can so cordially agree.

Does the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, really imagine that the people in the countries behind the Iron Curtain think that their standard of living is in any way superior to ours? They cannot think that if they remember what Khrushchev himself has said: that he hopes that at the end of seven years, if his plan is successful, his people will have attained the standard of living of the people in the West to-day. That is a clear admission that their standard of living is nothing like the standard of living on this side of the Iron Curtain.


Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I was speaking of Czechoslovakia, which of course has always had a very high standard of living.


I have no doubt. I do not know whether the standard of living in Czechoslovakia is materially higher than that in the Soviet Union. I thought that in his Question the noble Lord was rather generalising as to the value of these exchange visits, and that would apply equally well to exchanges with Soviet Union journalists as with Czechoslovakian journalists. I thought he was merely giving an illustration. As the noble Earl the Leader of the House said, I think that, whatever these journalists may say in their Press, their impressions cannot be suppressed: they are bound to return and to talk about what they really saw. And that, I think, is all to the good.

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, I have little to contribute to this discussion, but in a curious way I am qualified to say something. At first sight, as an old newspaperman myself, I am bound to feel a certain sense of resentment at any suggestion that newspapermen should be restricted from going anywhere where there is something of interest to report. On the other hand, from personal experience of having been behind the Iron Curtain as a Parliamentarian, and having spoken to various British journalists who have been behind the Iron Curtain. I know how difficult it is honestly to report what are the conditions. The trouble is that the régime shows a very plausible surface which is not the true nature of the country at all. In order to penetrate beneath this surface it is essential to have conversations which will not endanger you but will considerably endanger the people with whom you speak; and that immediately determines how accurately it is possible to report conditions in such a country.

As regards the visits of Iron Curtain country journalists here, I would say, also from some personal experience, that in a country where there is complete Press censorship the result tends to be that nobody believes anything he sees in print. However, if something should be written with a London or a British date-line, I think it carries more conviction. I therefore agree with my noble friend Lord Birdwood that care should be taken in the number of such journalists who visit this country.