HL Deb 05 May 1964 vol 257 cc1161-4

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might interrupt the debate for a few moments to repeat a short statement which has been made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The statement is as follows:

"Her Majesty's Government have been informed by the United States Government that their Embassy in Taiz have said that there is no truth in reports that the heads of British soldiers were publicly exhibited in Taiz."


My Lords, we are very grateful to the noble Lord for making this statement. I am sure he will agree that the reports caused very great distress to the parents, relatives and friends of those concerned, and it is a great relief to all of us that we are now informed that there is no truth in these reports. I should like to ask the noble Lord how it came about that these reports were made at all. I understand they emanated from the Commander on the spot, and resulted from a statement made to the Press. I would ask the noble Lord whether he would not agree that it is undesirable that commanders should make statements to the Press in these circumstances, and that if they have any information of the kind which they honestly believe to be true it would be better that they should make it to the Government and and not to the Press, and leave it for the Government, the Foreign Office or whichever Department it may be, to deal with the matter as they think right? If that had been done in this case a great deal of distress and unhappiness would have been saved to the families concerned.


My Lords, I share with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, the relief that this distress, which must have been very acute, to the relatives has now been dispelled and that there is no truth, so far as we know, in the story. The story originated from what was considered to be a reliable source, from the Federal Army, and the General Officer Commanding, having received the information, believed it to be reliable and thought it best to make it available. But, of course, he did qualify his remarks by saying "If this is true". Now that it is shown not to have been true, I am quite sure the General Officer Commanding shares the regret that this unnecessary distress has been caused.


My Lords, may I ask whether the General Officer Commanding has a political adviser? One understands that in situations of this sort there are both military and political problems to be settled. One would have thought that where rumours were rife the General Officer Commanding before speaking to a Press Conference would consult the political adviser. In any case, I support my noble Leader in saying that rumours should be reported to Whitehall and, until they are substantiated, no statement at all should be made publicly.


My Lords, of course there is political advice available in Aden, but I am afraid I could not say whether or not, in this case, political advice was called for.


My Lords, is not General Cubbon an officer of the highest honour, integrity and ability, serving his country well in a most difficult situation? Is it not possible that the information that he received, though incorrect so far as it applies to the streets of Taiz, may be correct in another way—that is to say, that the heads have been decapitated, but left where they are, or exhibited somewhere else? Ought not Her Majesty's Government to give credence to those who are our friends and fighting on our side, before accepting as absolutely veracious the information that comes from an enemy territory, The Yemen, and from the United States Embassy in that country which is by no means friendly to us?


My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend that General Cubbon is a most distinguished officer who has rendered great service to this country, and I hope that nothing that I have said, and I am sure that nothing that noble Lords opposite have said, will detract in any way from his reputation. I am absolutely certain that he did what he did for the best of reasons. With regard to the latter half of my noble friends question, the best information we have, which is from the United States Embassy in Taiz—and the United States, I would remind my noble friend, are our closest allies—does not give credence to the story, and I think we must accept that these heads were not shown in Taiz. I, for one, am glad that that is so.


My Lords, what worries me a little is that the report should be given by the Commanding Officer to the Press. I do not see why it should have been given to the Press—why it should not have been confidential. as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has implied, to Whitehall.


General Officers Commanding have, of course, the right to give Press conferences if, in their opinion, it is right that they should do so. On this occasion General Cubbon thought it was right to give this information. He prefaced it all by the words, "If it is true"; and I think he acted from the best of all possible motives. In this case it turned out that it was not true, and I, for one, as I say, am glad that it was not.


My Lords, I do not wish to say anything —none of us does—which detracts from the military reputation of the General concerned, but, arising out of this experience, would it not be wise for the Government, in cases where there is any room for doubt, to advise military officers in command not to communicate with the Press before they have communicated with Whitehall? Had that been done, it is highly probable that such embarrassment as this would have been avoided. The point is, can the Government do something to avoid a repetition of this somewhat unhappy experience?


My Lords, it is quite normal for General Officers Commanding to give Press conferences, if they feel it necessary to do so, in their own commands; and I think it has been shown over the years that this has not been abused in any way. But certainly I will pass on the suggestion of the noble Lord to the Minister of Defence, whose responsibility it is.


My Lords, is not one of the most undignified things about this country at the present time the eagerness with which Press and public opinion one day accepts these stories as accurate and uses them as propaganda against President Nasser, and the next day, because of a denial, switches over and blames our own men on the spot?


My Lords, does the Press have to be a whipping boy for everybody in everything?

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