HL Deb 07 July 1981 vol 422 cc574-6

2.51 p.m.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken by them to convey to the people of the United States the basic reasons for our present policy in Northern Ireland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, the Ambassador and his staff in the United States are making every effort to explain our policy and to counter malicious or ill-informed reports about Northern Ireland by many methods, including television and radio appearances, letters to the press and personal briefings. A number of Ministers, Members of Parliament and senior officials have also visited the United States to put our own point of view.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, while I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer, and of course support the policy of Her Majesty's Government in Northern Ireland, is my noble friend aware that programmes on American television in very recent days can only have resulted in making more difficult the policy of Her Majesty's Government for Northern Ireland? I refer, particularly, to the inflammatory appearances of a young girl of tender age who appeared before millions of Americans on their ABC television; she was appealing for the life of her father. That girl was only 11 years old. May I ask my noble friend whether Her Majesty's Government have made any protest to the American Government about this incident?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I certainly deplore the use of small children for purposes described by my noble friend, but of course the press in the United States is just as free as the press in this country, and the United States Government would, therefore, be no better able to direct their media than we are.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what the qualifications are for officials sent abroad? Are they trained in public relations? Are they experts on advertising? What are the grounds for it being thought that they can exert influence over the American media?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the diplomatic staff in the United States who fulfil these tasks are not specifically trained in media promotion activities, as my noble friend suggests, but they are, of course, very fully briefed from London and receive the fullest support from the Government departments here.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, might I ask my noble friend if Her Majesty's Government have considered taking the centre page in the main American dailies and really putting forward the facts? Is my noble friend aware that even educated Americans are extremely ignorant about the position in Northern Ireland?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not think it is true to say that we are losing the propaganda war in the United States. Informed mainstream opinion, particularly in the major United States national newspapers, is very much on our side through the columns of their editorials.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, are not members of our diplomatic and consular staffs in the United States highly competent in this field, very energetic, and doing a very good job of work on behalf of this country?

Lord Trefgarne

That is certainly our view, my Lords.

Baroness Bacon

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that I was in Washington at the time of the murder of Lord Mountbatten, that I was absolutely appalled at some of the inverviews that took place on the very day of his funeral, and that the position is now very much worse than it was then? Would he not agree that, while there are quite a number of people in the United States who do not understand our position, on the other hand, there are a great many people, some in high places—Senators and Congressmen—who understand very well, but choose to mislead the people because of the effect on their electors.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I cannot answer for American politicians, of course, but the noble Baroness is right to suggest that television is a particular problem, and that especially applies to local television in the United States, which, of course, is a very substantial medium; there are several thousand small television stations in that country. It must be true that they do not all employ the cream of the television reporting industry. We do seek to help and brief their film crews as best we can, but we cannot, of course, compel them to report objectively.

Lord de Freyne

My Lords, may I ask what about our own television media? Do they help the situation in any way, or vice versa?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, our television companies, like the American ones, are, of course, free to broadcast as they think fit. But, of course, the Question on the Order Paper does not refer to that.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord, taking into account the difficulty that we have in getting the true position in Northern Ireland over to the people of America, what we do to try to persuade the Government of the Republic of Ireland to unite with us in trying to use their influence over their community in America to explain to them the true facts of our position in Northern Ireland?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the Government efforts in the general propaganda area are as I have already described them, but I would not want to go into detail with regard to the Government of the Republic of Ireland, which does, I think, go a little wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Monson

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the Government will consider adopting the excellent advice given in a recent issue of the Economist; namely, that we should remind the Americans that Britain and people of British stock have just as much right to be in Ulster as the Americans have to be in Texas, and that this comparison is all the more apt in that the much revered American folk hero of the siege of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, was himself an Ulsterman by origin?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we do not seek to lecture to the Americans any more than we appreciate lectures from them.

Lord Gore-Booth

My Lords, as a former director of the operations to which we are referring in the United States, I can assure those noble Lords who have spoken kindly of the information organisation that they are absolutely right: within the money one can get, and given the size of the United States, I can confirm that that organisation is very expert and does the best job possible with the money available, given the size of the United States.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the point the noble Lord makes through the medium of his supplementary question is very well taken. It is not true to say we are losing the propaganda war in the United States. Mainstream opinion is with us.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the noble Lord give the House an assurance that he will resist any kind of pressure upon him to turn our diplomatic staffs into a series of public relations officers? Will he bear in mind that many of us would view with dismay any endeavour to make the British Embassy in Washington a sub-branch of Saatchi and Saatchi?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, of course I share the view of the noble Lord the fact remains, however, that there is an important job to be done in this area in the United States, as elsewhere.