§ Sir S. Reed
As I was saying, as far as my poor abilities allow me to penetrate this jungle and interpret the facts which have been put before us by the hon. Member for Sunderland, I think you can crystallise it in a very few words. This is a great and a sinister step in the further trustification of the Press 61 Britain and the Empire and of bringing within those trusts and into the very limited hands which control it not only most of our daily papers, but the news service which has hitherto been entirely independent. I would therefore ask the Government, and I ask the Members of this House to urge the Government, to see that this transaction does not go through without further and very careful inquiry. I take it that it has largely been sprung upon my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer or my right hon. Friend the Minister of Information, whichever of them may be most directly concerned, and it would not be reasonable to ask them, at the present stage, to indicate how best there can be preserved in the national and Imperial interests the complete impartiality and objectivity of our main news service. But I ask this House to urge on the Government to see that this transaction shall not go through without a very careful investigation of all its implications. I go further and say— without a very careful inquiry into its sinister possibilities, so as to give them time to consider the immense interests concerned, not only the interests of Great Britain, but the interests of the whole Commonwealth, which is dependent upon this service for much of its daily news; and that after consultation they should come to us with proposals which may secure what I am sure 100 per cent, of the Members of this House and of this country desire, and it is, that not only now, in this great crisis, but at all times in the future, not only here, but in the Commonwealth, every citizen shall have the right to see served to him a fearless, straight, comprehensive and honest summary of the news- of the day, so that he 1869 may on that form his own opinions as to the policies which should be pursued in our great Imperial interests.
§ Captain Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)
I will detain the House for two sentences. I was just coming into the House at the time the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey) made a proposal that there should be some Trust which would see that the desirable impartiality to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Reed) referred was maintained in connection with this great news agency. I want to ask the Government to have this in mind in the constitution of any such Trust. It should be a free Trust, not controlled by any committee which holds shares and which renders its deliberations inoperative. If we can have a free Trust upon which all interests, national, provincial, broadcasting and Imperial, are represented, then I think decent, free meals will be well served.
§ The Minister of Information (Mr. Brendan Bracken)
We have had a most interesting Debate, but to a certain extent we have had a one-sided Debate, because nobody has spoken for the bold bad barons of Fleet Street who are apparently anxious to add to their powers. They wish to have control of what is described as England's greatest news agency. The position of the Government in this matter is very simple. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and I are actually negotiating with the parties concerned. It is quite open to the Government to bring in a Bill to nationalise Reuters, but would that be helpful from the point of view of Reuters? Certainly not. If a news agency were regarded throughout the world as being the property of the British Government, its news value would be very small. Here is an opportunity, it is said, for the Government to start their own news agency. Well, believe me, from what I have seen in my limited experience of my present Ministry, I think the financial misfortunes of such a news agency would be beyond all description. We had better face up to the fact that whoever manage Reuters must be people who also have the financial responsibility for the concern.
I am the servant of the House, and I am quite willing to accept the suggestion that Reuters should be nationalised (Interruption).—An hon. Member says 1870 that nobody suggested it. But what are we doing? We are discussing the expropriation of private property. The Government are a customer of Reuters and no more, and I imagine that the generality of the shareholders of Reuters will take the view that even were the Government to withdraw their account they might be willing to work it up into an even more effective news agency than it has been in the past. I want to put this on record. If my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey), who is chairman of Reuters, thinks that in the past 10 or 12 years Reuters' position as a world news agency has been equal to that of, say, the Associated Press of America, he is greatly mistaken. Reuters, to my mind, have lost ground. We have got to face up to that; they have lost ground in a most remarkable way. I think my hon. Friend under his administration has been doing his best to improve it, but nevertheless we must face up to the fact that it is not a Canterbury Cathedral or an ancient British institution which is at stake. It is a commercial business, and a highly competitive commercial business.
§ Mr. Bracken
Well, we are proud of the old school tie and the old English name. We have to remember that if the Government nationalise Reuters—I quite agree that nobody has suggested it actually, but in practice that is what will happen if we follow the proposals made—we shall have a difficult job to manage the business. Supposing, for the sake of argument, we do not do that but start our own news agency. Here is the House of Commons with a large Conservative majority suggesting, so far as I understand it, that we should start our own news agency if Reuters do not come to heel. I think that is a very futile argument. We are approaching a problem by way of getting all parties concerned into some form of agreement, but the thing that worries me, and must worry the Chancellor of the Exchequer far more, is, Who is to finance this business? I beg the House to be a little patient, because we are actually in negotiation with all the parties concerned.
I hope to be able to tell the House very soon what are the results of the negotiations, but meanwhile. I do not want to 1871 prejudice the negotiations by saying, as apparently some people seem to think, that the Press barons of Fleet Street might use Reuters against the national interests, and that these trustified Press organisations of London are highly dangerous and that we must look out for them. I would remind hon. Members that a very large proportion of the provincial Press is trustified. The joint stock principle has entered into most of the newspaper business of England, and the argument is only one between large and small joint stock companies.
A good deal of heat has been imported into the Debate. The suggestion seems to have been made that the Newspaper Proprietors Association are unpatriotic or villainous. They are neither. I was a member of the Association before I assumed my present office. I think the wise course to follow would be to see how the Chancellor and I fare when we deal with these great barons of Fleet Street. If we fail to get a satisfactory solution, I think the Debate should be continued, but I deprecate at the present time the importation of a lot of criticism of parties whom we have to meet tomorrow, without knowing what line these gentlemen, these noble gentlemen, are going to take. I think that, despite the many defects of the Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a pretty good negotiator, but if we cannot reach a satisfactory solution on the question, the Debate will be continued. I have taken great notice of what has been said, and nothing has been said in the Debate which has been the slightest bit in favour of anything except the point of view expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunder-land (Mr. Storey), who is chairman of Reuters. I think that the House, having listened to their observations, now expects us to take note of them. I have taken a lot of notes of them, and I shall have an opportunity of reporting to the House. But before I conclude. I want to say that it is extremely unfair to the Newspaper Proprietors Association to regard them as a lot of greedy bandits who are anxious to doctor the news for the benefit of their readers. They are no such thing. And if they were, why did not the Press Association, who have sold these shares to these sup- 1872 posed scoundrels of Fleet Street, take that into account before this great protest began? I suggest to the House that the best thing to do is to let the Chancellor and me get on with the negotiations, and if we fail in them, then this Debate will continue. We shall be very glad indeed to listen to some more observations on the misconduct of Fleet Street, and I hope that at some time or other somebody will get up and put the other point of view, which we have not heard to-day.
§ Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)
Will the right hon. Gentleman report to the House the result of these negotiations before any scheme is legally consummated?
§ Mr. Bracken
I could not give an undertaking like that. I must say that these negotiations have really gone through to this extent, that the Newspaper Proprietors Association have bought the shares. They have not altered the articles, but they have bought the shares. The deal has gone through, but there is nothing in that because if, in the national interest, it is desirable to undo a deal, it can be undone, as we are dealing with patriotic parties on all sides. I do not think it is the exact date that matters, but the question of the public interest.
§ Mr. Bevan
Following up my first question, the right hon. Gentleman is to take part in negotiations, and as the deal has gone through, the negotiations must be about something else. He is going to try and bring about a modification of the existing position, or some modification of the articles of association, which would meet the desire expressed in all parts of the House to-day. Will he report to the House before final effect is given to any scheme which ultimately emerges?
§ Mr. Bracken
I cannot do that, because actually the contract has been signed and to a large extent the deal has gone through. But I shall present the negotiators on the other side with a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT and, when they have digested it, they may be more amenable to suggestions. Only a onesided account of this transaction has been given in the House.
§ Commander Sir Archibald Southby (Epsom)
I understood my right hon. Friend to say that he and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were in some negotiations with the parties to this transaction. 1873 He also said that the transaction has now gone through. What is it that he proposes to say to the negotiators? If it has gone through, is he going to be able to undo it, which is apparently what the House would like to see done? Will he bear in mind that, as far as I have understood the Debate, the House does not want control of Reuters to go into the hands of a few people any more than it wants it to go into the hands of the Government? What the House wants is that Reuters should continue to be an independent body as it is at present. Will he try to bring that condition of affairs about, that Reuters shall be as it was before these negotiations took place and the transaction in the shares was carried out?
§ Mr. Bracken
What is really happening is that the Press Association, a really independent body, under whose hands Reuters has prospered, has transferred the control of a half interest in Reuters, in my opinion on commercial grounds, to the Newspaper Proprietors Association. What is the Government's power in the matter? My hon. and gallant Friend asks me if the deal has gone through. I do not know how far it has gone except that the money has been put up.
§ Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Does that mean that the Government have not been in the negotiations since they started?
§ Mr. Bracken
The Government have been keeping a fatherly eye on something that they do not own, and they are still keeping a fatherly eye on the matter, and, if the House of Commons thinks on the whole that it is the sort of business for which the Government's approval is required, that is a great strength to the Chancellor. Whether these gentlemen run their business at a loss or at a profit does not matter to us. What we are doing is saying to them in the national interest, "It is desirable on the whole that you should have some form of trusteeship." I am not going to forecast what is going to happen, but we are fortified by this Debate. There is apparently a real and genuine interest in it. If we are to ask them to take our advice on how to manage their business, we negotiators will have a certain amount of trouble in putting that across. We are greatly helped by the unanimity of the House, because hon. Members opposite would 1874 like to nationalise every business in the country. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] I except the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), of course. What hon. Members behind me are endeavouring to impose on Reuters is the worst of all forms of government; that is, that we should control the business without having any interest in it. If we can put that across to-morrow, we shall have the good will of the House, and I hope we shall have the good will of the people with whom we are negotiating.
§ Sir S. Reed
Will my right hon. Friend, before the discussions come on to-morrow, look very closely into the composition of the governing force of Reuters? The governing force is the Press Association, which is a true co-operative concern of the provincial Press of Great Britain. What we think is that the co-operative influence in Reuters will be destroyed if it is put into the hands of a Trust in this way.
§ Mr. Bracken
When my hon. Friend talks about the provincial Press being cooperative, he had better look at some of the provincial papers. My hon. Friend sits for Aylesbury, and he will share my feeling that there is not much co-operation between two rival local papers. It is a mistaken view that it is only fn the provinces that you get the cream of journalism. If you want to see cat and dog fights, you had better look at some of the provincial papers. I deprecate the view that the London papers are the most wicked things and that the provincial papers are absolutely saintly. I do not know why the provincial weekly or daily papers should be regarded as better papers than the "Times" or the "Daily Telegraph" and other papers.
§ Mr. Bracken
I will take all the others together if you like. My hon. Friend says he is speaking for a paper in India which has always benefited from Reuters and always has been completely independent. Is it absolutely the case that the Indian papers are independent? I think that there is a great deal of English money in the Indian Press and a great deal of English control.
§ Mr. Loftus (Lowestoft)
I would like to take up one or two points in my right hon. Friend's remarks. Let me assure him that those of us who are deeply concerned and alarmed about this recent development impute no evil motives whatever to the proprietors of the London newspapers. His remarks about the bad barons of the Press misconceive our attitude. What we object to is the over-centralisation of great power outside the control of the Government and Parliament. We feel that that is an evil. Wherever in any country you get a small body of men concentrating more and more power into their hands, it is a danger to democracy and to individual liberty. We feel that without imputing the least evil motives, but in the main nothing but the most patriotic motives to the owners of the London Press. The accusation was that they might use this power by the selection of news and so on against the national interest. We do not impute that.
§ Mr. Bracken
My hon. Friend must understand that that was not my accusation. The accusation was made by the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey), the chairman of Reuters.
§ Mr. Storey
I must deny that suggestion and challenge my right hon. Friend to find a single word in my speech to support it.
§ Mr. Bracken
I must apologise. It was my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies).
§ Mr. C. Davies
If the right hon. Gentleman will read what I said he will see that I said there was a possibility under the new arrangement. I make no charge against those in control under the present arrangement. I was making exactly the same point as my hon. Friend is making now.
§ Mr. Loftus
Everyone in the House must realise that a few proprietors of the Press, acting from the highest patriotic motives, might select opinion in such a way in future years as to favour one particular party against the other. That is conceivable, that is even probable, and I want to emphasise the point that the over-centralisation of power and authority not under control is wrong. Then 1876 the right hon. Gentleman said that the provincial Press was already largely trustified, and that many of the leading provincial newspapers were controlled in London. This is reaily a little more trustification, but trustification is the evil to which we object, and why should this deal be defended by that kind of argument?
§ Mr. Bracken
It was said that the London Press was trustified and I replied that most of the provincial newspapers are now owned by joint stock companies.
§ Mr. Loftus
And controlled from London. In the days of my youth we had a far more representative and free Press than we have to-day. There were three or four more evening papers—the "Sun," the "Pall Mall Gazette" the "Westminster Gazette;" the "St. James's Gazette" and so on. There were far more weekly papers and far more provincial papers. Many of us feel that this over-centralisation of power is evil and against the democratic spirit and is a possible future danger to the State. I would recall to the House words spoken a long time ago by some famous man who said, "Let who will make the laws of a State so long as I can make the songs and ballads of the nation." Today we must alter that and say, "Let Parliament do what it likes; what does it matter if one authority has the power to select the only news to be allowed to be put before the public: "That is what we have to guard against to-day. Therefore, I thoroughly support the protest made, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will remember that it is not a choice between nationalisation and the present deal. We want; some moderate system, private ownership if you like, but with independent representatives, independent trustees, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Reed) has suggested. That is what we want, and we must not confuse the issue by merely saying it is nationalisation against private ownership. In an important matter like this we must have independent representatives to guard the interests of both the State and of the general public.
§ Question, "That this House do now Adjourn," put, and agreed to.