§ 7.6 p.m.
LORD WOLVERTON asked His Majesty's Government, under what statutory powers they suspended the publication of certain periodical journals. The noble Lord said: My Lords, at this late hour I shall detain your Lordships for
only a short time, but I think that this question is one of very considerable national importance. I have no personal interest in this at all, and I have no interest in any dailies, weeklies, or periodicals. But I think it is extremely important that we should discuss to-night this point of discrimination. If this order had been given in a friendly way, to help solve the crisis, I would have no complaint at all, but what I do complain about is that apparently it went out as an order that certain weekly periodicals were not to be printed, even if they were produced by hand by Roneo. Others were allowed to go on. Thu day before yesterday, in another place, the Prime Minister was questioned on this point, and he said it was done by agreement. By the word "agreement" we understand was meant agreement by the Periodicals Press Association. Not all periodicals belong to this Periodicals Press Association and, being further pressed, the Minister of Fuel and Power last night made a further statement. This was after I had put my question down, and I think I am entitled to quote him. It is in Hansard of last night, column 2193. The Minister said in answer to Mr. Byers:
The answer is that there is, of course, no statutory provision, but it was possible to gain the consent of those who represent, for the most part, the weekly periodicals. …
This seems to me entirely unsatisfactory, because a lot of people thought it was an order, and, therefore, they loyally obeyed it; [but other people were allowed to continue. I hope this sort of thing is not going to happen again. I think this discrimination is a very serious precedent to set.
§ THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH
My Lords, I venture to ask the noble Earl in his reply to deal with this question: Was the legal position made perfectly clear to the proprietors of weekly newspapers? There has been some loose and, no doubt, quite inaccurate talk of a ban upon the weekly periodicals. That, of course, is quite the wrong word to use in connexion with a purely voluntarily and highly patriotic compliance on the part of the weekly periodicals with the Government's wish. I hope Periodicals 1140 the Minister will be able to assure us that the legal position was perfectly clear, not merely to His Majesty's Government and not merely to the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, but also to all the proprietors of the weekly newspapers 1140 affected by the matter. I would also be very grateful if the noble Lord would deal with a story that is current—it came originally from an American source—to the effect that an American firm offered to print and finance in dollars the weekly called the Economist and to export it at no cost in dollars whatever to this country. It is understood that an import licence for this edition of the Economist was refused. I would be glad if the noble Lord could indicate to us the grounds on which that import licence was refused.
§ LORD DE L'ISLE AND DUDLEY
My Lords, I have no intention of detaining the House long, but although the hour is late the subject is one of very considerable importance, and I should not like it generally thought that this House does not regard it in that light. It must be clear to us that the unfettered liberty of the Press, subject to the laws of blasphemy and libel and other necessary laws, is one of the bulwarks of our democratic freedom. In fact, that is one of the arguments much used by the supporters of the Government. I sometimes think they protest a little too much, but anything which curbs or indirectly threatens the liberty of the Press must be most jealously regarded and investigated by Parliament. I am making no aspersion or insinuation that this was an attempt to curb the liberty of the Press, even if it was done inadvertently. Nevertheless, in my opinion that is small excuse.
The noble Lords who have preceded me have asked a very pertinent question of the Government. How is it that all weekly periodicals ceased publication, although, as it transpires, the Periodicals Press Association, which represents no more than 60 per cent.—I do not know whether that is in membership or in share capital—apparently answered for the whole lot without consulting the whole number. Those who have read the Economist, which has already been mentioned, must have read its very dignified protest against its suspension of publication. In fact, it is the first time, so the protest said, that it had not appeared, for over one hundred years. Even despite the fact that its offices were blitzed during the war, it did not cease publication. I hope that we shall have a satisfactory reply from the Government and also that we shall never have a recurrence of this 1141 incident. I do not regard even a fuel crisis as a necessary or good excuse for suppressing, as it has, comment upon public events, and in my opinion highly intelligent and highly informed comment.
THE EARL OF GAINSBOROUGH
Before the noble Lord replies, can he say why the Isis, the Oxford undergraduate periodical, was also included in the suspension order, as that is produced entirely by hand for the benefit of the undergraduates at Oxford?
§ LORD CHORLEY
Before answering the question which the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, has tabled, I should like to associate myself with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord De L'Isle and Dudley, said on the subject of the very great importance in this country of the continued liberty of the Press. All Governments in this country for many years past have recognized the vital importance in any democratically-governed country of complete liberty of the Press, and have recognized the vital part which the Press plays in moulding the opinions on which political activity in this country depends. It was only with the very greatest reluctance, in view of the gravity of the situation which is well known to all your Lordships, that this action was taken. I think that the noble Lord went rather too far when he described it in effect as a ban on the Press. The suspension of these periodicals just for a very short period (it was in no sense a censorship, an attempt to gag the Press, or anything of that kind) was a necessary step, taken in connexion with a very grave crisis. I was very glad to note that the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, recognized the patriotic action on the part of this Association which very generously and readily responded to the request of the Government. It is quite true that it does not represent the whole of the periodicals involved, but it does represent a substantial majority of them. I am sure your Lordships will agree with me that in the circumstances of the case it was quite impossible to get in touch with all the different proprietors of the various periodicals.
I regret that I am not in a position to answer the specific questions put to me about the Economist and the Isis. The question which has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, is simply as to what statutory powers there 1142 are for the suspension of publication, and that question was in effect answered by my right honourable friend in another place in the statement to which the noble Lord referred. His reply was to the effect that the suspension of publication of weekly newspapers was not the subject of any statutory order. It was secured by an instruction issued after consultation with bodies representing major interests in the newspaper and periodical Press. "Instruction" is the word which I think most accurately describes it. In a crisis it is necessary for the Government to bring to the notice of people concerned the steps which the Government think should be taken in the public interest. It was obviously quite well known to the bodies concerned that there was no statutory power under which the Government could or would seek to suspend the publication of these newspapers. But whether that legal position was known to the proprietor of every single newspaper up and down the country I am really quite unable to say. Nor would it have been possible or sensible for the Government to have issued a statement in the form which the noble Earl would have liked.
§ LORD DE L'ISLE AND DUDLEY
May I ask the noble Lord: Was the instruction sent out to the P.P.A., or sent out to individual periodicals? If so, was it in the form of an instruction stating that it had no force of law, or was that left vague?
§ LORD CHORLEY
I am afraid that I have not the instruction here. So far as I know, I do not think it contained anything of the sort. However, it would not be right for me to commit my right honourable friend in that respect, and I am afraid, with the information which I have, I am not able to answer the supplementary question which the noble Lord has just addressed to me.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
My Lords, I cannot but regret that so economical an answer has been given by the noble Lord. After all, this is not a new matter which has taken him by surprise. It has already been the subject of comment and indeed of debate in another place on several occasions. Frankly, I should have thought that the noble Lord would have come down able to answer, if not those supplementary questions about the Economist and the Isis, which are very 1143 relevant and appropriate, at any rate questions which can hardly be treated as supplementary, which are not only germane to the matter but are indeed the core of the whole business. He has tonight given us some information in the partial answer which I hardly think was available to us before. I hope that if we cannot have a further answer to-night, my noble friends will on a very early occasion return to the search for further and better information. I would suggest that we should have some answer on this. If not, they may think it worth while pursuing these matters.
In the first place, I wonder whether this was worth doing at all. How much coal, light or power was saved by this instruction? Perhaps the noble Lord could tell us that. It is a reasonable thing to ask, because we know that orders were given, and rescinded in a panic almost as soon as they were given. Orders were given to stop all the ships going out—a very foolish order. Within twenty-four hours, the order or instruction to the ports was cancelled. The noble Lord said we need not worry much about this because it was a very short sentence which was imposed. Well, it is rather a strange thing to say: "I do not think you need trouble because you have been convicted; your sentence was not a life sentence." As a matter of fact, the sentence was longer than anybody supposed; certainly longer than the papers supposed. The Minister of Fuel and Power said in another place, both on the Friday and the following Monday, that this emergency would be a matter of three or four days' duration, and that when we had endured those three or four days there would be light. We have been going on now for several weeks and this is not at an end.
May I ask the noble Lord this question—and I have no doubt that it will be repeated as soon as possible if it is not answered: When the Minister, or his representatives, interviewed these papers and gave them advice or instructions, were they advised or instructed that this absence of light was to last for three or four days? And was it upon that comforting assurance that a proportion of them agreed to suspend their activities? We are, first of all, told it is an agreement. If it is an agreement—that is, an agreement between two willing parties—it is 1144 very desirable to know who were the parties, and whether those parties who were there had power and authority to speak on behalf of others. And it certainly is very relevant to know what were the facts advanced on which the agreement was made. We certainly ought to know that. There are such things as contracts entered into under duress.
Then there is this extraordinary expression. I am not arguing for the moment whether it was right or wrong to suspend these papers—to give them this sentence, be it long or short—but I cannot let pass what has fallen from the Minister without underlining the extraordinary observation which he made at the end. He said that there were no powers to order these people not to do anything, but that it was right and proper that His Majesty's Government should give them an instruction. It may have been right and proper for His Majesty's Government to appeal to them—and an appeal to anybody in this country at this time would be answered. Of course we are going to carry out an order, however ill-judged it may be; at this moment we are all prepared to carry out orders and play our part. But under all the volumes of wartime regulations which have been continued into peace, it is surprising that there should not be a power to compel almost anybody to do—
§ LORD CHORLEY
If I may interrupt the noble Viscount, I said that there was no statutory power. There is a Defence Regulation under which the matter could have been dealt with.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
Really, the noble Lord's intervention does not make it much better. There was no statutory power. They were then left to suppose—and certainly hitherto both the other place and this House have been led to suppose—that there was no legal power. Now, the noble Lord says that there is a Defence Regulation under which they could have acted. If the Government are going to act, and to order His Majesty's subjects to do things, as distinct from an appeal—and this was an instruction—then it is the clear duty of His Majesty's Government to exercise legal powers in what they do, and to do the thing in proper legal form. I am sure that, rightly or wrongly, if the newspapers were asked, they would abstain in the most patriotic manner, although personally, unless something material was gained by it, I should 1145 have thought it was an extremely panicky piece of business to stop these papers from publishing. No evidence has been given to us as to how much coal or fuel was saved—
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
This I do say beyond any shadow of doubt: the way this has been done has been discreditable in the extreme. The Government do not care to find out whether they have legal power or not, and then at the last moment they say: "We issued an instruction. We could have done it in a legal manner but we did not." This is not the way in which a democratic Government is generally carried on.
§ LORD AMMON
It is rather amusing to hear the noble Viscount who has just sat down attacking my noble friend because he has done things for which he has no legal authority. In the discussion on the Companies Bill, which we had this afternoon, I remember very distinctly the noble Viscount stating that he did things for which he had no authority because he felt it was in the interests of the public. Therefore, I do not think it lies in him to take that line. With regard to the other comments, my noble friend has done exactly what he was asked to do. He has answered the question on the Paper, and he was not asked to prepare himself for something which has developed into a debate. Had there been any intention to pursue this, and a Resolution had been moved, or a Motion for Papers, no doubt my noble friend would have armed himself with all the necessary particulars. He has answered the question, and I will just add a trifle more to the answer. There is no legal sanction—that is definite—and directions could be given to a firm under Defence Regulations. However, as the ban is to be lifted on Monday next, it would not be worth while so doing. In that respect, I submit that my noble friend could do no more, and, in view of what we have heard, I would suggest that the noble Viscount certainly exercised the privilege which we have in this House of not keeping strictly to order when he called my noble friend to order for not saying certain things.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
This is of a starred question; this is a Motion on the Paper. I was certainly in order to say what I did, because, not moving for 1146 Papers, my noble friend would not have the right to reply.
§ LORD AMMON
Before we adjourn, perhaps your Lordships would permit me to say that, as the representative of the Soviet Government is not able to be present to-morrow, the reception arranged will not be held. I say that because I understand that a good many noble Lords are not acquainted with that fact.