Broadcasting (Political Addresses).

– in the House of Commons on 11th December 1931.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

I desire to raise a question concerning broadcasting. I do not intend in any way to attack the governors or the directors of the British Broadcasting Corporation. They have a very delicate and difficult task, and I think that on the whole they perform it admirably. I have no desire, either, to make a party speech, because I feel that the point I am raising concerns Members of all parties, and is of great importance to the country. Our system of broadcasting has been made a State monopoly. The reasons for that, I imagine, were partly technical and partly grounds of public policy. I suppose that people realised the immense potentialities for good or evil of the wireless service. It is quite clear that with a service providing entertainment and information for nearly 4,000,000 households in the British Isles you have an extraordinarily powerful instrument for moulding public opinion. A dictator could want nothing better than to get hold of the broadcasting system. With it he could outdo all dictators in the past, because he would have direct access to the minds of so many people. When the charter establishing the British Broadcasting Corporation was granted it was decided to put broadcasting into the hands of a body of independent persons. To a certain extent they are under the Postmaster-General, but his powers of interference are very limited.

Originally it was thought that the British Broadcasting Corporation should not deal at all in controversial matters. Of course, that at once put the directors of the British Broadcasting Corporation on the horns of a dilemma, because so many people were interested in controversial questions, and consequently they introduced a certain amount of controversial subjects. Since then the programmes of the British Broadcasting Corporation have contained more and more controversial matter. When the Crawford Committee was set up, they recommended that a certain amount of controversial matter should be broadcast provided that it was of a high quality and distributed with scrupulous fairness. From time to time questions were asked in the House of Commons as to whether the British Broadcasting Corporation was using its powers fairly or not in this respect, and those questions had to be answered by various Postmasters-General, including myself. I think we all agreed that the British Broadcasting Corporation was endeavouring to hold the scales very fairly between the political parties. Of course, complaints were made when the Conservatives were in office that broadcasting was being used for an insidious propaganda on behalf of the Conservatives, and when the Labour party was in office the suggestion was made that there was some subtle influence at work on the directors of the British Broadcasting Corporation from Moscow. For a considerable time there was no political broadcasting, but, later on, it was decided to allow a certain amount.

Of course, it is very difficult to be absolutely fair and impartial in a matter of this kind. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon (Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson) was Postmaster-General, he laid down that the political parties must agree among themselves, and he said that it was quite impossible for the matter to be left in the hands of the Government. The question was discussed from time to time, and, although it was suggested that there should be a reasonable apportionment of time to the various political parties, no agreement was come to.

The matter was discussed, for instance, prior to the 1929 election, and the parties disagreed. The Government said that, if there were to be political broadcasting, they must answer every attack on the Government, and that, therefore, for each Labour speech there must be a Conservative speech, and for each Liberal speech there must be a Conservative speech. On the other hand, it was said, particularly by the Secretary of State for Scotland, that the balance must be held even, and one speech allowed for each party. As a matter of fact, before the 1929 election, broadcast speeches were made on a plan which was only adopted under protest from the Liberal and Labour parties, and which resulted in a series of eight broadcasts, of which four were Conservative, two were Liberal, and two were Labour. During the actual election there were three speeches by three ladies, and three speeches, one Liberal, one Labour, and one Conservative, by men.

After that, the question was again raised in the House, it was discussed through the "usual channels"—I was one of the "usual channels"—and an endeavour was made to arrive at a reasonable, normal allocation of political broadcasting between the various parties in what I might call peacetime, that is to say, not at election time. I think the nearest approach to agreement was on an allocation of five Conservative, five Labour and three Liberal speeches, or something like that, but the matter was always complicated because of the difficulty of providing for small groups. There was the question what should be done in regard to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill); there was the question what should be done in regard to Lord Beaver-brook—

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

Quite. There was the question what should be done in regard to the economists; there was the question what should be done in regard to Sir Oswald Mosley. The matter was discussed, but no decision was come to. Then we arrived at the very difficult position that arose at the time of the general election and the change of Government, because the idea of an equal allocation between the three parties was altered owing to the establishment of a coalition. I grant that the British Broadcasting Corporation were faced with a unique position, such as has probably not occurred before in this country, though I gather that it has occurred quite often in China, where the leaders of one side suddenly cross over and join the other side. They were faced with the question of what should be done. The contention still was that there should be an endeavour to arrive at a reasonable allocation, and a proportion was suggested which I think was generous on our part, namely two Labour, two Liberal, and two Conservative speeches. During the actual election, however, there were 11 political speeches, and all but three of them went to supporters of the present Government.

That is a very serious situation. I do not want to put it on the narrow point of view of what happened to our party, but I want hon. and right hon. Gentlemen to think what may happen to them next time, because there is a profound instability about this National Government, and gentlemen who are now on the Government Bench may find themselves sitting below the Gangway while the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) leads the Government, or it may he the hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth (Sir H. Croft). Everyone will agree that conditions political are not very stable, and, therefore, there is a need for arriving at some security of principle in this matter. What happened in fact was that there was no idea of fair play at all, but that someone or other made an allocation, as between the Government parties and the Opposition parties, in the proportion, as I have said, of eight to three.

Of course, if the Conservatives had followed the line that they took at the previous election, they would have said that the right thing would have been that the Government should answer each Opposition speech, and they would have treated the Government as one and not as a Coalition, so that there would have been a one-and-one arrangement, because there was a one-and-one fight. But they departed from that, and I want to know on whose authority that was done—whether it was done by the Government or by the British Broadcasting Corporation or whether any pressure was brought to bear on them or why was this allocation made. Before the Election there were a considerable number of broadcasts of a strongly political tendency. Lord Snowden, and later the Prime Minister and others, made what were, in effect, party speeches. Further than that, there was the very curious incident on 2nd September of the broadcast by Professor Clay. We had the privilege of hearing various economists on the situation upstairs, and we beard Professor Keynes and Professor Clay. It was a thoroughly desirable thing that the public should have known what the controversy at the Election was about from the economic point of view by hearing various pundits and professors setting out their views. I should like to know whether it is a fact that at first the idea was that several people should broadcast and why eventually the only economist who broadcast was the economist who, as a matter of fact, is more or less an employé of the Bank of England. That was not holding the balance fair.

The final point I want to make is a very serious matter. That is what has been known as the last word which came over the broadcast on the very eve of the poll. The very last words were: On your action or failure to act may depend your own and your children's future and the security and prosperity of your country. I quite agree that no one could take exception to that, but the point is that the words were used as a slogan. [An [HON. MEMBERS: "Who said that?"] It was said, I do not know on whose authority, by the announcer. Members of the Conservative party remember the days when the Liberals used to stand on the slogan of "Peace, Retrenchment and Reform." They might agree with all those things, but a final broadcast of "Peace, Retrenchment and Reform" would have had a very party meaning. In the same way we on these Benches might have adopted some particular slogan. I have a letter from a man who is not at all inclined to our point of view —quite the contrary. He was listening in, and he says he nearly jumped out of his skin. He turned to his wife and said, "This is the worst thing the British Broadcasting Corporation has done yet." That was the effect of it on him. There can be no doubt to anyone who heard the intonation of voice that that was a political message on behalf of one party.

I do not want to argue the rights and wrongs of it from a party point of view, but I put it to hon. Members that you have here a very serious situation. You have never had an instrument like the British Broadcasting Corporation before. It is as if there was only one newspaper in the country which might be controlled by, say, Lord Beaverbrook. If there is one monopolistic instrument such as this, it is of paramount importance, if we are to have reasonable and decent government, that it should be used with absolute impartiality. I want information on these points. I think the British Broadcasting Corporation on the whole have used their power extraordinarily well and have tried to be impartial. The importance of this instance is that for a very large number of us it has shaken our belief in their impartiality. They may have been subject to force majeure. I do not know, but I should like to know.

With regard to the general question of the future of political broadcasting, the parties have tried, through the usual channels, to get a reasonable allocation, but it is a very difficult thing to do. I think political broadcasting must go on, but, if so, there should be some proper means of controlling it. I suggest either that there should be set up an advisory committee of Members of all parties to advise on the allocation of political speeches and so forth, or that there should be a Commission set up who should go into the whole question and report on political broadcasting. It is not only a question between the Opposition and the Government, or even between the major political parties. A difficult question may crop up such as that concerning the position of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), who is a semi-detached Member of the Conservative party and is, so to speak, on the transfer list. There is the question of Sir Oswald Mosley, and there is the question of the Independent Labour party versus the Labour party.

Our contention is that the British Broadcasting Company should be the broadest possible forum for the discussion of political questions, and that there must be some power to secure absolute impartiality. It would be absolutely fatal if we got the idea that at any time, somehow or other, some influence might be brought to bear upon the British Broadcasting Corporation to depart from impartiality. Everyone knows that at a time of crisis people may lose their heads and so forth, and we want the British Broadcasting Corporation to be absolutely above that sort of thing, and to exercise absolute and complete impartiality. Look at the alternatives. If anyone is going to demand the right of the Government always to have the last word, and that the Government should have a double right of reply, we shall get into the position which obtains in some Continental countries where the Government never goes out. In Czechoslovakia the other day there was only one list of candidates, and every one was obliged to vote for those candidates. If we are going to have one method of propaganda, by far the most important method of propaganda to-day, broadcasting, if you allow it to slip into the hands of the Government, anyone who is against the Government temporarily or permanently will be in a position of grave inferiority. It is a subject well worthy of consideration by those who believe in democratic institutions to see that we have not in the British Broadcasting Corporation created a Frankenstein which is going to break up our political life.

On the general question of broadcasting, I will say that I have a very great admiration for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and that I do not wish to criticise it at all. I realise that if the British Broadcasting Corporation is criticised it will tend to do just what is not wanted, that is, to drive it into a safety first policy. Everybody knows that that is the effect of criticism. In the British Broadcasting Corporation we have, probably, the most important instrument for the moulding of the national character and for the development of national life. It is most important that the people who control it should not be driven by criticism into a kind of safety first attitude. The ideal should be the open forum. New ideas always offend a certain number of people. If you are running a newspaper or anything like that, you probably have a certain number of old readers who, if you introduce some new features, will probably write objecting. If you continue to think, only of the old readers, they die off in time, and your newspaper dies off as well. The difficulty is that the old reader in looking through his newspaper is bound to see those things which offend him.

The great advantage of broadcasting is that the person who does not like an idea has simply to switch off. In every phase of life which is dealt with by broadcasting, whether it be philosophy, religion, politics or science, there must only be room for the heterodox. There must not be only the orthodox. There must not be the idea that on any subject you must rule out the extremist and put in only the safe person. If so, you get a dull level of mediocrity and your biggest minds and biggest brains will not come to the microphone. The British Broadcasting Corporation were very wise in having debates and discussions in which you get the play of one mind against another. That is the real way to get over the difficulty, so that people can get new ideas. I believe that there has been criticism of the British Broadcasting Corporation in regard to talks on books and plays. It is said that there have been talks on plays which are not such that a young girl might take her mother to see them. You always get that sort of objection. The things that scandalise our grandmothers to-day are, no doubt, very different from the things which scandalised their grandmothers. Grandmothers are made to be scandalised by the rising generation. The most important thing for the British Broadcasting Corporation is that it should keep in hail with youth.

We are approaching a time when changes are due in the membership of the British Broadcasting Corporation. In the interests of the country there should be representation of youth on the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the present time the generation that has grown up under post-War conditions is not represented on the governing body. I know nothing about the staff and I do not know whether youth is represented there or not, but I do know that the governing body, excellent people, have the disadvantages which come to all of us, that they are rather old. We ought to have some young blood there. I am getting old-fashioned myself and I am scandalised sometimes with what is done by the rising generation, but I am younger, I believe, than the youngest member of the governing body of the British Broadcasting Corporation. You must have plenty of youth on the British Broadcasting Corporation. It is far better that the Corporation should err through experiment and innovation than through timidity and mediocrity. One of their great functions is to make us think and to make the rising generation adjust themselves to the very quickly changing circumstances in which they find themselves. That can only be done by allowing the greatest possible medium of thought and discussion, by the British Broadcasting Corporation holding the balance fairly and by giving each side its chance, but never erring on the side of timidity.


On a point of Order. Is there to be no opportunity of raising any question other than the one that has been raised, before the right hon. Gentleman replies? There are other important questions.

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

Unfortunately, there is not time. The time of the House has been taken up by other speakers.


May we take it as a precedent that what the hon. Member has said is true, that we can have Debates on broadcasting by raising the Postmaster-General's Vote?

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

I do not think the hon. Member can say anything of the kind. I should have to hear it before I could say whether it is in order or not.


Is it to be taken as a precedent that according to the hon. Member criticism of the British Broadcasting Association is to be deplored and shut out from this House altogether?

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

No, I do not think that it the case. It must all depend upon what form the Debate takes.


He deplored criticism. There are serious matters regarding the administration and finance of the British Broadcasting Corporation and its relationship to national questions.

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

I cannot give a general ruling on that until I hear the Debate.

Photo of Sir William Mitchell-Thomson Sir William Mitchell-Thomson , Croydon South

May I put it to you Mr. Speaker, that there are always two opportunities in the year on which the question of the general policy and administration of the British Broadcasting Corporation can be raised, one being the Expiring Laws Bill, in which the whole control of wireless telegraphy and wireless broadcasting is raised and the other the Postmaster-General's salary.

3.30 p.m.


Take the agreement of June of this year and the sums which become payable on the 1st of January next under that agreement. Will there be any opportunity of discussing the sums that will become payable under that agreement because there are some of us who think that they are ultra vires?

Photo of Lieut-Colonel John Moore-Brabazon Lieut-Colonel John Moore-Brabazon , Wallasey

The late Postmaster-General has given his opinion that we can raise questions of broadcasting on the Postmaster-General's salary. Is that therefore a confession from the hon. Member, and a lead to you Mr. Speaker, that the Postmaster-General is actually responsible for the policy of the British Broadcasting Corporation?

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

I do not think it is. The question can be raised in the future as it has been in the past. It entirely depends on the course of the Debate, and whether it is in order or not.


May I ask what opportunity there will be for discussion in this House? For instance, there are some hon. Members who think the British Broadcasting Corporation are acting ultra vires to its Charter in the administration of its funds. If that is so, it is a serious matter. What opportunity is there of raising that issue of first-class importance?

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

I shall have to wait and see.

Photo of Sir Kingsley Wood Sir Kingsley Wood , Woolwich West

I must apologise for rising at this moment. I am desirous of dealing with any criticisms which may be raised, but I understand that the Secretary of State for the Dominions is snaking a statement in regard to an important matter and it places me in a position of some difficulty in having to intervene between other hon. Members and the criticisms they desire to make. I hope there will be another opportunity for discussing this matter, as I shall be quite prepared to meet any criticisms that are made. The hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) somewhat perplexes me. He commenced by saying that he had no attack to make on the Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and did not desire to make any party speech. He thought that on the whole they had done their work very well. Then the remainder of his speech was an attack of an indefinite nature upon some persons in connection with the political broadcast at the last General Election. The hon. Member knows full well that during the time my right hon. Friend was Postmaster-General and for a number of years the programmes of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which include political broadcasts, under the terms of its charter and under the directions that have been given to the governors, by the Postmaster-General, has been left entirely to the Governors. That is a wise procedure. It would be an intolerable position for the Postmaster-General of the day to be constantly asked as to whether Jack Payne's band should play on Sundays, and matters of that kind. Therefore, as far as the daily programmes are concerned they 'are a matter for the Governors and, as far as I am concerned, I hope that policy will continue to prevail.

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

Are we to take it that there was no direction under Section (3) to the Governors or interference of any sort?

Photo of Sir Kingsley Wood Sir Kingsley Wood , Woolwich West

As far as I am aware, and I have made inquiries, there was not. I have made very full inquiries and I can say that from start to finish the Government of the day took no action whatever in regard to political broadcasts. The arrangements for the broadcasts at the last General Election were made in the same way as they have always been made—namely, with the representatives of the parties; and the Government of the day had no part or lot in them. All parties made protests that due consideration was not given to their claims, but these political broadcasts were made on the same basis as that on which they have been made always, namely, the basis of parties. The hon. Gentleman has complained of three things: First, of the speeches before the election; secondly, of the speeches during the election; and thirdly, of some announcement which was made on the eve of the poll. Before the election the Prime Minister spoke on the formation of the National Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke on his Budget. They were both national occasions of the first importance, and it was in accordance with precedent that these broadcasts were made. It is true that two other gentlemen spoke on economic matters. Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland gave an address on "Wise spending", and Sir Josiah Stamp and Professor Clay spoke on matters in relation to the Gold Standard.

During the election, I believe, particular care was taken to include impartially the speeches of all parties. The arrangements for the political speeches on the eve of the election followed the precedent of the last three General Elections, and in all the circumstances the best arrangements were made. In the result criticisms were made by all sides. The right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) made the criticism, with a good deal of force, that the Conservatives were badly treated. The fact is that at the last election, although the Conservatives were the largest party, they had only two speeches, and the Labour party had three speeches. Certainly there was no interference by the Government. The most extraordinary complaint of all was that which I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman allowed himself to make, and that was that on the eve of the election a statement was made by the British Broadcasting Corporation as to how voters should vote at the election. This is what was said: In short, all electors should record their vote and if possible record it early in the day. I do not know whether any objection is taken to that. This also was said: On your action or your failure to act may depend your own and your children's future, and the security and prosperity of your country. Do I understand that the Labour party did not themselves say things very much to that effect? Was the policy which they enunciated on the eve of the poll not of that character? I have not time to go into details, but if the hon. Member will refer to the Labour party's manifesto at the General Election he will find in it almost that exact phrase. The only other criticism, and I noticed that the hon. Member dropped it this afternoon, was that someone in a trade union organ actually went to the extent of saying: The other outstanding aspect of political broadcasting which could not pass without comment in a working-class journal was the unconcealed pleasure in the voice of the gentlemen responsible for announcing the election results on the evening of Tuesday, 27th October. A better example of bias and partiality it would be hard to find. I wish I had a little more time to devote to this matter. One thing I would say is that it is not the number of times that you broadcast that matters so much but what you have to say when you do broadcast. The hon. Gentleman who raised this question ought to congratulate himself that his party did not have more broadcasts than they did. I feel confident that two more broadcasts at the last election would have wiped out Labour representation entirely. I do not think it is very sporting to come forward and make complaints. The thing that struck me most after the General Election was the advice which the official organ of the Labour party gave to its own supporters. I think it was on 29th October that they said, in what I think was a very manly article, and I commend it to the hon. Gentleman and his party when they come forward to make all these complaints: Let us have no chatter or excuses as to the result of this election. What was needed was not more broadcasts or anything of that kind. What they said was that the policy of the Labour party needed to be brought up to date and adapted to the existing economic situation of the world. If the hon. Gentleman will devote himself to that, rather than to criticising the broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation, he will no doubt achieve more on behalf of his party.