Orders of the Day — Ministry of Information.

– in the House of Commons on 27th May 1941.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

In Europe we now find ourselves in the position of having many national anthems, and not many countries. How different things might have been if our mechanised forces and our propaganda had been better. These two dissimilar companions go hand in hand to victory. Our mechanical shortcomings are obvious, and are being quickly adjusted; our shortcomings as to propaganda, being of necessity obscure, leave public opinion unaroused, and, therefore, very little is done about it. If I may say so, it is the same, to some extent, in this House. Ministers often complain that matters ought to be raised in private, but the fact remains that the very same Ministers do not take any effective notice until the matter becomes public. The effects of propaganda are somewhat intangible. It is easier to appraise from afar the effects of armed forces than it is of propaganda. For that reason, I have purposely visited several foreign countries during this war. I have made a special study of this subject, and I have conveyed my observations and my recommendations to the powers-that-be. I have no hesitation in saying that unless our information to other countries improves, the outcome of this war will be tragic. I, like may others, was amazed at a passage in one of the earlier broadcasts about Hess. It said: The vast apparatus of the Third Reich depended on no personality, not even the Fuehrer himself, for survival, but on its overwhelming military force. Why was it necessary gratuitously to suggest to the world that Nazism would survive because of its overwhelming military force? Alternatively, it might be read into that particular passage that Hess was of no particular importance. I could give example after example, not only of futile propaganda, but of occasions when the necessity for propaganda has been sticking out a mile and none has been forthcoming. Mr. Hunt, the famous New York lawyer, said in a recent article in the "Daily Telegraph": We Americans ought to know more. And you should tell us more specifically of what you are doing. Of course, I am not referring to any military secrets. You may recall that in the United States certain unscrupulous politicians and writers, who were fighting Hitler's battle to keep us out of the war, made several false statements about Canada's war effort. Many Americans lacked the information, which they could have used promptly and to good effect, to crush this lying propaganda. In the last war, the nation's propaganda was controlled by Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Northcliffe; and I think it is agreed that their efforts contributed largely to winning that war. But it has to be recollected that they were both experts on public opinion.

Who are the controllers of the Ministry of Information to-day? I think the House will be interested to hear what I believe is the latest information about that Ministry. It is a fact that one of those controllers did happen to have a life-long experience of public opinion. He was the only one. He has now gone, under circumstances that, I think, ought to be looked into. His place has been taken by a representative of the B.B.C. There are nine controllers of the Ministry of Information, I am led to understand. I have told about one; he represents the B.B.C. Who are the remaining eight, and what are their qualifications? There are three eminent legal gentlemen, K.Cs., and three civil servants from other Departments. Then there is the keeper of the King's pictures, and finally, last but not least, we find the ubiquitous Lord Davidson, who possibly is better known to the House as J. C. C. Davidson, who, it will be remembered, was one of Mr. Baldwin's advisers in his "safety-first" days. It is not the fault of this wondrous collection of controllers that they cannot even start to compete with Goebbels in the subtle and delicate art of propaganda; they just have not had the proper training. One might as well go to one's chiropodist to have one's appendix out. Is there any wonder that the Minister of Information, who, I am very sorry, cannot be present to-day on account of illness, himself publicly complains that the Ministry of Information is run by amateurs? What is preventing him from substituting them by experts? Surely the time has come when the gentlemen should declare and give the players an opportunity of an innings. Goebbels has conscripted—mark you conscripted—all the best publicity experts in Germany for his Ministry. I am baffled by what is going on. The whole situation at the Ministry of Information is extraordinary. Why cannot we have experts there who really understand public opinion? There are several outstanding examples in this country who would be only too pleased to serve and whose careers have been built up on understanding human nature. The whole matter is mysterious and it sometimes seems that, though Lord Baldwin is safely ensconced at Bewdley, nevertheless the dead hand of Mr. Baldwin hangs over the Ministry of Information.

This Ministry have a lot to answer for in the Balkan tragedy. They certainly cannot afford to lose the American stakes as well. Americans would appreciate it being brought home to them more and more that they had backed the right horse. It would encourage the American public to hurry up and put all they have got upon the British colours instead of dallying and wondering whether they should not hedge a little more on their own horse. The Ministry of Information ought not to relax their efforts for one moment, because the Americans would appreciate our constantly giving confidence to them and informing them how we are continuing to strain every nerve for victory. Remember, there are, and will be, millions in America criticising, and discouraging America from going to war or at war. Our enemies in the United States of America will try to make out among many other things, that the British are now slacking off, or, to use an Americanism "passing the buck."

Unless we are ready with organisations on the spot—and I say organisations and not just one organisation; not just the British Library of Information at New York, which is doing very good work in very difficult circumstances, but any reliable and bona fide organisations which are willing to help us—to counteract such dangerous propaganda in America, one must visualise that the time might come when America, against the will of those who rule that country, might be compelled to leave us in the lurch. Remember that it was the traitors within France that compelled France to leave us in the lurch. I know that at this very moment our American friends take it practically as an insult that we do not take them more into our confidence and that we do not, presumably, think it worth while to give them more facts and information.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

They do not appreciate over there—and I know, because only recently I was in America— that it has been the policy of His Majesty's Government, very rightly at that time, that there should be no idea in the minds of the American people that the British were conducting propaganda in their country. But times have changed since then, and we have been slow to take advantage of the fact that conditions have altered very much from the time when that policy was laid down. Two peoples have since found themselves in the same boat, and they have become very good friends. It cannot be suggested that there is such a thing as propaganda as between friends, but words of common sense and encouragement are still very acceptable. A sufficiency of facts and stories of human interest are not forthcoming from the Ministry of Information or, for that matter, from the Foreign Office, to the United States of America.

It was recently pointed out by the "People" that one of America's principal broadcasting corporations—I think it was Columbia—had cut down by half the time it used to devote to broadcasts from its London correspondents. It just could not get sufficient information. It has no difficulty, though, in filling in the gaps from Berlin. Our method of conveying information must be improved. I know it can be done, and, what is more important, I know how the American people would like it to be done, because 1 have discussed this in America with prominent and shrewd Americans who are in close touch with American public opinion. I believe the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Information has just returned from America, and I also understand that he has been considering all these important matters on the spot. I have no doubt that it will be said that everything is going along nicely. The Parliamentary Secretary may have something to say about that to-day. He may say that my criticisms are unfounded or, failing that, that they are being attended to and give some discreet examples. Whatever the answer may be, the fact remains— and I know it for a certainty— —that once again we are being too slow, and that our sluggish lack of initiative is not being appreciated—and that is putting it mildly —by our dwindling friends in the United States of America. The Isolationists there, as is only too well known, especially since certain disasters have occurred overseas, are getting stronger and stronger; they are also getting immense campaign funds. Lindbergh is becoming a hero again among millions. America is our last bus. Are we to miss it?

Photo of Mr Edgar Granville Mr Edgar Granville , Eye

There have been a good many Debates on the subject of the Ministry of Information, and I think it is true to say that there has been a good deal of criticism of the Ministry since its inception. My view is that the present set-up of the Ministry has no chance of succeeding in the problem of propaganda against the totalitarian technique. Perhaps, in these and other circumstances, the Minister of Information can be said to have made the best of a bad job. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not here to-day, and I am sure the whole House will wish him a speedy return to full health from his indisposition. When we criticise the Ministry of Information for lack of news, as has been the case in the Greek campaign, the Battle of the Atlantic, and the campaign in North Africa, I think we are apt to forget that the fault may be with the Service Departments, because in the matter of propaganda, it is the Service Departments that release the news which the Ministry of Information make available to the Press and the wireless. Therefore, perhaps there has been some unjust criticism of the Minister of Information from that point of view. Nevertheless, if one regards propaganda as important in this war, I cannot see how the Minister of Information, working against the totalitarian technique with all its vast ramifications, can make a success of his job, with that set-up, in having to deal with the Service Ministers, unless he is himself a Member of the War Cabinet and unless he is given a voice, with the Service Ministers, in those vital decisions as to what is information and what should be made available.

Obviously, there is no propaganda policy. There ought to be a propaganda policy if we are to use a Ministry of Information at all. The Hess affair illustrates that there is no policy. The Minister of Labour, the Minister without Portfolio and the Secretary of State for Air have made speeches on the matter which have been reported through the columns of the Press and over the radio, but I have never heard a speech from the Minister of Information, or reference to a statement from the Minister of Information or the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information, except the statement that was made in the House to-day with regard to the Duke of Hamilton, which was a denial of a report of a statement which had been previously verified by the Ministry of Information. The public is left to draw its own conclusions, and as one Sunday scribe said, "Hess has been treated in this country as a sacred cow." The Ministry of Information have to consider opinion here, in the United States, and, of course, in Germany. I have read in the Press that the best way to deal with the Hess affair is to let it run. I should have imagined that to let it run for a fortnight was not only bad psychology, but bad propaganda. In my view, it is a great chance thrown away, with all the skill of the boomerang thrower, if they do throw boomerangs in Canada. It was a chance to expose to the world the infamy of the whole Nazi machine. It was certainly an opportunity which, in terms of modern propaganda, had to be used soon, because speed was the vital factor in dealing with it.

There is one other aspect of the activities of the Ministry of Information to which I should like to refer. I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to state, in his reply, who it is that O.K.s, as the Americans' call it, the various statements which go out from Government Departments, puffs, boosts, call them what you like, which are statements obviously inspired by contact with a spokesman for a Government Department. I suppose I should not be in Order in referring to the case, to-day, in the House of Commons. When we read in the Press that an optimistic statement is going to be made by one of the Ministers, and we read after the Debate something which closely resembles what took place in that Debate, I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary who Is responsible for censoring or dealing with these statements which go into the Press, concerning the activities of various Government Departments.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker:

I am not quite sure to what the from. Member is referring, but I trust he is not referring in Public Session to what took place in a Secret Debate.

Photo of Mr Edgar Granville Mr Edgar Granville , Eye

I said that I imagined I would not be in Order in referring to it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker:

Then apparently the hon. member promptly proceeded to do so. That is why I got up to warn him.

Photo of Mr Edgar Granville Mr Edgar Granville , Eye

I was dealing in general with the sending-out of puffs and boosts from Government Departments to the public Press, and I am asking the Parliamentary Secretary if he will give the House information as to who it is that passes these statements before they go into the Press, as representing Government policy. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary who is responsible for the reports of Debates given on the B.B.C. What happens is that in the 6 o'clock news we get odd pieces of in-' formation referring to speeches which have been made in a Debate, and then at 9 o'clock the whole thing is dressed up in a new garb behind Ministerial pronunciamentos. I submit that what the country requires is to have Parliament reported. I submit that, in a war in which the country is fighting to defend democracy, it is a right and proper thing that through the B.B.C. accurate reports of Debates in Parliament should be given, and not merely Ministerial pronouncements. I think the public are sick of being given soft soap through the Ministry. When we captured Benghazi it was important, but when the Nazis took Benghazi it was not important. The shell which hit the "Hood" was described in an Admiralty statement as an "unlucky hit." What the public wants is to be told the facts. If you tell the people of this country the plain facts promptly, they will back you through anything in this war, instead of which, they are given uncertainty and contradictions.

Again I ask who it is who is really responsible for sending out these reports and the information which apparently comes out under the guise of the Ministry of Information. Time is brief, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us that answer. In my view, if the Ministry of Information, that much criticised Government Department, is to succeed at all, it ought to have the power, personnel and policy to state the British case to the world. That means using the full potential resources of our films, of the Press and of the wireless. I would back up the hon. Member's appeal. For goodness sake, at this juncture let us get some modern minds with modern ideas inside the Ministry. I believe you will have to reorganise it sooner or later. I believe it can be effectively used as your fourth arm. I believe it can be most effectively used to destroy the rotten propaganda which goes out from the Goebbels machine by day and by night. Obviously, the Parliamentary Secretary cannot reply to all these points, but I think the country and the House of Commons are entitled to know whether this question will be faced and also who, at the moment, is in charge of propaganda and who is in charge of sanctioning the issue of the 6 o'clock news.

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

I am sure my right hon. Friend will be very much obliged to those who have expressed concern at his absence from the House and hope for his rapid recovery, a hope which I entirely share. The two hon. Members who have spoken have covered a wide field. The hon. and gallant Member for Marylebone (Captain Cunningham-Reid) referred to the recent departure of an officer who had had long B.B.C. experience, and who was described as a controller. He was not a controller but a director. He deserved promotion, and he has got it.

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

No, abroad. In any case it is perfectly possible to say, if one can define what a publicity expert is—and that would be a very difficult definition—that the officials in charge of the main departments of the Ministry are not necessarily expert in the purely publicity side of propaganda. It might also be mentioned, however, that each one has attained, at an early age, a leading position in the profession which he has chosen. If you take, for instance, legal luminaries, we have three, and it is a very remarkable fact that if you asked any member of the Bar his opinion of those three individuals, he would say they were the most able people he had ever known. Still, it is invidious, and I do not think it would particularly interest the House to go into great detail on matters of personnel. The personnel is continually changing. Nothing has been more fluid than the succession of individuals, and I trust that that fluidity will continue, because it is necessary constantly to graft into the Ministry new minds and new ideas, and, as the war progresses, and as our relations with countries change, obviously the staff allotted to those particular tasks will also have to be adjusted. The hon. and gallant Member for Marylebone made a remark, which rather startled me, to the effect that to the deficiencies of our foreign propaganda was largely due the Balkan tragedy. Surely he cannot seriously say that.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

I said that the Ministry of Information had a lot to answer for in the Balkans.

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

We have a great deal to answer for, and we are very proud of it. In spite of the fact that the Germans possessed armoured divisions on the various frontiers of the countries they threatened and intimidated, so excellent was the presentation of our case, so great a conviction did we win of our eventual victory and the righteousness of our cause, that Greece and Yugoslavia came on to our side. So we have a great deal to answer for.

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

A further point upon which the hon. and gallant Member rightly laid stress was the question of America. He has been in America more recently than I have, and his visits to that country, although not as frequent as my own, have been more extensive. Whereas I did not go beyond California, such was his interest in American social reform and in grasping the meaning of the American idea, that he pushed his researches right out into the islands of the Pacific. I am afraid that I never followed him there.

Photo of Mr Edgar Granville Mr Edgar Granville , Eye

Is that a joke or a punch below the belt?

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

Will my hon.' Friend care to say why I had to go to the islands of the Pacific?

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

I think it was something to do with child welfare.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

Exactly; it was on account of the evacuation of children, and I was asked to undertake the mission by the appropriate Department. This gibe is getting cheap.

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

I was reminding the House that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has a more recent and wider experience of American conditions than I have. I agree with a good deal of what the hon. and gallant Member said. It is true, and I think that anyone of any experience of the United State will agree, that in the early stages of the war it was absolutely essential that His Majesty's Government should refrain from any possible form of persuasion or of solicitation or of any representation of news such as might be interpreted as propaganda. The hon. and gallant Member knows very well that after the last war a tremendous reaction in American opinion set in and books were published, such as "England expects every American to do his duty," and other books such as that maintaining that America had been tricked into the last war by a network of underground British propaganda and protesting against this elaborate network of propaganda as an attempt at ensnaring the great white soul of America again. Lord Lothian, our Ambassador, all the wiser heads and advisers whom we had in the United States told us with complete conviction that whatever we did we should never seek in any way to influence the opinion of the United States people. That holds good to-day. We must provide the United States people with not only? the facts, but the facts behind the facts. We must give them not only the foreground of the war, but also the background. As the hon. and gallant Member said, we have recently benefited by the visit of the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Tree). We are doing a great deal to organise and speed up generally the Press and information services, not merely in Washington and in New York, but in every centre of the United States.

Photo of Mr Ernest Evans Mr Ernest Evans , University of Wales

Does that include the American journalists in London?

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

I was just coming to that. We are also hoping before long to provide American newspaper men in London, to whom, incidentally, we owe a very great debt, not only with greater facilities for getting information, not only with greater background stuff, but also, I hope, with the assistance of Mr. Speaker and the willing co-operation of the Press Gallery, with greater facilities in this House, of which they have been lamentably deprived. The hon. Member for the Eye Division of Suffolk (Mr. Granville) also asked certain very pertinent questions. He seemed, to my mind, to reflect a misunderstanding which I think is almost universal in this House and in the country, a belief that there is such a thing now in existence as a compulsory censorship. There is not. The hon. Member asked who passed the statements sent out by Government Departments, who was responsible for censoring communiqués. There is no such censorship. I wish I had time to go further into this point, but I believe there will be opportunity later to do so.

Photo of Mr Edgar Granville Mr Edgar Granville , Eye

Does the hon. Member say that when a statement is to be given out on the six o'clock news no reference is made to the Ministry of Information?

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

If it is a Government official statement it is immediately referred to the Department concerned. If it is a matter dealing with Admiralty affairs, it is "O.K'd" by the Admiralty; if a statement on' home security, by the Department of Home Security. It is the Department actually concerned which passes any official communiqué But where we come in, as we do after the event, is to indicate certain errors of taste or errors of judgment, in our opinion, and we do frequently point out to the B.B.C. and Government Departments that the British public are not in the mood to stand optimism or phrases which strike them as evasive or insincere. I think we are gettings things done a great deal better.

The hon. Member for the Eye Division also referred, with power and strength, I thought, to the three great essentials which are needed if the Ministry of Information is really to become an active Department in the war. He said we must have more power, better personnel, and a policy. I agree with him about the first two. I do not agree for one moment that we have no policy. We have. Our policy is perfectly definite and perfectly consistent, both in aim and method. Both our policy and our methods are the exact opposite of those of Dr. Goebbels. It is not right to compare the activities and actions of the Ministry of Information with the methods of Dr. Goebbels. We are trying to do something quite different. He is trying to gain immediate advantage without any thought whatsoever of the confidence that he may inspire in the future. We are trying in every way—and, goodness gracious, it is difficult enough—every day and every night, to gain the confidence not only of our own people, because that we may hope to obtain, but of the whole world, so that we may establish gradually that credit and that repute, that trustworthiness, that credibility which will not only be of great value to us in time of war but will give us the moral authority when peace comes to play our part, which will be a grave and responsible part, in the reconstruction of the world.

Photo of Mr George Garro-Jones Mr George Garro-Jones , Aberdeen North

There is still time for the hon. Member to answer a question. If he burkes at the word "censorship," who edits the Parliamentary reports?

Photo of Hon. Harold Nicolson Hon. Harold Nicolson , Leicester West

That is an important question. My right hon. Friend has had reason to speak about the paucity and thinness of the Parliamentary reports and about the enormous and disproportionate length given to Government statements compared with statements by ordinary private Members. He has taken that very much to heart. I hope that, after the Recess, there will be a regular weekly Parliamentary report which will be much longer than the usual report.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.