(by Private Notice)asked the Home Secretary whether he has seen a cartoon recently published in the "Daily Mirror" of a distressed seaman on a raft over the words "The price of petrol has been raised by a penny"; and as this suggestion that seamen are risking their lives in order that bigger profits may be made is calculated to discourage seamen and readers of all classes from serving the country in its time of need and is conducive to defeatism, whether action cannot be taken to prevent a newspaper from publishing irresponsible matter likely to influence public opinion in a manner prejudicial to the efficient prosecution of the war?
The cartoon in question is only one example, but a particularly evil example, of the policy and methods of a newspaper which, intent on exploiting an appetite for sensation and with a reckless indifference to the national interest and to the prejudicial effect on the war effort, has repeatedly published scurrilous misrepresentations, distorted and exaggerated statements and irresponsible generalisations. In the same issue the leading article stated:
… the accepted tip for Army leadership would, in plain truth, be this:—All who aspire to mislead others in war should be brass-buttoned boneheads, socially prejudiced, arrogant and fussy. A tendency to heart disease, apoplexy, diabetes and high blood pressure is desirable in the highest posts …
Reasonable criticism on specific points and persons is one thing; general, violent denunciation, manifestly tending to undermine the Army and depress the whole population, is quite another. Such insidious attacks are not to be excused by calls in other parts of the paper for more vigorous action. The Press in general recognises that the principle of freedom for the expression of opinion which Parliament and the Government are determined to maintain imposes on newspaper proprietors, editors and journalists an obligation to exercise that freedom with a proper sense of responsibility, and that if a particular paper so abuses that freedom that the war effort is hindered, that abuse is as injurious to the interests of the Press itself as to the national interest. The Government have decided that the right method of dealing with a newspaper which persistently disregards its public responsibility and the national interest is to make use of the powers contained in Defence Regulation 2D, which authorises the suppression of a paper that systematically publishes matter calculated to foment opposition to the successful prosecution of the war. The issue raised in such a case is—Will the continued publication of such a paper prejudice the successful prosecution of the war? On such a question it is incumbent on the Government to form a judgment, subject always to their responsibility to Parliament.
The provisions of Defence Regulation 2D cover not only overt or disguised incitements to refrain from helping the war effort on the ground, for example, that the war is waged for unworthy ends, but also the publication of matter which foments opposition to the prosecution of the war by depressing public support for the war effort, by poisoning the springs of national loyalty, and by creating a spirit of despair and defeatism. The fact that those responsible for the publication of such matter may not deliberately and wilfully desire to hinder the success of the Allied cause does not make the publication any less dangerous. A writer's motives and intentions are known only to himself. The test is what effect his words may be expected to produce on the minds of others. The systematic publication of matter likely to spread a spirit of defeatism and to dissuade people from supporting the war effort, is not outside the scope of Regulation 2D because such matter is published with a reckless and unpatriotic indifference to its harmful effect rather than with a deliberate intention to produce such an effect. As it is possible that some of the persons responsible for the publication of such matter have not realised that it is within the ambit of Regulation 2D, it has been thought right in the first instance to take action by way of warning. I have seen those responsible for the publication of the "Daily Mirror," and I have made clear to them the considerations which I have outlined to the House. A watch will be kept on this paper and the course which the Government may ultimately decide to take will depend on whether those concerned recognise their public responsibility and take care to refrain from further publication of matter calculated to foment opposition to the successful prosecution of the war.
Does the Home Secretary appreciate that the statement he has just made, with all its possible ramifications, is a very serious one, that we are in danger of having the right of public opinion impinged upon, and that it fills some of us who venture to criticise the Government with alarm and despondency? May I ask—it is not a question for the right hon. Gentleman but for the Leader of the House—whether, in view of the very serious statement that has just been made, there will be an opportunity of debating this matter?
On the first point of my hon. Friend, I realise that the statement that I have made is a serious one, and I hope that the proprietors and editor of the "Daily Mirror" will realise the same thing. On the other matter, I do not myself nor do the Government, who have given the matter the most careful consideration, regard this as having been in any way an attack upon the proper freedom of the Press or the expression of opinion. With regard to the last point, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, with whom I have consulted, authorise me to say that, if there is any substantial body of opinion in the House that would like this matter debated, we will provide facilities for a Debate on a Motion and a Division.
Is it the case that behind this Question the offence to which attention has been called by the hon. and learned Member was that this newspaper was pointing out that an important commodity necessary to the nation had had its price raised; and that it would not normally be an offence either for a newspaper or a public speaker to call attention to the fact that the price of a particular commodity was being unduly raised?
Wait a moment, and I will answer the question. The only caption on the picture was, "The price of petrol has been raised by a penny—Official." Surely, that permission was given by the Government after very careful consideration. The implication of that was that the brave men of the Mercantile Marine, whom I would not put in the same street as some of the people who write these things—the implication is that these brave men were sacrificing their lives merely in order that the petrol combine should make another penny a gallon.
The Government are aware of the importance which the House rightly attaches to the freedom of the Press. We have taken the earliest opportunity of informing the House of the action that I have taken this morning, and, as I say, the Government are perfectly willing to consider representations for a Debate.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is always possible to create prejudice against what one does not like, and would he bear in mind that throughout this war a policy of suppression is calculated to do more harm to our cause and to divide the nation more than the cause of tolerance for which we entered the struggle?
On that, I would only say that the length of time which this kind of thing has been going on without His Majesty's Government taking action in the matter is itself a proof of the tolerance which has been exercised.
My right hon. Friend referred to the proprietors and the editor of this paper. May I ask him whether he knows who the proprietors are, and, if so, would it not be a useful thing to inform the House?
This is a newspaper which has not got a wealthy single owner as its proprietor. It is a mixed proprietorship. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who are they?"] I do not know that the in formation would be illuminating. It is one of those mixed financial controls in which you cannot trace a single directing financial influence, as far as I can see at present.