Personal Explanation.

– in the House of Commons on 26th March 1942.

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

I ask leave to make a short personal statement in connection with a Motion on the Order Paper which in effect demands that I should be dismissed from my post as Governor of the B.B.C. on the ground that I made a defeatist speech in Dublin. I made three speeches in Dublin, two of which have been already mentioned by the Home Secretary. The third was not exactly a speech. I was taking part in a debate by the undergraduates of University College. That debate, in which I was only one of several speakers, was opened by an undergraduate who spoke with great ability and venom upon the Imperialistic ambitions of the British Empire. He took from our rough island story all its blackest spots and ranged, if I remember right, from the date of Drake, Frobisher and Hawkins to the date of the Hoare-Laval agreement. The implication of his speech was that our effort in this war was based entirely on our old Imperialistic ambitions. When it came to my turn to take part I was somewhat incensed by this extraordinary account of our history, and I did say that if the audience were to judge the present conflict in terms of the old nineteenth century Imperialism, they were getting it out of focus. I said that that Imperialism was dead and, I devoutly hoped, buried. I said that if they were to picture the British lion as a rampant beast, red in tooth and claw, seeking whom it might devour, then again they would get a completely false and distorted picture of our war effort. It would be much wiser to think of the British lion as an elderly, replete, self-satisfied, moth-eaten—I used that word—animal whose tail in the last 20 years has been so frequently twisted that very few hairs remained—I used that phrase—but an animal which at this moment was alert and angry. I told them that we had suffered severe defeats and should have further disasters to meet in the future, but I said that, whereas these defeats and disasters had certainly diminished our conceit and destroyed our self-complacency, they had increased our pride. How was it, I asked then, that our pride had been enhanced? It was at that stage that I pulled out the notes and began my speech.

I will not waste the time of the House with further quotations, though on the whole I think it was the best speech I have ever made. It centred upon two themes, first that the war was not one for power and possession but a war of principles, and that those principles were shared by every Christian country. The implications are obvious. The second thing I said was that, whatever disasters happened, even if this country itself were occupied and if this capital itself was taken, we should go on fighting, if not on our beaches, then on other people's beaches, and that we should not rest until victory was ours. That is the speech that I made. I ask the House not to think I am boasting in any way if I quote a few words written by the only correspondent of an English newspaper who was actually present. He said I had scored an outstanding personal success. The speech was received not with the polite cheer usually given to visiting strangers but cheers that I never expected to hear from 1,000 Irish undergraduates listening to a British Member of Parliament. I must confess that I returned delighted with what I had been able to do, and when I opened the "Daily Telegraph" on the morning of my arrival in this country and found that the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Liddall) had put down a Motion which was based on evidence—I do not know where it came from—I must say it struck me by surprise.

I would not weary the House in wartime with a personal question, however indignant and injured I may feel, were it not that a question of principle is involved, a question of principle to which you, Mr. Speaker, alluded in another connection when you indicated that the privilege which Members of the House enjoyed in putting down Motions on the Order Paper or in putting down Parliamentary Questions implied a certain amount of responsibility, and that allegations against the honour and conduct of individuals should not be put down without careful investigation. I claim that the hon. Member must have known that a Motion in these terms would attract the greatest publicity. He must have known that if it had been said that I had gone to Dublin and made a patriotic speech, it would not have been news, but if he had said that I had gone to Dublin to make a defeatist speech, that would have been news and would be, as it has been, printed in every paper in the country. In my own constituency it has been printed, and in Germany too, and it has done me considerable public damage. The hon. Member put down his Motion on the evidence of quotations from Irish newspapers. He must have known that Irish newspapers are not evidence and that an Irish newspaper would not print a patriotic speech by an Englishman. He must have known, too, that he had only to approach me, and I would have told him the whole story—[HON. MEMBERS: "Don't overdo it."] I do not wish to go any further in criticising the hon. Member's action, but I beg him, after the explanation he has heard from the Home Secretary, to withdraw his Motion and to express at least some contrition for the public damage and the private distress to which I have been exposed.

Photo of Sir Walter Liddall Sir Walter Liddall , Lincoln

I feel that, at any rate, I can compliment the hon. Member on the speech that he has delivered in the House to-day. What I was concerned about was the speech he was alleged to have made on 16th March in Dublin. He tells us that he was misquoted. Newspaper men, like politicians, are not infallible, but after a fairly lengthy public life—I have been for 30 years in politics, and for 20 years I made my living as a reporter—I give it as my experience that for accuracy the working journalist can the better be relied upon. Indeed, accuracy is of paramount importance if a journal or a journalist is to prosper long. I have never known a journalist quote without being especially careful about the exact words used. As the hon. Gentleman has referred to the Irish Press, I will say that the practice of full and accurate shorthand reporting of political speeches has been more fully preserved in the Dublin Press than in any other Press in the British Isles.

Photo of Mr Thomas Magnay Mr Thomas Magnay , Gateshead

On a point of Order. Are we discussing the ethics of journalism or the imputations on the honour of a Member of this House?

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

I did not stop the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Nicolson), and I cannot stop the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Liddall).

Photo of Sir Walter Liddall Sir Walter Liddall , Lincoln

I will not keep the House long, but it is fair to me as well as to the hon. Gentleman that I should be able to say why I put this Motion on the Paper. It was not based on third-person reporting, but on actual quotations that were given by the London evening Press as to what the hon. Member was alleged to have said. It was these quotations that shocked so many people in this country. Had the House been in the mood, I would have enjoyed reading the whole of the quotations and extracts from the many letters I have received from all parts of the country.

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

I think that the hon. Member has said quite enough to satisfy the House.

Photo of Sir Walter Liddall Sir Walter Liddall , Lincoln

While I do not qualify my justification for putting down the Motion, I think it will be in accord with the usual procedure of this House when a Member has said he bas been misquoted to beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.