Ministry of Information

Part of Orders of the Day — Civil Estimates, 1944. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th June 1944.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Tree Mr Arthur Tree , Harborough 12:00 am, 29th June 1944

I have no doubt that that small section did an extremely good job of work, but it seems to me that it was confined to the diplomatic correspondents in this country and a small section of the foreign Press. It did not give an over-all picture of Britain, and one only had to go to the United States in the years before the war, to see the woeful amount of misapprehension that existed about the institutions and the policies of this country. Moreover, future British publicity has got to include a far wider field than that covered by foreign affairs. It has to cover the Dominions and our relationship with them. As someone said earlier, there is in the United States a complete misapprehension of the meaning of the Statute of Westminster. It has to give a true picture of our Colonial development, which has also been woefully misrepresented abroad, and it has to give, in the years immediately after the war a true picture of our relations with India, which may well be a cause of acute misunderstanding with foreign countries. It must further cover the vast new field of economic policy which is now entrusted to the Board of Trade. I agree that the Foreign Office is deeply interested in these matters, but equally so are these other Departments which I have enumerated.

For these reasons I do not believe that overseas publicity should reside exclusively with the Foreign Office. For other reasons I reject the idea of setting up an equivalent to the Department of Overseas Trade. My own experience in the early days at the Ministry of Information was that one of the chief difficulties that it encountered was that the Minister did not attend Cabinet meetings himself and was unable to give sufficient directive to his staff. I can remember well in the early days of the Ministry a War Cabinet Minister holding a conference of representatives of the Press, and, as far as I can remember, the then Minister of Information was not even asked to take the chair. He was an extremely angry man. The success of our publicity depends largely on the man who will be placed in charge of it and the closeness of the touch that he has with the fountain-head, the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet. That could not happen if you merely had an Under-Secretary in charge of it.

We come, therefore, by a process of elimination to the two other alternatives, either of retaining the Ministry of Information on a reorganised basis or of putting it under the Cabinet Secretariat. It does not greatly matter to me which one is chosen, because I believe either will be capable of doing a good job; personally I favour the retention of the overseas section of the Ministry with a Minister responsible to the House and able to answer for it. I think it would be a neater kind of job. But, if it is considered in the public interest, and if the House wants to see all war-time Ministries, no matter how important, abolished at the end of the war, I should be quite content to see it go to the Cabinet Secretariat.

Some hon. Members have questioned what should be the role of the British Council in future British publicity and what part it is to play in giving a picture of Britain to the world. I believe the British Council has a very considerable role to play but that it should be limited to those countries where culture and art are the main objects of our publicity in countries where we already have an Institute, like, for instance, Portugal, or Italy as it was before the war. I believe that the Council has a considerable role to play throughout the Middle East and in certain countries in South America. But in countries like the United States and the U.S.S.R., where a positive interpretation of all aspects of our life must be attempted and facts given, as well as the countering of actual misrepresentation which is always being made by our enemies, the British Council should be definitely excluded. It should act in the closest touch with the publicity department that was chosen, but it would be highly dangerous if we had two branches of publicity working in the same country, and it would make that country legitimately ask questions as to what was being done.

I would like to say a word about the future of the B.B.C. If I make any criticisms of that body I hope they will be taken in the spirit in which they are meant, a desire to be constructive. I recognise the fine work that the B.B.C. have done throughout the war, sometimes in difficult circumstances. I always found during the three years I was at the Ministry of Information that they gave me every co-operation and help. Nor do I intend to discuss the overseas programmes because I believe that, with the exception of the Empire programmes, they should become part of the functions of the publicity board about which we have been talking. I believe that they have a large part to play in painting a picture of Britain to the world. I shall confine what I have to say to the home programmes. I think that it was the general opinion of most people that before the war the home programmes were not up to standard. During the war the news bulletins have been extremely good, but there has been little improvement on the entertainments and other sides. The question is, therefore, what can be done to bring them up to the highest possible degree of excellence so that audiences are not forced through sheer boredom to turn on to foreign wavelengths and listen to gramophone records relaying from foreign stations. I think that this is an opportune time to discuss this matter because I understand that the Charter of the B.B.C. comes to an end in 18 months. Therefore, I hope that the Governors are giving this matter their earnest consideration and that they will take cognisance of what is being said in this Debate.

There is one recommendation that can be made now. That is that the charge for licences should be raised from 10s. to£1. One of the greatest difficulties that the B.B.C. has been under during past years has been the inability to pay for the best.