Hon. Member for Dumfries

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1 August 1957.

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4.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr Thomas Fraser Mr Thomas Fraser , Hamilton

I beg to move, That this House has taken note of the action of the Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the Member for Dumfries, which led to the dismissal of the Editor of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard and strongly deprecates such action as being inconsistent with his tenure of office as a Minister. It gives me no pleasure to move this Motion; it is an unpleasant public duty. I make the assumption that the prosecutor frequently dislikes the task which he undertakes. I take the view that the honour of Parliament is at stake.

May I point out that I bear the Joint Under-Secretary of State no personal ill will; indeed, as long ago as 2nd July, a month ago, I told him the whole story as it had been told to me, which is substantially the story which I shall tell in moving the Motion. The Joint Under-Secretary will recall that on that occasion he thanked me for putting the matter before him so frankly. I told him that I should not reach any hasty decision to raise the matter in public, and I have not done so. Indeed, I first raised the matter by means of a Parliamentary Question on 23rd July, three weeks after I had given notice to the Joint Under-Secretary.

I shall be very pleased indeed if the name of the Joint Under-Secretary can be completely cleared today, but I must say that it cannot be cleared merely by assertions. It is my responsibility to submit some evidence to justify the Motion which I put on the Order Paper.

Mr. A. G. Williamson was appointed managing editor of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard in April, 1954. Mr. Williamson is a staunch supporter of the Liberal Party. He believed that the newspaper was the same. In August that year the Joint Under-Secretary asked the editor not to differentiate so much between National Liberalism and Liberalism. At the beginning of September that year, the Joint Under-Secretary further pressed the editor in the matter and said that he wished to interview the directors. That was arranged, and he attended a meeting of the directors towards the end of the month, to be precise on 29th September.

The editor remained a Liberal and wrote accordingly. There was continuing friction between the editor and the Joint Under-Secretary throughout 1955 and 1956. In the autumn of last year, at the period called "Time of Suez", the editor condemned the Government's action. The Joint Under-Secretary was not unnaturally very annoyed with the editor; he complained to the editor and to the directors again. The directors met on 20th November and considered the position, with the additional fact before them that the Liberal Federation in Dumfriesshire had by then decided to select a Liberal candidate to oppose the Joint Under-Secretary at the next Election. At this meeting, the directors decided to invite the Joint Under-Secretary to a meeting on the following Saturday, 24th November. May I quote the letter? It has been published in the newspapers and I think I should quote it, in fairness to the Joint Under-Secretary. It is dated 22nd November: Dear Major,—Following upon the decision by the Liberal Federation to contest the seat at the next General Election, the directors had a meeting on Tuesday morning to consider the new situation which has arisen, and it was felt that a word with you would be helpful. Could you come to my room at 11.30 on Saturday morning, when they will be there to see you? If not, could you let me know before ten on Friday night? If I do not hear, I will assume you will be present. Many thanks. Regards,—Yours sincerely, A. G. Williamson. As the Prime Minister said the other day, this letter was written in very cordial terms. May I ask the Prime Minister to ascertain whether the Joint Under-Secretary himself had previously asked individual directors that he should be invited to the meeting? Had he himself in mind asking that a meeting should be convened at which he would be present? Did the Joint Under-Secretary know that the editor was to be required to leave the meeting before the business started? Hon. Members should bear in mind the cordial terms of this letter from the editor. Yet when the meeting was held, before the chairman allowed the business to start, he required the editor to leave the meeting, a meeting in the editor's own room. The editor did so under protest.

Did not the Joint Under-Secretary object to being involved in what was beginning to look very like a plot against the editor? Was the future editorship discussed at this meeting? Was this meeting held to discuss the future policy of the paper? If it were, was not it rather odd that the editor was not permitted to attend the meeting?

Hon. Members will, of course, have noted the purpose of the meeting. I believe that this is the meeting at which the Joint Under-Secretary exercised improper influence with the directors to have the editor sacked, and I believe that he used the same influence with directors privately. I believe that that is why the editor was required to leave the meeting. It must have been an interesting meeting.

The Prime Minister will, I think, be interested in what I have to say now about this meeting. It must have been an interesting meeting, because the minute of the meeting has since been deleted from the firm's minute book and another substituted in which the Joint Under-Secretary's part in the proceedings has been omitted. The relative part of the minute of another meeting at which consideration was given to the question of supporting the Joint Under-Secretary or an official Liberal candidate was also deleted and the paragraph rewritten by one of the directors. The minutes, of course, are normally looked after by the secretary of the company.

Hon. Members are aware of the exchanges in the House since I first raised the matter in a Question on 23rd July. I have a letter from the editor, dated Thursday, 25th July, telling me that the Joint Under-Secretary had asked the directors to issue a statement to the effect that his presence at board meetings and his numerous approaches to directors had nothing to do with the dismissal of the editor. Accordingly, I was not at all surprised when on the Saturday morning I discovered that on Friday, 26th July, the following day, the directors obliged by issuing a statement which has had wide circulation—the statement to which, no doubt, the Prime Minister referred the other day. Perhaps I should again repeat that statement. It said: The board of directors of Messrs. Thomas Hunter, Watson and Company, Limited, make it clear that the former managing editor of the 'Dumfries and Galloway Standard', the newspaper owned by the company, was dismissed because the board were dissatisfied with his conduct of matters unconnected with politics.His dismissal was the decision of the board. It was not at the instigation of the member of Parliament for the constituency. The board's decision was in no way influenced by the member of Parliament. Their decision was unknown to him, and he had no part whatsoever in choosing the present editor. Mr. Williamson, commenting on the statement, said: There would appear to be some confusion of thought here. Only last night the chairman said that the board was dissatisfied with my work and considered that I was going towards Labour in my writings.Now in the statement, issued today, they say that I was not sacked for political reasons. With two such obvious contradictions the statement is worthless. He goes on to say: No dissatisfaction with any aspect of my work was ever expressed to me. I hope hon. Members have noted the dates. I have the letter of 25th July saying that the Joint Under-Secretary had asked for the statement. The statement was published on 26th July, and we all read it in the newspapers on 27th July. I was not surprised to read it. It is clear enough that the reason for the editor's dismissal was very much connected with politics. There was no dissatisfaction with any other aspect of his work. He could not be told why he was sacked. He was dismissed instantly on 19th June. He was given two months' salary and he was told that there would be a new editor in the editor's chair the following morning.

When I suggested the other day that the Joint Under-Secretary had a continuing interest in this affair because not only had he played a part in having the ex-editor sacked, but had played a part in recruiting his successor, a great many hon. Members on both sides of the House thought that I was going a bit too far and that the Joint Under-Secretary could not possibly have done that. I know that many friends on the Press thought that that bit of evidence, which I had submitted, was just not true. This statement from the directors says that the Joint Under-Secretary played no part at all in the recruitment of the new editor— Their decision was unknown to him, and he had no part whatsoever in choosing the present editor. The Joint Under-Secretary, on the same day, isued a statement in which he said: The whole thing is absolutely ludicrous. I had nothing to do with it. The first thing that I knew about it was when I returned from abroad and found a letter from one of the paper's directors. It said: It may interest you to know that a new editor has been appointed.Any dispute was between Mr. Williamson and his own board—not between Mr. Williamson and myself. That appeared in the Scottish Daily Express of Saturday, 27th July.

The newspaper goes on to say: Mr. Macpherson spent yesterday at Langholm for the annual Riding of the Marches Festival, an event he has not missed since he became M.P. (Nat. Lib. then)in 1945. Before he returned to London he spoke about his meeting last November with the Standard directors. Mr. Macpherson said: I was invited to attend and we discussed the paper's future policy. Mr. Williamson was asked to leave the meeting, and he did so, but no mention was made of the fact that he might be sacked. About two months later one of the directors asked me if I knew of anyone able to take Mr. Williamson's place in the eventuality of his dismissal. I thought about it and mentioned Mr. Ferguson' (the new editor who replaced Mr. Williamson). I did observe some inconsistency in those two comments attributed to the Under-Secretary on the same day and separated by about three inches of newsprint in the Scottish Daily Express.

How can the directors, together with the Joint Under-Secretary, decide the future policy of the newspaper without taking the editor into their confidence, unless they have decided to get a new editor? The hon. Gentleman has said that that was not discussed and that he knew nothing about it, but they discussed the future policy of the paper in the absence of the editor. It must sound a little fishy to anyone trying to get at the facts. The Under-Secretary has confessed that he played at least some part in choosing the new editor. His memory improved in the clearer atmosphere of Langholm.

The editor was not given notice. He was sacked on the spot, with no reasons given, after the Under-Secretary had found a successor and after the successor had had time to work his notice to his previous employers. I have already indicated that the editor was given two, months' salary the morning he was sacked. He has claimed compensation for wrongful dismissal. His claim is supported by the Newspaper Society and the Guild of Editors. A sum in compensation has been offered to the editor—his claim has been recognised—but it has been refused as inadequate. Mr. Williamson has been invited to appear on television, like Mr. Randolph Churchill, but, unlike Mr. Randolph Churchill, he has declined.

I claim that on the evidence given to me—and I am acting only on the evidence given to me and which I put forward because I believe that I have a public duty so to do—the Under-Secretary has been in the whole affair up to the neck. He has acted as a spokesman for Her Majesty's Government. Although I do not draw a subtle distinction between Ministers and Members, as do some people, none the less it was as a Minister that he made objections. The editor attacked the Government. In my view—and I believe it to be the view of the House—if my evidence is accepted and these things are shown to be true, the Joint Under-Secretary will be seen to have behaved in a way inconsistent with his tenure of office as a Minister.

It is clear that the evidence available to the Prime Minister, and on which he announced his decision the other day, is in conflict with mine. His evidence is wholly inconsistent with mine, but I think that I have shown that the Prime Minister's witnesses, the Under-Secretary and the directors, are unreliable and have given conflicting evidence. In considering the Motion, the House has constituted itself as a court which, in the circumstances, is being asked to form a judgment. It may easily be said that the facts are still in dispute and, accordingly, I appeal to the Prime Minister to appoint an independent person of standing to conduct an inquiry and to report the facts to him and, through him, to the House before we reach a decision.

I do not want any stigma to attach to the Under-Secretary if he is the complete innocent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course not. If he is innocent, let his name properly be cleared. It cannot be cleared by assertion. Let someone be appointed who can cross-examine the witnesses.

Photo of Mr Roland Jennings Mr Roland Jennings , Sheffield, Hallam

As the whole of the hon. Member's speech has been one of assertion, does he not think that he should have confirmed some of his statements before coming to the House and making them?

Photo of Mr Thomas Fraser Mr Thomas Fraser , Hamilton

The hon. Member does not appreciate that I am counsel for the prosecution. I am putting one side. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course. I am giving evidence. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I have been giving evidence since I rose to speak and surely no hon. Member with all that evidence in his possession—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hearsay."] It is not hearsay. This evidence comes from a man, most of it comes from Mr. Williamson, who is in a better position to know what happened than anyone else.

I suggest that the independent person of standing who could very properly conduct the inquiry, cross-examine the witnesses and find where the truth is, might be a judge of the Court of Session. If it is considered to be too political a matter for that—although I do not think that it is, because it is only facts which we are trying to establish—it might be done by two Privy Councillors, or by two ex-Secretaries of State. My concern is to get the facts. If the Prime Minister will adopt that proposition, I will gladly and only too readily seek leave to withdraw the Motion. Otherwise, I will ask the House to accept my evidence and support the Motion in the Lobby.

Photo of Mr Thomas Fraser Mr Thomas Fraser , Hamilton

If the Prime Minister forces us to do that and orders his supporters into the Lobby to smother the Motion, he is not likely to be praised for supporting a colleague, but rather to be blamed for letting down Parliament.

Several Hon. Members:

Several Hon. Members rose——

Photo of Mrs Jean Mann Mrs Jean Mann , Coatbridge and Airdrie

Before my hon. Friend sits down— —

Photo of Mr Gordon Touche Mr Gordon Touche , Dorking

Order. I have called the next speaker.

4.47 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I beg to second the Motion.

Like the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), I take absolutely no pleasure in referring to this matter and I much regret the circumstances which have caused it. I certainly have no desire to pursue a personal vendetta with the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson), from whom I have received a great many courtesies, nor do I want to be long, as we have other and very important matters with which to deal.

The main issue, which seems to be important and simple, is one which should be cleared up. It is whether the hon. Member advised the directors of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard to dismiss their editor. I should have thought that most people in the House would have said that if he did do that, it was an improper thing to do. It would be improper for any Member of Parliament, but certainly improper for a Minister to recommend to the directors that they should dismiss the editor of a local paper. That appears to be the main issue.

I stress that the giving of such advice would be objectionable even though the directors had not acted upon it. It becomes more objectionable if they did act upon it, but it is not a complete defence to such an accusation for a Minister to say that he did ask for the editor to be dismissed for political reasons, but, in point of fact, that was not done and he was dismissed for some other reason.

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

Hon. Members on this side of the House are in a dilemma. What code is alleged to have been contravened, or what crime is alleged to have been committed?

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

No crime has been alleged, but there are certain methods of conduct and behaviour which are generally agreed. This is not a point worth arguing. I should think that most hon. Members would say that going to a board of directors and asking for the dismissal of an editor is something of which to disapprove.

While taking that view, I do not hold the view that a Member, Minister, or anyone else may not express views about a paper's policy. On the contrary, I think that newspapers on the whole are well able to look after themselves, and if anyone feels that he is wronged or aggrieved by a paper, he can try to get the editor to change his methods. However, for a Minister, or even a Member, to do even that may very often be unwise and he should be extremely careful about how he does it. [Laughter.] What I have in mind is that if one has a complaint against the policy of a paper, or what it says, the first thing one does is to go to the editor and not to the directors.

I wholeheartedly disagree with something that the Prime Minister said on 25th July, when he indicated that in his view it was a mitigating circumstance that the paper was local and small. At any rate, he rather implied that. It seems to me far more objectionable for a Minister to go to the directors of a small local newspaper than to the directors of a national daily. If he were to go to the directors of the News Chronicle or Daily Telegraph and ask them to change their policy I have no doubt that he would be battling with an institution well able to look after itself. But it is a slightly different thing to go to a local paper as a Minister, especially in these days when some local newspapers are in considerable difficulty.

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

The hon. Member is giving his case away.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

The hon. Member says that I am giving my case away. I am not concerned how he makes up his mind. I want to put my point of view. If he does not agree with it he will have an opportunity of expressing his view.

There is considerable confusion about what happened. The hon. Member for Hamilton has made a suggestion that some sort of fact-finding committee should be set up. There certainly is considerable information to clear up. We know that the Minister went to see the directors in November of last year. I believe he was asked to go, and no doubt there was nothing improper about that—although, looking back, he might now consider that it would have been wiser not to remain when the directors began to discuss various things after the editor had been asked to leave. Two months later, according to a statement made by the hon. Member and reported in the Scottish Daily Express, as the hon. Member for Hamilton has said, one of the directors asked the hon. Member to suggest a successor to Mr. Williamson. The hon. Member does not deny that he did suggest a successor.

On the day that Mr. Williamson was abruptly dismissed the directors put out this wholly unsatisfactory statement which has been referred to by the hon. Member for Hamilton, in which they say that Mr. Williamson was dismissed not because they were dissatisfied with his conduct over politics. According to Mr. Williamson, no other subject of dissatisfaction had been mentioned, while it was notorious that there was disagreement over the line he was taking on Suez and the position of a Liberal candidate. Further, there is this curious discrepancy, in that they say that the hon. Member did not know the decision and had no part in choosing the new editor, which is contradicted by the hon. Member himself.

When the matter was raised on 25th July it was the subject of a considered statement by the Prime Minister. If no representations had been made by the hon. Member about the dismissal of the editor; if he did not make any such representations and if he never advised the directors to dismiss the editor, one would have thought that the Prime Minister would have made that point crystal clear, because that is surely the main point at issue. He did not do so. His statement implies that the hon. Member did interf and take some action, but the Prime Minister says that it was not an improper action for the hon. Member to take as a Member. Further, he could be taken to imply that if the hon. Member had been acting as a Minister what he did might have been considered to be improper.

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan) indicated dissent.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

The Prime Minister shakes his head, but he did draw a distinction in the matter—a distinction which I find quite unacceptable and which was quite irrelevant if he did not think the distinction mattered. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison)and I put to the Prime Minister quite clearly that pressure had been brought to bear upon the newspaper. The Prime Minister did not deny it. Yet this is the main point at issue.

The matter was again raised this week, when I must confess that the Prime Minister came much nearer to giving a denial which, in my view, would do a very great deal to clear his hon. Friend. He said: Since then I have made some further inquiries and I am absolutely satisfied that the dismissal of the editor of the journal in question was not the result of any representations or action by my hon. Friend."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1957; Vol. 574, c. 1069.] But again the Prime Minister became rather equivocal later when questioned by the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), who asked him if he knew why the editor had been dismissed. The Prime Minister then said that he did, and when the right hon. Gentleman asked why, the Prime Minister said that it was because it was the decision of the board of directors. Of course it was the decision of the board of directors; there is no dispute about that. No one suggested that the Joint Under-Secretary himself threw the editor out of his office. And there may well have been other considerations in the minds of the board of directors, as well as the advice given by the hon. Member. The point at issue is, did or did not the hon. Member advise the board of directors to get rid of the editor? I believe that the Prime Minister has been either too subtle or too cautious in answering this question. It is to be regretted that the hon. Member himself has not been able to deny or confirm what has been alleged. I do not blame him for that.

Photo of Mr James Hutchison Mr James Hutchison , Glasgow Scotstoun

I am obliged to the hon. Member for showing me more courtesy, in allowing me to put a question, than was shown to my hon. Friend by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser). Does not he and the hon. Member for Hamilton consider that this may well be a question primarily for the Press Council? Is it not a fact that the Press Council has considered it and has not supported the allegation being made from the benches opposite?

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I quite agree that that is a possible view. It may he a matter for the Press Council, but it is also a matter for the House as it concerns a Minister.

I am not blaming the hon. Member for not making a denial or confirmation. I know that he would probably like to do that, but he has been acting on advice. But if his case is that the whole issue is a mare's nest, because he never gave any such advice to the directors, as alleged, it would seem to be a pity that no one can come to the Dispatch Box and simply say so. We need an assurance that at no time did the hon. Member advise or bring pressure to bear upon the directors of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard to get them to dismiss their editor. Furthermore, the Government should make it clear that if he had done such a thing it would have been improper—because I think that most hon. Members would agree about that in spite of what some have said. That is the point at issue, and that is the point which has not so far been cleared up by any statement or answers to questions in this House.

Photo of Mr John Rodgers Mr John Rodgers , Sevenoaks

Will the hon. Member, as Leader of the Liberal Party, confirm or deny to the House that he has very often, or on occasion, been asked for advice by the directors or editor of the News Chronicle—and whether or not he has refused to give it?

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I wish that I were continually asked my advice by the directors of the News Chronicle. I have said that I think that there is nothing improper about the hon. Member's giving advice; the only question is whether he advised the sacking of the editor.

4.58 p.m.

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

I have seldom heard a speech which interested me more than the one to which I have just listened. Apparently it is all right for the Prime Minister to go to the editor or the board of directors of a great national newspaper and make a complaint or a fuss, but it is quite wrong for a junior Minister or a Member of Parliament to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say that."] The hon. Member does not deny that that is what he said.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I am anxious to get on with this business. I have made a speech. I did not say that, but I do not intend to get up and deny everything that I did not say.

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

It is within the recollection of the House that the hon. Member said that it would be all right for the Prime Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"]—to go to the editor of a great national newspaper. I take it that it would be quite all right for a Labour Prime Minister to complain to the Daily Herald if it wrote Conservative articles.

I have seldom heard a more flimsy case put up to this House. If the editor of a local, Surrey newspaper said that the hon. Member for Farnham should be shot at dawn he might well be right, although I would have some doubts about it. I should then be fully entitled to protest to him, and he would be fully entitled to tell me to run away and play. It is reducing our political life to a farce if Members of Parliament cannot complain to local newspapers. The Press has not been nationalised yet, and they can tell hon Members to go somewhere else.

5.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire

I do not usually associate the name of the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson)with the editorial columns of a paper, but rather with the advertisement columns and connected with a liquid which is not produced in Dumfriesshire.

I ask the House not to regard this as a trifling matter which has grown up to something of abnormal importance. After all, the sacking of an editor denotes a trend in politics, and a large number of political crises have been caused by editors being sacked, especially in the Liberal Party, and when liberalism was at the transition stage between Liberalism and Socialism. There was a great editor, Mr. H. W. Massingham, who was driven out of the old Daily Chronicle, and driven out of the Nation, and I believe, he was driven out of somewhere else, too.

What is here at issue is not so much the rights and wrongs of an individual, although that is an important matter, but the fact that pressure was exercised by vested interests to influence public opinion. Another disagreeable fact about this case is that the editor has not only been sacked; he has also been smeared by the sudden discovery, after the facts came to light, that this had nothing to do with his editorial policy at all. It has been quite obvious to those of us who know the district and the circumstances, and the political atmosphere of the south-west of Scotland, that this was a plot to get rid of an editor who had courage and independent-mindedness and who had become something of a thorn in the side of the Tory Party in that district.

A regrettable thing about this is that it is an attempt to get rid of independent local journalism and to establish in its place the stereotyped leading article emanating from the Tory Central Office.

Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire

I do not represent the Daily Herald—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about the Daily Worker?"] This is not the first attempt which has been made to suppress disagreeable critics and troublesome people in this part of Scotland. Hon. Members who know Dumfries will know that it was the place where Burns lived at one time and where he died. It is interesting to note that an attempt was made to sack Burns in just the same way as this editor has been sacked. Unfortunately, no Joint Under-Secretary of State was there to carry out the dirty work and stab the editor in the back, and there was not a Prime Minister who was prepared to support him.

Burns asked questions which are relevant to this debate. At the time when an attempt was made to sack him, because he asked awkward questions, one of the questions he asked was, "What is politics?" His reply was: Politics is a science wherewith, by means of nefarious cunning"— this may appeal to the Leader of the Houseand hypocritical pretence"— this may appeal to the Prime Ministerwe govern civil policies for the emolument of ourselves and our adherents.

Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire

These questions are relevant to the argument today. Not only did Burns ask, "What is politics?" he also asked, "What is a Minister?" And this question applies to the Minister whose conduct is now under discussion. Burns answered his question by saying: A Minister is an unprincipled fellow"— I would not say that about this Minister— the influence of whom, by hereditary or acquired wealth,"— I would not say that about this Minister— by superior abilities,"— I would not say that about this Minister— or a lucky combination of circumstances, obtains a principal place in the administration of the affairs of government. Of course, an attempt was made to sack Burns. Happily, it did not succeed. But it was not said about Burns that they would sack him for something else. I have no doubt that if the present Administration, or their supporters, had lived at that time, they would not have said that they wanted to sack Burns because he was a revolutionary thinker, but because of some other part of his work—perhaps because he had been making a mistake in sizing up the beer for the Excise.

This is a nasty, deplorable little incident in our political life. It is an attempt to crush out independent thought. It is an attempt to suppress the critic and not to answer him. We boast that we have a free Press. What sort of free Press is this? My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser)has proved his case. This case should go to the consideration of an independent judicial person. and, were this done, I should have no fear of the consequences. The result might be that we might have a different Minister.

5.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Walter Elliot Mr Walter Elliot , Glasgow Kelvingrove

Is there not a possible danger of a descent to a level to which it is not right that Parliament should descend? The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes)finished his speech by indicating clearly what is the object of all this: it is to get rid of the Joint Under-Secretary of State and have a different Minister. It is a purely political objective, to which some of the high falutin' talk we have had has no relation whatever. It is, in fact, a smear. The case has been given away by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser)and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), who moved and seconded the Motion, drew a decent veil over it. But the hon. Member for South Ayrshire has torn that away.

The suggestion is made that an inquiry should be held. An inquiry into what? An inquiry into the conduct of the directors of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard?

Photo of Mr Walter Elliot Mr Walter Elliot , Glasgow Kelvingrove

Those are the persons whose actions are being complained of. No one suggests for a moment that my hon. Friend had any power to appoint or dismiss any office bearer of the paper. The persons whose actions are being complained of in this respect are the directors of the paper, and it seems to be actually suggested that this House should solemnly constitute itself an appropriate court of inquiry into the conduct of the directors of a newspaper. I think that we are going to very odd lengths when a course like that is brought forward on the Floor of the House of Commons.

I would claim, further, that the proposed inquiry is mixed up between two questions: the one of somebody giving advice, and the other of someone bringing pressure. As to advice, we spend our lives receiving and giving advice. Which of us does not get a post full of advice every morning, and spend the rest of his day giving advice to everyone from Ministers to fellow Members? The question is whether anybody takes our advice. Pressure is a different matter. That advice should be given is part of our profession; that it should be taken is the responsibility of those who take it. It is this responsibility which it is actually proposed should be inquired into by the House of Commons.

When it is suggested that there is something improper about suggesting, even to the directors of a newspaper, that an editor should be sacked, I look along the Front Bench opposite; and ask myself, who could lay his hand on his heart and say that during the time of Munich he never suggested to anybody concerned with the conduct of The Times newspaper that Geoffrey Dawson was a public menace and ought to be sacked? Time and again that advice was proffered.

Coming closer to home, everyone heard the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland speak with great empressement about the sin of altering people's appointments because of their political opinion. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will remember better than anyone that when a well-respected Member of this House, Robert Bernays, also a Press correspondent, changed his political allegiance to National Liberal instead of Liberal, the then editor of the News Chronicle, Mr. A. J. Cummings, sacked him the very next week. The hon. Member knows very well that Lady Violet Bonham Carter wrote a letter to The Tunes protesting against it. Lady Violet never suggested, however, that a court of inquiry should be set up into the conduct of the directors of the News Chronicle, or into the conduct of Mr. A. J. Cummings, the editor of that newspaper. She made a protest, as she was entitled to do.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

It is surely not suggested that Robert Bernays was sacked at the request of a Minister?

Photo of Mr Walter Elliot Mr Walter Elliot , Glasgow Kelvingrove

No Minister requested the sacking of the editor of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard. Owing to the weakness of the Opposition Motion, the Joint Under-Secretary has no case to answer here at all. No Minister had the power either to appoint or dismiss the editor of the newspaper. If any Minister had any such responsibility, his conduct could be called into question. The utmost acccusation made here is the accusation of advice. Have not right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on Opposition benches often said that various editors of newspapers were public menaces and ought to be got rid of? If not, they are the most complacent set of nincompoops that have ever sat in Parliament. But are they therefore to be held responsible if, at some later date, an editor loses his job?

I would call attention to the letter which was sent. My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State attended this meeting in reply to a letter, written to him by the editor of the newspaper, in terms which were of a fairly personal nature and which meant, "Attend or else". I know what conclusion I would draw from a letter which began: Following upon the decision by the Liberal Federation to contest the seat at the next General Election That is pressure, if you like. Here is direct pressure upon a Minister by somebody who threatens to try to get rid of him, to sack him. The letter says, in effect, "We are going to put you on the mat and ask what you have to say about all this". The obvious inference was that the writer of the letter wished my hon. Friend to join in with the editor's views, and to change his own particular views. It was, in effect asking him to change his political allegiance. The letter said: Could you come to my room"— to my room— at eleven-thirty on Saturday morning, when they will be there to see you? If not, could you let me know before ten on Friday night? If I do not hear, I will assume you will be present …Regards.—Yours sincerely. Those are the terms which somebody would refuse at his peril. I can imagine the indignation with which right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite would have spoken if, after a letter couched in those terms, my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State had refused to go to the meeting. It would have been said that he had refused to see an honest working man, refused to go to his room. That is the kind of smear campaign that would then have been launched. Even on the statements that have been made so far, there is no case for my hon. Friend to answer.