Orders of the Day — Prime Minister (Relations with the Media)

– in the House of Commons at 7:29 am on 7 February 1983.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 7:29, 7 February 1983

It is a rare, very rare occurrence for a Consolidated Fund Bill debate to be answered by a Cabinet Minister, let alone the Leader of the House of Commons. It may not have been done since the opponent of the Leader of the House in the 1959 general election, in Coventry, R. H. S. Crossman, whose PPS I was, decided to take the debate himself on an awkward topic raised by a contumacious hon. Friend only to find that that hon. Friend had paddled off home to his bed without telling anyone, leaving the Minister and his officials to froth with fury at the ultimate in House of Commons bad manners.

At one level I apologise to the Leader of the House because people who have to attend the Cabinet or Cabinet Committees the following day should, in my view, not be deprived of sleep.

At another level I do not apologise, because I raise some basic issues on a delicate and complex subject facing a Government, which are addressed properly to a senior Member of the Cabinet, one whom his opponent Dick Crossman was to describe as then the most intelligent young man in the Tory party and certainly a cut above his friend Enoch. In raising the topic of the Prime Minister's relations with the BBC, ITN and the press over the release of the Franks report, and her visit to the Falkland Islands, I am more interested in the future than the past. The overriding significance of the behaviour of the Prime Minister and some of her entourage, Mr. Bernard Ingham in particular, is that it could set an example and precedent which could inhibit the future objective coverage of issues on which emotions are running high.

In my scale of values, the BBC's objectivity is a major, supreme, long-term national interest. If I concentrate on the BBC, it is, candidly, partly because, as a dissenting voice over the Falklands issue, I believe that ITN and IRN were fairer in opening their doors to minority and dissenting opinion.

It is the threat, actual and potential, to the supply of objective information during highly emotional situations that should interest Parliament.

The Select Committee on Defence has examined the role of the media during the Falklands war, and I shall not dwell on the period that it covered. However, one piece of background puts the debate into context. A Cummings cartoon in mid-May 1982 depicts von Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Admiral Tirpitz and the Kaiser being interviewed on "Traitorama" over the caption: If Britain admits German sovereignty over the British Isles we'll stop the war. It was discussed in Robert Harris's perceptive and important book "Gotcha" which analyses the blatant use of news management throughout the Falklands war.

The hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer), and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) and I, appearing as we did, douce and muted on Panorama of 10 May to put a dissenting view, might be forgiven for not recognising ourselves as the German field marshals of the first world war.

I recall the programme, which spawned a vast correspondence in The Times, because it transpired subsequently that a number of brave journalists on the BBC staff all but lost their jobs because of the screening of the programme.

It is a matter of public record also that none other than George Howard, the normally phlegmatic chairman of the board of governors, went on the Radio 4 early morning programme to defend the right of his editorial staff to allow four rational, well-mannered Members of Parliament to express their doubts on one of the BBC's flagship programmes about the justification of the Falklands war and the dispatch of the task force.

Until the "Panorama" team made its bold decision to devote part of a programme to the dissenters' views, I had supposed that senior BBC journalists were biased against the dissenters in that war and did not give the slightest vent to the views of those of us who, day in and day out, said that we were against the south Atlantic folly.

One of them, my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race), raised an extremely important matter in the previous debate, and anyone who has had experience of the subject of abducting children abroad knows how important it is.

Throughout that period, if the polls were to be believed, about 30 per cent. of the population appeared to share our view to some degree.

We know from Mr. Robert Harris's inquiries that the Prime Minister happened to be watching that "Panorama" programme in her Downing Street study and, according to the author, was "transfixed".

She was not transfixed for very long, because she caused the Government machine to catapult into action, and lurid accounts reverberated around the lobbies and corridors of Westminster of the fraught meeting between Conservative Members of Parliament, Mr. George Howard and Mr. Alasdair Milne. "I have not seen so much blood on the walls since you and I have been here, old boy," muttered one of the more relaxed of the Leader of the House's senior Back-Bench colleagues to me.

However, the matter did not stop at Westminster. "One cannot imagine what pressure we were under for having given scope to your views," a senior BBC journalist outside London told me after the fighting was over. That was not an isolated case. Many talk in embarrassed and somewhat hushed tones of the pressure that they were under. In my innocence, I wondered what those pressures were, because I did not feel any pressure at public meetings, in my constituency meetings or from my mail.

In an article in the Sunday Times of 30 January, Mr. Geoffrey Cannon said: Throughout the Falklands war between a third and a quarter of the population were opposed to it, and people were making up their minds on the basis of some false information—for example, on the willingness of the Argentines to negotiate, and the effect of Britain's actions on the possibility of negotiations. John Cole, BBC political editor, worried that the BBC was 'most vulnerable to criticism over its limited coverage of the internal debate in the country although many Tories would regard any coverage of this as pure speculation because the dissenting views were being kept so private.'The debate in the country about the Falklands went largely unreported on the BBC, because the 'normal' and 'official' channels used by the BBC—the lobby system, the confidential briefings with politicians, the line taken by the 'Government machine'—went unchallenged. In the event, the BBC toed the line. Mr. Alan Protheroe is quoted in the same article as saying that he copied the BBC's responses to the prime minister's office as a precaution against more MP chicanery. I hope that, by "MP chicanery", Mr. Protheroe did not mean the opposition of those of us—my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green, myself and several others—from 2 and 3 April, to what we regarded as the south Atlantic folly. By accident of fate, the veil has been lifted a little, the curtain pulled slightly aside, to give us, to use a Scots word, just a "keek", at what is now going on in this land.

On Friday 21 January; Channel 4, on the "Alternative News", broadcast a truly astonishing clip of dialogue between Mr. Bernard Ingham, chief press officer at 10 Downing street, then in the Falklands, and Mr. Alan Protheroe, deputy director-general of the BBC, picked up by a radio ham and recorded. I asked the Prime Minister yesterday, pursuant to her answer of 27 January, Official Report c. 495, what progress has been made in the investigation into the circumstances in which telephone calls from Mr. Bernard Ingham to No. 10 Downing Street were intercepted and recorded by a radio ham? The Prime Minister answered: I have nothing to add at present. I hope that at some time there will be some explanation.

On Channel 4 it was said that it had been a scoop for the BBC as the BBC had the only crew out there, and that Downing street hinted that it might be worth the BBC's while staying on in the Falklands. I asked the Prime Minister: what indications were given by her office to the BBC prior to her visit to the Falkland Islands that it would be worthwhile to extend the stay in the islands of their film crew which was already there? She replied: None. The Ministry of Defence, who made the detailed arrangements, suggested to the BBC, without elaboration, that it might be worthwhile for their television team to remain in the Falklands for a few more days. Apparently, the Government believed that the hint was dropped on the condition that film shot in the Falklands of the Prime Minister's visit should be pooled. That was the statement made in the "Alternative News." Apparently they did not tell the BBC and the BBC thought that the material was exclusive. I asked the Prime Minister: whether any prior indication was given to the. British Broadcasting Corporation that film taken by them during her visit to the Falkland Islands should be pooled. She replied: No prior notice was given."—[Official Report, 7 February 1983; Vol. 36, c. 244–45.] I make it clear that on the particular issue of whether or not the film should be pooled, I rather agree with Mr. Ingham. Probably, in the circumstances, on balance, the film shot by the BBC should have been made available to ITN. In fairness, I quote a letter of 1 February front Mr. Alasdair Milne. I gave him warning that I would raise this matter. It says: It was originally intended that Nicholas Witchell and his crew should return to the UK early in the New Year. Sources in Whitehall, however, made it clear that it might be worthwhile staying on, but at no point was Witchell told, formally or informally, of the Prime Minister's pending visit. The suggestion that the BBC was party to 'secret planning' has no basis whatever in fact. After Mrs. Thatcher's arrival, Downing Street officials `demanded' that the BBC film should be pooled: this we refused to do, making it perfectly clear that officials had no right to make such a demand. In keeping with long-standing practice however, we did agree to let ITN have some of our film. What concerns me is the threatening style and behaviour of the Downing street chief press secretary as recorded on that clip.

Mr. Ingham and the Prime Minister wanted maximum coverage. On Channel 4 a recording by a radio ham was played—apparently he is a radio ham on the Falklands. No. 10 threatened the BBC with "incalculable consequences" if it did not agree to provide that coverage. Is the radio ham's version an authentic account of Mr. Bernard Ingham's conversation with Mr. Alan Protheroe, assistant director-general of the BBC? If it is, the Prime Minister's press relations are being handled at senior level by someone whom I can only call a thug. There is no other word than "thug" for the speaker on the tape as recorded. Anyone who heard the recording—I have listened to the tapes three times—would be unable to come to any other conclusion.

Yesterday I asked the Prime Minister whether Mr. Bernard Ingham told Mr. Alan Protheroe of the British Broadcasting Corporation that the consequences of the corporation's failure to pool the film of her visit to the Falkland Islands would be incalculable and whether this was said with her authority. The right hon. Lady replied: We have no exact record of Mr. Ingham's conversation with Mr. Protheroe, but Mr. Ingham has no recollection of having made such a remark. They could get a video or a recording from the Library. I think it casual to give the answer: We have no exact record of Mr. Ingham's conversation with Mr. Protheroe. We are talking about something which is in the public domain, something which was broadcast on television on Channel 4 and which is available from the Library of the House. Either it is a false recording or it is a true one. If it is an entirely fictitious recording, we should have been told some time ago.

I am bound to say that previous press officers in this important position—Sir Harold Evans, who occupied the position when the Leader of the House and I were first elected and who was Harold Macmillan's chief press officer, Donald Maitland, Trevor Lloyd Hughes and Tom McCaffrey—would not have thought it part of their job to behave in such a way. I repeat a quotation which I have already given, which reads: 'It is childish behaviour' Ingham roared to Protheroe, and then went on about a 'signal service—keeping you people on the islands at considerable risk to ourselves'. I asked the Prime Minister what was the nature of the risk of keeping British Broadcasting Corporation personnel on the Falkland Islands which was referred to by Mr. Bernard Ingham in his conversation with Mr. Alan Protheroe of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The answer was as follows: The risk was that it would cause speculation or a leak of information about my impending visit. I asked the Prime Minister whether in his conversation with Mr. Protheroe of the British Broadcasting Corporation Mr. Bernard Ingham threatened to prevent any of the corporation's film leaving the Falkland Islands unless the corporation agreed to pool it with Independent Television News and Independent Radio News; and whether this was done with her authority. The reply was: With my authority, my chief press secretary indicated to Mr. Protheroe that no Government facilities would be made available to return the BBC's film to the United Kingdom unless it was made available to the ITN and the IRN in the interests of fair play. Apparently no film was to go out that night unless Mr. Ingham had the absolute assurance that it would be freely available to ITN and IRN. The issue is the pressure being put on the BBC by the Prime Minister's press secretary for the purpose of the Government.

To make a judgment, one has to hear the conversation to get the flavour of it. Put bluntly, a man who behaves like this should not occupy the important position of chief press secretary to No. 10 Downing street. He is, after all, a civil servant who operates for the Prime Minister. I cannot imagine Harold Macmillan, or Alec Douglas-Home, or the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), having any truck with the kind of operator that Mr. Ingham has shown himself to be. Consideration should be given to finding him another job in the Civil Service.

Mr. Ingham's behaviour during the second telephone call to "No. 10" must force the BBC to ask questions about its so-called capitulation. "I won," chortled Mr. Ingham triumphantly when he told Mr. Protheroe things "in no uncertain terms". He gave Ingham an "assurance". Should the BBC allow itself to be pressurised by Governments in circumstances when the Downing street interest is to get maximum publicity for the Prime Minister? As Channel 4 put it, the BBC fought hard and lost. That is a very important matter.

I quote The Observer of 23 January: Downing Street officials are inquiring into the legality of a telephone intercept of a row between the Prime Minister's press secretary and a senior official of the BBC, which was broadcast in a Channel 4 programme on Friday.Mr. Bernard Ingham, the Press Secretary, is understood to be very disturbed that a private call he made from the Falklands to Mr. Alan Protheroe, Assistant Director-General of the BBC in London, should have been intercepted, tape-recorded and broadcast.The producer of Channel 4's 'Friday Alternative,' Mr. David Graham, claims that the interception, and tape recording was made by a radio ham who happened by chance to tune in to the call.Even if that is legal it is thought that a complaint to the Independent Broadcasting Authority is almost certain to be made. I should like to know whether a complaint has been made to the IBA, and if so, what the result is? Is the BBC, in the persons of George Howard, Alasdair Milne and Alan Protheroe, to stand up in the best traditions of the BBC and refuse to be suborned by the politicians, or will it be forced to knuckle under to Government pressure?

For what it is worth, I record my complete confidence in both Mr. George Howard, whom I have known for many years, in my capacity as a council member of the Scottish National Trust. Our experience of Alasdair Milne during his stay in Scotland, when he was a conspicuously successful head of the BBC, suggests that he will be nobody's creature.

Mr. Milne told The Standard on 12 May: We might increase our popularity by appearing jingoistic, but no one would believe what we were saying. I do not intend to trade our reputation to please such critics. There is a wider issue. Why do we have to tolerate a lobby system in which able, gifted journalists are forced to become beholden to men in the position of Mr. Ingham who threaten assistant directors-general of the BBC with "incalcuable consequences"? Why should men and women of calibre, chosen by editors to represent newspapers at Westminster, be put in the position of prostituting their profession by keeping in with truculent, arrogant bullies of the species that the Prime Minister's press secretary has clearly become?

I do not know what Mr. Ingham was like in previous posts, but perhaps the heady air of Downing street has warped his judgment. Nevertheless, he is in a crucial position in society, and I am worried that many distinguished journalists are in what can only be called a supplicant relationship to him. We all know that the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition see the lobby on a non-attributable basis on Thursday evenings. I have no objection to that. It is an understood procedure, although it can lead to misunderstandings. However, that is quite different from trekking to and fro once or twice a day to Downing street in the interest of what the system has made into a supplicant relationship.

That shuttle across the road must disturb all of us who are concerned about healthy press relations in Britain. I am not at all surprised by the Prime Minister's conduct, because domestic politics, rather than the interests of the Falkland Islanders, or high principle in resisting agression, have been her major concern since the beginning of the Falklands issue.

Indeed, the same Mr. Ingham was the right hon. Lady's hatchet man on the release of the Franks report. Of course, there was concern that the Prime Minister's gloss should be on the report before anyone had had a chance to read it.

In recent times, there has never been quite such squalid news management. Even the president of the Newspaper Publishers Association, Lord Marsh, has called publicly for the restoration of the embargo system. Even The Guardian and Peter Jenkins, who wrote in a critical vein throughout the conflict and who had shared a platform on 3 June at the Quakers' hall with E. P. Thompson and me, denouncing the war, came out with a mild verdict.

How could the BBC, Independent Television News, Independent Radio News or any journalist be expected to pick out anything other than the conclusions of the Franks report before their deadlines at 5 pm or 5.45 pm or the deadline for the first editions? The situation was eloquently put by the perceptive James Naughtie, the chief political correspondent of The Scotsman. Writing in his paper on Thursday 20 January, he said: What was vital for Mrs. Thatcher was that the first interpretation of the report concentrated as much as possible on the concluding paragraphs, absolving the Government from blame in failing to prevent the junta's invasion of the islands. She succeeded, mainly by employing the oldest trick in the book. 'News management' is what it is called these days, but it is nothing new … When she read the Franks Report, and its long passages detailing Whitehall blunders, the rows between Lord Carrington and Sir John Nott, and the failure of the Overseas and Defence Policy of the Cabinet to discuss the Falklands for 15 months before the invasion despite constant warnings of Argentine aggression, she decided she had to ensure that it was presented in her own way. As a result copies were released at 3.30 pm on Tuesday, as she rose to address the Commons. Back-benchers interested in the Falklands, rushed out of the chamber, to grab a copy from the Vote Office, as did journalists. Mr. Michael Foot, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Mr. David Steel and former Prime Ministers had been given their copies in advance (though in some cases only an hour before) in the traditional courtesy extended to party leaders, but no-one else had a chance. I feel strongly about the matter, because I gave written and oral evidence to Franks, and it was made very clear by Lord Franks and others that he wanted his report read as a whole, and not taken out of context.

I return to Mr. Naughtie. He said: Naturally the Prime Minister emphasised the report's conclusion that the Government could not be directly blamed for allowing the Argentine invasion—but it was presented in something of a vacuum. The implicit criticism, not just of Whitehall's intelligence machinery but of the way in which ministerial discussions were directed by the Prime Minister, was kept well out of sight. Thus the important hours immediately after the release of the report were dominated by Mrs. Thatcher's own interpretation … As one of her officials put it later in the evening: 'It worked.' What he meant, simply, was that the decision to hold back the report until the last minute served its purpose. Downing Street claimed that even after close scrutiny Mrs. Thatcher will emerge unscathed from the report, but officials being officials they wanted to ensure that the Prime Minister herself dictated the way in which it should be first considered". It was left to the Sunday newspapers, which had more time, to cast a beadier, more careful eye on what Franks actually said. However, by the time the leader of The Sunday Times was printed—it was deeply critical, having had time to read Franks—first impressions had made their mark, and by Sunday, Mr. Ingham and the Prime Minister had succeeded in their task of putting their own gloss on the Franks committee report. Clearly, this was done with forethought, and it is an example of news management. I am not the only one who is concerned, because my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, after I raised the matter on Tuesday 18 January, at 3.30 pm on a point of order, said that it was a matter to which Parliament would have to return.

I quote from Punch of 2 February. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said in his column: Now that we have all had the opportunity to digest the Franks Report, Mr. Raphael's achievement"— a reference to the political correspondent of The Observerseems even more spectacular. For after weeks of careful sifting, he actually came to the same conclusions as the document's two final paragraphs. The rest of Franks—as all the serious newspapers have now explained—is highly critical of the Government's performance. It takes a journalist of real talent to conduct an independent enquiry and come up, not with the opinions expressed in the body of the report which his investigations mirrored, but with the conflicting judgement with which it ended". So, in my view, there must have been selective leaking by someone. I have no proof that it was Downing, street. Indeed, there may have been what I can only call "deep-throated" members of the Franks committee giving all sorts of negative and not-so-negative guidance. We all know how effective deep-throated members of a committee can be in semi-leaking. I have to ask, however, in view of the remarkable conclusions of Mr. Raphael and others, before Franks was let out into the public domain: are we so certain that there was not selective leaking? It was my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook who wrote that it was a very remarkable achievement to get that so right.

I come now to the issue of embargoing. The decision to release at 3.30 pm may have been revenge For the leaking of the Falklands honours list. The honours list was leaked, partly by The Times, which was the first, I believe, to break the embargo. There is, however, more to it than that. The embargo was for an excessively long period, from Thursday 7 October to Monday 11 October. It is perhaps the case that the embargo was not for the convenience of the press but for the political purposes of the Prime Minister who did not want the release of the honours list to compete with a major speech that she was making at the Tory party conference at Brighton. In a sense, the embargo on the honours list for such a period of days was something of an abuse of the system.

It is also true that some Ministers were annoyed about the leaking of the Queen's Christmas message to myself. It was completely understandable that the Queen should refer to the gallantry of service men. The leak occurred because the journalist was appalled that a comparison should be made between the Falklands and the second world war in which both the journalist and myself would have fought against Hitler.

Why did a journalist tell me about Mr. Ingham's proposed guidance to the press the following day at 11.45 and 2.45 on the morning of Tuesday 18 January? You may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you were in the Chair when I raised a point of order at midnight on Monday 17 January, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) complained on an early morning programme. The leak occurred because the journalist—not a member of the Left-wing press—was professionally and personally outraged at news management. As a token of my good faith, I refused to appear on ITN, "Newsnight" and radio programmes, although invited, on the evening that the Franks report was published because no one could comment on a report of such complexity without having had time to mull it over.

The attitude of the Prime Minister, favouring instant comment, is a bit different. The right hon. Lady said: I specifically instructed him"— that is, Mr. Ingham— not to brief the press either on the paragraphs or in any way."—[Official Report, 18 January 1983; Vol. 35, c. 176.] This was after the matter had been raised on a point of order. Did Mr. Ingham carry out the Prime Minister's instructions? My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, writing in Punch on 26 January, stated: despite the Prime Minister's stern injunction, Mr. Ingham did come to the aid of the bewildered press. Of course, he did not brief them before they saw the report. But after Mrs. Thatcher's House of Commons statement, some lost souls did ask him 'to give them a quick run-through'. That is how Mr. Ingham describes their requests. And 'if people do not believe' in the innocence of his agreement to help, 'that is their problem'. So, first, I ask whether a man who has come to behave like an operating thug, who threatens the BBC with incalculable consequences, should continue to be the Downing street press secretary or should be redeployed to other duties. Any threat that could inhibit or which could be seen to inhibit the long-term objectivity of the BBC is a threat to the British national interest.

Secondly, is it healthy that the system should require good journalists to trek daily or twice daily across to Downing Street to meet a chief press officer on the basis of a supplicant relationship, if not being creatures of the Administration at least taking into account the fact that the Ministry is so often the hand that feeds them? Incidentally, that is also true of defence correspondents who become terribly beholden to the Ministry of Defence.

I believe that Donald Maitland suggested that briefings should be on the record, and I am also told that the lobby voted against that when it had the opportunity to pass judgment on it. I just say to members of the lobby that some of us are concerned that the preservation of any lobby mystique might be extremely expensive in terms of journalistic professional integrity. There is a dilemma here which I raise in a serious fashion and which must be discussed, not least by distinguished members of the lobby themselves.

Thirdly, I make a call for the civilised and sensible system of a 48-hour or 72-hour embargo on complex documents to be restored forthwith. The management and manipulation of news is an idea that is alien to the concept of communication in a free society.

Fourthly and finally, in the light of what has occurred, the House of Commons must set up an inquiry into the workings of the lobby and its effect on Britain comprised of Members, editors, journalists and two or three laymen which should report early in the lifetime of the new Parliament. In my view, this has become a matter of urgency and importance in the light of the events surrounding the handling of the Prime Minister's visit to the Falklands and the release of the Franks report.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , Oswestry 8:12, 7 February 1983

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) opened his remarks by making a characteristically kind apology for having kept me here through the night and dragged me to the Dispatch Box to deal with the debate that he has initiated. I dare say that we have a shared experience of national service, when one learned to go through the night wearing one's boots. For all the rigours of the Palace of Westminster, I find that an all night sitting is a good deal more bearable than an all night guard duty.

The hon. Gentleman has raised points of considerable significance and I should like first to congratulate him on his good fortune in securing a place in the ballot for this debate under the new procedures. It is perhaps scant reward for his assiduity that the debate has come on at this witching hour, but I hope that it is of some comfort to him, perhaps more even than it is to me, that I am here to share in the occasion.

I have tried in preparing my remarks to anticipate, as helpfully as I could, the points with which the hon. Gentleman would mainly wish to concern himself in his speech. I say at once that his speech was a most fascinating occasion and the time went very fast. It was highly controversial, but none the less it did not drag. When we ended with the old question of the reform of the lobby system he will understand if the prescience of my modest office was not such that I have come briefed with a comprehensive reply on that and many other points. Having followed the hon. Gentleman's campaign, I am sure that any points that I do not touch upon will not lie neglected. I do not suppose for one moment that this debate will close the topic.

I should like first to deal with the publication of the Franks report and the various suggestions and claims that have been made about it. In doing so, it may be useful if I remind the House of the position as it was then regarding the release of official Government documents and in particular their release to the press.

On a point of order which the hon. Gentleman raised on 18 January he referred to The civilised and sensible habit of an embargo for the lobby".—[Official Report, 18 January 1983; Vol. 35 c. 171.] I would not myself dissent from that description, but, for reasons of which the House is well aware, the previous practice of issuing documents overnight on a 24-hour embargo had been discontinued with documents being made available instead only a few hours before publication.

As it so happens, I am very pleased at this stage of my remarks to be able to bring the House up to date. I understand that Lord Marsh, chairman of the Newspaper Publishers' Association, has written a very helpful and constructive letter to the chief press secretary. In it he offers a formal assurance that member companies of the Newspaper Publishers Association will use every endeavour to ensure that embargoes are honoured. The way is now clear for some relaxation of the tight restrictions placed on the operation of the system following the wholesale breach of the Falklands honours and gallantry list embargo in October. I am sure that this will be generally welcomed. However, in his remarks on 18 January, the hon. Gentleman went on to imply that, on this occasion, the absence, as he termed it, of an embargo system had led instead to a process of selective briefing. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this suggestion is indeed mistaken. The facts of the matter are as follows.

First, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took the decision that there should be no advance issue of the Franks report in the form of a "confidential final revise" entirely independently from the restricted embargo system currently in operation. She decided that no one, apart from those to whom such release would obviously be constitutionally proper, should be put in possession of the report before Parliament. The hon. Gentleman would not, I know, wish to contest the propriety of this decision. Accordingly, copies of the report were made available to the press at the same time as they appeared in the Vote Office, which was at 3.30 pm on Tuesday 18 January when my right hon. Friend stood up to make her statement.

Secondly, it has been suggested that the contents of the Franks report were leaked, with the obvious implication that this was done in order to secure an advantage for the Government. I cannot accept that point of view. The report is there and can speak for itself, as I believe it has done. Nevertheless, let me repeat the assurance that my right hon. Friend has already given to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. There was no leakage from No. 10. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt recall the written reply that he himself received from the Prime Minister on the same day—18 January in c. 111—and that reply seems to me to be an entirely satisfactory statement of the position in this respect and I do not think that I can usefully add to it.

Finally, I should like to turn to the suggestion that, in some contorted way, the Government were contriving to give through the press office at No. 10 improper guidance to the lobby on the key paragraph numbers in the report. Here again, I find myself unable to do more than repeat the factual and complete account of the position which the Prime Minister gave to the House on 18 January. Nevertheless, it does seem to me quite unreal to seek to impute into what was planned, or what in practice happened, any attempt to manipulate or mislead.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained on 18 January, there was in the event no guidance given to the press on the key paragraphs in the report before it was made available to the House. Previous plans which had been made at the request of the press to extend this assistance with a complex and lengthy document, were dropped following the hon. Gentleman's point of order on 17 January.

I should like to turn now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the matter of the Prime Minister's visit to the Falklands. The hon. Gentleman will today have received written replies from the Prime Minister which I hope he will have found useful. Indeed, he was supplied with a great deal of the structure of the speech that he has made. I think I would be fair in deducing from that that he was not entirely satisfied with the answers he received. No doubt he will return to this topic again.

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to add any interpretation of my own, but I would like to offer just one observation which I think should not go unsaid.

In linking these two topics—that is, the handling of the Franks report and the Prime Minister's subsequent visit—the hon. Gentleman is evidently seeking to construct a theory of a Government campaign, consciously and assiduously undertaken, to manipulate the news media to their own advantage and so to deprive the public of a fair and impartial interpretation of events. I cannot accept that charge. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the Franks report itself, and in particular annex A thereof, to show that where there have been "mistaken or misleading statements"—and there have indeed been some—these cannot be laid at the Government's door.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Annex A is fraught with inaccuracy. Part of my oral evidence to Franks was to suggest that the Hercules airliner that landed at Port Stanley in the second week of March was a decoy in the sense that it was the Argentines trying out the runway for weight and length. Franks dismissed that, saying that there had been witnesses to a leaking fuel tank.

The right hon. Gentleman and I have done national service. If we thought that an engine was leaking, and if we were air crew, we would not start off two hours later having had tea and buns at the house of Commander Gammon into the South Atlantic air without repairing it, stripping the engine or finding out what was wrong. This is just a concrete example of where Franks has far too easily dismissed evidence that was available to him. In fact, it is technically ridiculous. Therefore, annex A is open to all sorts of queries.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , Oswestry

That demonstrates the real nature of the debate that the hon. Gentleman conducts with an increasing number of people. The target widens. The guilty men and women are not merely to be found on the Treasury Bench. He says that the Franks report is flawed. He must have doubts about the way in which many of his right hon. and hon. Friends conducted themselves throughout the campaign.

The hon. Gentleman is an engaging and resolute campaigner, but there comes a time when these matters must be put into perspective. I have known the hon. Gentleman as a campaigner for many years. Indeed, I hold aloft the very first campaign that I associate with him—the case for ship schools and the book that he kindly gave me to mark his appreciation of my interest.

This debate has taken place in the fairly relaxed circumstances of the Chamber, with all the protection that the Chamber confers on Members of Parliament. We learn that Mr. Bernard Ingham is an operating thug and a truculent and arrogant bully. One would begin to imagine that we had some sort of rough-spoken Yorkshire Rasputin who is manipulating Government and corroding the standards of public morality.

I am happy to endorse and support what the Prime Minister said about Mr. Bernard Ingham and about the quality of service that he confers in his role as a civil servant. It is easy enough to take someone on, knowing that one is protected within this Chamber, but it is less easy to reflect upon what that may do for a man who has a career as a civil servant, who has had a career independent of the Civil Service and who may well have a future career outside the Civil Service. If the hon. Member for West Lothian wants a target, there are plenty on the Treasury Bench. It in no way enhances the style of debate to pick out Mr. Bernard Ingham for the kind of treatment that he has received today, because character assassination demeans a campaign.