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Three-Power Conference, North Africa (Premature Broadcast)

Volume 395: debated on Thursday 2 December 1943

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(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Information whether he is aware that the news about the Conference between the Prime Minister, President Roosevelt and General Chiang Kai-shek was broadcast yesterday morning on the European Service in a programme relayed by the B.B.C. and why this broadcast was permitted to take place many hours before news was made available to the British Press or the B.B.C. Home Service programme?

My hon. and gallant Friend must be referring to a report about the Conference based on a Press message from Lisbon which was included in an official American programme to Europe. Although this report was given over a B.B.C. transmitter, neither the Ministry of Information nor the B.B.C. have any responsibility for the decision to broadcast it.

But if this news is broadcast to Europe through the agency of a transmitter in this country, surely the Ministry of Information must accept that responsibility for that broadcast?

No. We have given a certain amount of time to the American publicity authorities. We do not censor what they put out, and unless we withdraw that time we cannot take responsibility for what use they make of that transmitter.

Do I understand, then, that if someone in America sends me a gramophone record of a Secret Session, I can reproduce it here?

In view of the fact that the machinery of the B.B.C. is paid for out of public funds is it not quite impossible for my right hon. Friend to disclaim responsibility?

I am not disclaiming it at all. I accept responsibility for giving this time to our Allies. We get considerable concessions from broadcasting companies in the United States in relation to British news. I think it is very unfortunate that all these leakages occur. I have seen four or five of these Conferences, and I am absolutely certain that publicity arrangements will always break down because they depend upon three or four nations. All sorts of people do their best to preserve secrets, but they leak out, and the best thing, I think, is either to have no publicity at all or full publicity.

This point is of some importance. The imminence of the Conference taking place leaked out from Washington about ten days ago. Is it not important that a statement of the results of such a highly important Conference should be made contemporaneously by agreement, and ought not His Majesty's Government to make representations to the United States to get a common practice in this matter?

As a matter of fact the Press here were placed in a difficult position by the fact that this broadcast was made yesterday, but we gave an undertaking that we would follow a certain publicity programme, and I decided that we must fulfil our undertaking, whatever happened. As regards the leakage from Washington, there has been a good deal of speculation in America. I am quite certain that there has been no bad faith in this matter, but so many people are in this secret, and if somebody falls down you must not blame the American authorities, because they sometimes protest against the British Press scooping them. This sort of case can go on for ever. When you have 60 or 70 of the best journalists in the world, and the most enterprising, together at Quebec or Cairo, and you do not give them any news whatever, what do they do? They send whizzing messages to their papers at home, and they always end up by blaming the Ministry of Information.

On the subject of leakages, has the right hon. Gentleman observed in this morning's Press a report of the speech by the High Commissioner for Canada, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Malcolm MacDonald), to the effect that another Conference, mentioning the names of the personalities who are likely to be present, is about to take place?

I did see a report of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman who is acting as British High Commissioner in Canada, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to put down any Question about this so-called disclosure, he must put it to the Dominions Secretary. I shall get a lot of messages from America blaming us for any leakage.

How was it, in view of the secrecy with which the Government desired to surround this Conference, that it happens that the original factual report of Reuters correspondent at Lisbon was allowed to pass via this country to Washington through channels under the control of His Majesty's Government?

We have a rule that if anything is published in a foreign capital, we will not censor it when it passes through London. That is the rule. Whether it is a wise rule or not, I do not know.

May I put my Question again? The right hon. Gentleman really side-stepped what is the major issue. I am not challenging his right of censorship or of giving time, but I ask that the Government should give careful consideration to approaches being made to Allied Governments, particularly that of the United States, with a view to adopting a common practice and simultaneous publication of big news of great importance to everybody.

There is an absolutely clear understanding between our Allies and ourselves. There is a programme made out, but on several occasions it has not been fulfilled. I will certainly do all I can to get the absolute concurrence of the authorities in Washington, but, in fairness to them, it must be said that they, too, complained bitterly that we in Britain are constantly scooping them on news. I have plenty of records. Something must be done about these Conferences. In my opinion, they ought to be absolutely security conferences in future.

Have any representations on this particular point been made to the United States Government, and, if not, will my right hon. Friend use this as an opportunity for approaching them?

They got a little ahead of us, and made the strongest possible representations about Reuters conduct in Lisbon, but we have no responsibility for the governance of Lisbon or for Reuters. I feel that I could only reply that the British Government could take no responsibility for it, but the whole business ought to be straightened out, and it ought to be done on the basis of absolute security, and journalists should not go to these capitals getting no news of any kind and wasting their time and their papers time. If Governments are not willing to give news about these Conferences, they ought not to invite the Press to be present.