This morning, I received a letter which shocked me deeply. I think it is only right that I should read it to the House, and I hope that hon. Members will feel, not only that I was justified in raising this matter this evening, but that I was, in fact, bound to do so at the earliest possible moment. The date is 8th November, and the letter is as follows:
"Dear Mr. Nicholson: As one of your constituents, I hope you will forgive me writing to bother you.
My husband, Brigadier A. W. S. Mallaby, was murdered at Sourabaya on 30th October. This news was released by the B.B.C. on the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. news the following morning, when I first heard it. I was notified officially by the India Office on 1st November. A day later the B.B.C. put forward three alternatives as to how my husband was killed—all of which were guesses, and one at least which did not bear thinking of. The actual facts were announced 24 hours after this.
That I have been inundated with telephone calls from the Press within 20 minutes of first hearing the news, and reporters themselves walking into my house without ringing, I can forgive, but I find the behaviour of the B.B.C. unpardonable. I would not bother you with this letter if all I wanted was an apology from them. Nothing they could say would undo what they have done, but I wonder if any statement or question you might think fit to make in the House would save anyone else from a similar experience?
I think hon. Members will agree that I was right to be shocked with that letter, and, indeed, I am not raising the matter in order to cry over spilt milk. Nothing can undo the pain and grief caused to this widow of a heroic officer. I am raising the matter simply and solely in order that steps shall be taken to prevent a recurrence. My criticisms are these. Firstly, it is quite clear that the channels of communication between the War Office and the India Office and the field of operations in Java are inadequate. Secondly, it is also quite clear that there is a lack of co-ordination between the B.B.C. and the Service Departments. I am quite aware that my hon. Friend—and I thank him very much for being here tonight—in speaking for the Departments will give cogent excuses and explanations for this breakdown. He will say that the censorship has been removed in Java, and that casualties are not reported through Service channels until fully substantiated, and so on. He will give explanations which will appear to him to be fully sufficient, but the fact remains that this breakdown, this blunder, has occurred, and that, if there are further casualties in different parts of the world, which we pray there will not be, this blunder will be repeated and the relatives of those killed will have this unnecessary suffering unless something is done about it. So I ask the Service Departments—and I do not know whether I should ask the India Office or the War Office—to see that this sort of thing cannot happen again. Now for the B.B.C. I accuse them of heartless and unnecessary sensationalism. They should have more sense of responsibility than the gutter Press. It is quite unnecessary to broadcast news of this sort without previously checking up with the War Office, or, at any rate, having been in communication with the War Office or the India Office about informing the next of kin. Secondly, it seems to me quite unnecessary in a broadcast to hazard guesses as to how this tragedy occurred—guesses which were not based on facts but were merely speculation. I hope the Minister will say what steps will be taken in that direction. Thirdly, I come to the Press. I rang up Mrs. Mallaby a couple of hours ago and asked her whether she could give me the names of the newspapers in question. She said she could not. She specifically excluded "The Times" and "Daily Telegraph," but her impression was that almost all the other national penny papers were guilty. She specifically excluded the local Press, which has treated her with the greatest possible consideration. I do not suppose it is much good my condemning the action of the Press on this occasion, as it is not the first time, and I am quite sure it will not be the last, that this disgusting behaviour has occurred, and I am quite sure that whatever we say about the Press in this connection will not be reported. But I wish to register my indignation and shame that the Press of this country should so pander to what it deems, and I believe deems erroneously, to be the taste of the nation, in that constantly the homes and privacy of bereaved persons are invaded in a way that not only exceeds all the bounds of manners and good taste, but the very canons of humanity. I wish unreservedly to condemn this, and I hope it will be condemned from the Government Front Bench. I ask for this explanation from the Government, and I do ask them to do something for my constituent which she said she did not need. I think she deserves an apology, at any rate as an earnest of the good faith of the Departments concerned.Surely the B.B.C. should keep back news until the next-of-kin are informed, and only broadcast further details when they are founded on fact? If you wish to use my name, or my husband's, please do so."
As the late Brigadier Mallaby was a most distinguished Indian Army officer I should like to put before the House the connection that my Department, the India Office, had with this most unfortunate incident. According to our information the death of Brigadier Mallaby was notified to the Press by the General Officer Commanding in Java some time before 4 a.m., Greenwich mean time, on Wednesday, 31st October. The message was cabled home by Reuters and, as my hon. Friend has indicated, was included by the B.B.C. in their early news broadcast the same morning. The broadcast, as we have been told, was heard by Brigadier Mallaby's widow, who telephoned to the India Office asking for confirmation of the report. In view of the fact that the form of the announcement indicated that it had been put out by the General Officer Commanding, Mrs. Mallaby was in- formed by the official to whom she spoke over the telephone that there appeared to be no reason to doubt the report. The fact is that the official telegraphic casualty report was received at the India Office at 12.45 p.m. that day, 31st October, and, as Mrs. Mallaby was aware of her husband's death, following the telephone conversation, it was considered in the Department that; it would be inappropriate at that stage to send the telegram which it is the practice to send on these occasions. In fact, a letter conveying the regret of the Secretary of State was sent to her on that day. This was the reason for Mrs. Mallaby's not receiving any official notification until 24 hours after the notification had been put out by the B.B.C.It is, of course, most undesirable that relatives of officers or other ranks killed in action should first learn of the happening through the Press or over the radio, and military formations have instructions to ensure that no public announcement is put out until after the relatives have been informed. It is possible, in this particular case, that the necessity for withholding the announcement was overlooked by the General Officer Commanding in Java, although we are, of course, not in a position at this moment to say whether special circumstances did in fact exist—for example, that the Press were already aware of the occurrence and would therefore have inevitably cabled home reports immediately. I may say, however, that a message has been sent to the Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia Command, drawing his attention to the distress which has been caused to the family in this case, and to the necessity of expediting the transmission of reports of incidents of this nature. There remains the point that the official machinery for the report of casualties did not function quickly, or as quickly, in the case of Brigadier Mallaby as the Press channels through which the report of the death was, in fact, transmitted to this country. This is a matter which, indeed, is hardly within the province of the Government of India or within its control, as the general question of the machinery for the reporting of casualties in South East Asia is, of course, one for the War Office, My noble Friend is, however, taking up with the Secretary of State for War the general question of procedure for the reporting of casualties from South-East Asia, if, unfortunately, they should occur in the future, and of which this case is a particular example. Meanwhile, I should like to express my deep regret that Mrs. Mallaby should have received the first news of the tragic death of her husband through a B.B.C. broadcast.
May I invite the Minister of Information to say something on this matter?
I do not know that I can add anything to what has been said by my hon. and learned Friend. Hon. Members will appreciate that, in this regard, the B.B.C. broadcasts straight news as it comes from any quarter, and I think, from the explanation given by my hon. and learned Friend, this is what happened on this occasion; that the correspondents in Java issued the news precisely as would the correspondents in any other quarter, and the B.B.C. published it exactly as it was presented to them—in exactly the same way, of course, as it is published by the newspapers of this country. The Ministry of Information, of course, had no responsibility in that regard. The B.B.C. functions entirely on its own initiative, in accordance with its Charter, and the Ministry of Information has no responsibility whatever. I am making this explanation, but it is obvious from the explanation given by my hon. and learned Friend that every effort is being made to see that this does not recur.
May I interrupt for one moment? The right hon. Gentleman is not dealing with the matter of the different conjectures broadcast by the B.B.C. as to how this gallant officer met his death. He has dealt with the matter of the B.B.C. reporting straight news, but I hardly call it straight news when the B.B.C. broadcasts conjectures as to how a death takes place.
Yes, but the conjectures are not conjectures evolved by the B.B.C. at all; they come from correspondents on the spot; and those correspondents deal with issues on the spot and the B.B.C. broadcasts what the hon. Gentleman may consider to be conjectures.
I thank the Minister for giving way again, but is he really suggesting to this House now that it is a decent thing for the B.B.C. to broadcast conjectures—some of them extremely unpleasant conjectures—as to how this gallant officer met his death? Does he really consider that it is part of the duty of the B.B.C. to enter into that low type of publicity in this country, wherever it comes from?
I am putting up no defence at all for what happened here; I am dealing with facts as they are. The B.B.C. has to receive its news. The conjectures were received from correspondents. I am putting up no defence at all for them having to be treated in that way; I am dealing with the facts as they are. I think my hon. and learned Friend has given the House an explanation of what has occurred which shows that, if the news had been preceded by an official intimation, this would not have occurred at all, and that I think is a matter into which inquiry is now being made. I have the words here of the announcement and I think I might read them to the House. There were two news bulletins and they read as follows: The first at 7 a.m. in the B.B.C. Home Service on 31st October was:
That is the straight news as it came. At 6 p.m. was broadcast the report which has been described as conjecture."Brigadier Mallaby, Commander of the 49th Infantry Brigade, Sourabaya, has been murdered. This news came from Batavia two hours or so ago. General Christison the Commander in the Netherlands East Indies has announced that Brigadier Mallaby was murdered whilst in conference with the Indonese extremist leaders over the ceasefire orders. There are few details yet, but apparently the first news of the murder was brought out by two Allied officers, who were there at the time, and who managed to escape and reach their own lines."
I have read to the House what was broadcast on this matter and everything that came to the B.B.C. came from the centre of this tragedy. I doubt whether I can say any more than that, except of course to express my sincere sympathy with the widow of Brigadier Mallaby."Brigadier Mallaby, accompanied by two other British officers, started out from British headquarters to get in touch with the Indonese leaders, and ask them to bring their followers to heel. Varying accounts have been received of what followed. One correspondent stated that Brigadier Mallaby was murdered by a mob before he reached the Indonese leaders. An Indonese officer says he was murdered by a sniper's bullet. A third report says he was done to death in the presence of the Indonese leaders. The report of the two officers who were with Brigadier Mallaby has not yet been made public but the story they told when they succeeded in getting back to headquarters led General Christison to say he was foully murdered.
I know that my constituent will appreciate these expressions of sympathy, and I must add that her and my only object is to see that this kind of thing does not happen again.
Question put, and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes past Nine o'clock.