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Confidential Information (Disclosure)

Volume 443: debated on Thursday 30 October 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.7 p.m.

I beg to move,

"That, if in any case hereafter a Member shall have been found guilty by this House of corruptly accepting payment for the disclosure and publication of confidential information about matters to be proceeded with in Parliament, any person responsible for offering such payment shall incur the grave displeasure of this House; and if such person shall be the representative of a newspaper or of a press agency, that person and any other representative of the same newspaper or agency shall, if the House think fit, be excluded from the precincts of this House, until this House shall otherwise determine."
This Motion relates to the position of journalists in this matter. In these cases it is not proposed to take any action against the journalists or the newspapers involved, largely because they would not necessarily have known that the offence was being committed, and I do not think in all the circumstances of the case that the aspect of the journalists in the offence should be pursued. But I think it is necessary to place on record a note of warning for the future that in the case of an hon. Member being convicted by the House of bribery in these or similar circumstances, the House would contemplate taking action not only against the hon. Member but against the givers of the bribe as well. I think that is reasonable. It is fair that that note of warning should be issued and placed on the Journals of the House. It will be seen that there is a slight alteration in the Motion as it appeared today as compared with the Motion as it appeared yesterday. It ends now—or nearly ends—with the words: "if the House think fit." That presupposes that the merits of the case would be discussed by the House at the time, probably on a report of the Committee of Privileges. Therefore, if there were mitigating circumstances, or if it were decided that there was no offence at all, that could be argued. In these circumstances I trust the House will agree.

The right hon. Gentleman has explained how the Motion differs from the form in which it appeared yesterday, but he has not explained the other differences. The one to which he just alluded is not the only one.

I do not think the others are material, but if the hon. Gentleman has any alterations in mind perhaps he will tell me.

I do not want to make a speech at this stage, but would the right hon. Gentleman explain how this differs from the original form on the Paper? When it appeared originally, the third line was: "Official information about Parliamentary matters "and not" about matters to be proceeded with in Parliament," and I think the change might be material. It was unfortunate that it should be made without being brought to the general attention of the House, and I do not think the right hon. Gentleman would wish to be purporting to explain differences without bringing them to the attention of the House.

I am much obliged. I did not refer to it as I did not regard it as a matter of such great importance. The reason for the change was that the words "Parliamentary matters" were excessively general and wide, and the words, "matters to be proceeded with in Parliament" were somewhat more restricted. The insertion of these words "if the House think fit," is to make it clear that the House would consider the merits of the circumstances of the case at the time.

11.11 p.m.

I am sorry that this Motion has been moved at all. I listened to the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman, and I must say I found it a little hard to see on what grounds he was justifying it. In the unfortunate cases we have just discussed there was not, as I understand it, as far as this aspect was concerned, during the Debate, alleged to be a breach of Privilege. That was not what we were finding the hon. Members guilty of. If that is so, I cannot see why the right hon. Gentleman used the words "in these cases no action would be taken in regard to the journalists involved" and I am rather at a loss to see why that point should have been used at all. I find great difficulty also in realising what the point is in putting this Order forward at all. I am not quite clear for one thing about this—is this to be now and in future one of the Sessional Orders to be read out by Mr. Speaker before the King's Speech on the first day of the session?

No. It is perfectly clear. It is a specific warning to the newspapers, which will be on the record, and they will know that if they seek to bribe hon. Members in order to get confidential information, they must expect to be put on the spot as well as the hon. Members. It is perfectly clear and reasonable.

Put in that direct form I think hon. Members would take a good deal of exception to the suggestion that it was likely to happen and that the newspapers were waiting to bribe Members of Parliament.

That is not true. It has happened. It has happened in these cases, and we are not taking further action against the newspapers, but we are entitled to tell the whole of newspaper land that if it does happen we will take serious action.

What has happened? What we were discussing earlier has nothing to do with this at all. It is unnecessary to put a Motion of this kind on the Order Paper in the form in which it appears now. It differs in substance from the Motion put down yesterday. Yesterday it talked about "Parliamentary matters." Today it talks about" matters to be proceeded with in Parliament." Secondly—and no-one has mentioned this, though I do not think it makes any great difference—the words used yesterday were "in these circumstances neither that person nor any other representative…shall be admitted," whereas today it is put in the positive form "that person and any other representative shall be excluded." Then there are the words" if the House think fit." Of course, it will happen if the House think fit. We do not have to say so now. What I cannot understand is why the vague aspersion is made. The House will always act if it think fit. It is a sovereign Parliament. That is our point. Therefore, it is quite unnecessary to pass this Motion, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has given any good reason for it.

After all, everybody who has been in this House for any length of time knows the present relationships which exist between Members on all sides of the House and the journalists of the Press Agencies, the newspapers and others who frequent the building. It is suggested now that if the House think fit, it can discuss the merits of such a case and not only will the person concerned, if found guilty, be excluded from the House but also any other representative of the same agency or the same newspaper. I do not know if there is any suggestion of all those alternative people being guilty or likely to be guilty of an offence, but I do not understand why this great width has been introduced. I cannot see a case in which we could go to the person found guilty, assuming such a thing to happen, and exclude not only him, but any other person, whether guilty or not, who is connected with him in a business or professional way, from the precincts of the House. The right hon. Gentleman did not justify that. I do not know whether he could justify it, but he did not say anything about it.

If it does not mean that, what does it mean? It says:

"if such a person shall be the representative of a newspaper or of a press agency, that person and any other representative of the same newspaper or agency shall, if the House think" fit, be excluded from the precincts of this House, until this House shall otherwise determine."
I am asking the House to take into consideration what is likely to arise when a whole lot of people, not being guilty persons, are excluded. That is what I do not understand. The right hon. Gentleman is merely here to serve the House, as he has told us himself, and I wondered why he did not say what was the reason for this great extension. Whatever the reason I still go back to the words which the right hon. Gentleman used. He said that if such a case were ever to arise, which we hope it will not, then if the House think fit, that case would be considered on its merits at the time. That being the case—that has always been the case and presumably always would be the case—it is quite unnecessary to pass this Motion. I ask the House even at this late hour—we have had a long day on this intricate question—whether it is worth while doing this at all and whether it means anything, for I do not think it does. The right hon. Gentleman may have been on firmer ground without the words
"if the House think fit,"
but having put that phrase in, it seems to me that the whole Motion is otiose. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not going to press it, because, if so, he will incur our grave displeasure, to use the words of the Motion. I do not see any necessity for it, and I hope he will not press it. I further hope that it will not be necessary to have a long debate about it at this hour.

11.20 p.m.

It was my intention earlier to move a manuscript Amendment to this Motion, but in view of the lateness of the hour I will content myself with a few general observations rather than press the matter to a Division. I feel, with the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), but for different reasons, that the Government should have a second look at this Motion on the Order Paper. There is a very sharp distinction between Members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and Members of the Lobby, and this Motion means that if a member of the Lobby transgresses, facilities are withdrawn from the Gallery representative as well. This would mean, on the assumption—it would never happen, because the gentleman con- cerned is a good friend of mine—that the Lobby Correspondent of "The Times" were guilty of anything mentioned in this Motion, that "The Times" would be prohibited from reporting the proceedings of the House. The same would happen to the Press Association. And what about the B.B.C., which is not mentioned here at all? Are they to be denied facilities for reporting the proceedings of the House, should one of their staff be guilty of making a bribe to a Member of this House? I think this Motion is well considered, but ill advised. It needs redrafting to cover the point I am trying to make, and I hope my right hon. Friend will re-examine it in the light of the point I am trying to make to him. We have spent nearly seven and a half hours today discussing matters which, in essence, concern newspapers and journalists. Some of us have maintained a strong and masterly silence, although we have felt we wanted to intervene.

May I say this—and it is relevant because the Motion uses the words "payment" and "bribe." I want to repudiate the suggestion that the whole of journalism and newspaper work is concerned only with bribery and corruption. I have worked in this House in the Press Gallery and in the Lobby for fifteen years. I have never offered a bribe in my life and I have never accepted one, and I am certain that the organisation for which I worked would have flung me out if I had attempted to do it and claimed the money in my expense sheet. It is not true that this is the regular procedure of journalist and newspapers, and the mere fact that today is an exception in our proceedings, shows that it is equally true that it is an exception in journalism. I do hope that as a result of today's Debate we will not have going out from this House the impression that jobbery, bribery and corruption are the everyday stock-in-trade of journalists. It is absolutely and entirely untrue. I invite those who think it might be, to read in the Report of the Committee of Privileges the evidence given by the secretary of the Lobby and also the testimony on oath of editors and Parliamentary correspondents of various newspapers.

Although on many occasions I have attacked the organisation of the Press, its control and finance, ownership and everything else, and will go on doing so, I want to place on record that I believe that the British Press is the finest and cleanest in the world. I will go beyond that and say that the journalists accredited to this House are the finest body of men you could find in any Parliament in the world, and against them there is no complaint. There is no shadow of doubt about their integrity. I hope that because there may be weaker brethren the impression is not going to go round that this is the rule. On the contrary, this is an absolute exception. Because once again in this Motion we come back to the question of payment of money, I hope no one is going to assume that this is a regular practice. I hope the Government will look again at this Motion. Where does the B.B.C. come in? It is a pretty big news agency. There is also the question whether you are going to discriminate between the Lobby and the Gallery or are you going to lump the whole thing together? If a newspaper is guilty of this offence, I believe that the newspaper should be punished and, as a journalist, and as a result of what has happened today, I sincerely hope that never again in the history of this House will such a matter be raised.

11.25 p.m.

I wish to speak for only a few moments in support of what the hon. Member for South-West St. Pancras (Mr. Haydn Davies) has said. Surely this Motion should be withdrawn. Surely what has happened today will be adequate warning to any editor who tries to be so foolish as to do the sort of things we have been discussing. There has been sufficient warning, I feel. I think that democracy can be built only on the twin pillars of Parliament and the Press, and it would be a very great pity if the impression went out from this House that in the opinion of Parliament there is serious corruption in the British Press. I see no reason for this Motion, and I would support that contention with a hypothetical case. Supposing the Lobby Correspondent of "The Times" was on holiday—I apologise in advance to "The Times" because this would never happen—and while he was on holiday a keen young man was sent in his place, and, being very keen, he attempted to bribe a Member of Parliament. We should then have a ridiculous position. We should have the ridiculous proceeding that not only would "The Times" be unable to report the proceedings of this House, but neither the. editor of "The Times" nor any other member of the staff would be allowed to come here.

The hon. Gentleman is making these remarks, but the Motion says "if the House think fit." That is a different argument.

Surely we say:

"Any other representative of the same newspaper or agency shall be excluded."

What the hon. Gentleman is saying now is not the same as he said before. What he said was that they shall be excluded. The Motion says "if the House think fit," and that means that they may be excluded.

I am grateful for the hon. and learned Member's correction. Nevertheless, I think that a Motion such as this, if adopted, can only have a very bad effect on the country. People outside will think there is serious corruption in the Press and every hon. Member knows, I think, that that is not so.

11.29 p.m.

I should like to support what has been said. I agree it would be a very great misfortune if there went out to the world an impression that there is wholesale bribery in this House or in the British Press. But it would also be unfortunate if the impression went out to the world that it is possible to be discovered, as a journalist, bribing a Member of Parliament, and to get away with it. That is what we are going to allow to happen to-night. It is too late to move this Motion. The Leader of the House suggested as an excuse for moving it now, rather than moving another Motion earlier, that perhaps the Press really did not know it was dishonourable to bribe an hon. Member of this House. I am sure that that is wrong. So far as I know, there are no rules laid down when you get a Lobby ticket to this House. I had the honour and pleasure of being a Lobby correspondent, like my hon. Friend who has spoken, and no rules were laid down; but I knew perfectly well, and every one of my colleagues knew, that it was dishonourable conduct to offer money in the precincts of the House to a Member to disclose confidential information. That is what the Lobby correspondent of the "Evening News," aided and abetted by his editor, has done; and we are doing nothing whatever about it. I only want to say that I am sorry that we are doing nothing about it.

The one reasonably pleasant thing that I have found about this whole wretched business is that in talking with Members of Parliament every one said how badly the Members of Parliament had come out of it, and when talking with journalists in Fleet Street they said how badly the journalists had come out of it. I know that I must speak here as a Member of Parliament, and not as a journalist; but if I may for a second speak as a journalist, I would say that it is bad that Members of Parliament should be punished for their offences and the journalists allowed to go free.

11.32 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Bartlett), who asked the House to reject this Motion, said that it meant nothing, and I ask the Lord President of the Council also to consider that, as it is worded, a good many criticisms could be made of it. For instance, it is said in the first part of the Motion that if a Member corruptly accepts money, then the person giving that payment should incur the grave displeasure of the House. But there could be cases where corruption exists in the mind of the recipient and the journalist has nothing to do with that corruption. The point which the hon. and learned Member for Llandaff and Barry (Mr. Ungoed-Thomas) made, that the word "may" is in the second part of the Motion, does not apply there. The House has to express grave displeasure if there is a corrupt acceptance of a payment. One can imagine a perfectly lawful transaction where a newspaper asks a Member to write an article every week for £10. There is nothing wrong in that. In fact, I believe it is done. Then the Member, to keep in the good graces of the newspaper and unknown to the editor, discloses some confidential information.

It is a matter of payment for the disclosure of confidential information. It is payment for that purpose.

No, I think not. The payment can be received and then the Member corruptly discloses the information without the knowledge of the journalist. Supposing a paper discloses some very confidential party information. Immediately, this Motion, I am afraid, encourages this House to make inquiry to find out how the newspaper got that information. This Motion would lead members of the House to think there had been some corruption. The dangerous part is that, owing to the very wide powers of the Committee of Privileges to ask questions, we would immediately get into the position into which we unfortunately got in this last case, when the Committee of Privileges asked a newspaper editor for the name of his informant.

That immediately raises a deep conflict of loyalties. There is the journalist's code of honour. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman from the journalistic profession who has just spoken will agree with me that it is a cardinal principle of journalism that you must not disclose the sources of your information. But the Committee of Privileges can ask any question in the world, and the unfortunate editor has got to answer. I deeply regret that that was the effect of our Debate in the last Session. It is a principle which is held in the courts of law in libel cases, where everyone else except newspapers has to disclose sources of information. The newspapers are protected in the courts of law from disclosing their sources of information. The law courts think that that is a cardinal principle of a confidential nature in journalism. One can imagine what would have happened in the war in 1915 when two military officers came over and saw Lord Northcliffe and told him about the shortage of shells, if he could have been asked how he had obtained this confidential information.

I think that it is a terrible breach of the journalistic code of honour that we in this House should have the power to summon any editor before us and ask him where he got his information. If it is confidential information, then under this Motion suspicion will immediately arise that it is bribery if a Member feels that his party has come to such a wrong decision that it is his duty to the public to disclose it to the Press, that the public should know because it is in the public interest that they should know. I add my plea that the House should reject this Motion.

11.38 p.m.

I ask the Leader of the House whether the Whips are on or whether it is a free vote of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why should you ask"]—It is a reasonable question. I am asking for information. Without it I do not know whether it is worth while adding any appeal. I ask the Leader of the House whether he insists on pressing this Motion at this hour of the night. It is undoubtedly a serious reflection upon the Lobby correspondents, who are a most admirable body of men and against whom no charge has ever been brought. This Motion clearly centres on them, because it centres on journalists who are in contact with Members and journalists who may be expelled from the precincts of this House. An editor may offer money to a Member as much as he likes and this Motion will not touch him. It adds nothing to the powers that the House possesses. The House already has considerable power over any journalist. I understand that the Lobby Correspondents come under the authority of Mr. Speaker. I do not know whether I am rightly informed in that. In any case it seems to me that to go to a Division on this Motion and have it carried by a majority vote can do no possible good and will create a certain amount of suspicion and a great deal of discontent and, therefore, though I am not very confident in appealing to the Lord President, I do appeal to him that after the very heavy days' work we have done, we might leave it and go home.

11.40 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."

I think there is some point in what the hon. Gentleman has just said. We have had a heavy day. I am most anxious that this matter should not be settled in the middle of the night or early morning. That would not be right. But it must not be taken in any way that I am going to exempt any particular trade or profession from a proper standard of conduct in this House. It must not be assumed that I shall respond to these appeals from the journalistic profession to drop this. That must not be assumed. There is an important principle here, but at this late hour, and having done by far the greatest part of the business, it would be best to break off at this stage and resume it another time.

Question put, and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.