WHY I VOTED NO
By T. C. SKEFFINGTON LODGE, M.P.
T0 vote against most of the members of one's own party is a serious matter, not because a Member of Parliament is a sheep or because he fears the displeasure of the Whips, but because the members of a party are chosen as men who, in the main, have similar views on current political questions. If almost unanimously they take a particular view on a particular question, it is likely that the few who take the contrary side have made a mistake somewhere in their chain of logic. For that reason I should always think twice before going into a division-lobby with only six other Labour members. Sometimes, however, it is the majority who are in error. If so, it is generally because they have allowed their emotions to guide their reason. I believe that this was the case in the debate on the Press. Consequently, and because the resolution was left to a free vote, I joined the handful of Labour members who voted against it.
In all such issues, when there is a great deal to be said on both sides, the difficulty is to single out the one really decisive considera- tion ; there is always one which is fundamental. I have read over the debate very carefully since it took place, and on reflection I am even more impressed than I was at the time by the excellence and plausibility of many of the speeches on both sides. No reason- able person studying the report could fail to draw satisfaction from the soundness of our parliamentary system, nor doubt that Members were, in the main, moved by a wish to further the public good. Maurice Webb, for instance, in a forceful speech in favour of the resolution, was obviously obsessed with the wish to protect the integrity of journalism. Wilson Harris, on the other hand, support- ing the opposite view, spoke with restraint and cogency and, equally obviously, was anxious that constitutional processes should not be misused. Unfortunately neither brilliant rhetoric nor the purest motives are adequate substitutes for clear thinking. Only Herbert Morrison really insisted on the central fact—and he drew the wrong conclusion!
The essence of the attack on the Press lay in the belief that, by allowing the ownership of all the papers in the country to become concentrated in a very few hands, the public was in danger of being misinformed on the issues at stake in vital questions which must ultimately be solved by popular vote. Many answers were offered in the debate, some of which I shall re-emphasise ; but the crucial point is that the British electorate needs a great deal of fooling. Not to put too fine a point upon it, the resolution, in my opinion, was an insult to the intelligence of the public. Morrison stressed the extent to which newspaper proprietors consistently under-rate this intelligence ; but he seemed not to grasp the all-important point that an educated electorate is its own best safeguard against in- tellectual exploitation.
It can be argued that a discriminating judgement is useless with- out a full and accurate knowledge of the facts, and that the chain newspapers not only pour out disingenuous propaganda but also so pervert the actual facts of the news as to make wise decisions impossible. This argument, however, has no substance for two reasons. In the first place different groups twist the news in opposite directions. A particular person may take only one paper ; but his views, and even his facts, will be drawn not directly from his pet journal, but from his reading of this re-oriented in many casual conversations with many people. It is over the pint of beer or in the fish-queue that revolutions are made. In the second place, those newspaper proprietors who have deliberately misused the position of influence which their wealth has given them have over-reached themselves. The sound sense of the British people has, in the main unconsciously, recognised as one of the facts of nature the unsuitability of daily papers for any purpose except amusement and as a guide to betting and football pools. Fortunately for true liberty of opinion, alternative sources of straight news are available. The B.B.C. may be dull and insipid, but it offers a reliable and impartial news service. The serious weekly and monthly periodicals provide another and valuable source of genuine information and constructive criticism. It has been proved again and again that the great dailies have little political influence. In 1929 they signally failed to swing the election, although at that time the overwhelming bulk of their circulation was united in supporting the Conservatives. A very recent example of the same phenomenon was provided by the outcry started by The Daily Express over bread-rationing. There can be not the slightest doubt that the British housewife was predisposed by a chain of circumstances to resent this necessary measure. But not all Lord Beaverbrook's millions could evoke more than the merest ripple of vocal resentment or the most transient trade resistance.
The last argument in favour of this resolution—that it could do no harm—was the worst of all. It is a bad argument, not only because a Royal Commission is a serious undertaking and should be set up to enquire into a matter of major moment only when there is an indisputable prima facie case, but also because an enquiry appears to many people to be the first sign of a sinister attempt to muzzle the free expression of opinion. In a democracy we are compelled to think not only of what effect a particular course of action will have, nor only to analyse the motives which have inspired it. Account must also be taken of what the popular imagination will read into both cause and effect. William Temple refusing, on a very rare occasion, to write a preface for a friend's book said, "I would do one with pleasure if there were any hope that people would read what I should write and not what they would think that I had written." His insight is relevant to the present issue.
Ministers have recently complained both frequently and vociferously of personal attacks and misrepresentation of policy in the daily Press. The enquiry, coming so pat on top of these counter-attacks, has given colour to the belief that it is a first step towards curbing the freedom of the Press. In truth, Labour Ministers have said no more and said it less vigorously than, for instance, Churchill ; and a careful study of the debate makes it quite clear that the sponsors of this motion were concerned to increase and safeguard liberty of expression. None the less, the decision to hold an enquiry has resulted in a real fear that freedom is endangered, and is, therefore, to be greatly regretted. Such fears undermine the general sense of security. Just now, when so much in our future is necessarily insecure, this is a disaster.
A further reason for voting against the resolution was that it is useless to hold an enquiry unless resulting action can be fore- shadowed. The only real purpose which seemed to underlie speeches in its favour was the separation of provincial papers from the national dailies. But Ernest Thurtle pointed out that the alternative is to have as proprietors local magnates, which would only be likely to result in adding parochialism to reaction and robbing the paper in question of adequate national and international news coverage. The last reason why I felt compelled to vote as I did is because I believe that there are a number of questions of public policy which badly, need thorough enquiry. I am less than clear that Royal Commissions art the suitable method ; but if this method is to be used I am certain that it could be given more judicious scope.
The great problems which menace us alike in home and in foreign affairs, though they have their being in political and economic spheres, are really moral problems. I do not use the word moral in the vulgar sense as related to the more obvious and attractive temptations, but as referring to the general standard of values and, more widely still, to- political philosophy as a whole. In a world stirred by•the. violent_ convulsion of .rival ideals of the way of life,
we ought to be more concerned with the analysis and control of the factors which are shaping our national character, and directing our national thinking, than troubling ourselves unduly with the propa- gation of the finished article. At present there are all too many vehicles for the expression of opinion and all too little care for the means by which the opinions themselves are shaped.