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Thursday, 27 May 1915

Senator PEARCE (Western Australia) (Minister of Defence) . - I reply to this criticism of the censorship under a very heavy disadvantage. If I wished to appeal to the gallery, there are many things that I could say, and at once give an effective reply to the honorable senator. But those are things that I should not say, and I do not intend to say them, because there are good reasons for not doing so. There are, however, other things to which the honorable senator has referred which I can traverse, though the case that I put forward must necessarily be but a partial case. I can assure honorable senators that there will be gaps, and I must leave it to their imagination to account for them, because the reasons for these gaps cannot be disclosed. There is no intention on the part of the Government to allow the military censorship to be a "gag" on public opinion or criticism of the administration or of the Government, or of the political party which the Government represent, and in order to show that this has been made clear to the censors, I shall read a paragraph from the general instructions issued under Ministerial authority to censors. It is as follows: -

It is important to remember that the liberty of the press is not to be limited further than is necessary to serve the express necessities of the war. Comment and criticism of a temperate character, and if based on facts should not be interfered with even if critical of the Government or of the Departments. It is no part of the duty of the military censorship to censor morals or political criticism unless for local reasons press comments are harmful as inciting riot, serious unrest, or tend to discourage recruiting, or to hamper the naval and military preparations of the Government. In such cases reference should be made to the naval, military, or civil authorities concerned, through the proper channels.

I shall also read from a memorandum written by the Deputy Chief Censor, who has control of all the censors. He was dealing with a case that recently arose -in reference to the instructions to the censor at Port Darwin. The claim was brought before Parliament that the censor at Port Darwin had been unduly interfering with criticism of the administration there, and the Deputy Chief Censor was communicated with, in order to ascertain whether the same instructions had been issued to this officer as were issued to the other censors. In his reply the Deputy Chief Censor said -

I have been strongly averse to extending press censorship to cover anything like suppression of criticism on the administration or of the Departments. The liberty of the press on these points should be conserved, and it is not the aim of a military censorship to interfere with the press otherwise than to prevent dissemination of intelligence harmful to Great Britain or her Allies, or likely to be of service to the enemy, or to create alarm and unrest in the civil population or hamper the Government in its naval and military preparations.

That is practically a repetition of the general instructions issued to the censors. And may I say to my honorable friend opposite that those instructions were liberalized by myself after I resumed the administration of the Defence Department. He will remember that there was an outcry, and that I was waited upon by a public deputation representing a number of newspapers in this city which had been definitely interfered with by the press censors because of their publishing political criticism of the Defence administration, lt was then that the more definite instructions were sent out to the censors, so as to keep them within the rigid lines of preventing the publication of information of value to the enemy or the publication of news which would be of a disturbing character here, and would hamper the Government in carrying out their operations in connexion with the war. These liberalized conditions were introduced as a result of my own administration at that time.

Senator Millen - And of experience?

Senator PEARCE - And of experience also. Certain instructions had been issued to the censors in regard to a class of subjects. I cannot tell the Senate what those instructions are, because if I did I Would destroy the very purpose we had in view in directing why that class of news should be censored. Every statement I make here goes into Hansard. It would be futile to censor a statement in the press when it was to be published in Han,sa.rd and circulated throughout the country. Therefore I cannot give the reasons for issuing the instructions, but I can give the Senate this assurance, that they have nothing to do with political criticism or with criticism of the Government or of the Department. But there is a very good reason why the particular instruction was given. It is clearly understood, at any rate by the Deputy Chief Censor, that he and his staff are not to stand as a buffer against the Government receiving all the criticism which anybody in this community likes to administer, provided that it is not of such a character as to evade the other instructions, for which very good reasons exist.

Senator Millen - Now, apply that reason to the statement I have read.

Senator PEARCE - The censor staff in this country, it must be remembered, was selected from the civilian population. I do not know that it includes a single permanent officer. It is composed of citizens. The members of the censor staff at Sydney are men who in private life are civilians. Most of them are barristers; some of them are university men; in fact, they are as a body well in touch with the ordinary civil life of the community. When you have men as we have on our censor staff in each of the State capitals, and an instruction goes out from the central office, just as we all differ in our reading of law, so it is quite feasible that those men differ as to the meaning to be given to the instruction. Senator Millen has referred to two statements of his own. He made a statement which he gave to the press, and which appeared in the Argus of the" 14th May. He complained that that statement was submitted to the censor. That is not a fact. I make this further statement, that if it had been submitted it contains something which would have been and should have been eliminated. As regards Senator Millen's second statement, that, I understand from himself, was submitted to a newspaper in Sydney, which did submit it to the censor.

Senator Millen - That is the one I have read.

Senator PEARCE - Yes, and that statement was censored. I heard the statement read here ; indeed, I have heard it read more than once, and I hold that it ought not to have been censored. I make that admission at once, and say that the censor in question exceeded his duty, because there is no instruction in force from which he can legitimately claim that in doing his duty he should censor such a statement. I see in the statement nothing which transgresses any instruction, or interferes with any desire on the part of the Government to carry out their duty of fully safeguarding the position of this country, and its relative position in the Empire. I can only say that the censor has either been misinformed as to the intention of the instructions which were issued, or has exceeded his duty.

Senator de Largie - What has happened to the censor since ?

Senator PEARCE - It was not until to-day that I heard, for the first time, that the statement had been censored.

Senator Lt Colonel O'loghlin - It was not done by your instruction ?

Senator PEARCE - Certainly not. I had no idea that Senator Millen was submitting this statement, nor was it submitted to me until he himself showed it to me to-day. Up to that time I had not seen the statement; so that nothing could have happened to the censor, because nothing was known.

Senator Needham - What will happen to him now?

Senator PEARCE - The censor will have to explain why he came to censor the statement. I am not going to pass judgment until I know what he has to say. I am familiar with the instructions which were issued to the Deputy Chief Censor, and I know that there is no instruction which, in my judgment, would warrant the censoring of such a statement as that. That is all that I can say on the subject. Senator Millen referred to the statements which have been made by British statesmen, and British Naval and Military leaders, as we have seen them published in the press here. It must be remembered that in war a good deal of bluff goes on ; and in regard to some of these statements we do not know whether they were not possibly intended for German consumption. The statement as to the lack of patrol boats, for instance., might have been intended for German consumption. The statement made by Admiral Jellicoe on the subject might have been an indirect invitation to the enemy to come out to sea. We must give our Naval and Military chiefs credit for possessing a certain amount of intelligence, and the responsibility of dealing with the situation is theirs. We are not responsible for what they say or do;' they no doubt have good reasons for what they say and do. We are responsible for what we say and do; we must, take that responsibility ; and it was in accordance with that obligation that every instruction sent out was issued. It was because we were convinced that certain information should not go out to the world that we issued certain instructions I do not know that any good purpose is to be served by my going further into the matter. It is a delicate question to handle. One can very easily say too much - not in the sense that I might implicate myself or the Government: I am not afraid of that. One must realize that the censorship is necessarily irritating. Australia is a community which has always been accustomed to freedom of speech and the liberty of the press. Some persons coming from other parts of the world believe that this goes beyond freedom, and amounts to license. At any rate, it is the system to which we and our people have been accustomed from youth. Suddenly with the war a restraining hand was laid on the community. Let it be remembered that the restraining hand came from a quarter as to which the British race have always been suspicious, and that is the military. Britishers have always resented military interference with .civil rights. Such interference arose naturally both in Australia and in Great Britain, and it caused irritation. It is for the political head of the Defence Department to see that the enjoyment of civil rights and liberty is interfered with as little as possible. That is my desire, and I can assure the Senate that it is a duty which I intend to perform. At the same time I have a responsibility to discharge. If certain knowledge comes to me or to the Government, it is for us to determine whether it is wise, in the interests of the Empire first, and in the interests of the Commonwealth second, that the knowledge should be made public. We have to decide, and then to act, in accordance with the decision. We have to remember that we are for the first time the custodians of the civil rights of the people and the freedom of the press. Do honorable senators believe that the present Government are desirous of shackling the press, or restraining public freedom in that regard? The Government are associated with a party which has suffered more than any other party in the Commonwealth from such shackling. The Labour party has suffered more than any other party from the suppression of views, and it is not likely that we will re-establish a system from which we have suffered in times of peace, and create in time of war a precedent which might be used by our opponents when they get back to power.

Senator Bakhap - As you have referred to the matter, will you express an opinion about the use, or the morality, of censoring newspaper reports of parliamentary proceedings, which you yourself have said are published in Hansard ?

Senator PEARCE - I can only say that, so far, I have seen no reason for the censoring of parliamentary speeches. It seems to me that we must rely upon the good judgment and the good taste of members of Parliament. I believe that members of Parliament, generally speaking, are just as anxious to prevent anything being done which is likely to assist the enemy, as is any Minister or any member of the Defence staff, and that therefore they will restrain themselves where they feel that something, if said, might impart information to the enemy.

Senator Bakhap - The reports of proceedings in another place have been censored.

Senator PEARCE - I am not here to pass judgment on what has been said m another place. Of course, I recognise that a difficulty might occur at any time

The Government may be perfectly justified in instructing the sensors to censor some news; a member of Parliament can get up in his place, and give out the news ; and then the question arises what steps can you take to prevent the news from going out into the world. I admit straight away that it is a very difficult question, and if honorable senators rejoice in seeing or facing that difficulty they are welcome to their views. I do not know that there has been any difficulty so far, but at any time a member may make an indiscreet utterance. When such a thing occurs, we shall have to deal with it in the best way we can, but I believe that we can rely upon the calmness and the judgment of members to restrain themselves from acting in that way. It is obvious that there are some things which this is not the time to express, and there are some things which this is not the time to publish. I think that Senator Millen is perfectly justified in complaining to the Senate that his statement was censored. I say frankly that I would never have approved of statements of that class being censored. At the same time, I quite recognise that, in the heat of party quarrelling or a desire to extend the right of criticism beyond what is wise in the interests of the country, there might be information given which it would not be right or wise to publish. If that position arises, the Government should not hesitate .to take the responsibility of censoring the statement, and asking Parliament to indorse their action, if necessary. If Parliament says that there is to be no censorship, the Government must obey that mandate, but Parliament will then assume the responsibility. I venture to say that Senator Millen himself recognises that there must be censorship in time of war.

Senator Millen - I admitted that.

Senator PEARCE - I remind honorable senators that we have innumerable instances where the Censor staff have rendered valuable assistance to this country. Let me tell honorable senators what perhaps they do not know. If it had not been for the Censor staff, I doubt if we would have had a single conviction of persons for trading with the enemy. Let honorable senators read the reports of the cases, and they will find that practically every bit of evidence has been brought forward by the Censor staff. But for the operations of the staff, how many prosecutions under the War Precautions Act would have succeeded ?

Senator Millen - That is the censorship in the Post and Telegraph Department.

Senator PEARCE - Yes, but the work is done by the Censor staff. Practically every one of these cases has been published. As regards the press censorship, may I tell the honorable senator that if it had not been for the operations of the Censor staff, the Emden would have known where our transports were, and instead of fooling about Cocos Island she would probably have met them a little way from the coast of Australia. It waa necessary, in the interests of our troops going oversea, that the censor should prevent the newspapers from publishing the " time of their departure, the port of departure, in fact, anything about them. There were newspapers which transgressed that law, and others which attempted to do so. We never know the time when some German ships may slip out of the North Sea, and that position may be again created. Whilst it is very easy to criticise and pull down, in my opinion the Censor staff has rendered valuable aid to Australia. I am not prepared to defend everything that they do. I am not prepared to defend what they did in the honorable senator's case. I think that they acted wrongly. But I deprecate a general condemnation of the censorship on account of that incident. The censors have endeavoured to do their duty. Probably they have made many mistakes. But we must take their work by a«3 large. I invite any honorable senator to interview the Deputy Chief Censor, and to put to him the question, " Have you at any time been asked by the Minister of Defence or any member of the Ministry to censor any criticism of the Government as such?" I invite that question to be put to any member of the Censor staff throughout Australia. I have no hesitation in saying that not a single instruction to that effect, verbal or otherwise, has ever been given. What honorable senators will find, if they care to inquire, is a general instruction to the Censor staff that they are not to censor criticism of the Department or of the Government unless it contains information which will be valuable to the enemy. That is all I have to say on this question, and I can -assure - the honorable senator that when I have obtained a report upon it, I will go into the reason why his statement was censored, by whose instruction, and by what officer.

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