HC Deb 26 April 1805 vol 4 cc433-44

On the motion of Mr. Grey the order of the day for the attendance of Peter Stuart, the printer of "the Oracle" was now read.

Mr. Atkins Wright

spoke against the adoption of any severe measure as to the editor of "the Oracle." Although he was perfectly convinced in his own mind, as to the propriety of supporting tine resolutions of the house, yet his peace of mind was not at all broke in upon because his conduct, along with that of other members, had been severely censured. It was well known with what rigour the house had enforced their determination not to restrain any animadversion by the public on the conduct of parliament. God forbid! said the hon. member, that the people of this country should have any impediments thrown in their way, in discussing the conduct of their representatives fairly and freely. Most certainly, such a liberty ought to be exercised in a becoming manner. It was well known, that the publishers of papers were too apt to indulge themselves in discussing what they called party questions. He professed to be of no party; but he felt as much as any man the necessity of maintaining, in all its purity, what was called the liberty of the press. His own opinion in the pre- sent instance was, that the honour and dignity of parliament would be best maintained by passing over in silence such trifling indiscretions. The acting otherwise, would have no other effect than to countenance them. Parliament ought to entertain a firmer reliance on its own rectitude. Such were his sentiments on this occasion, and he hoped, that some other member, better acquainted with the customs of the house, would suggest some mode by which such a dignified and independent conduct might still be rigorously attended to, even in the present case.

Mr. Grey

said, that if he had conceived this matter to be of light or trivial importance, he should never have made such a complaint. There was no member in the house more unwilling than he was to enter complaints against individuals, or to interfere with the free discussion of public affairs. Had the present paragraph been only a free comment on public matters, as the hon. gentleman who had just spoken seemed to imply, he should not have troubled the house on this occasion. It was not difficult, however, to judge of the true nature and bearing of this matter. He who runs might read in the present instance. It was only yesterday he had seen it, and he still retained the same opinion he then did, as to its mischievous tendency. It could not be viewed at all in the light of a fair discussion of a public question. If it did appear to the house in a contrary light, he was perfectly willing to forbear from all further proceedings. To him, however, it bore a very different aspect and character. It was no discussion, it was mere invective, absolute and unqualified abuse, tending to vilify the proceedings, degrade the character, and insult the authority of parliament. He lamented the necessity lie was under of performing such a duty, and he would willingly have overlooked it, had he not been convinced that it outstripped all bounds of moderation in the candid discussion of public affairs. If the hon. member who had endeavoured to justify such a manifest infringement of their privileges, should think proper to move that the order be discharged, he should not think it necessary to press his motion any further.—The question, which had originally been proposed by Mr. Grey, was then put from the chair "That the printer of 'the Oracle' be called to the bar of the house."

Mr. Atkins Wright

again rose and con- jured the house not to make this a matter of such consequence. He thought a bare reprimand would answer every fair purpose in view.

The Speaker

suggested, that the original motion should first be disposed of, and then the house could more readily determine what course was to be followed.

Mr. Windham

said, he was not inclined to press the matter further, if the house really appeared to agree with the arguments and proposition of the hon. gent. who had just sat down. He should wish to know, whether that hon. gent. who had just. sat down was disposed to do that, in regard to his own person, which he seemed inclined to do towards the house of commons. Did he (Mr. Wright) mean to say, that he would despise every thing that could be said against him? Really, for his part, he could sec no reason why members ought to be more tender of their own characters, as individuals, than they should be of the character of the house of commons. The not being equally attentive the character of the house was saying to the public, "You may say what you please, we do not mind it." If such was the rule, why not proclaim it? Why not say to the writers of newspapers, you may write what you choose, there will be no injury done by your misrepresentations? Was it to be said, that, because the house had passed over a great many instances of a similar nature, we ought on that account to pass over every one? This would be false logic. The freedom of the press had been too long tolerated, not only to the injury of public, but private men—not only to the general degradation of the higher orders of society, but to the general corruption of the lower. The only question was, whether the instance now before the house was one which went to that excess as should lead them to interfere to maintain their own dignity. It was impossible, in his opinion, to conceive any thing more gross, injurious, calumnious, and licentious, and therefore he should be guilty of no great vindictive principle, if he should vote for punishing the offender in a certain degree, as a caution to others.

Mr. Sheridan.

—Although, sir, no person feels more highly than I do the respect that is due to this house, yet, on this occasion, I certainly do not think that we ought to be too eager in taking notice of this paragraph. My hon. friend has said, that this has overstepped the boundaries of all that licence that the house has ever allowed to discussions upon its proceedings out of doors: Sir, I have read this article, and I must certainly allow that it is a very severe libel. But when I say this, I must at the same time observe, that though in itself it is extremely improper, yet when compared with a vast variety of other articles that have appeared respecting the proceedings of the house, it is by no means so severe. Indeed, in this view, it may be said to be mere milk and water. But then, my hon. friend says, "if we are to allow things of this sort to go on, where are we to stop? Is the house of commons to sutler every sort of censure on its proceedings to pass Without any animadversion?" Why, sir, to this I reply, that if the house is about to adopt a new feeling, and to take notice of expressions of this sort, after they have so long slumbered, and allowed these things to pass unheeded, it ought to give warning that it has changed its sentiments, in order that people may be prepared, and that punishment may not fall on a particular individual, where so many are involved in the same sort of delinquency. I do not say that my hon. friend is not perfectly warranted in the mode of proceeding which he has adopted; but it is but fair at the same time to observe, that time house has been long in the habit of tolerating such paragraphs as that of which complaint is now made. We are accustomed to connive at these things. We connive at reporting our debates, and very properly, because I should consider it as a great, if not a mortal blow to the liberties of this country, that the public should be kept in ignorance of the proceedings in parliament. Now, it ought to be recollected, that we use a great deal more freedom with our own characters than we think it just that other men should do. But when people are obliged to report, if they do report well, the severe things which we say of one another in this house, is it not natural that they should fall into an imitation of our style, and speak of us, in some measure, as we do of ourselves? I do therefore think, that in these cases a great allowance ought to be made. I should be extremely sorry that any thing like a prosecution should take place in this instance. My first reason is, that I am a warm friend to the liberty of the press, and the second is, that I very well remember the usual result of such prosecutions. I recollect, sir, that a certain libel was some time ago published on the house of commons, and I was one of a committee appointed to discover the author of that pamphlet. I certainly had no doubt that it was a libel; however, when it came into a court of law, an hon. friend of mine had the ingenuity to persuade the jury, that it was no reflection whatever on the house of commons. If, therefore, the author of this paragraph makes an ample apology, which I have no doubt he will be ready to do, I cannot think that the matter ought to be carried farther. It will be sufficient to have him reprimanded and discharged.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer.

—When this motion was first brought forward, I certainly wished that the hon. gent. should pause upon it. Now, however, it does stand in a very different situation from what it did before. However, therefore, I might be disposed to pass over the paragraph which is now the subject of animadversion, I cannot, in consistency with my duty, allow it to be passed slightly over, since it has been taken notice of. At the same time I agree very much in what has been said by an hon. gent. over against me (Mr. Sheridan), that these things should not rashly be taken up,— and yesterday I adverted to this circumstance. If this has been tolerated long, I am certainly opinion that it is not altogether can did that one individual should be selected for the purpose of punishment. I would only remark, however, that the hon. gent. in his zeal to defend the press, in the present instance, has so far forgot himself, a$ to undervalue the trial by jury; a thing no less sacred in this constitution than the house of commons. His argument went thus far, that it was needless to commit the matter to a jury, as they would not give a proper verdict in the case. With regard, however, to the question, whether this ought to be sent to a jury or not, the most proper time to consider that will be when the printer has been called in, and his apology heard. We shall hear in the first place what he has to say in his own defence, and then we may consider what will be the just and fair mode of proceeding.

Mr. Sheridan

said, he could not easily be caught addressing the house in disrespectful language of an English jury. The construction just given to his remark was not correct; in what he had said, he designed to do justice to the talents of his friend, and equally to the perfect purity of intention its the jury he addressed.

Mr. Canning

said, the conclusion of his right hon. friend was perfectly consistent with premises.

The Attorney-General

said, he supposed we might then, have acquitted libellers, though we were not allowed to talk of "acquitted felons."

Mr. Fox.

—Sir, it has never been my opinion, and I think my conduct has pretty well shewn it, that the liberty of the press should be rashly meddled with. But, however, when a gross breach of privilege is committed, it is not perhaps altogether proper that the offender should escape with impunity. Some allusion has been made to a prosecution by the attorney-general. It does not appear to use that this is the just mode of proceeding on a case of this nature. No court of justice ever, or at least very seldom, adopts the plan of a prosecution in the case of a contempt of court, but almost invariably proceeds by taking the punishment into its own hands. In a libel on the house of commons, therefore, the person who has written it ought more properly to be punished by this house, and it certainly is by no means advisable, that he should be sent to such a mode of trial as has beep alluded to, without strong grounds for so doing. But let me not, at the same time, be misunderstood. I am by no means disposed to favour the disposition to turn matters into contempt of court, which are in fact crimes of entirely a different nature. In this instance, however, it is clear that the offence resembles that of a contempt of court, and as such it ought to be punished by this house, and by no other. I have certainly not often thought it tit to prosecute individuals. But: at the same time I must say, that the gentlemen on the other side have not been remarkable for their forbearance in any case where government has been concerned. I do not, therefore, see why the house of commons should be the only part of the constitutional body that is to be libelled with impunity. I widely differ from my hon, friend, when he says that such a paragraph as this appears almost every day, Undoubtedly I am not in the habit of reading the newspapers so much as he does, but I certainly have scarcely ever seen any thing like this. I defy any gentleman to shew me any such paragraph, There are, indeed, often attacks on individuals, that, strictly speaking, are whol- ly unjustifiable, but I say, that if such an imputation as this had been thrown on any of the proceedings of the house of commons, when the majority was in favour of administration, it would not be tolerated. No one would dare to do such a thing. I certainly do think this, therefore, an extraordinary case; but at the same time, on the general principle, that the freedom of discussion, either in or out of doors, should not be discouraged, I am free to confess, that I am not of opinion that the punishment ought to be severe.

Mr. William Smith.

—Nothing, sir, in my opinion, can be more serious than a libel directed against an individual. It very often does him incalculable injury, because it goes into a thousand places where it is absolutely impossible for him to follow it. But, sir, I really think that a libel on the house of commons stands upon very different grounds; paragraphs of this sort, when they are not in unison with the public feeling, are of little importance. This libel, sir, is certainly out of all unison with the public feeling, and therefore, in my opinion, it is perfectly harmless. This is certainly not the case when a libel is published on the conduct of a member of the house, and this, therefore, ought to be a more serious consideration. We ought to be more careful of protecting individuals from such attacks, because when the house, in a collective sense, acts with the public, all libels on their conduct can be attended with no mischievous effects, even though they should be more gross, if any thing can be more gross, than the libel in question. I do not, therefore, think, that it was material to notice it; but whether any proceedings should be had upon it, after it has been noticed, is another question entirely. I am rather disposed to agree with the right hon. gent. on the other side, that something should certainly be done by way of marking the displeasure of the house. But I must advert to one thing. We are here accused of haste, intemperance, &c. Now, sir, how did we proceed? You gave the vote that decided the matter, and therefore this is more particularly a libel upon you—you whom we all respect, and whom certainly it becomes us all to protect from any improper imputations. This case, therefore, does undoubtedly differ from 'any other very materially. Can it be supposed, sir, that you were actuated by intemperance, or gave your vote in haste, after you had listened to the arguments on both sides? Certainly this cannot be said. This may be a reason for taking notice of the libel, but at the same time it must be confessed, it is an additional proof that it could be attended with no harm whatever.

Dr. Laurence

differed from the hon. gent. who had just sat down, on the nature and effects of a libel. The hon. gent. said, that when a libel was not in unison with the feelings of the public, it ought to be disregarded. By parity of reasoning, it followed, that when a libel was in unison with the public feeling, it ought to be taken notice of. There was something in this that distinguished from other libels. The house sat rather in a judicial capacity. This was no political question, and therefore the libel was the more intolerable. The house had on this occasion done every thing with coolness, and no passion or party feeling was concerned. He entered his protest against the distinction that had been made by the hon. gent. for if this was to be allowed, a door would be opened to the most scandalous attacks on the house of commons, when it was found that they might be circulated with impunity.

The question being loudly called for, and the house having determined "that the Printer be called in," Mr. Peter Stuart appeared at the bar.

The Speaker.

—W. What is your name? A. Peter Stuart.—Q. Look at that paper: is it printed and published by you? A. It is.

The Speaker.

—That paper has been complained of to the house as containing libellous reflections on its conduct and character. What have you to say in answer to the charge?

A. "Permit me, sir, to assure you, that I very much regret that any part of the contents of my paper of yesterday should have incurred the displeasure of this honourable house. If, sir, I have expressed myself too warmly in favour of lord Melville—for whom I shall always entertain the highest respect and esteem—I beg that this honourable house will view it as the unguarded language of the heart, and not a wilful intention to provoke the censure of a power on which our dearest rights and liberties depend. I intreat you, sir, that some allowance may be made for that freedom of discussion of public affairs, winch for a long series of years has been sanctioned by common usage; and that the hasty composition of a newspaper may not be considered as a deliberate design to offend this honourable. house."—Mr. Peter Stuart having concluded, he was desired by the Speaker to withdraw.

Mr. Grey

then rose.—Sir, it is now my duty to submit a resolution to the house on this business. This I shall do without premising it with any observations. Of the sort of apology that has been made, if apology it can be called, I leave the house to judge, and I shall be perfectly satisfied with their decision, whatever it may be. I wish, however, to make one observation with regard to the charge that has been thrown out against me by a gentleman on the other side, of having been too hasty in bringing forward this business. Sir, I brought it forward as soon as the offence came before the public, and as soon as it was generally known, and this I thought to be the most proper period. Having said this, sir, I shall only move "That Peter Stuart, in publishing the said paper, has been guilty of a high breach of the privileges of this house."

The Attorney-General.

—I do not mean to object to the motion that has just been made. But with regard to the observation to which the hon. gent. alluded, as coining from a person on this side of the house, I rather think the hon. gent. spoke of something that fell from me on a former night. I believe the hon. gent. wishes now that he had attended to what I suggested on that occasion. I stated, that I had no doubt that this came under the description of a libel, and I think so still; but I also said, that it did not appear to me that the house ought to interfere in the business. This is still my opinion. Many things come before me which I cannot hesitate to pronounce libels; but from the circumstances that attend such cases, I should not advise that any notice should be taken of them. And I must say, that the eagerness with which the hon. gent. and his friends have taken up this paragraph savours much more of the irritability of soreness than of any soundness of character on their part. An hon. gent. over the way said, that he had great difficulty in finding any other libel similar to the present one. Sir, libels do not make such lasting or strong impressions in other cases as they do when they are directed against ourselves. This may have been the case at present. I recollect, sir, when public prints made that hon. gent. state, at clubs and meetings, that the house of commons was so lost to every thing that was just and proper that there was no use whatever in attending in it, and that it afforded no protection whatever to the people of this country; and I remember too, that the hon. gent. was absent from his duty in the house at the time. Yet, sir, I do not say that the hon. gent. absolutely held this language; but I do say, that the prints made him say so; and adopted that mode of conveying their sentiments with more weight. But after all this, sir, there was no interference on the part of the house. I only mention this, sir, to show, that those things which. make for us do not make altogether so strong an impression, as those things that make against us. With regard to the motion itself, I certainly lave no objection to it.

Mr. Fox.

—The hon. and learned gent. has, I suppose, alluded to the in what he has just said. He has stated that a certain print published observations purporting to come from me. When he produces the paper to me, I may perhaps recollect what I said, so far as to give him information whether the observations came from me, and how far they were accurate. I am not ashamed of what I said, and, if the hon. gent. wishes for information on the subject, he has only to produce the paper containing the remarks to which he has adverted. That a man may say that it is of no use that he should attend the house, because he can do no service in it, without being guilty of a libel, I should think incontrovertible. I did say so, and that was my opinion most certainly. If he thought this a libel like the paper now before us, if he had shewn me the print in question at that time, I could have told him bow far it was accurate. It may not, perhaps, be such an easy matter now; but, however, even at this distance of time, I have no objection to give him every information in my power; and I believe. I can still, from recollection, satisfy him on this subject. But, sir, I must confess I do not see the justice or the candour of withholding all allusion to the affair at the time when it happened, and bringing it forward as an argamentum ad hominem, when such a libel as this is before the house, I certainly do think this a more serious libel than many others, and confess that it has made a stronger impression on me for exactly the reason that has been stated, of its not being in favour of my own side of the question; not however, because I am myself indivi- dually concerned, but because I think that libels are much more serious when they are most agreeable to the executive power; for, in that case, there are strong suspicions that they may possibly come from those who receive the pay of the goverment.

Mr. Atkins Wright

defended the sentiments which be had formerly expressed, but spoke so low, that we could not follow him in the particulars.—The motion was then put, and carried without a division. Mr. Atkins Wright then moved, "that Mr. P. Stuart be called to the bar, reprimanded, and discharged."

Mr. Grey

observed, that if it was the general sense of the house that a libel of this nature should be passed over in this manner, he had no objection to the motion. He was of opinion, however, that when the house interfered, its sentence ought to be something heavy. The paragraph in question had been voted a high breach of privilege by the house, and the author ought therefore to meet with some marks of the displeasure of the house. However, he should be sorry to urge any greater severity than the house thought necessary; and he would therefore be perfectly satisfied with whatever the house judged proper. If, then, the house, after hearing the apology that had been made, if it was an apology, should think it proper to agree to the motion, he had no objection.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

was sorry, that in this instance he should be compelled to propose a greater degree of severity than what had been mentioned; but he felt that he should not have done his duty to the house, if he allowed the matter to rest here. However much therefore he might be disposed to lenity, as far as the individual was concerned, yet he could not forget what was due to the dignity of the house. After having once resolved that a person had been guilty of a high breach of privilege, he could not, in consistency with the dignity of the house be instantly discharged. He thought therefore, that in the first instance, the author of the paragraph should be committed, and then, it he made a proper submission, as he had no doubt be would, he should consent to discharge him at the earliest possible period. He then moved, "that the said Peter Stuart be for his said of, fence taken into the custody of the serjeant at arms." The motion was agreed to, and Mr. P. Stuart was immediately taken into the custody of the serjeant at arms.