HC Deb 17 February 1809 vol 12 cc805-13
Mr. Beresford

rose and said, that as he seldom troubled the house, he hoped for their indulgence while he stated a circumstance which regarded their Privileges. If he had asserted any thing in that house respecting any member which he knew to be founded, he should be one of the last to retract his words; and if, on the other hand, any words were imputed to him, which were hurtful to the feelings of any member, and which he had not employed, he should hold it extremely unmanly to omit the first opportunity of satisfying the feelings of such member by a candid explanation. In the Morning Post of this day there appeared a statement of the proceedings of the Committee last night, in which words were imputed to him, reflecting on the conduct of an hon. gent, which he certainly never uttered. The words were these:—"Mr. Beresford, addressing himself to Mr. "Wardle, said, he could not refrain from animadverting on several parts of the hon. member's conduct in reference to him from the commencement of this inquiry. He considered it unhandsome and ungentlemanly. Upon tin's, some smart retorts passed between Mr. Wardle and Mr. Beresford." Mr. Beresford thought it quite unnecessary for him to appeal to the recollection of the house whether he had ever addressed any such words to the hon. gent. In fact, none such were uttered by him: and he should have felt it extremely unmanly not to take the first opportunity of making this explanation, in order to remove any impression which such a publication might make on that hon. gent.'s feelings. It was a gross misrepresentation, and therefore he should move, "That the printer of the Paper in question should appear at the bar to-morrow in the custody of the Serjeant at arms."

The Speaker

said, that the course usual on such occasions was to give in the Paper containing the misrepresentation to be read by the clerk; and then to move that the printer do appear at the bar on a future day.

Mr. Beresford

accordingly gave in the Paper, when the passage was read by the clerk. Mr. B. then said it was not his wish, from any personal feeling, to proceed to extremities with the printer in this case: he had merely taken up the matter as a gross and mischievous breach of the privileges of the house, lie would rather leave it to their discretion; but, if they encouraged him, he would repeat his motion.

The Speaker

said, if the hon. gent, did not wish to make any formal complaint, it would be best to hold the business over in suspense, in order to see whether the party persisted in statements of the same colour and tendency; and therefore, he suggested that the subject should be further considered on Monday sennight. —Mr. Beresford acquiesced.

Lord Folkestone

seconded this latter proposition, and rose to bear his testimony, in the absence of his hon. friend (Mr. Wardle,) that the words in question had not been used, and that the feelings of his hon. friend were in no respect aggrieved. The noble lord approved of the course proposed to be adopted, and acknowledged the handsome and honourable manner in which the hon. gent, had taken up the subject.

Mr. N. Calvert

did not object to the motion; but at the same time observed, that these things, in general, [were too slightly passed over, and particularly with respect to the liberties taken with the speeches of members of that house.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that if an hon. member had brought forward a complaint of this nature, and insisted upon punishment for a breach of privilege, he could not see how the house could refrain from entertaining the subject, and proceeding to punishment. But under all the circumstances it must be allowed, that it was scarcely possible but there must sometimes be mistakes. A paper had been put into his hands this day, in which there was a most complete misrepresentation, with respect to a material part of the statement which he had made to the Committee, in the affair of the Note which purported to be that of the D. of Y. But, as he was aware that this misrepresentation was altogether unintentional, he had not felt sore on the subject.

Mr. W. Smith

agreed with what had fallen from the right hon. gent, except in so far as he seemed to consider the pressure upon any particular member as the measure of punishment. A member might feel himself severely aggrieved, and from a proper sense of his own dignity, propose a severe punishment, when the house might see reason to dispose of the matter in a very different way. The person who made the misrepresentation might be wholly unconscious that he did so, and might have no idea of the mischief that might result from it; but, at the same time, had it been thought fit to call the parties to the bar, and to have them such reprimand as the nature of the case might require, he did not see that the parties themselves would have had any right to complain. This, he believed, would not injure the liberty of the press, for which none could be a more strenuous advocate than he was. lie, however, thought the course at present proposed perfectly proper, and fully agreed, that while tile publication of the proceedings of the house were connived at, and he hoped it would always be connived at, unintentional mistakes ought to meet with indulgence.

Mr. Yorke

thought that the liberty of the press had of lute been carried to such lengths, and the misrepresentations of the proceedings in that house, both collectively and individually, had for some time been so frequent, that it was time for the house to come to some understanding on the subject. He regretted that he was not in the house when this business was introduced; but from what he understood, he agreed with the last hon. gent, in thinking that the printer ought to be brought to the bar to answer for his conduct. As to the liberty of the press, he himself had been bred up in principles which taught him to view it as the palladium of British liberty; but he thought that from a laxity of discipline in the exercise of that liberty, of late so much licentiousness had crept in, as to call for some effectual check to its progress. He did not feel a wish to introduce any new law or statute on the subject, but merely a vigilant exercise of the laws already in existence. As to the encroachments which had been made upon the privileges of that house by the publication of its proceedings, he was not one of those who wished for any rigorous exertion of their powers in that respect; but he thought, at least, that those who took upon them to infringe those privileges, by publishing the proceedings of the house, should be responsible for their misrepresentations, whether intention. or otherwise. The rules of the house ought not to be violated: trivial mistakes might be passed over, because, otherwise, inquiries would be endless; but where such serious complaints as the present were made, he thought the printer should be called to the bar and punished.

Mr. Whitbread

rose, and said he could not agree with the principle laid down by the right hon. gent, who spoke last, of acting with rigour in the case of an unintentional misrepresentation of what had passed in that house. The mischief arising from such errors was nothing in comparison with the good which the country derived from the publication of the substance of what was spoken by members within those walls. This was not the first time of late that the right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke) had expressed his disapprobation of the licentiousness of the press; but before the right hon. gent, complained of that licentiousness, in respect to the publications to which he had before alluded, it should be proved that they were libels, and unfounded in truth. On the contrary, those publications complained of were productive of the happiest consequences to the country, in promoting inquiries which otherwise would never be instituted. The right hon. gent had said, that the privileges of the house were equal to their own protection; but he never knew from any in stance of the nature now under discussion, wherein those privileges were exerted, that the least good ensued. The right hon. gent, complained of laxity in discipline towards the press of late: it did not appear, however, that the law officers of the crown had been remiss in their duty, if he looked to the numerous prosecutions for libels which were carrying on; nor was it at all evident, that the courts of law had been criminally lenient in awarding their punishments. Mr. Whitbread then expressed a wish, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in order to obviate a mistake which appeared in his Narrative last night, by the insertion of the word not, would insert the whole of that Narrative upon the Minutes, as he for one was happy to acknowledge that Narrative to be a complete and faithful picture of the proofs he afterwards adduced.

Mr. Yorke

denied that he had ever said that any new laws were necessary to restrain the freedom of the press.

Mr. Whitbread

said that he might have misconceived the right hon. gent, but that he understood him both on this and a former occasion to have said something to that effect.

Mr. Bathurst

thought the insertion on the minutes of the Narrative alluded to would be an irregular proceeding; but with respect to what had been said of the Liberty of the Press, though he was one of those who wished to support it when genuine, he could not avoid observing the recent notoriety of its licentiousness; and if public bodies allowed their proceedings to be misrepresented, it was impossible to say where that licentiousness would stop. He deprecated the severity with which the hon. gent, who last spoke had adverted, though obliquely, to the conduct of the Law Officers of the Crown, and Judges of the land, in prosecuting and punishing libellers. If men were guilty of criminal acts, there were public tribunals in the country to which recourse might be had for justice against them; but if persons were permitted to take vengeance into their own hands, by publishing their accusations in preference, it was impossible to say where the mischief would terminate. This had been the case in some recent libellous publications, the authors of which were the sources whence some gentlemen had derived the grounds of their Charges, and yet they could make nothing of the proofs those persons were able to furnish.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer,

in answer to what had fallen from Mr. Whitbread, said, it would be an irregular proceeding to enter upon the Minutes of the Committee, the whole of the Narrative, by which he had felt it necessary to introduce the complicated circumstances afterwards produced in evidence respecting col. Hamilton and capt. Sandon. Whatever facts were within his own knowledge, he was ready to state if examined, and his answers would be the most regular form in which the subject could appear in the Minutes.

On the question that the debate on this subject should be postponed to Monday se'nnight,

The Attorney General

rose. He said that an hon. gent, opposite (Mr. Whitbread) had been pleased to declare, that the present law officers of the crown had not been remiss in entering into prosecutions for Libels. That term, well worked up and sent abroad, might produce a very different sentiment in the public mind. Indeed, he himself could not avoid supposing it possible, that by "not remiss" the hon. gent. intended to imply that they had been more than properly diligent. Whether he meant so or not he did not know, but the words were capable of that construction, and would, he had no doubt, receive that construction from some of those, respecting whose conduct a complaint was then before the house. Certainly, what the honourable gentleman had said was not intended for commendation; but he would appeal to every honourable gentleman in the house who had heard of the publications against which prosecutions had been instituted, and who had read a tenth part of the publications against which prosecutions might have been instituted, whether the law officers of the crown could with justice be accused of a disposition to prosecute too frequently. With respect to the judgments of the courts of justice, the hon. gent, had insinuated, and that not darkly, that they were severe. He fully believed, that the learned and upright judges of our courts, who had pronounced their sentences with deliberation and impartiality, would not want able defenders in the house of commons, if their conduct was fairly, properly, and manfully brought forward; but he did not think justice was done them, when general reflections were thus thrown out to be re-published by persons, on the conduct of some of whom their judgment had been passed; avid this under, the authority of the hon. gent, that their judgments had been severe. He had not heard the hon. gent, specify any particular instances of severity. He dared to say that he would not do so; because the hon. gent, knew that if there was a just, legitimate, and constitutional ground of complaint against them, that was not the way in which it ought to be preferred. Their judgments, he was well convinced, would stand the most severe investigation of the public or of any individual, but then that inquiry ought to be definite; it should be marked with precision what was complained of, in order to give those against whom the complaint was made some proper opportunity to defend themselves. They ought not to be driven, as they might be driven, by the way in which the hon. gent.'s speech would probably be introduced in some of the newspapers, either to submit silently to calumny, or to descend to what he was sure they never would descend to; namely, to defend themselves by channels similar to those by which they were attacked.

Mr. Whitbread.

I rise only to say that I am ready and willing, if it be consistent with the forms of the house, to state to what particular judgments I have alluded.

Mr. Sec. Canning

was astonished that—

Lord Porchester

spoke to order. He conceived that the house had, for a considerable time, swerved from the object before them. It was perfectly disorderly thus to prolong this debate, or to enter into any examination of the conduct of the courts of justice.

Mr. Secretary Canning,

in his own conception, was strictly in order. He had entered the house a considerable time after the commencement of the discussion, but he understood that it began with a complaint on the part of an hon. member, of a misrepresentation of his sentiments in a newspaper of the day; that that occasioned a dissertation on the Liberty of the Press; that that produced a censure of the prosecutions for libels; and that that caused, what it was very natural to cause, a recommendation to the hon. gent, opposite, from his hon. and learned friend, that if he complained of the administration of justice, in that house, to do so, not incidentally, or by implication, but in that grave and serious manner which so important a subject demanded. The hon. gent, had received a very just admonition from his hon. and learned friend, and he had risen to join his admonition.

Lord Folkestone

spoke to order. It was certainly very irregular for one hon. member thus to talk of admonishing another.

The Speaker

decided, that as the debate had taken such a turn, Mr. Canning Was strictly in order, and that the noble lord was not warranted in his objection.

Lord Folkestone

said, that after what had fallen from the chair, he could not but apprehend that he had been misunderstood. He had not complained of the turn which the debate had taken; he had complained of the right hon. gent, having talked of admonishing an hon. member; and that this was not a casual expression was evident, by the word "admonition" having been twice used in a very warm manner by the right hon. gent. Was it regular to permit one hon. member to rise merely for the purpose of admonishing another?

The Speaker

was not aware that he was called upon nicely to measure and weigh every expression that might chance to be used in debate, or that his duty demanded his interference, unless he felt strongly that any personal disrespect was intended.

Mr. Secretary Canning

declared, that he had never risen with less warmth than he had this evening. He had little or nothing to add to that which he had already said. Whether the hon. gent, complained generally of the administration of justice, or whether, as it appeared by his subsequent statement, he complained of any particular instance of mal-administration, the subject was one which it was perfectly fitting for a member to introduce to the house; but then, he dare not venture to say he would admonish, but he would suggest to the hon. gent, that it ought to be done with the utmost gravity and deliberation, and not incidentally in such a debate as the present. Whenever the hon. gent. might think proper to bring the discussion forward, he had no doubt that the venerable judges whom he accused would find able defenders in that house, amply provided with both the means and the inclination to do them justice.

Mr. Whitbread

assured the right hon. gent, that he should be always happy to hear any thing from him in the way of 'admonition;' in the present instance, however, it was quite unnecessary. He had not accused the Judges of too great severity, but he had said they could not be accused of lenity in their sentences, on those who had been convicted of supporting the licentiousness of the press. He had also said, that too severe judgments would only pro- duce the contrary effect to that which was intended. If he had intended to animadvert on the Judges, he would have done it directly, by bringing forward a charge in the regular manner.—As to the right hon. Secretary, he would doubly thank him, if, as to night, he would always openly state to whom he alluded, and not merely utter an insinuation which left its meaning in doubt.

The further consideration of this subject was postponed to Monday se'nnight.