HC Deb 14 June 1819 vol 40 cc1137-50
Mr. Canning

said, he felt it his painful duty to call the attention of members to a case in which their privileges were materially involved. The duty was in itself painful, but he felt the more reluctant to discharge it as he himself was personally concerned. No man could be more sensible than he was of the expediency of suffering all that passed within the walls of that House (whether by permission—the propriety of which he would not inquire into; or by connivance, as was the case at present) to be communicated to their constituents and the public at large. He was fully aware of the benefits which were to be derived from it in either way; but he thought the latter was the better mode, as the House would, as they now did, hold within their own hands the power of an immediate check upon any abuse of it. He was convinced that such an indulgence as he alluded to was liable to abuse, and of course to casual error; but whenever a gross and wilful misstatement of what had occurred was sent before the public, it was the duty of the House to interfere, to assert its own rights, and correct the errors into which the public might have been led. For five and twenty years, during which he had had the honour of sitting in that House, he had never complained of any abuse or incorrectness which might have found its way into the reported accounts of what occurred there. He would except one occasion—the last session, when he had to make a complaint of the same newspaper which he was now about to bring to the notice of the House. On that occasion he had felt it his duty to call the attention of the House to a gross misstatement of what had passed within its walls—a misstatement, in which not he particularly, so much as the House in general, was concerned. At the time that he had called the attention of the House to this circumstance, he declined taking any further step upon it, in the hope that the misrepresentation was accidental, and that the notice of it would have operated as a warning against any recurrence of the same nature. He was now sorry to find that that warning was without effect. He was sorry to observe, that a statement had appeared in the same paper, which the most candid mind must admit was a gross misrepresentation. Indeed, the misrepresentation of which he had to complain was so gross and malignant as to leave no doubt that it was not the effect of mistake. The House would recollect, that on the debate on Tuesday last, an hon. member (Mr. Hume) had delivered an opinion upon the subject then before it. He (Mr. Canning) was not in the House at the time, but he came in before the debate was ended, and finding that, so far from any thing warm or personal having occurred, the House was in a state of langour, he could not of course imagine that any thing referring personally to himself had been uttered, and therefore had no explanation to give; but what was his surprise, when on the following day he found, that in the report of the debate in "The Times" newspaper, the hon. member had been made to say, what he (Mr. C.) should then read to the House. The hon. gentleman, speaking of the economy which should be observed, was made to say—"Instead of that, he saw a military mania prevalent, that cost the country incalculable sums; bands, trapped in scarlet and gold, were daily paraded through the streets, as if to mock the squalid poverty of the lower orders." Here the editor put in a remark of laughter from the ministerial benches.' The report then went on, and the hon. member was made to say, "Ministers might laugh, but let them look at the other side of the picture; let them survey the misery of the poor, industrious wretches at Carlisle; or even of the unhappy beings they meet in our streets, and he believed there would be found but one man among them who would still keep a smile upon his countenance—and that would be a smile of self-congratulation from a right hon. gentleman (Mr. Canning), that by habitually turning into ridicule the sufferings of his fellow-creatures, he had been able to place himself so far above their unhappy condition." To this was added, the words 'continued cheers.' Now, if any hon. member would get up, and declare upon his honour, that if the hon. gentleman had not said the words imputed to him, the report which, he had read was any thing else than a gross and malignant misrepresentation, he would give up any further notice of it. Imagining at the moment that so gross a misrepresentation would not have been made, he had thought it right to make an inquiry respecting it. The first step which he took was, to apply to the hon. gentleman opposite, and to inquire through a noble lord, whether he had or had not used the language attributed to him. From the noble lord through whom the communication was made, he had received such an answer as the time and the circumstance of the hon. member's being then in attendance on an election committee permitted. He stated, that from the recollection which he retained of what he had said, he was convinced he could not have preferred such a charge; but as he had not seen the paper, he could not answer positively with respect to it. At the desire of the hon. gentleman, he (Mr. Canning) sent the newspaper in question to him; and the result had been, that the hon. gentleman had sent him a most candid, a most honourable, a most satisfactory, and a most gentlemanly explanation of the words which he had used, and had stated in it, that the representations of the newspaper were totally incorrect. In consequence of this disclaimer, he had given the hon. gentleman notice, on Saturday, that he should bring this breach of privilege before the House. The House would see, that as far as he was himself concerned, he could have no satisfaction in bringing before it any thing which related to himself personally: of what came from a respectable source, of what rested upon good authority, he might think it requisite to demand an explanation; but that which originated from a source not respectable, that which rested on such authority as that of the wretch, whoever he might be, who had penned this paragraph, was far below contempt in his estimation. Rut though he was satisfied as far as he himself was personally concerned, he had a duty to discharge towards the House. There might be many members Jess hardened by experience than he was, to attacks of such a nature—men, who would rather bear a misrepresentation in silence, than call the attention of parliament to it; it was in their behalf that he called upon the House to take notice of the libel which had been published against one of its members—a libel, which was the more infamous, because the author of it, instead of putting it forth as his own opinion, put it forth as the opinion of another, and thus attempted to make the name of an hon. member a cover for the slander which he had not himself the courage to avow. If such a breach of privilege was allowed to go unchecked, it would be in the power of any individual to publish to the world any slander which he might think proper, regarding its members. For, what were the resources to which he could appeal? The courts of law were good for nothing: if he carried it to the Court of King's Bench, he would not be allowed to produce evidence to show whether what had been imputed to the hon. gentleman had been said or not; and although he might gain satisfaction for the act, he might gain it from an innocent person, who had given a true report. As little could the House afford him redress, unless the newspaper was in fault, and unless such an admission were made, as on this occasion had been made by the hon. gentleman. Thus the slandered person was either to acquiesce in the slander, or was to have recourse to that direct personal appeal, which he should not mention in any plainer terms in that House. If this were the case, it would be left in the power of the meanest scribbler who disgraced the press to traduce any two of the most hon. members that adorned parliament by his calumnies, and thus reduce them to that unpleasant alternative to which he had previously alluded. He therefore could not help asking the House, whether it was not their duty to interpose and prevent the occurrence of any such mischief as that which he had contemplated. Every person might not be possessed of the same candour and liberality as the hon. member to whom he had addressed himself; he might have made an appeal to a man not at all deficient in feeling, but who from a principle of pride or of carelessness, might have answered that, when their speeches were once delivered, they knew nothing, and cared nothing about the newspaper reports of them. He could not have collected any evidence on the point from those who heard the obnoxious assertions, because every man to whom he had applied would have known the object for which he was collecting it, and no man who did not possess the very strongest nerves would give such information as would lead two individuals to that extremity which was not to be mentioned. He thought, therefore, that the House were imperiously bound to take such measures as would prevent the recurrence of such a misrepresentation as that of which he now felt it his duty to complain. In laying the paper which contained it on the table, he was following that line of conduct which his conscience suggested to him to be correct, and was not gratifying any private views or feelings of his own; indeed, for himself, he had nothing to ask; it was for the protection of others rather than of himself—it was for the dignity of the House—it was for the security of its debates, that he pressed the House to take the subject into their most serious consideration. He thought it only fair to inform the House, that there was in the newspaper of that morning an apology or an atonement for the misstatement which had appeared. He would read the paragraph to the House. The right hon. gentleman then read the following paragraph from The Times of yesterday:—"We regret to state, that a considerable error crept into our account of Mr. Hume's speech on bringing up the report of the committee on the finance resolutions on Tuesday evening. In the great mass of matter which must every night be got ready for the press, after the debates in the two Houses are ended, or while they are going on, it is impossible that mistakes should not sometimes occur. We can only say, that it is our most anxious desire to send forth a just and impartial representation of what passes; and whenever we fail of success, such are still the pains we take, that we should hardly have to solicit indulgence upon the plea of incuria fundit; our failure must be laid to the imperfection of our common nature— humana parum cavit natura. Mr. Hume spoke with much feeling and animation of the distresses of the poor, and observing, as we understood by our reporter, a smile upon the ministerial benches, is represented by us as taxing only one right hon. gentleman, Mr. Canning, with indulging in laughter on so serious a subject. That right hon. gentleman, we have since learned was not present. We shall not now repeat the offensive passage for the sake of correcting it: suffice it to say, that Mr. Canning was not attacked as described in our report. We are enabled, from the most authentic source, to lay before our readers the passage which was so misunderstood by our reporter." After he had finished reading it, he resumed.—If the present were a case of omission, or of accidental mistake, he should be the last person in the world to complain of it; but what incuria, what error, or what mistake could lead the author of this calumnious paragraph to the belief that he (Mr. C.) was present at the debate, and that he had joined in a laugh against the sufferings of the poor? The paragraph of which he complained was a long and not a hastily written paragraph; indeed, it was most artificially constructed, and could not have been the production of a mere moment's consideration: it represented him receiving as sharp a rebuke as could be made, without saying a single word in reply; and depicted him with a smile flickering on his lips, whilst bearing a chastisement, too severe for any being with the feelings of a man to have borne with tranquillity. And yet this was to be represented as a fault of omission, or as an error arising from the imperfection of human nature! That it was a fault of omission or of accident, no man could believe; that it might arise from the imperfections of human nature, he was willing to allow; for he had always counted amongst them malignity and falsehood. So far as himself and the House were concerned, this apology was a greater offence than the original misrepresentation. The House was to be thanked, forsooth, that its debates were so fairly and faithfully given! its gratitude was to be granted, because errors were so seldom admitted! Instead of complaining of them when they occurred, the House was to be indebted to the reporters for their general accuracy; and its members were to have no reason to complain of them, even though they were held up to the ridicule and detestation of the country! He wished to press upon the notice of the House, what had been the effect of this error, this mistake, this imperfection of human nature. The paragraph had first appeared on Wednesday last, and had not been contradicted till this present Monday: in the meantime, every Sunday paper, and every provincial paper, had copied the paragraph, with this lying representation. If this late apology were considered an extenuation instead of an aggravation of the original offence, the House would be abdicating its power, its right, and its duty, of seeing that the communications which were made of its proceedings to the country were fairly and honestly made; that power they had not abdicated—that right, though not insisted on, they still maintained,—and that duty they could never abandon, if it was true, that the privileges which we enjoyed were the privileges of the Commons of England, given to us not as an enjoyment or a distinction, but as a means where by we might be enabled more fearlessly to withstand the encroachments of the Crown on one hand, and the inroads of popular licentiousness on the other. He had now discharged his duty in laying this case before the House, as also what had been said in extenuation of it. As it related to himself personally, he should not suggest to the House the mode in which they ought to dispose of it; but he trusted they would dispose of it in such a manner as would vindicate the privileges of the House, and secure to themselves those immunities on which the rights and liberties of the country so essentially depend. The right hon. gentleman then sat down; after which the clerk proceeded to read the two paragraphs to which Mr. Canning had called the attention of the House. When the clerk came to the words "continued cheers,"

Mr. Canning

said, that as to the continued cheers which were said to have taken place, though he had made considerable inquiry, he could not find any individual who had any recollection of them.

After the reading of these papers was concluded, a short pause ensued, which was ended by the rising of

Mr. Hume, who said, that he would state as concisely as he could, the view which he had taken of the present question. On the night previous to the day on which he had received Mr. Canning's first communication he had been in the House till a very late hour, and as he had occasion to attend an election committee that day at 10 o'clock, he had left his home at 9. This prevented him from paying immediate attention to the right hon. gentleman's communication; but when he did read its contents, he felt convinced that he could not have said any thing which could be construed into a personal attack upon that right hon. gentleman. The remarks which he had made were directed against his majesty's ministers in general, and not against any one of them in particular; what he had said was not said in anger —what he had uttered was uttered without malice, and came directly and sincerely from his heart. He therefore had no hesitation in addressing a letter to the right hon. gentleman, stating, that though he had not seen the newspaper, there was not a single sentence in his speech which could be considered as an attack upon his character. Anxious, however, that no time should be lost before the misrepresentation was corrected, he wrote to the right hon. gentleman a letter, in which he requested that a copy of the newspaper should be sent to him. The newspaper was accordingly sent; and when he saw the paragraph, he had no hesitation in saying, that it was a gross calumny on the character of the right hon. gentleman, and a strange misrepresentation of what he had himself said. In consequence of this, he wrote a second note to the right hon. gentleman, stating his opinion of the incorrectness of the paragraph, and promising that he would put on paper, as nearly as he could recollect, every word that he had actually said. When he had alluded to the gentlemen opposite, he had expressed a regret that the hon. member for Liverpool was not in his place among them; and he had no hesitation in saying that he had felt that regret, because, irritated as to the puny savings which the right hon. gentleman had said that the opposition side of the House were always recommending, he had intended to have expressed his opinion in stronger terms than he actually did express them regarding the conduct of the right hon. gentleman. It would be recollected, that they had sat for three successive days to the late hours of 2 or 3 in the morning; and this circumstance, joined to other engagements, prevented him from thinking of sending to the editor of "The Times," and desiring him to correct the misrepresentation. As soon as this idea occurred to him, he wrote to the editor, informing him of the calumnious misstatement, and requested him to make an apology for it as public as was possible. The letter was sent by a servant of his own: at the time of his sending it, the editor was out of town; but as soon as he returned, he sent him (Mr. H.) a letter couched in strong terms of regret for the mistake which had occurred, and desiring to explain the circumstances under which it had originated. He had, however, declined to receive him (the editor), be-cause he thought that the best course which he could adopt was, to send him a note, stating, that it was absolutely necessary that he should make an apology, and conveying him a copy of what had actually been said by himself on that day. This the editor did not receive till Sunday, which would account for the apology not appearing till the paper of Monday. The hon. member said, he regretted extremely that any such circumstance should have occurred between the right hon. gentle- man and himself; for if there was any individual in the House with whom he wished to stand well, it was the right hon. gentleman. The course of their public business brought them much together, and if any thing was to be done between them, it would be transacted better in an amicable than in on unfriendly manner. Since he had been a member of that House, he had paid much attention to the debates which had occurred in it, and to the manner in which those debates had been reported. From observation he could state, that the reports in "The Times" were very fair—in no other instance had he seen any misrepresentation, and he was inclined to think that this was not a wilful mistake, or the effect of any malignant feeling. If he had acceded to the request made by the editor of "The Times," in his letter, the right hon. gentleman might perhaps have received such an explanation as would have satisfied him. By not having had an interview with him, and not having introduced him, as he probably wished, to the right hon. gentleman, he might have deprived him of the opportunity of offering such an exculpation of himself as would have completely satisfied that right hon. gentleman. He sincerely believed, that the misrepresentation complained of must have originated in mistake, and not in a spirit of malignity and falsehood.

Mr. Lushington

thought that no man could have any hesitation in declaring that this misrepresentation did not originate from accident. With regard to the assertion, that no other misrepresentation had taken place in "The Times" paper, many days had not elapsed since he had had reason to make a complaint of this very editor. He alluded to the misstatements which had been given to the world respecting the case of captain Hanchett, regarding whose character he believed that an hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Bennet), entertained nearly the same conviction as he did himself. He begged to press upon the attention of the House the effect of these misrepresentations. Many of those individuals who were politically opposed to him at Canterbury, were disseminating statements of his case, which they backed with quotations taken from The Times. This was a most foul abuse of the indulgence granted by the House, and in the present case was of such a nature as to demand of the House, to interpose with its authority.

Mr. Wynn

said, that there was only one course for the House to pursue, and that was to call the publisher and printer to the bar of the House. The publishing of the debates in parliament, whether it was done by its permission or connivance, was of inestimable benefit to the public; but then it was proper that they should be fairly represented, and not converted into an engine to gratify private malice or party purposes. In the present case, he could not see how this misrepresentation was to be attributed to accident; and as he could not, it appeared to him to be precisely one of those cases in which the House was bound to assert the rights which it possessed. The breach of privilege was in the present instance of a complicated nature; the first breach of privilege he need not mention, as it was well known to every member in the House, and had now been overlooked for many years; the next breach of privilege was against the right hon. gentleman opposite, whose character had been calumniated; and the third breach against the right hon. gentleman to whom foul language had been attributed. There was no other course for the House to pursue than to order the printer to appear at its bar to-morrow.

The Speaker

then put the question, that C. Bell be ordered to attend at the bar of the House to-morrow.

Mr. Wynn

asked, whether the more usual way of proceeding was not to move a resolution that a breach of privilege had been committed, and then, after this resolution had been carried, to move that the publisher be heard at the bar of the House.

The Speaker

said, that a case had occurred in 1805, where this mode of proceeding had been dispensed with. The printer of the paper had then been called to the bar, and asked whether he was editor of it likewise. There was, indeed, some difference between that case and the present: that case regarded a paragraph which commented upon the conduct of certain members of parliament: this related to the publishing, and the publishing incorrectly, the debates which occurred in this House. One breach of privilege was therefore most undoubtedly committed.

The Speaker

then put the question a second time, that C. Bell do attend the bar of the House to-morrow.

Some hon. members suggested the pro- priety of making a similar order with regard to the editor of The Times.

Mr. E. Littleton

concurred in this suggestion; as he thought that the paragraph was conceived in malignity, and was engendered in falsehood.

The Speaker

said, that the House would see the awkward situation in which its officers would be placed, if an order should be issued to compel the attendance of the editor, and the officers should not know who the editor was. The House was in the habit of receiving information from its own members, and therefore, if any hon. member knew who the editor was, and would give that information, they were at liberty to receive such information, and to act upon it as should seem best to them. The printer was known, and therefore they could summon him and examine him at their bar.

Mr. Wynn

observed, that the printer and publisher of the paper were the persons whom the law considered liable for every article that appeared in it. The order, compelling the editor's attendance would be in the nature of a general warrant, which it was well known was illegal. Unless, therefore, any gentleman would state who the editor was, the best plan that the House could pursue was, to examine the printer at the bar, and to obtain from him the name of the editor.

Mr. Littleton

suggested, that there was one hon. gentleman in the House who could afford the information which it wished to obtain. It was the hon. gentleman who had carried on a correspondence with the editor.

Mr. Hume

said, that he had written to the editor of The Times generally, and that the letters which he had received from him in return were written in the name of the editor, and dated from The Times office.

Lord Castlereagh

observed, that there could be no doubt at all of the malignity of the publication. He thought that it would be expedient now, as in former cases of this nature, to pass a vote declaring it to be a gross breach of privilege.

Mr. Wynn

said, that whatever measure the House determined upon adopting, ought to be adopted with deliberation. This paragraph first of all was a breach of privilege; and 2ndly, a most gross and infamous libel. That consideration would come before the notice of the House more properly to-morrow.

Mr. Brougham

observed, that there was only one opinion and one feeling on the subject; and every one who had heard the clear and able statement of the right hon. gentleman opposite, could not help concluding that this paragraph was a breach of the privilege of the House. As that question was, therefore, already settled, he did not rise to say any thing upon it; though he must entreat the attention of the House before they entered further upon this business. It was very clear that the matter could not stop in its present stage: he did not mean to say that this was an argument against their proceeding further in it, but that this was not the only newspaper in which the most malignant attacks had been made upon honourable members, in contempt of all the privileges of the House. He did not allude now to the specific breach of privilege committed in the publishing of the debates, by which the House, the country, the constitution, and no one part of it more than the executive government, were highly benefitted, but to those gross misrepresentations by way of comment on the debates of the House, which must arise either from the most culpable negligence, or the most abominable malignity. These misstatements were not brought forward in the clumsy mode which was complained of to-night; they were not put by a reporter into the mouth of another, but they were the declared comments of the publisher, who was either guilty of the misrepresentation himself, or else had lent himself most unjustifiably to it. To give instances of this nature would be endless. He should content himself with mentioning one case in which his own character had been attacked, and his meaning misrepresented. After the satisfactory denial in that House by his noble friend, the member for Yorkshire, of the circumstances to which allusion had been made, he took no further notice of the subject; and it gave him satisfaction, because he knew that at that time other gentlemen had grounds to bring forward similar complaints, and which must have been brought forward if he had persevered; if A took notice of one attack, B and C would be under a sort of necessity of following it up with such as had been made upon them. Only a few weeks ago, one of the public papers had most unjustifiably assailed the hon. member for Southwark, and had even endeavoured to expose him to popular violence. What he apprehended was, that if in consequence of the very just statement of the circumstances of the case by the right hon. gentleman, the House thought fit to proceed further, it might be called upon so frequently to adopt the same steps as to the past. As to the future, it would be their own fault if the editors of newspapers incurred the displeasure of the House. The complaints as to the past would be endless and the result must be an injurious impediment to the free communication of the proceedings of the House to the public. At the same time, he by no means intended to oppose the motion, if it was thought good to press it forward. He entertained as strong an opinion and as warm a feeling upon this subject as any hon. member; he only called their attention to the probable consequences of the course now suggested. Undoubtedly the abuse was gross, and it was necessary that it should be checked; but he thought that more good would perhaps be attained by stopping here than by taking any more severe notice of the matter. If he might presume to offer advice to the House, his advice would be, that it should not go beyond the letter of the example that had been set on a former occasion; if it did, complaints could not be confined to misstatements in reports, but must extend to breaches of privilege in comments upon them.

Mr. Canning

again rose, merely because the hon. member had called upon him for an opinion. When he put the newspaper into the hand of the clerk, he had declared his determination to take no farther part in the discussion. He had discharged a painful duty in bringing the subject forward: he had done so after much deliberation; and whether such conduct were or were not fit, it had been influenced by no wish to gratify personal feelings.

Mr. J. W. Ward

observed, that the course recommended by the hon. member would lead to this inconvenience—that it would open the door to endless attacks of the same unwarrantable kind, that had been made, not only, on his right, hon. friend, but on the hon. and learned gentleman. He referred to the similar complaint made by that hon. gentleman, and to the milder notice that at his suggestion had been taken of it by the House. The hon. gentleman suggested that the same course ought now to be pursued; that further steps should be wisely abstained from; but it was precisely because the House had acted unwisely upon that occasion, that the House was now troubled with a repetition of the offence. He did not see how the House could allow this attack to pass without some sort of punishment; it ought not to pass wholly unnoticed, unless the House meant it to be understood, that in future all attacks might be made with impunity. He could hardly conceive it possible that the utmost licence of falsehood and malignity could carry the press further in a violation of the privileges exercised by the House. With whatever favour the House might be led to regard the publication of its debates, it was impossible that such an excess of licence could be permitted, and for this plain reason—that it was suspending over the House a power greater than itself: it was, in fact, rendering the press master of the parliament, and of the characters, feelings, and individuals of the persons composing it.

The question was then put and carried, that Mr. C. Bell do attend the House to morrow.