HC Deb 15 June 1819 vol 40 cc1163-77

On the motion of Mr. Wynn, the House proceeded to the order of the day for the attendance of C. Bell; and C. Bell being called in accordingly, the paper, intituled, "The Times," dated 9th June 1819, was shown to him, when he stated that he was the printer and publisher of the said paper, and that he had received the paragraph complained of from John Payne Collier, and then he withdrew.

Mr. Collier

was then called in and examined.

Mr. Speaker

.—Look at that paper, and say whether if is a correct copy of the manuscript which was given to the paper on that evening?—I have no doubt that it is a correct one, as far as printing goes.

Mr. Speaker

.—Who wrote that?—I did.

Were you the short-hand writer who took down the notes on that occasion?—I was. I have been for some years in the habit of reporting the proceedings of this House, and have always endeavoured to be as accurate in their representation as I possibly could; but owing to the confusion and disorder which sometimes prevail in the gallery, it is not always possible to give with accuracy what occurs. With respect to that part of the debate of which complaint is now made from the number of persons passing and re-passing the seat which I occupied, it was out of my power to follow the hon. member (Mr. Hume) regularly through his observations. Anxious to collect what had occurred during the confusion to which I have alluded, I asked a stranger who was placed before me, and from him I received, if not in exact words, at least the point which I afterwards embodied in my report. As to any intention of misrepresenting what occurred, I totally disclaim it. This is the first time during the 10 years I have been engaged in reporting, that any objection has been made against any report that came from my hands.

Mr. Bathurst

.—Are the papers to which you have just alluded a transcript from your notes?—They are from my shorthand notes; that is to say, as far as the confusion I have alluded to would permit.—Have you the original notes from which you copied?—I have not; and though I have used every diligence in looking for them this morning, I have not been able to find them; the reason, perhaps, will be explained by the circumstance, that being occupied in other pursuits, I often write upon the slips which I have used in taking my short-hand notes.

Do you take a speech of that length on slips?—I take my notes on slips of paper made up into the form of a book.

Mr. C. Harvey

.—Did you take your notes so on that night?—I did: the usual practice is, with gentlemen who take notes, to write from them on small slips of paper, which, the moment they are finished, are put into the hands of the printer. The House will perceive, therefore, that there was no time left for deliberation, except so far as one can deliberate while he is occupied in writing.

Mr. Bathurst

wished to know whether the parenthesis, mentioning the cheers, was inserted in the copy?—It was.—Was the name of Mr. Canning mentioned in the witness's copy?—It was.—Was it from the stranger in the gallery that the witness received information as to the name? —The stranger mentioned it; but I had a strong feeling that allusion was made to Mr. Canning by the hon. member, and I then noticed it. In allusion to a smile from the other side, I think I recollect the hon. member having said, "ministers may laugh, but let them look at the other side of the picture," and I followed up the sentence with the information supplied by the stranger. I have since seen the hon. member's own account of that part of his speech, and that is the only circumstance which induces me to think that I was mistaken.

Mr. Mansfield

.—Had you reason to think that Mr. Canning was then in his place?—I had; I had reason to believe that he was, from the frequent allusions which, in my opinion, were made to him during the whole of the hon. member's speech. I hope the House will now allow me to express my sincere, but manly contrition, for having in misrepresenting, however unintentionally, any thing that occurred, committed this error. I had no intention but to give the most faithful account in my power.—Is witness the only reporter on The Times?—No; there are 12 or 13 besides myself; they each take a short time in a debate; and here it may be necessary to inform the House, that in addition to the inconvenience to which I have before alluded, from want of proper accommodation, there often arises another, from the circumstance of one gentleman going on in the middle of a speech. Allusions are often made to what occurred before the individual gets into the gallery, and which, even when he hears, he cannot always understand. It often occurs, even among honourable members, that a misunderstanding takes place of what has occurred in debate; and of course the difficulty of hearing must be greater to those who write.—The witness was then ordered to withdraw.

Mr. Wynn

said, he had heard nothing which could make him alter the opinion he had before formed, that the publication in question could not be the result of a mistake. Nothing had been said which could make him believe that it was any thing but a gross and libellous publication. He maintained that even if, in the course of debate, reflections were made by one member, alluding to another, no printer would be justified in laying them before the public. For this he had the authority of Mr. Fox, who in 1788 held, that though members might be justified, in the course of debate, in using particular language towards each other, yet a printer would not be justified in sending it forth to the public; and he could imagine cases where such conduct would be a high breach of the privileges of the House. It seemed to him (Mr. W.) that though the publication of what passed in the House was tolerated by connivance, yet that, when given, the parties so giving it to the public were bound to give it correctly. The House could not take into consideration the great dispatch with which those debates were given in overlooking any misrepresentation which they might convey; for though he would admit the advantage of their going forth to the world, yet he thought it better they should be delayed a little, than come forth in an incorrect state, and without examination. The hon. member concluded by moving, "That the said paragraph is a scandalous misrepresentation of the debates and proceedings of this House, a calumnious libel on the character of one of its members, and an aggravated breach of its privileges."

Mr. Brougham

said, he did not rise for the purpose of opposing the motion, as far as the breach of privilege was concerned; but he would reserve his opinion upon any measure with which the hon. member might be disposed to follow it up; for, undoubtedly, he should bear in mind the evidence in extenuation which had been given. It was certain, that if the resolution now proposed were carried, the matter could not rest there. It was certain that if the House agreed to this resolution, they should go further; and perhaps before it was put, it would be best to consider, whether, under all the circumstances of extenuation which the House had heard, they would take a step which would bind them, as undoubtedly this severe censure would, to another. Upon the evidence which had been now received, he doubted the propriety of passing a re- solution, the consequence of which must be, to commit the person who had offended. If after this resolution they could stop short at a reprimand, his objection to it would be removed. He was not indisposed to concur with the terms of it; but there was a difficulty which was presented by the strength of them, and which might perhaps be got over by adding words to the effect, that in consideration of the circumstances which had been stated, the House was induced to remain satisfied with a reprimand. Were it not for the circumstances of extenuation which had been brought to light, he should have joined in voting for the severest punishment which it was in their power to inflict.

Mr. Bathurst

thought the hon. and learned gentleman right in his construction of the rule of proceeding, that the punishment should be commensurate with the terms of the resolution. The course proposed appeared to him to be that pointed out by the nature of the case, although the extent of the punishment might be matter of subsequent deliberation. Adverting to the evidence, some of the circumstances stated appeared to be somewhat singularly co-incident—that the passage in question should have been so imperfectly heard; that the witness should have adopted the rest on the representation of a mere stranger; that it should have been put so offensively; and that the name, with the addition of cheers, should have been inserted in a parenthesis. He thought that, under all these circumstances, the House could not do less than adopt the resolution. Another unfortunate incident was, the loss of the witness's notes, which it was extremely desirable to have had produced.

Mr. Philips

observed, that he regarded the defence which had been made by the gentleman who had withdrawn from the bar as a most ingenuous, rather than as that ingenious one which the right hon. gentleman seemed to consider it. It had about it every natural indication of sincerity; and the statement which had been made bore with it all the appearance of truth. For himself he might observe, that having frequently observed the right hon. gentleman (Canning) prone to associate ludicrous images with subjects of distress [cries of No, no!] if, then, he was mistaken on this point, it was not surprising that the witness should also have been deceived. His whole deportment at the bar established the fact, that the mis- representation in question had originated in error, and had not sprung from any motive in the least savouring of malignity. He himself was persuaded, that there had been no intention to misrepresent; and with this persuasion on his mind, he could not, as an honest man, vote that the paper was a scandalous and calumnious libel.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that if the proper course of proceeding had not been before evident, the speech of the hon. gentleman was calculated to guide them to it. The hon. gentleman had made one more of those attempts that had of late been so frequent, to impute to his right hon. friend conduct and feelings of which he was incapable. If such imputations were followed up in the daily prints, he would leave it to the House to judge what must become of the privileges of parliament. He must deny that the question of intention was one to which the House was at all bound to advert; it was into the truth of the averments alone they ought to inquire; for it was obviously impossible to trace the actual motive operating upon a reporter's mind. If they found that the character and qualities ascribed to it did belong to the paper in question—that it did contain a false and calumnious account of what had taken place within the House; then, however the manner of the individual might have impressed them in his favour, it was their duty to mark their sense of it in distinct and unequivocal terms. With regard to the circumstance of the offensive passage being adopted on the suggestion of a stranger, be was not disposed to consider that this would furnish any excuse, even if the account were true beyond all doubt. The hon. and learned gentleman had admitted that he was ready to affirm the resolution, and was merely desirous that the consequences should not be pushed too far. But how would the House stand, if, after a resolution had been passed, declaring that a gross libel had been published on their proceedings, they should be satisfied with a mere reprimand, when the defence that induced them thus to mitigate their judgment could not appear on their Journals? After a commitment, the circumstances of extenuation or explanation might be set forth in a petition, and an opportunity be thus afforded for recording the grounds of that lenient consideration which the House might be disposed to entertain. But if they had any regard for their own dignity or privileges, and unless they were willing to leave them entirely at the mercy of the reporters, they would, without bearing hard on the individual who was the subject of animadversion, and who ought not to have reported any matter on the idle suggestion of a stranger, deal with this case on public grounds alone. It was not a case which ought to be tampered with; and whether the offence proceeded from inconsiderateness, or any other cause, that was a matter to be hereafter pleaded; but he felt himself bound to say, in the present state of the proceeding, the House could not, consistently with its privileges or dignity, receive any communication from the individual who had been examined, until he should be in custody.

Mr. Philips

said, he had not meant to justify the publication, but to object to any terms in the resolution that should express or imply an intention on the part of the author to misrepresent. In his other observations he had been influenced by no wish to reflect on the right hon. gentleman.

Mr. Abercromby

said, he had viewed the publication as one of a peculiarly aggravated nature: it contained an untrue account of what had been said, and was accompanied by a sort of scenic description which heightened its effect. He should vote for the resolution; but he thought the House would act wisely, in reserving to itself the consideration of the extent of punishment. But it was important that the grounds of their judgment, whatever it might be, should appear upon their Journals. The manner of the witness had made a general prepossession in his favour, and he could almost wish that the language of the resolution was less strong. The witness had exposed himself to severe reproach, but his conduct that day at the bar recommended him to their most favourable consideration. He had incurred much blame in adopting the representation of a stranger, and this was in itself a great offence. At the same time, the manner in which the misstatement was accounted for, satisfied him of its sincerity. With regard to the character of the newspaper in question, he thought it much improved upon the judgment which he was the day before inclined to form of it. It clearly appeared that the report had passed through no intermediate hands, but without being seen by any other person, had passed with the utmost rapidity from the writer to the publisher. It had been truly added, that there was no time for deliberation; and it was certainly difficult to believe that the witness could have come into the gallery with malice prepense, or a determination to publish something offensive to the right hon. gentleman. He conceived, therefore, that whilst some punishment was necessary, the House would do itself honour in rendering it as mild and of as short duration as possible.

Lord Compton

observed, that in 1812 a gross misrepresentation had been made of a statement respecting a piece of very remarkable evidence before a committee, which had been submitted by the hon. member for Winchelsea. The evidence was of such a nature that it had been struck out of the minutes of the committee, but had been read in the House by the hon. member. It was represented in the newspaper that this evidence had been given by another hon. member; and although the hon. member for Sandwich declared that, living in the neighbourhood of a manufacturing district, his life might be endangered by its publication, the editor thought proper to publish it, and notwithstanding this double falsehood, had not been punished by the House. He thought this a much stronger case than the present, and as the author of that publication had been suffered to escape, it would not be fair to adopt strong measures in a case in which the error was confessed, and the cause of it explained.

Mr. Protheroe

was sure that the House would appreciate the delicacy of those feelings which had induced the right hon. gentleman to absent himself on this occasion. He was also sure that if he had been present he would have been deeply impressed by the explanation that had been given. That right hon. gentleman had observed, that if any member could lay his hand upon his heart, and state that he did not believe the paragraph in question to have originated in motives of malignity, he would take no further notice of the business. He believed that many hon. members, after the evidence which they had heard, were prepared to express their belief that there had been no malignity. There was one point to which he wished for a moment to call their attention; it related to a smile, which had been described as pervading the Treasury bench. In the statement of the hon. gentleman himself (Mr. Hume) all reference to this was omitted; but he understood from several hon. members then present, that such allusions had been made by him. He mentioned this, because it evidently took away from the supposed circumstantiality of the misstatement. He was anxious that the terms of the resolution should be such as would carry with them the general feeling of the House, and it appeared to him that those now proposed were too strong and went beyond that feeling. It might be true, that the House could not Investigate the question of intention when the maintenance of its privileges became necessary; but it might at least be admitted as a consideration in determining the measure of punishment, and he himself should vote for the most lenient.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, the last two speeches would be sufficient to guide his vote, if it had not been previously determined on the same side. He, for one, was ready without hesitation to state upon his honour that he believed the witness had not been influenced by the malignant feeling, or desire, to insult the right hon. gentleman. He did not mean to justify the report, and was persuaded the day before that it was a calumnious libel. The hon. mover would hardly have offered so strong a resolution to the House, if he had drawn it up after he had heard what had been stated at the bar. Anxious as he was to support the privileges of the House, he should be sorry to do so by an act of oppression. He should willingly vote that the publication was an unjustifiable breach of privilege; but as he could not keep intention out of his view, and as an unqualified apology had been made, he could not join in any vote, the almost necessary consequence of which would be a commitment to Newgate.

Mr. Brand

observed, that if the present motion had been to be decided merely upon what had passed on the preceding day, he should have willingly acquiesced in it; but after the explanations which had been given, he did not apprehend that any member, viewing the subject as qualified by those explanations, could avoid coming to a different conclusion. A clear statement, a manly apology, had been made. He could not exclude from his consideration the point of intention, even although the consequence might be, that the reasons of this proceeding would not appear upon their Journals. It would, he thought, be better for the House, and for the public, if some further accommodation were furnished to the persons, who, notwithstanding the difficulties in which they were placed, already performed with no small diligence and ability the task of communicating to the country what was said and done in parliament. Whatever additional advantages they enjoyed would be accompanied by a proportionate responsibility.

Mr. Wynn

said, that the first part of his resolution was, that the words were a scandalous misrepresentation of the debates and proceedings of that House. Was there any man who could read an account of what was said to have passed, as reported in that paper, and contrast it with the account of what did really pass, as given, by the hon. member, and not say that this was a most gross and scandalous misrepresentation? He referred particularly to that part about which he had heard no explanation—he meant the "continued cheers." Now, that was a circumstance which the reporter could not possibly mistake. The second part of the resolution was, that this was a calumnious libel on one of the members of that House. Now, if the passage did not amount to a calumnious libel on the right hon. gentleman, he did not know what was a calumnious libel. The concluding allegation was, that this was an aggravated breach of privilege. Now, when it was considered that the taking any report of their proceedings was a breach of privilege, he did not think that to the present case he could apply a slighter expression.—The resolution was agreed to.

Mr. Wynn

said it now became his duty to follow up the measure which the House had just agreed to. It was necessary that some punishment should be inflicted upon the individual who had been guilty of so great a breach of privilege. At the same time, he wished to take into consideration every circumstance which could be taken to be in extenuation. He did not repent their having listened to those observations which they had just heard, because he did think this that reasonable course, which not mercy alone but justice called for. When an individual came before them to speak to a subject of this nature, he should be permitted to state any circumstance which could go in extenuation. He well knew that it was impossible to give the exact expression of any man, but he could not conceive how it was possible for such a perversion of what really passed as this was to have taken place. The notice of "cheers," he certainly considered as giving a character and colour to these proceedings. It might be material here to refer to the period of the commencement of the French revolution; when the legislative assembly admitted persons indiscriminately into their gallery, to give reports of their proceedings. They were given with so many political partialities, and in so garbled and inaccurate a manner, that in order to guard against this growing abuse, it became necessary for the principal members to publish newspapers of their own, with reports of their several speeches. He had certainly experienced surprise at the general ability and accuracy with which the debates of parliament were given; especially considering the very short time in which, they had to appear. He did not, however, see that their being published at 9 or 10 in the morning, instead of 3 in the afternoon, for instance, was a sufficient advantage to justify or outweigh an inaccuracy or misrepresentation of this kind. It was necessary that the editors and reporters of those papers which gave the debates, should feel their responsibility, and know that the House would visit on their heads those breaches of privilege which would not be suffered in other quarters. He thought it one of the greatest advantages resulting from the enjoyment of these privileges, that the House had the immediate means of punishment, in such cases, within its power; and that, consequently, it was enabled to inflict a more lenient one, than if it were compelled to resort to a court of justice. He was very willing to allow, that every circumstance of extenuation which could be, ought to be admitted, in regard to the person charged and as to the punishment, he was of opinion that they would be quite justified in giving a very short term. But, considering the nature of the offence charged, he thought it necessary to move that Mr. Collier be committed to Newgate."

Mr. Gurney

said, that with respect to what had fallen from the hon. gentleman about the "cheers" upon which so much had been observed, he was entering the House at the time alluded to, and was on the floor, when he certainly did hear several cheers from those benches. The hon. member said, he was of opinion that this misrepresentation originated in mistake, he was the more inclined to think so, from the manner in which it had been, just explained, and the great appearance of sincerity on the witness's part.

Mr. Brougham

expressed his conviction that there could hardly be but one sentiment upon the story told by the person in question, as to the origin of the gross mistake. Now, he thought that the House in general believed that story, no member having put any questions which evinced a doubt about it. Any person hearing the passage in question read, must have been disposed to have concluded that it was not only an unfounded misrepresentation, but a wilful one; that it was dictated by malignant and personal feelings. He was willing to believe the disclaimer which had met the charge of personal feeling; but with respect to the culpable negligence with which the reporter stood charged, the House was bound to take into its consideration what had been the usual course in these cases. The instance alluded to by the noble lord went strikingly to show that persons in the situation of reporters might be well excused for misrepresenting the proceedings of the House, and believing that it would not be visited by its interference. He would also remind the House of a speech by the noble member for York. In one part of a particular paper there was a very correct report of it; but in another part, a most inaccurate report of the same speech, copied from another print, was made the vehicle of those slanders, which were heaped upon himself, the humble individual who now addressed them. But instances of this kind were numerous. No longer ago than yesterday a speech of his hon. and learned friend (sir James Mackintosh) which the whole House had heard with admiration, was most grossly misrepresented in the paper to which he alluded; and that, not after a short time, not in a hurry, but after several days, and in conjunction with several other articles of the same indecent character. This speech was declared to be a most shameless and impudent attack on Ferdinand 7th. It was for hon. gentlemen to determine whether the reporters, partly by the necessities of their situation and partly by the lenity shown to them by the House on former occasions, had not been misled. He did not say this in any view of opposing the motion; but he thought it should make them cautious how they meted out punishment for an offence which they might in some degree be considered to have encouraged. Taking all the circumstances of extenuation into consideration, he hoped the House would abstain from committing this person, but rest satisfied with reprimanding him; more especially as, in this case, they had already heard all the palliatory circumstances. If, however, this more lenient course was not the general sense of the House, so clearly was he of opinion that they ought to be unanimous in dealing with questions of privilege; so well convinced was he that they ought to adopt a course likely to preserve their privileges, and to visit severely any invasion on the part of the reporters, of their great and constitutional privileges, that he would be the last man in the House to divide it upon the motion of the hon. gentleman. If the committal of this individual was finally resolved on, as it appeared to be, he should recommend the House to rest satisfied with committing him to the custody of the serjeant at arms instead of to Newgate, and with making the term as short as possible.

Mr. Bankes

was afraid there was no precedent in a case of this kind, of a committal to the serjeant at arms instead of to Newgate. In this case, he had no wish to press an unusual severity of punishment; he was anxious only that they should assert their own privileges, and administer justice tempered with mercy.

Mr. J. H. Smith

said, there was a precedent in 1805, when Mr. Peter Stuart, of "The Oracle" newspaper, was, for a libel, committed to the custody of the serjeant at arms. He recommended that a similar course should be adopted on the present occasion. He thought that the matter urged in extenuation entitled the individual to all the lenity they could consistently afford.

Mr. Wynn

said, that the old place of committal was to the Gate-house, but in later times it was to Newgate; and in selecting that prison, perhaps they would be consulting the convenience of the individual, and avoiding for him the expense which being in the custody of the serjeant at arms would induce. He had no objection to frame his motion either way.

Sir J. Mackintosh

entirely concurred in the terms which had been applied to this libel, but from the statement made by the reporter at the bar, he was fully convinced the error (great as it was) was unintentional. Ea fully acquitted the individual of wilful intention, and feeling this, he could not but vote for the lighter punishment. The appearance of talent and edu- cation which the witness at the bar had shown, would, he was persuaded, induce the House to select that sort of punishment which would convey the least feeling of disgrace. As to attacks upon himself from any part of the public press, he should ever treat them with indifference— in such a case as that which was represented (for he had not seen it) to have so calumniously reflected upon him with contempt. He also felt himself bound to express his opinion in favour of the generally improved character of the public press, for whatever political bias particular newspapers might have and might exercise respecting the several parties to which they were attached, he never recollected a period in which their columns exhibited more general decorum, more general ability, more exemplary abstinence from attacks upon private life, and from those disgraceful invasions of the privacy of domestic character which were once so much indulged in. This great and valuable improvement in the public press, had arisen from the superior talents, judgment, and character of the proprietors, and the improved advantages and better condition, in every respect, of the gentlemen employed under them. On this account alone, even exclusive of the demeanour of the gentleman whom they had just heard at their bar, he should strongly urge the propriety of abstaining from any degrading punishment the effect of which must be to have a tendency to take away that sense of self respect and independent character which it was so essential to cherish in persons of that description.

Mr. W. Smith

said, he knew the young gentleman personally, and could assure the House that he was a person of respectable connexions, of good education, and of excellent behaviour. There could, therefore, be no doubt that he would prefer the punishment of being taken into the custody of the serjeant-at arms to the degradation of being committed to Newgate.

Mr. Williams

thought himself bound to state, that on the evening of the debate he had sat behind the hon. member (Mr. Hume), and had a distinct recollection of the following expression:—"The right hon. gentleman, and the hon. gentlemen around him, may smile." Soon after this there certainly were several cheers, although, no doubt, a few sentences intervened, which were lost in the gallery.

Mr. Bennet

hoped the hon. gentleman would make it a motion for commitment to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms, because he was convinced that to be committed to Newgate would, by a person of education and refined feelings, be felt as the greatest degradation. While on the subject of misrepresentations in the public prints, he had to state, that he then held in his hand a paragraph which contained the most licentious abuse of that House. He did not know what course they would pursue respecting it, but in his opinion it affected the character of the whole House.

The hon. member then read a paragraph from the Morning Post of the 27th of May, reflecting in coarse terms on the conduct of the Opposition.

Mr. Protheroe

also preferred the moderate punishment. To men of education and literary talents, a punishment of the extreme kind would be keenly felt.

Mr. Wynn

said, he did not feel the least difficulty in acceding to the general wish of the House. He was; therefore, ready to alter the words of his motion, and he trusted sufficient would have been done to warn the daily press against a repetition of the offence which brought the individual in question under the displeasure of the House.

It was then ordered, nem. con. "That John Payne Collier, for his said offence, be committed to the custody of the Serjeant at arms."