HC Deb 16 June 1819 vol 40 cc1195-9
Mr. W. Smith

rose to present a petition from the gentleman who was yesterday committed to the custody of the serjeant at arms for a breach of privilege. He did not mean to deny that a great breach of privilege had been committed; but he was one of those who did not think it intentional. He had said last night, that from his knowledge he could state, that the individual in custody was highly respectable from connexions, character, and education. From what he had since seen of him, he was the more strongly impressed with this belief. The petitioner did not deny his being guilty of a breach of privilege, but he respectfully asserted, that he had no intention of offending the House or any hon. member of it. He prayed, therefore, that he might be brought up and discharged.

Sir F. Burdett

, without going into an inquiry respecting the question then, could not omit entering his protest against the principle which the House had assumed, of acting on questions of privilege in the double capacity of judge and accuser. He could not see upon what principle of law or justice the House could compel a man to appear at their bar, and be obliged to become his own accuser. The practice was, in his opinion, pregnant with dangerous consequences, and therefore one to which he would never give his support. It went upon the principle of Rhadamanthus, castigatque auditque. It chastised first, and heard the party after; which he conceived was a most unjust method of proceeding. As to the particular charge against the petitioner, he did not believe him guilty, for he understood that the words used were nearly similar to those reported, and that there were cheers about the same time [Cries of "No, no"]. At all events it seemed to be admitted on all hands, that the report had been given without ill-intention on the part of the petitioner, and he maintained that where there was no ill intention there could be no crime. If, then, there was no ill intention on the part of the petitioner, how, he would ask, could the House punish? It ought, he conceived, to be held in the House as it was in another place, that "actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea."

Lord Castlereagh

did not sec in what character the hon. baronet appeared before the House on the present occasion. If it were as an advocate, he had acted, as was sometimes done elsewhere, in a manner calculated to do his client an injury, for the tendency of his observations was, to oppose the clemency with which the House might be disposed to treat the petitioner. The hon. baronet had protested against the power which the House had exercised in maintaining its privileges: upon this subject however the hon. baronet was not the most impartial person to decide. He had, on one occasion, tried in a court of law the question of the power of the House on this point; and after the result, he (lord C.) did not expect to hear this opinion again put forward. But the hon. baronet denied that the petitioner made any misrepresentation, or committed any breach of privilege. It should, however, be recollected, that he (sir F. Burdett) was not in the House while the accused person was at the bar. If he had he would have found that the petitioner had acknowledged the breach of privilege, and did not attempt to justify it. The object of what the petitioner had said, was certainly to induce the House to believe that he had no intention of offending; but in this defence of himself, he had not drawn any of those distinctions which the hon. baronet had made. If the person whose report had been the subject of complaint was to have his offence visited with lenity, it would be owing to his conduct at the bar, and not to the arguments which the hon. baronet had produced in his defence.

Mr. Courtenay

could not let the subject pass over without informing the House of the light in which he viewed the offence which had been committed. That offence had been extenuated considerably, in the estimation of the House, by the manner in which the individual had behaved himself. Indeed it would have been extraordinary if any person, gifted as those were and must be who gave the debates of that House to the public, had not been aware of the situation in which he was standing before the House, and of the absolute necessity which existed of his conducting himself, as the individual in question had conducted himself, with candour and humility. The House might give too much weight to such artful conduct, and therefore he thought it requisite to notice the subject. Much had also been said of the good character, the excellent education, and the respectable connexions of the individual to whom he had before alluded. This, in his opinion, did not form any extenuation of his offence. If an illiterate man, without any of those nicer feelings which mark the gentleman, should assail the character of an hon. member in scurrilous and indecent language, the person so assailed might treat the charges produced against him with contempt, and consider the reptile who fabricated them unworthy of his anger; but when similar charges were produced by persons on whose minds education had engrafted the feelings of the gentleman, together with all those nice susceptibilities of personal honour which belong to that character, circumstances were entirely changed, the offence assumed a deeper dye, and, when punished ought to be punished with greater severity. He would not moot the question which was then before the House. He confessed that he fell in with the general opinion of the House, that the prisoner had no intention of misrepresenting what had fallen from the hon. gentleman opposite, or of libelling the character of his right hon. friend. But still he thought that it ought to be most distinctly understood, that it was highly-reprehensible in any individual who pretended to give an accurate representation of the debates of that House, to send forth to the country, as a correct statement of what was said in it, that which he knew that he had not himself heard, that for which he could not himself vouch, that which he had learned from an entire stranger, and that of which it was in his power to have ascertained the correctness by application to his fellow reporters.

Mr. Huskisson

said, that the purport of the hon. baronet's remarks was, that the report in question was not a misrepresentation of what the hon. member for Aberdeen had said; if that hon. gentleman had been in the House at the time when those remarks were made, he was quite certain that he (Mr. Hume) would not have hesitated to rise and contradict the insinuations which had been thrown out against him in his absence. If his right hon. friend had not been fully convinced that the whole of the paragraph complained of was a most gross misrepresentation, he would not have taken any notice of it in the House, but would have terminated the business by another and a different issue. [Loud cries of Order].

Mr. Hume

expressed his astonishment at the conduct of the hon. baronet. Had he been present, either when the speech was made, which had been unfortunately misrepresented, or when he (Mr. Hume) gave an explanation of what that speech actually contained, he would not have uttered the observations which he had done. Indeed, as it was, he was quite astonished how the hon. baronet could express any doubts of the truth of his representations. He was extremely sorry to hear the hon. baronet throw out such doubts, because he would venture to say that there was not a single individual in the House who heard him that was not satisfied that he had never uttered any thing like the calumny which had been imputed to him. He had stated on a former occasion his conviction, that the editor of The Times had no knowledge of the incorrect nature of the paragraph which had been inserted in the paper, and he had only to appeal to the candid and manly manner in which the reporter had given his evidence at their bar, to prove that there was no malignity against the right hon. gentleman on his part.

Mr. Hutchinison

said, that a strong feeling existed in his mind, that nothing like malignity had actuated the gentleman who had made the report of which complaint had been made.

Mr. Collier

was then brought to the bar, where he received a Reprimand from Mr. Speaker, and was ordered to be discharged out of custody, paying his fees. The reprimand was as followeth, viz. John Payne Collier;—You having confessed yourself to be the author of a paragraph, which this House resolved to be 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, you were, for the said offence, committed to the custody of the Serjeant at arms attending this House. Grave and serious as this offence is, the manner in which you conducted yourself whilst under examination at the bar, and the explanation you then offered, led this House to the conviction that your misconduct was not intentional, and induced them consequently to treat you with a lenity, which, under no other circumstances, could such an offence have either suggested or justified. Your petition of this day has been received, and fully considered, and the terms in which it is conceived, and the sorrow and regret expressed in it, coupled with your conduct at the bar, to which I have before adverted, induce this House, in the further extension of mercy, now to order that you be reprimanded and discharged. Let not, however, that lenity be misunderstood; let it not be forgotten, that it is alone from the indulgence of this House that there is room for the commission of any such offence; and that the abuse of such indulgence aggravates the offence. Let this be a public warning, that the repetition of this offence, after the notice that has been now taken of it, cannot but be considered as wilful; and by whomever it may be committed, it will assuredly be visted with the utmost rigour and the severest punishment. Having now, in obedience to the commands of this House, thus reprimanded you, I have further to acquaint you, that, you are discharged, upon the payment of your fees.