HC Deb 18 August 1843 vol 71 cc928-30

The Libel and Defamation Bill was read a third time. On the question that the -bill do pass,

Mr. B. Escott

was sorry to make any objection at this stage of the bill, but he could not allow it to pass without calling attention to the inconsistency of retaining the ninth clause, the third clause having been struck out. To retain the one after the other had been struck out was inconsistent with the principle of the bill. The third clause related to matters in which an action was brought for injury sustained by the publication of libel or defamatory matter of any kind, while the ninth clause related to indictments for libel; but both clauses had reference to the publication of defamatory matter; and the same objection that was urged against the third clause—viz., that a jury could not define what was and what was not for the public benefit, where the defamatory matter was true, applied equally to the ninth clause. The jury might decide whether the matter complained of was true or false, but they could not so well say whether the publication of the matter constituting the defamatory libel was or was not for the public benefit. In political matters scarcely any jury could be brought to agree as to what was a publication for the public benefit. Now, he would call attention to what occurred on the previous evening. The hon. and learned Attorney-general then commented in indignant terms upon an article that had appeared in a newspaper. [The Attorney-General: "No."] The hon. and learned Gentleman commented on a certain article; now suppose that hon. and learned Gentleman considered that the paper ought to be prosecuted on account of that article, as being a libel upon him—the issue to be tried would not be whether the publication was true or false, but whether it was for the public benefit, and to decide that the whole merits of the question must be taken into consideration by the jury. If the bill passed in its present shape, not only would the law of libel be materially altered, but altered in a most mischievous and objectionable manner. No doubt there were anomalies in the law, but these anomalies were increased by a bill which left it to the jury to say whether the publication of the libellous matter was for the public benefit or not, He should oppose the passing of the bill.

Mr. Christie

proposed a clause, the effect of which, as we understood, was to enable the proprietors of periodicals published at long intervals, against which actions for libel were instituted, to publish apologies in other public papers, which was agreed to.

The Attorney-General

was desirous of making a few observations, after what had fallen from the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Escott). The hon. and learned Member complained of the inconsistency of striking out the third clause and retaining the ninth. The bill had not been framed by him, and therefore he was not responsible for that inconsistency which was charged against it. But the grounds upon which he had resisted the third clause, and upon which he was not prepared to oppose the ninth he would now state. The third clause would place an impediment in the way of the publication of the truth, and he still continued to think that no man had a right to ask for damages where nothing but the truth was spoken, and if any harm resulted to society by the publication of truth, it should be redressed, not by action for damages, but by some other mode. But while the third clause restricted the liberty of the press, the ninth clause went to remove a restriction that now existed. Therefore, while he opposed the one he was prepared to admit the other. His hon. and learned Friend had alluded to what fell from him (the Attorney-General) on a previous day. Now, he begged most distinctly to say that he had not complained in indignant terms. He had not, in fact, complained at all, and he begged that might be distinctly understood. His object in addressing the House on the occasion alluded to, was merely to correct what he thought was an error, and to set himself right with the House. As to the remarks which had been made under the influence of that error he cared but little for. He did not mean to say that he was indifferent to public opinion or to the observations which any person of respectability might make in reference to his conduct, but the observations in this case having been made in error, he had felt it to be due to himself and to the House to set himself right. The ground upon which he supported the bill was, that he thought the law of libel as it now stood was in a most unsatisfactory state, and he was ready, therefore, to adopt any measure which afforded a chance of improvement. He could not, however, consent to put an action for slander—for words spoken, and which might be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misrepresented, on the same footing as an action for written libel. The sixth clause of the bill he looked upon as a salutary check on attempts to extort money, or obtain benefits, by threatening to publish libellous and defamatory matter against individuals. There might be some provisions in the bill which might operate with hardship, and, perhaps, mischievously in some cases; but it was so important that the right to speak and publish the truth, as far as actions for libel were concerned, should be unfettered, and that no further limits upon the liberty of the press should be imposed than already existed, that he was willing to support any measure that tended to remove or lessen the present restrictions. With regard to the ninth clause, he was not prepared to say it was the best that could be framed for its object, but it would operate in the right direction, and improve the existing law, and he, therefore, supported it.

Bill passed.