HC Deb 11 May 1855 vol 138 cc441-53

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment proposed to be made to Question [7th May], "That the Bill be now read the third time," and which Amendment was to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."

Question again proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

Debate resumed.


said, that he could not allow the House to go to a division on this Motion without entering his protest against this Bill, which he considered was as unfair, unequal, and unjust a measure, as regarded taxation, as had ever been proposed to the House of Commons. One portion of this Bill provided for the transmission of periodical publications by post; but there was no occasion for any such provision, as, under the present law, newspapers circulated alike in town and country on the payment of the stamp. The present measure would give to the metropolis, and the large towns throughout the kingdom, newspapers free of expense; but what would be its effect in the agricultural districts? Hon. Members were aware that newspapers were sent forth every morning at six o'clock by means of the railways—they could not go by post—they would continue to be so sent, and all persons in the metropolis and large towns would receive their commercial intelligence free of any charge of duty; but The Mark Lane Express and other agricultural papers could not be so conveyed to the rural districts, which would therefore be taxed while the towns were free. At present, every man who took in a paper, paid his portion towards the revenue. To this he did not object; but he protested against this measure, which was brought forward to benefit one class at the expense of another. They had seen, from the budget of the Chancellor of the "Exchequer, that there would be a loss to the revenue on this measure of a quarter of a million; and what would be the effect of this on the towns? It had been found necessary to levy an additional tax on tea, sugar, and coffee. The large towns would get an equivalent for that tax in the abolition of the newspaper stamp; but the rural districts would have to pay the additional tax on these necessary articles of consumption without any equivalent whatever. Looking at this as a matter of revenue, he thought it unworthy of the House to pass a measure which would operate so unfairly on one body of the community as this Bill undoubtedly would. On these grounds he should feel it his duty to vote for the rejection of the Bill.


said, he had hitherto refrained from saying anything on this measure, because he had a direct personal interest in it; but the question was now no longer one of personal interest to him after the decisions which had been come to, and he had no feelings of delicacy as to speaking on it. He was anxious to make a few observations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in order to cause him to reconsider a proposition which would stand as a barrier against the complete success of his measure. He understood that the principle on which the right hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Milner Gibson) had pushed this measure before the House, and the principle on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his colleagues had proceeded, was from a desire to give to the public the largest amount of political intelligence through the best channels, and not to benefit individual newspaper proprietors, but to give the largest amount of advantage to the public. He went entirely with the Government and the right hon. Gentleman on this question. A proposition had been put before the House for the introduction of a copyright clause, but this had been withdrawn on account of strong expressions of disapproval from all sides of the House. One newspaper, he believed, asked for a copyright for a certain number of hours, in order to protect itself from the piracy of other journals, and especially of the cheap newspapers. The House was against this proposal, and, had it been put as a substantive amendment, he should have voted against it, no matter how great might be the inconvenience to one newspaper of the refusal of such a copyright. He considered that the adoption of such a restrictive law would have been the means of injuring not only the London evening papers, but the papers in all parts of the kingdom, for they would have been dwarfed into mere insignificance, as they would only have contained local news and the stalest foreign intelligence. One journal had been aimed at by this Bill—he was sorry to say this of any measure promoted by the right hon. Member for Manchester—but it was his belief that the Government had aimed at one journal. He was in the, perhaps, unenviable position of a provincial newspaper proprietor, and he knew the value to the provincial newspapers of the London journals, especially of—he did not wish to say it invidiously—the foremost journal of the day. The London newspapers furnished the country papers with the most important foreign intelligence which they obtained at a great expense from all parts of the world. They derived from all sources information which was valuable to every class in society, and especially to the Government itself, whose despatches were often anticipated by the energy, vigour, and enterprise of the London press. He would not stop to ask whether the denial of that protection which was originally proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself was a denial of justice; he certainly thought it went to the very verge of injustice. Still, so great, in his opinion, would have been the inconvenience to the public press and to the public generally, had a copyright been established, that he thought the House was wise in coming to the determination not to adopt the copyright clauses. No doubt, it was perfectly right to resist that proposition; but when the House refused to recognise a copyright to the journals, and particularly The Times, what by that very denial were they at the same time doing? They immediately offered up The Times as a prey to a set of adventurous speculators, by removing the barrier from their path, and enabling them to start cheap publications filled with news pirated from the columns of that journal, and circulated within a few hours after the issuing of that paper, by the plundering of which they would contrive to live and prosper. If it was right, as a matter of public benefit, and with a view to give a bonus, as it were, to the starting of cheap newspapers, to inflict this injury upon the morning journals, and especially upon The Times, still they ought not to do anything that would injure that journal which the paramount interest of the public did not demand. But the limitation of a right of transmission by post, at a charge of 1d., to the weight of four ounces, was in direct violation of the very principle which they were endeavouring to carry out. Now, with respect to The Times newspaper, against which this enactment was most unquestionably aimed, he had no hesitation in saying that he entertained a strong personal feeling against that journal; nevertheless, he was in common honesty bound to admit that The Times gave the public a larger amount of intelligence than any other journal in the world; that there was no journal so eagerly sought after, nor any that exercised so influential a control over the public mind. In arguing this question as a matter of policy he would submit to the House that the extra tax which would be imposed on The Times was calculated to be ultimately highly detrimental to the public interest, because The Times newspaper derived no profit upon the supplement; it did not demand any additional price for that portion of the paper. If an extra charge were made for the supplement, The Times would then have no peculiar claim upon the consideration of the House. But it was well known that the publication of a supplement was pecuniarily injurious to The Times, while it was highly beneficial to the public. By the publication of a supplement The Times was able to give to the public in the principal sheet itself a larger amount of general intelligence, of foreign news, of Parliamentary debate and of local information than it otherwise could do. But, supposing the advertisements were printed in the ordinary sheet, the important intelligence that would otherwise appear would be compressed and the paper itself, in proportion, deteriorated. It was a necessary consequence, therefore, that the public generally were immediately benefited by the publication of a supplement. But there were peculiar interests to which the publication of a supplement was of essential importance. The commercial public particularly required the intelligence which the supplement conveyed. This consideration reminded him of a point to which he begged to call the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. A Bill was introduced into Parliament, with the universal sanction of the nation, to do away with the advertisement duty. Was that measure adopted for the benefit of newspaper proprietors? Certainly not. It was for the benefit of the commercial public. Why, then, if you would act on the same prin- ciple throughout, would you place a restriction on the circulation of the journal containing those advertisements, such circulation being of the utmost importance to the advertising, and therefore to the commercial public? His own feelings with respect to The Times was one of hostility; he had often cursed that journal; he believed that many Irish gentlemen had at different times expressed the strongest feeling of opposition to that paper on account of the course it had pursued with regard to Ireland; but he was, nevertheless, bound to say that no journal in Europe had ever done more service to the public interest than The Times had done. He admitted that it was rather in disfavour with the treasury benches whatever the Government might happen to be—whether presided over by Lord Derby, Lord Aberdeen, or the noble Lord now at the head of the Treasury. The Times lashed with terrible severity all kinds of humbug. It exposed abuses, and often by its timely interposition and censure stopped disreputable jobs, which the Minister of the day would have been too ready to have sanctioned. All this, no doubt, gave grave offence to the Administration for the time being, but that was no reason why that journal should be marked out as an object of oppression. A comparison had been made between the transmission of a newspaper and of a letter; but it was the idlest thing in the world to attempt to institute any such comparison. A letter was merely a communication from one private individual to another private individual, and concerning themselves only; but the transmission of a newspaper by post was an act by which matter of the greatest public utility was communicated to the whole world. He would not then, on public grounds, say to The Times, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer did, "You shall not transmit your paper by the post on equal terms because you give a larger amount of intelligence than any other paper does." But such was the principle of this measure. It gave a preference to the journal which employed inferior talent and embarked less capital in its management. It was, in fact, imposing a penalty on industry, energy, and intellect. It placed an unjust restrain upon the enterprise of talent, and, commercially speaking, it exacted the heaviest duty from the very best article. But the whole evil of this partial spirit of legislation did not rest there. It was not only saying to The Times newspaper, "Because you, by the great efforts you have made, have placed yourselves in the foremost rank, we will therefore impose an extra tax upon you," but it was saying to all the other London journals, to The Herald, The Post, The Chronicle, The Daily News, and The Advertiser, "if you imitate the activity and energy of The Times, and raise as much capital, and increase your circulation to the same extent as that journal, and if in consequence you are obliged to extend your space and increase your bulk, the moment you do so you must submit to be additionally taxed." A more unfair or unjust principle he could not conceive, and he really could not understand how such a principle could be acted upon by the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite (Mr. M. Gibson and Mr. Bright) who were the professed advocates of the utmost freedom in all commercial transactions. He would ask, in all fairness, what was the object in imposing this restriction on a paper which was of the utmost value to the whole empire? He had heard of no reason, unless it was that it would be inconvenient to the Post Office. Now he did not think it would be. What inconvenience would there be in carrying a weight of six ounces instead of a weight of four ounces? It was true there was a difference of two ounces, but what reason was there to restrict the weight to four ounces? If to four, why not restrict it to two, or to three, or three and a half? He could only imagine one reason for assigning the specific weight to four ounces. All other papers came within that weight—The Times only exceeded it. But why this hostility to The Times? The truth was, that The Times newspaper, from its boldness, its vigour, and some said, its audacity, was marked out as an object of indignation by all classes in that House. But was it possible that the two hon. Gentlemen the Members for Manchester could seriously advocate this unjust restriction? Suppose The Manchester Examiner, an admirable journal, and, what was more, one which had great success, should ultimately attain to the circulation and the size of The Times, would those hon. Gentlemen say that the provincial proprietors of that paper ought not to have the benefit of postal transmission? Why not as well as the journal that weighed a quarter of an ounce, or one, two, three, or four ounces? After reviewing the whole matter, he could not help feeling that this was a most un- just attack upon one particular journal; and he attributed that attack to the circumstance that that paper was considered dangerous. That it often exercised a power dangerous to the Government of the day could not be denied, but it was equally true that it at the same time did great good to the public. If The Times in years gone by had done wrong, it had since done one great and important service which would wipe out all its faults. The noble Lord at the head of the Government spoke of certain reforms having recently taken place in the army; but he (Mr. Maguire) would ask whether those reforms were owing to those hon. Members who were occupying the Treasury benches, or to the remonstrances of The Times? He believed that The Times had done more towards the salvation of the British army in the Crimea than any Government could have done. It had shown how much that army had suffered, and how men filling public offices were incompetent to discharge the duties required of them. It had done more—it had evoked the strongest manifestation of public sympathy for those men who had shown themselves greater heroes in the hour of suffering and of patient endurance than in the hour of the bloodiest conflict. If The Times had only done that, it ought to have been treated with liberality, and in a spirit of generosity, rather than have been made an exception in a fiscal arrangement by which it became subjected to an extra and unjust tax. As to the limitation of the period of retransmission to a fortnight, in his opinion a month should be the smallest limit. Very few newspaper proprietors had any personal interest in the question, though some postmasters might take advantage of the provision to annoy them. But that was a very minor consideration. It was the interest of the poorer classes, which demanded an extension of time. The hon. Member for Manchester, who unfortunately for his own credit, was anxious for the limitation, might glance over a newspaper and gather the contents of it in an hour. Some gentlemen with more rapid eyes and more comprehensive research might do it in half an hour; but the poor man who purchased a newspaper might only be able to read a portion of it one night and another portion the next, and so on, till the whole limit of time was consumed; and because he had less capacity and less leisure without trenching on the important duties due to his employer and his family, he was to be subjected to a penalty in having to pay another penny for postage. Such a provision was neither generous nor fair, and he hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would not insist upon retaining it. Upon the other question he would only remark, in conclusion, that if it were intended to make the press free for the benefit of the public, they should give the public every possible advantage, and, conscious as he was of the value of that organ, of which the country had every reason to be proud, he did say it was not right to make the industry of that journal penal, and to mark it out for the vengeance of Ministers, who either were incapable or suspected themselves to be so.


said, he agreed with much that had fallen from the hon. Gentleman who had spoken in opposition to the Bill, but he objected to making it a personal question. As a Member of the Committee appointed to consider the removal of the stamp and advertisement duty, he agreed with those who held that great advantage would arise to the community from the freest possible communication between the press and the public. Still he could not consider that it was necessary to give to the newspaper press any particular monopoly. He would carry out the principle of free trade in newspapers as in everything else, for it did not appear to him that newspaper proprietors required such a monopoly. He thought he was well advised, when he said that a newspaper would cost three times as much as a letter in its carriage. A newspaper weighed four ounces at least, while an ordinary letter weighed only half an ounce, and the House was now called upon to allow four ounces to pass through the post eight or ten times while an ordinary half-ounce letter could pass only once. He did not for a moment believe that the press would call upon the House to do such an act of injustice, inasmuch as newspaper proprietors had the privilege of one transmission for a penny, which was quite as much as they required. He must protest against the statement that newspaper proprietors required any such privilege.


contended that injustice was, by this measure, inflicted on provincial newspapers, because, while they were of less weight and passed through the Post Office less frequently than the London papers, they would have to pay the same for transmission. He believed the Post Office could carry all newspapers at a profit for a halfpenny, and that if they did not do so, private enterprise would take the circulation of papers, especially those in the provinces, entirely out of their hands. On behalf of the general tax-payers of the country, he objected to any extraordinary privilege as to weight being granted to any newspaper of any description, and, considering the measure as unfair and unjust, he should certainly vote against the third reading.


thought it a very unusual course for Gentlemen to object to the third reading of a Bill, every point of which had been thoroughly discussed and investigated, and on the principle of which they themselves had voted. As he understood the objection, it was this—they objected to the third reading of this Bill, because they thought a particular newspaper was about to be injured by it. He liked that little persons should be considered by that House. He did not like that persons of great importance, weight, and authority, should alone be considered by them, and, as he understood it, this was a question (he would not shrink from saying it) between The Times newspaper and the House of Commons. He thought they were bound to meet this question. He understood that those who objected to the third reading of this Bill, did so, because they thought that there was to be an additional stamp to enable newspapers beyond a certain weight to pass through the Post Office. This, then, was a discussion between a particular newspaper and an important measure, and he should state why he would vote for the third reading of the Bill. He believed it was unusual to oppose a Bill on the third reading. [Cries of "No."] It was true that in late times such things had happened, but it was not very customary to oppose the third reading after there had been a full discussion on the previous stages. He contended, the postal arrangement now proposed was not unjust as far as the particular newspaper was concerned when it published a supplement, because that supplement earned to the parties circulating it a considerable sum of money. If he had stated correctly the ground on which the opposition to this Bill was based, he could not encourage such a course of argument; and he should vote for the third reading of the Bill.


could not but regard, among the various objections to this Bill, the manner in which it had originated. He did not believe that it was a spontaneous act on the part of the Government, for if it were possible to take the individual opinion of a large number of the Members of the Government, and of those hon. Members who usually supported them, he believed the Bill would be rejected by a considerable majority of the House. The measure originated not in the pressure from without, but in the pressure below the gangway. It originated in the ability, eloquence, and perseverance of his right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester (Mr. Milner Gibson) who had applied the "screw" to the last Chancellor of the Exchequer, and had compelled his successor, who was similarly circumstanced, to yield to the same powerful pressure. No advocate of the character of the press of this country could support this measure. He had never yet heard it argued that the press, able and enlightened as it was, was not in want of some check and safeguard against the ebullitions of party and personal feeling. Nothing could be more injurious to the character of the press, or of the public whom it served, than to take away the restrictions that had prevented not the liberty, but the licence of the press, and the want of which would cause the country to be inundated with publications that would not only lead to the destruction of the character of the press, but would be attended by the most mischievous results in all large and populous communities.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 138; Noes 60: Majority 78.

Main Question put and agreed to:—Bill read 3o.


, in the absence of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Enniskillen (Mr. Whiteside), then moved that the following clause be added to the Bill:— Every periodical publication that shall be printed and published at intervals not exceeding seven days between the two consecutive parts or numbers of such publication, and the weight of which shall not on the whole exceed six ounces, shall be entitled to the said privileges of transmission and retransmission by the post, if duly stamped with the appropriate die of one penny.

Clause brought up and read 1o.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the said Clause be now read a second time."


said, it was substantially identical with a clause which had been moved by his hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Milnes), and had been fully considered by the House, and negatived by a large majority. One alteration, however, had been made by the hon. and learned Gentleman who had framed the present clause, the effect of which was to render it more complex and more difficult to work. It was proposed by his hon. Friend in Committee that a limit of superficial inches should be taken according to the existing law, whereas it was now proposed to substitute the limit of weight for that of superficial inches. The effect of such a provision would be, that up to six ounces the Post Office would have to determine by weight, while beyond six ounces it would have to ascertain the measure of superficial inches with respect to all periodicals published at intervals of less than seven days. With regard to those published at greater intervals, the existing law as to superficial inches would apply both to periodicals of greater and of less weight than six ounces. Such was the state of the law which would be the result of this clause. The House would hardly expect him again to go over ground which had been so fully examined upon previous nights, and he would only state that his proposal, by the present Bill, was to leave the existing law unchanged with the single exception of making the stamp upon newspapers optional instead of compulsory. The only change which this measure would produce would be in favour of newspapers publishing a supplement. One of the principal arguments used in support of an increase in the limit of weight was that hardship was at present inflicted upon newspapers publishing a supplement, inasmuch as they did not make an additional charge to their customers, whereas they were obliged to pay a halfpenny stamp for it. When this Bill became law, a newspaper would pay the stamp upon its supplement only for that portion of the impression which was circulated through the post. The whole of that portion of its impression which was distributed in the place where it was published would be free from the stamp duty; there would be no compulsory stamp upon it, and, therefore, it would not be subject to that disadvantage which was at present found to constitute the chief element of its loss. Thus the operation of the measure would be favourable, not detrimental, to newspapers publishing a supplement. In other respects the present law was left wholly unchanged, and it would be in the power of parliament at any future time, if they should think that newspapers did not enjoy sufficient privileges and advantages by that law to increase their privileges and advantages. But he hoped it would not escape the attention of the House that at present the privileges enjoyed by newspapers were large, beyond what they could reasonably expect, compared with those of letters and other printed matter conveyed through the post.


said, the effect of the Bill, as he understood it, was to expose the public to the great inconvenience of not being able to send The Times in the way they had hitherto been accustomed to send it, by post. It had become so much the habit of the people of this country to take in The Times newspaper, and after they had read it, to send it to their friends in the country, that anything which would restrict their right to do so would be a serious interference with public convenience. He believed that the weight of The Times averaged 4½ ounces, and he wished to know if he was right in supposing that after the passing of this Bill, he was not to have the privilege of sending it to a friend in the country without paying for an extra stamp.


said, that the present Bill made on alteration with respect to the limit of superficial inches which had hitherto been permitted to be conveyed in the first instance for 1d., and afterwards for a halfpenny. It imposed no limit whatever as to weight.


thought the explanation was not sufficiently distinct. The public knew nothing about superficial inches, what they knew was—The Times newspaper. There was now no such thing as a supplement, for the advertisement sheet, containing the births, deaths, and marriages, taken together with the other sheets, constituted one newspaper. He thought it important that the House should know whether, after the Bill passed, they would be able to send The Times newspaper by post with as much freedom as at present. ("Yes.") Then what was the limit as to weight? ("There is none.") If The Times would still go by post for a penny stamp, there could be no necessity for pressing this clause, because he understood the object of his hon. Friend to be to fix a limit of six ounces, in order that The Times—which after all, was the paper of the country—might go free without any further restriction than existed at present. If the Government gave their assurance that that was the meaning of the Bill, then he for one would raise no further objection to it. The real question for consideration was not a question with regard to any particular newspaper, but a question of public convenience. If the House once interfered with the freedom of transmitting a newspaper, they would interfere with the daily enjoyment of large classes of the people, and he, therefore, trusted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was quite right in the understanding he had given that the transmission of newspapers would be as free as at present.


thought that, after the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, his hon. Friend would act wisely in not pressing his clause. He wished, however, to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he was willing to consent to an extension of the period for retransmitting newspapers through the post? The ostensible object of the Bill was to extend the circulation of news, but if the limit at present proposed to the retransmission of newspapers were not extended, the circulation of news would be considerably curtailed.


remarked, that the power of retransmission was no advantage to the newspaper proprietor, but was a great advantage to the public.


was not present when his hon. Friend brought forward his clause, but it occurred to him that it was a reasonable proposition, because otherwise an additional tax might be placed upon the circulation of advertisements, and it was of great importance to the community generally that every facility should be given to the circulation of advertisements. As, however, the feelings of the House was in favour of the Bill as it now stood, he thought his hon. Friend would not feel inclined to press the clause.

Question put and negatived:—Amendment made; Bill passed.