HC Deb 04 July 1861 vol 164 cc306-12

said, he rose to move, pursuant to notice, for a Select Committee to inquire into the best mode of securing authorized or accurate reports of the debates in that House. He had been frequently asked when he intended to bring forward that Motion, but his impression was that it would be better to move it next Session than at so late a period in the present. However, for the sake of calling attention to the subject at once, he would move the Resolution of which he had given notice.


said, that the hon. Member was not in order in moving, as the House had decided that the proposition that Mr. Speaker do now leave the chair should stand part of the question; and no more Amendments could be moved upon it.


said, that he would then merely speak on the subject, and he would do so for the purpose of removing the notice off the paper. He might also take that opportunity of announcing — what some Members of the House would perhaps be happy to hear—that private affairs required him to absent himself for a time from the debates of that House. Perhaps his absence might expedite the progress of business, though he was sure it would not be got through in a better manner because he was not present. He said this because his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland had taken advantage of his absence to pass a most important measure—the County Surveyors (Ireland) Bill—through the House at the unreasonable hour of two o'clock in the morning. As he did not intend to bring forward the Motion again that Session, he thought he was entitled to avail himself of that opportunity to state his reasons for having placed it on the paper. Those reasons were based principally upon the past debates in that House, but as it would be out of order to refer to any of those debates which had taken place during the present Session, and within the immediate recollection of hon. Members—the Member who did so subjecting himself to be called to order—he would not be able to illustrate his meaning by examples of recent occurrence. He totally disapproved of that sort of Draconic law which had been repeatedly enforced upon hon. Members who were not Ministers or ex-Ministers; but, as he was an advocate for impartiality, he should take the liberty of enforcing it himself whenever a Minister of the Crown transgressed it. He might, however, observe that he had been induced to give notice on the subject on the day immediately succeeding the debate with respect to the conduct of the Irish Members, who felt much dissatisfied with the reports of the speeches made on that occasion. To what cause the imperfection of those reports was to be attributed he could not exactly say; but the fact was that a number of gentlemen were permitted to be present at the discussions of the House, whose aim, of course, it was to report in that manner which they thought would best suit the interests of the newspapers which they represented. They accordingly acted upon the principle of reporting the debates precisely and exactly in the way which answered their own objects, and not in the way which suited hon. Members of the House. Now, nobody could be a more strenuous upholder than he was of publicity and freedom of discussion, and he was quite ready to admit that very excellent reports were given of all those hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who happened to be Ministers or ex-Ministers, or expectant Ministers. They, therefore, had no reason to complain, but independent Members had, he believed, every reason to be dissatisfied with the way in which their observations were given—or not given, as it might be—to the world. [Mr. WHITE: No, no!] The hon. Member for Brighton might cry "No, no!" and would probably rise in his place, and by fulsome adulation of the press seek to make political capital at his (Mr. Scully's) expense. The hon. Gentle- man, indeed, might go so far as to say that he was wonderfully well reported; but nobody, he believed, would endorse that statement except a Minister or ex-Minister, or somebody who had interest with the newspapers. For his own part, he believed he had as little grounds for complaint in the matter as other independent Members; and so far as he personally was concerned, he had never found any fault with not being reported. Newspapers were private speculations, and the gentlemen who reported for them discharged their duties in such a way as it was thought would enable the proprietors to sell their property to the best advantage. But, be that as it might, he, at all events, was perfectly satisfied not to be reported. It was, in short, a matter for the conductors of the public journals, individually or collectively, to say whether they would publish what fell from him in that House or not, or whether his speeches would or would not be likely to tell and sell. He had, he might add, no objection to any amount of comment being made on his public conduct, whether that comment assumed the shape of a libel or not; but he must, nevertheless, complain of what had occurred to himself—he would not say that Session, because it would be out of order to refer to recent debates—but in former Sessions, although he was by no means prepared to admit that the same thing did not take place in the present Session also. He did not mind, as he had before observed, not being reported, or being libelled in the columns of the newspapers all over the United Kingdom. It was matter of indifference to him whether he were reported or not: but what he must object to was being misreported, and having his own mouth made the vehicle for turning him into ridicule. Now he had been a reporter himself, and he would undertake to go into the gallery with a pencil in his hand and report the speeches of hon. Members in such a way that they would not be in the least degree satisfied with the version which he would give of them, while yet they could not complain of them in the House without making fools of themselves. A speech occupying twenty minutes in delivery would, if reported fully, occupy a column in a newspaper, and, if the reporter condensed it into ten or twelve lines, inserting "laughter" and "ironical cheers" here and there, it would be easy to make it so appear that the House was laughing rather at than with the speaker.

Indeed, any gentleman accustomed to reporting well knew how to polish up a speech for the occasion. Now, he had little doubt that when his speech of that night was reported—if it were reported at all—it would be made to appear that in speaking as he did he was making merely an individual complaint; but, to repeat something like what he had said before although he did protest against being misreported, he did not care one farthing about being not reported, beyond the general consideration that when an hon. Member was sent to that House at great expense and sacrifice to himself, as well as to his constituents, it was important that they should know what he really did say in the course of the discussion in which he happened to take part. This was a grave constitutional question, and it was of importance that, while the utmost freedom with respect to the publication of the debates in Parliament was allowed, the Commons of England should not for a single moment seem to occupy the position of being slaves of the press; that, while the House of Commons was civil to the press, and the press to the House, and while neither the Third nor the Fourth Estate should be the slave not the master the one of the other, care should be taken that the Members of the former were not misrepresented by the latter. The House owed it to itself to take care that its Debates were not misreported, and were recorded in some authentic or accurate form. For his own part, he was bound to admit that he had, in order to obtain a hearing in that House, found it necessary to indulge sometimes in that sort of strain of observation of which the Prime Minister furnished the most favourable specimen, and to intersperse sensible observations with a little Attic salt. When, in short, he had first commenced to speak in the House he was in the habit of giving expression to nothing but unadulterated common sense, but he found it necessary occasionally, upon certain unpalatable subjects, to have recourse to what might appear playful nonsense, with a view of inducing the House to give him a more patient hearing. Having said thus much, he would, with the permission of hon. Members, read to them a letter which he had received within the last half hour, and which would show the effect which his speeches, as reported, produced upon his fellow-countrymen — an effect which he was happy to think they did not produce in that House. He had, he might observe, been just advised by the hon. Member next him (Mr. Coningham) not to read the letter to which he referred, inasmuch as it was calculated to place him before the House in a somewhat absurd aspect. Well, the gentleman, whoever he was, who had sent him the latter wrote anonymously, and expressed himself to the following effect. [Cries of "Don't read!"] If hon. Members did not wish that he should read the letter, he would not do so; but he thought, nevertheless, that the sacrifice which he was about to make in reading it would be greater than that to which the House would have to submit in listening to it. [Cries of "Go on," and "No, no!" were, no doubt, very tender of his reputation; but, be that as it might, he should, with the permission of the House, give them the contents of the letter. It was dated "Dublin, July 3rd. 1861," and the writer appeared to be familiar enough, for, although he did not sign his name to his communication, he began by addressing him as "My dear Scully." He then went on to say. "Pray do not make such an ass of yourself in the House of Commons. We are all laughing at your absurd speeches over here, and the excuse given for you is that you are not quite right in your head." Now, that document was signed "A True Friend;" but he had yet to learn that the opinion which the writer seemed to have of him was that held by the House of Commons; it most certainly was not the opinion which he entertained of himself. Such, however, was the result of the way in which the press placed hon. Members before the public; and if the view expressed by his correspondent was that which prevailed in Ireland, it could be so only because accurate reports of the discussions in Parliament were not furnished. It had, indeed, been said to him by a gentleman well acquainted with the art of reporting, "that if a stenographic account, word for word, of what is said in the House at night were served up to hon. Members in the morning, it would produce on the speakers a sensation similar to that experienced by the City alderman to whom a counterpart of the various things of which he had partaken at a civic banquet was presented on the following day. He was told that if what they said were to be reported verbatim—word for word—they would all be ashamed of their own speeches. To try the experiment he had taken the trouble to have an exact verbatim report of all he had said on a particular occasion furnished. The result was that, while when he read what was attributed to him in some of the newspapers he was very much disposed to feel ashamed of himself, he found on referring to the stenographic report that he had actually made a better speech even than he imagined. He should, however, say no more on the subject at present, but as it was one which he regarded as being of great importance, he should, if no other hon. Member took it up, deem it, to be his duty to bring it forward on some future occasion.


said, he hoped the House would excuse him if he for one moment invited his hon. and learned Friend to consider whether the speech he had just made was calculated either to enhance his own reputation, or to add to the dignity and character of the House of Commons. He did not wish to say of his hon. and learned Friend anything unkind, with whom he had been in habits of the most agreeable intercourse since he had entered Parliament, and who, he could remember, used at one time to confine himself to making speeches remarkable for their good sense. If the hon. Gentleman were to persevere in that course he might hold himself absolved in future from the necessity of reading such a letter as that which he had just received from one of his countrymen in Dublin. That the hon. Gentleman was about to pay a visit to his constituents in Ireland might, perhaps, be regarded as a subject of congratulation to the House and the country, and it was even not improbable that the House might get on quite as well in his absence as it had done in his presence. The hon. and learned Gentleman had complained that he was not properly reported. He was reported to have spoken no fewer than fifteen times within the last week, and many hon. Members could aver from their own observation that he must have spoken at least as many times more. If other hon. Members were to take the same liberties with the time of the House and the country it would be impossible to pass a single Bill in the course of an ordinary Session. They all knew—many of them had tried the experiment upon their constituents—that if they were ill-advised enough they could make quite as long and quite as unnecessary speeches as some hon. Gentlemen were in the habit of delivering, and if they were not restrained by a feeling of respect to the House, and by a feeling of regard for their own position, the whole of every Session would be wasted in idle talk. He recollected that on one occasion the hon. and learned Member for Cork had occupied an entire sitting with the beginning of a speech. Upon that occasion he spoke for six hours, and at the end of the sitting he had got no further than the commencement of his subject. He would not follow the example he deprecated, and, therefore, he would conclude by expressing a hope that the House would, with a view to its own dignity, and for the advantage of its proceedings, curb with a strong hand the great and growing evil of too much speaking.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.