§ MR. MILNER GIBSON
said, he rose to call attention to the state of the Law respecting the securities which are required from the proprietors of newspapers and certain other publications, and to ask Mr. Attorney General, in reference to the proceedings which have recently been instituted against certain newspaper proprietors for non-compliance with the Security Laws, whether it is intended to enforce the security system upon all publications to which the security statutes apply? When the newspaper stamp was abolished the provisions of the law relative to newspaper and periodical publications were left unchanged. His right hon. Friend (Mr. Gladstone), when he proposed to abolish the compulsory stamp on newspapers, at the same time proposed to repeal all other provisions of the law which were considered to be connected with the newspaper stamp, and which had been enforced whenever the stamp was enforced. But his successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, though he put an end to the compulsory stamp, left unrepealed these other provisions of the law in reference to newspapers and periodical publications. Great inconvenience had thereby arisen. Since the newspaper stamp was abolished, his hon. and learned friend (Mr. Ayrton) had twice brought under the consideration of the House the necessity of repealing those regulations which were considered to be connected with the system of newspaper stamps. He twice induced the House to pass a Bill repealing altogether what was called the security system, and the other provisions affecting newspapers and periodical publications. But though the House unanimously passed those Bills, they were rejected in the other House of Parliament. He (Mr. M. Gibson), was now induced to bring the subject under the consideration of the present Government, because he believed the Members of the Government were disposed to entertain the question, and he thought they had sufficient influence with the other House of Parliament to get those provisions repealed. What was the state of the law with regard to the security system? The law was contained in 60 Geo. III. c. 9, which went by the name of one of the Six Acts, and was passed during the time of Lord Liverpool's Administration. It was directed mainly against the periodical publications of that 1077 day, which, whether newspapers or not newspapers, were very often of a seditious, sometimes of a blasphemous character, and frequently contained serious libels. The leading provision of the law was this. That the proprietor of every paper of a less price than 6d., and less than 714 square inches in size, should find bondsmen and enter into his own recognizance as security against the publication of blasphemy and sedition. Any paper that was not less than 6d., and not less than 714 square inches in size, might contain any quantity of blasphemy and sedition without being liable to give security that such offences would not be contained therein. This condition with regard to price and size showed that the object of the law of 60 Geo. III. was to restrain small and cheap publications, not to interfere with publications of a high price or of a large size, which might be supposed to circulate among the higher classes of society who would not be supposed to take an interest in seditious or blasphemous publications. He thought it was Mr. Canning who, when the Bill was in the Commons, said—Let the blasphemer screw up his courage and charge 6d., and print his matter upon at least 714 square inches, and then he may go free.But this law, though it applied to newspapers and periodical publications, applied also to pamphlets. The words of the Act were not limited to newspapers. They were applicable to every description of periodical or non-periodical publications—to publications, in fact, which contained, to use the words of the Act, "remarks on affairs in Church and State." This was a peculiar state of law, considering the present condition of the press, and the policy which Parliament had recently adopted in encouraging cheap publications, and in pursuing the very opposite course to that which was pursued in the time of Geo. III. This Act was afterwards extended by 1 Will. IV. c. 73, to cases of private libel, and the amount of the securities was increased. He had frequently said that this was an Act which no Government had the courage to enforce, the grace to repeal, or—he was sorry to say—the good sense to leave entirely in abeyance. There were now going on some prosecutions which were the cause of his now calling the special attention of the Government to the subject. The practice of the Board of Inland Revenue, which was the department intrusted with the enforcement of 1078 this law, was formerly not to enforce those securities against any paper that was not liable to the stamp duty. That was the view of the law which they chose to take, not, as he conceived, in accordance with the words of the statute; but they contended that no paper not liable to the stamp duty was liable to give securities, and the idea prevailed among the public that the stamp duty being repealed the security had become a dead letter. He thought the Board of Inland Revenue was a very improper department — if these laws were to be enforced—to be intrusted with their enforcement. The Board of Inland Revenue was a department for the collection of taxes. It had nothing to do with protecting the morals of the country against improper publications. It had nothing to do with enforcing securities against sedition or libel. The Government, in holding it to be incumbent on the Board of Inland Revenue to enforce the law now that there was no question of revenue in the matter, were imposing on that Board duties which were not germane in any way to their office. If these securities were to be enforced they should be under the control of the Home Office, or some Department of the State, to whom might more immediately be intrusted the care, if they were to be intrusted at all, of the morals of the country. The Board had now — no doubt acting under the advice of the Law Officers of the Crown — decided that though the stamp duty had been abolished it was their duty to enforce this security upon small publications. In the mode in which they were enforcing those securities, they had set up a doctrine of their own. They had not the courage to carry out the statute of George III. They said they would only enforce the securities against such papers as would have been subject to the stamp duty if the duty had been allowed to remain — such papers as would have been considered newspapers under the old system of a compulsory stamp. In doing this they involved themselves in the precise difficulty which was the main cause of the repeal of the stamp duty—namely, the definition of what was a newspaper. The difficulty of enforcing the stamp against the numerous unstamped publications was in defining what really constituted a newspaper — what, in fact, was the taxable article news. If they laid down the doctrine that they would enforce these securities only against those papers that 1079 would have been liable to the stamp duty if it existed, they created a difficulty precisely like that which existed when the stamp duty was in force. If they had not the courage to enforce the 60 Geo. III. against all the publications to which it was intended to apply it would be much better to repeal it, and enact such a law as they would be prepared to enforce. He did not make these observations in any spirit of hostility to the Board of Inland Revenue, nor did he complain in the least of the mode in which they had endeavoured, to the best of their ability — under the advice, no doubt, of the Law Officers of the Crown—to enforce the existing law. He thought they had shown great leniency. The tendency had rather been to avoid its enforcement. They had been driven to act in many instances, no doubt, by the private information of persons complaining of unfair competition — persons who said they had entered into securities, while neighbours carrying on precisely the same kind of business had not been required to give such securities. There was a law which required that all newspapers should be registered. He had no objection to registration. He thought that all periodical publications—he objected to the term "newspaper," because it was so difficult to define—should be required to register the proprietorship, and the names of the publisher and printer, in order that it might be known where persons might resort for redress in cases of libel. But the security system defeated the system of registration. He had lately perused a very good letter of a Mr. Algar on this point. He said he thought it quite necessary that a declaration should be made of the name and address of the proprietor, printer, and publisher, of newspapers, and that they should be duly registered as a protection to themselves and the public, but that the offensive law of security should be repealed. He (Mr. Milner Gibson) thought that he had put the case very well. But Mr. Algar said that with regard to the system of securities he had received some communications from Somerset House asking for information as to whether there had been any change in the imprint of his paper requiring notice to be given under the Act of Parliament. He added that the law being considered almost a dead letter, many newspaper proprietors had not considered it necessary to go through the demeaning ordeal of finding two householders to become bound to the Queen in the 1080 penalty of some hundreds of pounds that they would not commit an indictable offence in carrying on their business. The Act of the 60 Geo. III. was founded on the principle that the publishers of cheap periodicals were the natural enemies of religion, peace, and good order, and therefore that it was necessary to take security against their operations. But the policy of the country had entirely changed since the day when that Act was passed, and instead of the cheap press being considered as the natural enemy of peace and good order, it was now considered the diffuser of intelligence, and the supporter of law, order, and religion. He should like to ask the Attorney General whether he thought that this law, being upon the statute book, should not be enforced. If he thought it should be enforced, how was it that the dispensing power had been exercised in reference to such a large numbere of publications? Prosecutions had lately been commenced against a small paper called the East London Observer. This paper had been in existence for ten years, and had never given securities. It was non-political paper, perfectly harmless, but it was now proceeded against for penalties amounting to £240, for not having been registered, and giving securities under 60 Geo. III. The proprietor had informed him that he had not the slightest objection to register, but what he objected to was to find somebody to be responsible for his acts. He said that he never had committed any act to render it necessary that securities should be taken for his keeping the peace. Therefore, he had declined to register his paper. He (Mr. Milner Gibson) had been in communication with the Secretary of the Inland Revenue Department, and had asked him to suspend the proceedings until there had been an opportunity of communicating with the Government. He had also been in communication with the late Home Secretary (Mr. Walpole), and from what he said, he conceived he was ready to give a favourable consideration to the alteration of the law. He understood that since then warnings had been given to other papers, and among them the Owl. He considered that the Owl was not a newspaper in the full sense of the word. It contained articles of news no doubt, but it required a wide construction of the Act to bring it within the term newspaper. Its price was 6d., and therefore its price was not within the statute, but it was printed 1081 upon less than 714 square inches. No paper was required to give security that would not previously to the statute have been liable to stamp duty. Therefore he thought it extremely doubtful whether the Owl could be legally warned. Then there was an organ of the working classes, the Beehive, and the proprietor of this paper had been warned to enter into securities. This paper was larger than 714 square inches, but then its price was less than 6d. No doubt it was a newspaper, and would have been liable to stamp duty. Another paper which had been warned was the Hornsey Hornet. It was formerly a monthly paper, but had lately come out once a fortnight, and because it came out once a fortnight instead of once a month, it was considered that it ought to give securities against the publication of seditious and blasphemous matter. This was a very absurd state of things. He did not bring this matter forward with any desire to embarrass, but rather to suggest to the Government that they should seriously undertake to legislate upon the subject, so as to put the newspaper press upon a satisfactory and proper footing. They might bring forward a measure which would be satisfactory to the country and to the press. There should be registration with moderate penalties, if the law was not complied with, to secure redress in cases of libel. The present state of the law was such that it would not be complied with, and there was no Government which had the courage to enforce it. What would be the effect if the publisher of every small pamphlet less than 6d. in price were called upon to enter into securities that he would not publish blasphemy and sedition. He should like to know why there had been this limited application of the law. He recollected that when the Secretary to the Board of Inland Revenue was examined before the Committee on the newspaper stamp law and the operation of the security system, he (Mr. Milner Gibson) asked him what had been the course of practice with regard to small and cheap publications issued at frequent intervals, which contained essays on political subjects, but which were not newspapers. His answer was that there had been very little practice at all with regard to that class of publications. It would, however, have been more true if he had said that there had been no practice at all, for this reason, that the country would not have submitted to it. Further, he believed 1082 that there was no Government organization that would have been capable of carrying it into effect. His object was simply to obtain information, and to appeal to the Government to lose no time in bringing in a Bill to put a stop to these vexatious prosecutions, which did not at all correspond with the spirit of the times in which we lived. He hoped that in the meantime the Government would allow the prosecutions which had been commenced to stand over until Parliament had an opportunity of considering what changes were required in the law. He believed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and every Member of the Government who were present concurred in the abolition of these securities. He called upon the Government to act upon the principle that the publisher of a newspaper was not to be considered hostile to society, and a person against whom it was necessary to take precautions that were not considered necessary against a person carrying on any other business. He asked the Attorney General whether he could give any information as to the principle upon which the Government was endeavouring to carry into effect this law; and whether it was the intention of the Government to enforce the law against all publications to which the statute applied?
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, it was not his intention to follow the right hon. Gentleman through an examination of the history of the Hornsey Hornet, or the East London Observer, or the West London Owl. He was not equal to the task. Nor did he consider it his duty to vindicate the policy of Lord Liverpool or Lord Castlereagh, as to the regulations to be enforced in regard to the press, or as from the libel law the—Good old time when George the Third was King,down to the present happy reign of Her Majesty. During all this time the law of which the right hon. Gentleman complained had been in force, and during the whole of the time no effort had been made to interfere with it. [Mr. MILNER GIBSON: It has not been enforced. He would come to that presently. The law had been allowed to remain all that time in its present state. He should like the House to understand what was the law to which the observations of the right hon. Gentleman applied. If he had listened to the right hon. Gentleman without having previously looked into the matter he should have 1083 thought that he was attacking an Attorney General for libel prosecutions and ex officio informations, or something which had been quite unheard of during the time that recent administrations had been in power. It had surprised him to listen to the statements made. The 60 Geo. III. was in substance to this effect—that the printer and publisher of newspapers and other pamphlets should find security to meet, among other things, the fines payable in the case of convictions for libel. Recognizances were required to be given, and certain penalties were to be inflicted if they were not given. That was one statute. There was another Act of which he understood the right hon. Gentleman entirely approved — namely, the 6 & 7 Will. IV., for the registration of newspapers. Under that, before printing and publishing any newspaper a declaration had to be made of the title, the place of printing or publishing, and the name and residence of the printer, publisher, and proprietor. There were also penalties for not attending to those provisions. Such, then, was the law. He did not intend to vindicate its policy, further than to say that he thought it a wise and just law which ought to be maintained. The right hon. Gentleman asked what had been done by the Government in enforcing those Acts? He had inquired, like the right hon. Gentleman, at the Inland Revenue Department, and had found that the course now adopted by that Department was the same as it had always adopted. Certainly it had not acted upon any new instructions from the present Government. Whatever had been done had been done by direction of the former Government. He knew not whether the opinion of the Law Officers of the late Government had been taken upon the matter. But certainty the opinion of those of the present Government had not, and no new instructions had been issued by that Government. The course pursued by the Board of Inland Revenue had been this:—They never stirred till their attention was called by some of the public to a breach of the law in certain particulars. The duty had been imposed on them of seeing that the law was enforced in those particulars. When information was laid before them they acted on that information. The way in which they acted was—certainly in respect to the prosecutions now in force it had been—to write to the parties and ask them for explanations. That took some months—so long a time, 1084 in fact, that he was strongly under the impression that these matters had been regulated before the present Government came into office. When it was at last found that the parties deliberately refused to obey the law, then reluctantly, and without favour or affection, proceedings were taken to enforce the law. As far as he could learn, there had been only two prosecutions recently commenced. One of them was against the East London Observer, to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred. No doubt it was under the Act of the 60 Geo. III., because the persons concerned declined to enter into the recognizances required by that statute to meet any fines or penalties which might be laid on them in the case of their conviction for libel. They had refused to attend to the notice sent to them. They refused even to notice the letters sent. This lasted for months. At last the Department felt bound to do its duty. The other prosecution had been instituted against a newspaper which had declined to register itself, and had incurred the penalties for non-registration. As that was a case of the breach of a law of which the right hon. Gentleman himself approved, he apprehended that that prosecution would receive the right hon. Gentleman's entire approval.
§ MR. MILNER GIBSON
said, that what the party objected to was to being required, in addition to giving his own security, to find some other person also to give security for him.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, the one prosecution was for the non-observance of the 6 & 7 Will. IV., and the other was founded on the 60 Geo. III. But whatever had been done had really been done in consequence of the Acts or the neglect of former Governments. It was impossible that he should undertake to deal with the subject in the present Session. That was quite out of the question. The right hon. Gentleman asked why should not the law be enforced if it existed. He answered that it was enforced wherever information of its breach was laid before the department intrusted with that duty. The matter was inquired into, and everything done to prevent a prosecution, if the parties were willing to come to any terms or showed any disposition to obey the law. The right hon. Gentleman asked why something had not been done to amend that law; but he really thought he was entitled to ask the right hon. Gentleman 1085 the same question. As far as he was personally concerned, he felt no shame in acknowledging that his attention had really never been directed to that subject until he saw the right hon. Gentleman's Notice on the Paper. The right hon. Gentleman having brought it forward it would receive their attention. But when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had intimated that nothing short of the exigencies of the State would be allowed to interfere with the progress of the great measure now before Parliament, there was, he thought, not much chance for the Law Officers or any other Member of the Government who might undertake to deal with any such subject as that in the present Session. Nor could he undertake to deal with it in any future Session. He gathered from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that a measure of that kind had twice been carried through that House, but had twice also failed to pass the House of Lords. It was quite clear therefore that any legislation of that description would require much consideration. It might, or might not, be desirable—he did not say that it was—that some such security other than that which now existed as to mere registration should be taken from the press. But the question was not one which the right hon. Gentleman could expect to place on the paper at the beginning of the week, and then call on the Government at the end of the week to bring in a Bill for settling it. As far as he was concerned, he could not undertake to introduce such a measure.
§ MR. AYRTON
said, he was sorry that some more specific answer had not been given to the question put by his right hon. Friend as to the course which the Attorney General had pursued with reference to the proceedings now carried on by the Stamp Office against certain newspapers. Nothing could be more unsatisfactory than the steps which were being taken. That House had twice unanimously approved a measure on that subject which he had himself introduced, condemning the present state of the law and applying a remedy to it, but the other House had not given it their sanction. On the first occasion he had found it difficult, as everybody did, to get a Member of the other House to take up a Bill requiring some intelligent effort on his part to pass it. At last he succeeded in that, but it was then rather late in the Session, and that fact was made a reason for not carrying the Bill through. That measure was considered by 1086 the Government of Lord Derby in 1859, and passed the House with their entire assent. The matter, therefore, was not at all new for the present Administration. On the other occasion when his Bill passed that House, there had been a change of Ministry, and what was called a Liberal Government was in power. Having been formally assented to by a Conservative Government and unanimously agreed to by that House, he thought the Bill was perfectly safe when a Liberal Ministry was installed. But though it received their tacit assent and encountered no opposition in that House, when it reached the other House, to his great amazement the so-called Liberal Government took very good care to prevent its being carried. That was the reason why the law remained in its present condition. He much regretted having to make that statement, because it was extremely inconvenient that a Government making Liberal professions should so carefully manage matters that when a measure of that kind got to the other House it should fail to become law. His right hon. Friend might not exactly like that explanation; but he was bound, in justice to the present occupants of the Treasury Bench, to make it. The blame should be laid on the right shoulders. A law imposing penalties on the people, and therefore one peculiarly coming under the province of that House, had been twice unanimously condemned by it. It was under these circumstances that the Commissioners of Inland Revenue suspended the enforcement of that law. He was astonished to hear from the Attorney General that whenever any one went to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue and asked to have the law put in force for his own purposes, then this Act was revived for the advancement of private ends. The law was undoubtedly enacted for public ends, and it should be enforced by the Government only for public objects. There could not be a greater perversion, he would even say a greater prostitution of this law, than that it should be enforced not by the Government for public objects, but at the instigation of private persons for their own ends. After what had been said he felt sure the Government would not allow the continuance of such a state of things as had been admitted by the Attorney General to exist. Such a law should most certainly not be enforced at the instance of private dilators. This alone was sufficient reason for its repeal and for the suspension of the 1087 present proceedings. He impressed upon the Attorney General the practical injustice of the law. A man undertook an occupation, highly esteemed by some as involving an endeavour to instruct and amuse the people, and the law placed around him such restrictions as placed those who supplied him with materials for carrying on his work in a position of insecurity, inasmuch as the State could come in before all other claimants and demand, in certain events, the discharge of his recognizances. He also thought that, on broader grounds, the law was one that called for repeal. What possible reason could be shown for calling upon a person who, either for pleasure or profit, thought fit to start a newspaper to give recognizances to the Crown for his good behaviour? It might be very right that if a proprietor had broken the law, the Judge should call upon him to find recognizances. But it was extremely unjust that the penalty, that could only be properly imposed after conviction, should be laid upon the innocent and guilty without distinction. The law treated a person who engaged in the publication of a newspaper as if he were a criminal. It not only required recognizances from him himself, but demanded sureties from two others as well. The whole thing was based upon old prejudices, and he was sorry to find the Attorney General giving them reason to suppose that he, too, cherished similarly antiquated and obsolete ideas. He trusted, however, that his hon. and learned Friend would not continue to cherish thoughts so unworthy of him, but would seek enlightenment from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and agree to secure the abolition of the law in question.
§ SIR FRANCIS GOLDSMID
said, he desired to correct an error into which the last speaker had fallen by stating that the rejection of the amendment to the law in question was secured by the late Government. On reference to Hansard he found that its rejection was moved by the present Lord Chancellor.