HC Deb 12 June 1868 vol 192 cc1509-16

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the state of the Law regarding registration and security in respect of certain publications. He regretted to be obliged to bring thin matter again before the House, as he had hoped, from the tone of the discussion last year, that it would not have been necessary to revive the consideration of it in the present Session, but that some measure would have been brought in to give effect to the general feeling of the House on the subject. Some years ago, when he asked the House to repeal this remnant of laws which were most oppressive to a particular class of publications in this country, the Bill which he introduced was passed, and sent up to the other House, where it was rejected; and upon a second occasion his Bill passed the Commons, and was again rejected by the Lords. The laws upon this subject were such as could never have been placed upon the statute book, except in the most evil times—that was to say, in the reign of George III.—when the old Tory party was engaged in desperate struggles to repress the expression of public opinion, and to maintain its hold of political power. Measures of relief had been from time to time granted by the Legislature; but, although many of the severer penalties had been removed, the process had been always accompanied by some stringent regulation on the subject of registration or security. No one could publish a periodical of less dimensions than 714 square inches, and with intervals of less than twenty-six days between each successive publication; and at a less price than 6d., without giving security that they would not publish seditious and blasphemous libels. There could be no doubt that this was aimed at a class of periodicals likely to inform the mind of the people; find the extravagance of the law was shown by the fact that it was not merely directed against newspapers, but against essays upon the moral, political, or religious condition of the country, or upon the phases of public affairs. It would be seen at once that a law of this kind was totally ineffective, because a man might print any amount of sedition or blasphemy, provided he only wrote enough of it to fill a book of larger dimensions than 714 square inches, and sold at a higher price than 6d. Great penalties were formerly imposed for an infraction of this law, and for the second offence the penalty was banishment. That extreme punishment was modified a few years ago; but at the same time the securities were increased in London from £300 to £400, and in the country from £200 to £300 Moreover, the publisher was compelled to find two persons to be answerable in the sum of £400 to answer in any action at law. Now, there was no reason whatever, as far as he could see, why publishers of periodicals any more than any other traders, should be subject to that restriction in the conduct of their business; they were engaged in a useful and a necessary work, and how could it be maintained that a man who published libel or sedition in n few pages ought to be liable to penalties which a man who published libel or sedition on a larger scale escaped? When the tax on newspapers was repealed, there was a general impression that the declaration which publishers were previously required to make at the Stamp Office would fall into abeyance. And for a long time it did so. But some injudicious persons thought it right to set the Stamp Office in motion; and, accordingly, instead of having a free and unloaded Press in this country, it once again began to be tampered with. Last year his right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Milner Gibson) brought the subject under the notice of the House; the Attorney General did not then contend that it was desirable to maintain the declaration, and nobody rose to suggest that the existing law should be continued; accordingly, he had expected that the right hon. Gentleman would have introduced a short Bill early this Session to put an end to the state of things complained of; but, instead of that, the Stamp Office had been seized with another fit of injudicious activity, and had instituted proceedings against two or three journals. These proceedings were taken ostensibly in the name of the Attorney General, and it was highly desirable that if persisted in they should be carried on upon his responsibility. But, according to the present system, matters were either allowed to sleep altogether, or were only stirred to action when some individual object was to be attained by giving private information, and inciting the department to commence a prosecution. He submitted the Attorney General should not permit persons to make use of his name, as the prosecutor under the Act referred, to in cases where their object was simply to gratify personal malignity; the Attorney General was also bound to see that the law was uniformly administered; that all or none were prosecuted. He found that proprietors of newspapers of the most innocent character were proceeded against; among them he noticed the National Reformer and the Parochial Critic. The latter was a paper which ministered to the wants of persons having what might be described as a parochial mind, by contributing to their knowledge of the public business of their locality. He trusted the hon. and learned Gentleman would prevent this abuse of power, and see that the spirit of the law was carried out. He would submit to the hon. and learned Gentleman that the time had come for effecting some amendment in the existing law on this subject.


said, the hon. Member had assumed in that case a state of things of which he (the Attorney General) could not admit the existence. The hon. Member had assumed that the law was put in force against newspaper publishers capriciously and for the gratification of private malice. But so far as he (the Attorney General) was aware that was a totally incorrect statement. He had been informed that it was only when due notice had been given, and the parties had refused to obey the law that proceedings were taken. A circular was issued after the Act of 1855 was passed, pointing out what it was necessary to do for the purpose of having newspapers registered, and as it was found that several newspapers were published which were not registered the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown was taken as to whether it was incumbent upon the Board of Inland Revenue to enforce registration. An affirmative reply was obtained. Some alteration was at that time made in the law with respect to the particular kind of papers which were to come within the category of newspapers, but nothing was done in the shape of any alteration of the penalties which it was thought proper to inflict. The Board of Revenue had on all occasions, as far as possible, been guided by the Law Officers in ascertaining what particular publications were or were not newspapers. In cases where the law was infringed by the proprietors of newspapers refusing to give the requisite securities proceedings were taken; but these were in no case influenced by personal motives, or by any considerations as to the particular political party which the newspaper represented. He did not propose to suggest any alteration of the law as it at present stood. Particular instructions specifying which newspapers were to be prosecuted were never issued, but the Board of Revenue proceeded generally against newspapers whose proprietors refused to give the proper securities. Proceedings were never taken against anyone until it was made clear that a violation of the statute was taking place, and in no case were these proceedings of a malicious character. As to whether the law should be altered or repealed, that was another matter, but so long as it existed it was the duty of the Board of Revenue to enforce it. He could not comply with the request of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets and propose any alteration of the law.


said, he was inclined to agree with the observations of the Attorney General as to the manner in which the Board of Inland Revenue had exercised its functions. He believed the real mischief arose from the law itself more than from the mode in which it had been administered. It was only that day that he had been asked to present a petition from one of the victims of this law (Mr. George Hill), who believed, and had no doubt been advised that his paper was not a newspaper within the meaning of the Act, and who was compelled either to contest the point at considerable expense or to give up his paper, as he either would not or could not enter into the requisite securities. He was willing to acknowledge that the Board of Inland Revenue had exhibited every desire to give to the cases which came under its notice a fair and attentive consideration, but he believed also that there had been an evident desire on the part of the Board to be relieved from what was a disagreeable duty. If it was necessary to require securities for the prevention of sedition, blasphemy, and libel, it was absurd to vest the power in the Board of Inland Revenue, which was exclusively intended for the collection of taxes. Such a power, if exercised at all, as it was of a moral nature, ought to be vested in the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, or some such authority. It was, moreover, impossible for the Board of Inland Revenue to enforce the provisions of the Act impartially. The Board knew nothing of newspapers, and could only act upon private information, which was invariably afforded from personal or party motives. Although, therefore, no vindictiveness was displayed by the Department, still the prosecutions often originated in some petty jealousy, or a desire to injure, it might be, a proprietor, who had started a rival paper. He wished to call the attention of the Attorney General to the fact that there appeared to be a constant desire to class under the name of newspapers certain publications which had not hitherto been regarded in that light. He remembered that during the existence of the stamp duty it was attempted to make Charles Dickens's Household Words and Household Narrative liable to the stamp and to securities. The Government was defeated; but it was generally understood that by the law Household Words and the Household Narrative were liable. The necessity for again trying the question, however, was done away with by the passing of a small Act by which the meaning of the word "newspapers" was so altered as beyond doubt to exempt from liability all such publications. He charged the Government of this country, speaking generally and not referring to any particular Government, with retaining on the statute book a law which could not be enforced, which they had not the good grace to repeal, and which they, nevertheless, did not entirely allow to remain in abeyance. They did not enforce it, because the law did not relate exclusively to newspapers, inasmuch as it referred to all pamphlets or papers dealing with the affairs of Church and State, which were sold for less than 6d., and were of a less size than 714 square inches. The provisions of the Act, too, were enforced in the case of newspapers which were not liable, while others that wore liable were exempted. The Saturday Review was a case in point, for, though these securities were compelled, it was not published for less than 6d., and was not of a less size than 714 square inches. He was also advised that there was a large number of newspapers upon which these provisions were illegally imposed, while it was equally notorious that others which ought to be liable escaped without these securities being exacted. In his opinion it was incumbent upon the Government of the day to bring in some measure which would put an end to this unsatisfactory state of things. For his own part he believed it was desirable there should be a registration of periodical publications, which he did not think the Press at large would object to; but he thought the obnoxious system of giving security should be done away with, as it was an insult to any person to require him to give security that he would not be guilty of an indictable offence. If the Government could not introduce such a measure as he had indicated this Session, he hoped that in the course of the next Session they would bring in a Bill to repeal the Acts in question, which were not in accordance with the policy which Parliament had recently adopted on this subject, which was to liberate the Press from ail those fiscal fetters by which it was formerly restrained.


said, he was glad the right hon. Gentleman had endeavoured to impress upon the Government the propriety of putting an end to all the difficulties to which reference had been made, by repealing the Acts in question, which inflicted a punishment upon the whole body of the Press because some of its members might possibly be guilty of a violation of the law. What would be said if every physician were bound to give security that he would not poison his patients? Surely it was sufficient to punish him if he did poisen them. His purpose in rising was to express a hope that if the Government could not bring in a measure of the kind proposed this Session, they would at least suspend fill prosecutions under these Acts, which were generally condemned by public opinion, which it had been found impossible to enforce impartially, and which, therefore, operated most unjustly upon those who were prosecuted under them; often by: individuals without the concurrence of the Attorney General and of the Board of Inland Revenue.


said, the real principle upon which these Acts of Parliament were passed was for the general protection of the State against attacks which might be made by persons who were not in a position to pay the penalties imposed upon those guilty of violating the law. It was found that when persons started publications attacking the State or private individuals there was considerable difficulty in tracing the owners of those publications, and in recovering the penalties when the owners were discovered and prosecuted. Under these circumstances he desired to maintain the law as far as it was useful and proper, by compelling the owners of publications to register them selves, and to give security for the payment of penalties which might be inflicted upon them in the event of their violating the law. He thought that the preventive element was a valuable ingredient in any code. There might, of course, be some ground for altering the law as it now stood, but he did not think these Acts should be altogether abolished, by which all safeguards against libels injurious to the State or ruinous to the private character of individuals would be done away with. The principle was, that where a violation of the law was committed there should be a solvent party to proceed against. But if any different law, or administration of the law, could be introduced which might protect private character from slander and libel, at the same time that it protected the Press, by all means let that be carried into effect. It did not, however, follow that because the present law could not be fully enforced it was a bad law. It was said that the law was a limited law, and that if the paper was of a certain size, or was sold at 6d., it was not within the range of the law. But the fact of its ex tent and price gave it a certain amount of respectability, and was a kind of guarantee that if an action should be brought there would be the means of recovery against the proprietor. His desire was to keep up the respectability as well as the liberty of the Press—to have a good, sound, strong Press, against which, if the law were violated, they could proceed; so that, while protecting the Press, they should protect themselves.


said, he was rather amused at his hon. and learned Friend's notions of respectability. It used to be said that a man was respectable when he kept a horse and gig; but he (Mr. Craufurd) thought it was quite impossible to define the respectability of the Press by a mere reference to price. If a man published a newspaper in which there was blasphemy, was it to be said that the conductors of that newspaper were respectable because they sold the blasphemy for 6d. instead of 3d.? He did not see why the publication of newspapers should be put upon a different footing from any licenced trade. Why was the man who published a newspaper not only to be registered and to give his address, in order that he might be found out, but to give securities that he would not commit an indictable offence? The whole thing was perfectly absurd and ridiculous. The imprint, which gave the name and address of the publisher, was a sufficient protection, and it was unjust to demand any further security. The fact was that the restrictions upon the liberty of the Press arose entirely from political causes, and dated from the time when everything likely to enlighten the people was tabooed. They were told that the fact of the law not being enforced was no proof that it was a bad one; but if the law was good it ought to be fairly and impartially administered against all persons, and he asked how many pamphlets, written by noble Lords and others, were registered? In point of fact, it was left to informers to put the law in motion, and then, especially in political cases, or in cases in which the matter complained of affected the Law Officers of the Crown, the whole force of the law was brought down to crush the unfortunate newspaper proprietors. The interest of the public would be sufficiently protected by a simple system of registration which would enable individuals to punish libellers, instead of which the law was surrounded by such, intricate legal meshes that nobody could understand it. If it was good it ought to be administered. Let everybody be dealt with in a fair and straightforward manner, and let them no longer leave in the hands of the Law Officers the arbitrary and unconstitutional power which they now possessed.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and negatived.

Committee deferred till Monday next.