HC Deb 29 January 1878 vol 237 cc651-6

Order for Second Reading read.


in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that the Motion had accidentally come into his hands, as it should have been moved by the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron), or the hon. Member for Newcastle (Mr. J. Cowen). He supported the Bill, but had had no part in drawing it up. It had been framed under the auspices of the Provincial Newspaper Society, which represented about 600 newspapers published throughout the length and breadth of the land and of the most diverse political opinions. Those hon. Gentlemen who were connected with the Bill had not come forward on account of a special interest of their own; but because of their special knowledge and long familiarity with the defects of the existing system they were most qualified to give evidence on the subject. It was not for the first time that controversy had been raised on this subject in the House of Commons. In the Sessions of 1867, 1868, and 1869 proposals almost identical with those in many respects which he had the honour to submit passed the second reading, received the sanction of the Law Officers of the Crown, and were only prevented going further by sheer want of time, or other causes which he need not now particularly refer to. The declaration, therefore, in the Preamble of the Bill, "that it is expedient to amend the law of libel," rested on repeated Parliamentary decisions. He would, in the first instance, give a brief summary of the Bill. A public newspaper was defined to be a newspaper registered at the General Post Office, or entered at Stationers' Hall, and it was provided that any report of a public meeting published in such a paper should be exempt from any action for libel providing it was a true and fair report of a meeting of a representative character, and that the report was bond fide and without actual malice, and in the ordinary course of business. The House would observe that the language was very peculiar— the meeting must be of a "representative character." That phrase was introduced by the Attorney General (Sir John Rolt) who was in office in 1867, as he distrusted the ambiguity of the term "public meeting." By public meeting of a representative character was meant a meeting at which reporters were present, and at which the speakers were speaking under some degree of responsibility to public opinion; and although it might be exceedingly difficult to give a terse definition of something so complicated in its character, he thought there would be no difficulty in deciding what was a public meeting should the issue ever be raised. Thus, then, repeatedly as the House had affirmed that the reports of public proceedings should be held to be exempt from actions for libel, he trusted the House would not now reverse that decision. While the Bill took care of the newspaper, it was also mindful of the interests of any individual who might consider himself aggrieved. He could if he pleased claim to have an explanation or contradiction inserted in the newspaper, and that claim must be allowed. That was in accordance with the maxim that where there was a wrong there should be a remedy. The Bill went still further in the same equitable direction, for it provided that if any person should at such a meeting utter matter which came under the operation of the law of libel he should himself be as much responsible as though that matter had been written and printed by himself. On that point Lord Lyndhurst said, that a man who went to a public meeting knowing that the words he uttered would be taken down and sent through the length and breadth of the land, and uttered words which were libellous was morally, and ought to be legally, as liable as the man who printed them. Sir John Karslake, when Solicitor General, gave it as his opinion that a clause of that kind would work extremely well. He hoped that up to this point the proposals of the measure would command the sympathy of the House. He would not linger on Clause 4, which provided that the defendant in an action for libel might pay money into Court by way of amends. Clause 5 was what was known as the 40s. clause, and according to it a defendant should not be mulcted in damages or costs to a greater amount than 40s., except the Judge should certify that there had been malice. To this latter clause he proposed to add—"Except the jury shall find, and the Judge shall certify, that there was malice." That would make the clause more in accordance with the spirit of British law. He now came to the second part of the Bill, which related to criminal prosecutions. It was proposed that no proprietor of a public newspaper should be liable to a prosecution of that character unless he was himself either the author, the joint author, or the writer of the alleged libel; unless he had seen, or had had an opportunity of seeing it, prior to publication; or unless he omitted from any cause whatever, when required to do so in writing, to give the name of the author or writer. There were other conditions to which he need not advert; but the object of the clause was to make clear by Statute that with respect to which the Judges of the laud were at the present moment divided in opinion. There could be no question that in a matter of this importance, where such weighty public interests were involved, directly contrary interpretations of the law had been given by the highest functionaries appointed to administer it; and surely there was a necessity here for something, were it only in the nature of a declaratory enactment, which should reveal the true intent and meaning of the existing Statutes. If a journalist refused to comply with any of the conditions of the present Bill, he would thereby himself assume the responsibilities of authorship, and, under the measure, he would be justly loft to bear the consequences. The Bill likewise provided for securities against the setting-up of criminal prosecutions by men of straw, by demanding that the person who brought such an action should enter into his own recognizances to proceed, and should find securities for costs in case they should be awarded against him. It also provided for the same kind of security against what the late Sir Colman O'Loghlen had termed "pettifogging attorneys." Further, the Bill demanded, in order that a criminal prosecution might not be kept hanging perpetually over the head of the unfortunate journalist, that the prosecutor should within one year after pleading bring the matter to an issue. To that clause, also, Sir John Karslake in 1867 gave his unqualified approval. In short, while the Bill endeavoured to provide some security for the Press, it had also regard to the security of the individual, and while proceeding on the principle that the general welfare was the supremo consideration, it tried to bring that principle into harmony with private rights. There were many instances in which newspapers had suffered from the present state of the law. In 1876, The Manchester Courier, a highly respectable Conservative journal, was condemned in heavy costs for publishing the proceedings of a Board of Guardians, though the paper gave insertion to two letters of explanation.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


proceeded. The Times newspaper was prosecuted for denouncing the concocters of a great commercial fraud—some eminent merchants subscribed a large sum of money and presented it to the proprietors of The Times; but they, instead of applying the money to their own purposes, founded therewith a scholarship in a great public school. On whatever side of the House hon. Gentlemen might sit, or in whatever part of the country one might live, it might be said of The Times, in language like that applied by the late Sir Robert Peel to Lord Palmerston—"We are all proud of it." The measure did not refer to Scotland but only to England and Ireland. Scotland was already in possession of the immunities which he desired to see extended to the rest of the United Kingdom. North of the Tweed there were no criminal prosecutions for libel. It was a remarkable fact that in Scotland offences against the libel law were almost unknown. There a journalist was put upon his honour, which weighed more heavily and constantly upon his conscience than pecuniary and all other penalties. Why should not there be an assimilation of the law all over the United Kingdom, especially when the tone of the Press was undoubtedly becoming more courteous, more generous and forbearing in proportion as the code by which it was regulated became milder? Putting Scotland out of the question, there remained the fact that in England, Ireland, and Wales there were 1,188 provincial newspapers, and that last year there were only a score of actions brought against them for libel. In some of these cases a verdict was given for the plaintiff; and in others, where the defendant was cast in damages, the public had stepped forward to indemnify him. He knew it might be said that a new form of journalism was springing up which demanded stringent and cogent regulations; but he would point out that the articles which appeared in such publications were not quoted in respectable newspapers. He regretted that journals of that new form should be bought and read by respectable people; but the absurdity of the thing was that the very classes who were most alarmed at what they called the "licence of journalism" were precisely the classes who supported these chiefs of sinners. Society, in short, created that which it affected to deplore, and desired new safeguards against an evil which was to be attributed only to its own shortcomings. In this country public opinion was the ultimate court of appeal. The wiser policy was to leave the newspapers largely to the influence of that potent public opinion. It was said that the Judge himself was condemned when a criminal man was acquitted, and so it might be true that the law itself had fallen into disrepute when the punishment exceeded the offence. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Hutchinson.)


said, it was well known that he was strongly in favour of the freedom of the Press, but it was also well known, he believed, that he was anxious for the accuracy of reporting. The pre-sent Bill attempted to reverse the principle of Lord Campbell's Act with regard to slanders and libels. The principle of Lord Campbell's Act was that whoever published a libel was liable to action or to indictment for that publication, and that law extended to the reports of speeches made—whether in that House, at public meetings, or in municipal assemblies—in fact, to all reports. Well, he held that that principle which Lord Campbell, who had himself been a reporter in the Gallery of that House, enacted when he became Lord Chancellor, was just and essential at once to the preservation of private character and to the restraint of the publication of matters defamatory or libellous. Now, the principle of this Bill was that the reporter should not be liable—he was not liable now—for what he reported as having been said by any speaker; and it went further, and said that the proprietor of a newspaper should not be liable for the report of anything contained in a newspaper, however defamatory or libellous. But the principle of the Bill was that the person who was reported to have spoken the words should be liable. Why, that rendered every speaker liable for the actions of persons who were not his agents, and over whose conduct he had no control. That was a manifest violation of the first principles of law and justice. He had seen in the Provincial Press reports of his own speeches which he could scarcely recognize, and even lately he saw in the papers five different versions of a speech which he made in that House that Session, and they all differed. Was he to be liable for what appeared in all those five different versions?

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at a quarter after Eight o'clock.