HC Deb 11 May 1881 vol 261 cc218-30

(Mr. Hutchinson, Mr. Gregory, Mr. Edward Leatham, Mr. Samuel Morley.)


Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that during two successive Sessions Select Committees were appointed to inquire into the subject of newspaper libel, and each of these Committees was presided over by the Attorney General for the time being. The first of those Committees heard a mass of valuable evidence, but made no Report owing to want of time. The second Committee asked permission to have that evidence referred to them, and this Bill embodied the recommendations of that Committee, and was confined to them exclusively. The justification of the Bill lay in that fact, and he was thereby relieved from the necessity of entering upon any long argument in its support. The provisions of the Bill were few and exceedingly simple. Rightly considered, the interests of the newspaper Press and those of the public were quite identical; and the Bill, while intending to remove acknowledged hardships, also provided guarantees against danger that might be apprehended in some quarters. It proposed, in the first place, to protect newspapers in the exercise of an important function, the due performance of which was expected at their hands. A newspaper was the record and expression of what took place in public, of all political life, and of all municipal and social activity—in short, it was the record of everything outside the domain of strictly domestic intercourse; and he asked whether it was fair that an agency which met an ever-increasing demand of this kind, and which was expected to perform its functions with accuracy, should have to do its work in the midst of red-hot ploughshares, and should be subject to consequences for the injudicious language of persons whom it correctly reported. Protection from private liability in the discharge of an important public function was the end sought to be obtained by this Bill. It provided that a fair and honest bonâ fide report of lawful public meetings should be held as privileged in the same manner as reports of a similar character of proceedings in Parliament and the Courts of Justice. In the matter of comment the Bill left the law precisely as it was. It made no change in the law of civil action; but it did make some change in the present law of criminal prosecution for libel, and for good and sufficient reasons. He could give a long list of cases in which criminal prosecutions had been resorted to on the most frivolous pretences, either for the purpose of extorting money or gratifying private malice. A man's character could be quite as well vindicated by civil action as by criminal prosecution. He did not ask for the total abolition of criminal prosecution against a newspaper, because there might be cases of violation of public decency; but it seemed to him that the tremendous power of that law ought not to be placed within reach of capricious and unscrupulous persons who might be wickedly disposed and worthless. The Bill, therefore, asked that no criminal prosecution for libel against a newspaper should be instituted unless the Attorney General for the time being were satisfied that there was a primâ facie case for resorting to that method instead of the ordinary one of civil action. Lastly, as the price which the newspapers would have to pay for those concessions, the Bill provided for the registration of newspaper proprietors. At present it was very difficult to find out who was the real proprietor of a newspaper; but by this registration clause the responsible person could be got at in case of need without any difficulty, and would prevent a man shelter- ing himself under the wing of a man of straw as at present—the nominis umbra. It would be noticed by the House that this Bill referred to England and Ireland alone, but not to Scotland, and the reason was significant. In Scotland, the changes he proposed by the Bill were practically, and had long been, in operation. Scotch newspaper proprietors would not thank them for including their newspapers in this Bill, because there was a large measure of free publicity as regards the reports of public meetings. These prosecutions must first be authorized by the Procurator Fiscal; and the strongest argument he could adduce for this Bill was that in Scotland, where criminal prosecutions for libel were almost unknown, civil actions also were extremely rare. The journalist was put upon his honour, and he acted accordingly. He (Mr. Hutchinson) believed a similar state of things would obtain in England and Ireland if this Bill were passed. 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, he did not rise for the purpose of opposing the second reading; but, at the same time, there were one or two provisions to which he could not give his assent. The main provision of the Bill was one that would meet with approbation—namely, that fair, honest, and bonâ fide reports of lawful public meetings should be privileged in the same way as reports of proceedings in Parliament and in Courts of Justice were privileged, it being thoroughly understood that the privilege did not extend to comments that might be made outside of such reports of public meetings. But it was also important that it should be laid down in very precise terms what was to be held a public meeting, for, of course, if two or three persons met to condemn the conduct of a person obnoxious to them that would not be a public meeting. By the second part of the 2nd clause it was provided that the defendant should not be entitled to avail himself of the defence that the report was a fair one if it were shown that he had refused to insert in his newspaper a reasonable explanation of the circumstances tendered for publica- tion on the part of the persons reflected upon in the alleged libel. As the law stood now, no such limitation of the right of the defendant to avail himself of a legal ground of defence existed in the case of reports of proceedings in Parliament, or in the Courts of Law, and he did not see why it should be introduced in the case of reports of public meetings, especially as it might lead to endless and most inconvenient controversies in the public Press. He would be glad if that part of the Bill were altered in Committee. The Bill also provided for a better registration of proprietors. That, he thought, was extremely necessary, and it would obviate a great amount of difficulty which now existed in ascertaining the person morally responsible for the publication of a libel. The third proposal was open to very grave objection. He could not go the length of approving a suggestion that no criminal proceedings should be taken in respect of any libel without the consent of the Attorney General. He did not think that the right of any of Her Majesty's subjects to take criminal proceedings in respect of any libel, however gross or personal it might be, should be limited by the view which might be taken of the matter by the Attorney General. There were other matters that he should like to see dealt with by the Bill. For instance, as the law now stood, the person who considered himself aggrieved by the matter published had an alternative remedy. He might sue the defendant in a civil action, where he could give evidence on oath in his own defence, or he might, by taking criminal proceedings, shut the mouth of the defendant altogether. It was contrary to all right and justice that the accusing party should, by choosing one form of proceeding rather than the other, have the option of declaring whether or not his opponent should be heard. There was a growing feeling that the accused in all criminal cases should be permitted to make his statement upon oath; and, therefore, what he should ask the House to do in the present instance would be to enact that every criminal proceeding in respect of libel should be conducted in the same manner, both as to evidence and costs, as though it were a civil action—that was to say, that the defendant should have the right to go into the witness box at each stage of the proceedings, and make his own statement in denial or justification of the charge made against him.


said, the question the Select Committee had to consider was whether the proprietors of newspapers could be to any extent relieved from their present legal liabilities without prejudice to the public interests; and, after taking a great deal of evidence, and giving very careful consideration to the subject, the inquiry resulted in the Bill now before the House. The Committee felt that publishers of newspapers were very often made liable for acts which were not their own, and which it was almost impossible for them to control; and they, therefore, recommended that any report published in a newspaper of the proceedings of a public meeting should be privileged, if the meeting was convened for a lawful purpose, and open to the public, and if the report was fair and accurate, and published without malice. The privilege solely applied to public meetings, publicly convened, and would exclude railway and other meetings, where shareholders often called each other hard names, and where strong reflections were sometimes cast upon the commercial credit of individuals. The clause also required it to be proved that the publication of the matter complained of was for the public benefit; and he could not, with deference to his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Inderwick), think that there was much in his objection to the proposal that the protection afforded by the clause should not be available as a defence if the defendant had refused to publish an explanation or contradiction. In the course, of his experience, he had always found that a respectable journal was ready to insert a reasonable explanation, or apology, for any libel that might have found its way into its columns; and in a case of libel before a jury the refusal to publish a contradiction was commonly treated as an aggravation of the offence. The 3rd clause, by providing that no prosecution for newspaper libel should be commenced without the fiat of the Attorney General, did not, of course, make the Attorney General responsible for the prosecution; but only required him to declare whether or not a primé facie case was made out, and he could not think the restriction was unfair. The registration of newspaper proprietors appeared to him to be a very important part of the Bill; but he was not sure whether the Bill would not be better without the clause, which imposed a £10 penalty for the omission of the printer, or publisher, to make the required return. A proprietor who wished to conceal his name would not be made by so small a penalty to disclose it; and it would be better either to make the penalty £10 for every month during which the return was not furnished, or to leave the omission to be dealt with under the ordinary law.


said, he trusted the Bill would be read a second time, and that reasonable facilities would be allowed to his hon. and learned Friend for getting it through the House this Session. The subject had been dealt with many times, and in no instance had a more generally satisfactory solution been hit upon than that now before them. The late hon. and learned Member for Glasgow, the late Mr. Butt, and himself had been concerned in more than one Bill dealing with this subject during last Parliament. The difficulties that now beset the question had beset them; but those who were formerly unwilling for legislation had been brought to see the necessity and the justice of it. Two special Committees had inquired into the whole matter. Both the public and the newspaper proprietors had had an opportunity for putting their case before this Committee, and the Bill was the outcome of these deliberations. He recognized the difficulty of defining what was a public meeting; but, after full consideration, the words that were in the Bill had been hit upon as the best that could be chosen. Anyone who was capable of suggesting better words could do so in Committee. After repeated trials, those who had concerned themselves in the question had failed to define the meetings more accurately than in the clauses as they stood in the Bill. He thought it was only fair that persons who felt themselves aggrieved should have the liberty of requesting the insertion of corrections or explanations. If reports of public meetings were to be privileged, the public, on the other hand, should be at liberty to correct any inaccuracies in these privileged reports, and newspapers would only be too willing to comply with the request. It was not to the interest of a newspaper proprietor to circulate what was incorrect. It would not add to the reputation of the paper, and certainly it would not add to its influence, to give persistent publicity to unfair and incorrect reports. Everyone now admitted the hardship under which newspaper proprietors lay in being held responsible, both civilly and criminally, for fairly reporting proceedings of public bodies. The Bill would free them from that responsibility. In consideration for that concession, newspapers were to register the list of proprietors. That he regarded as a retrograde step. It was going back upon an obsolete law. In former times the owner of every printing press had to be registered. Printers were regarded as disturbers of the peace. Their types were considered as explosive materials, and they themselves were treated as rogues and vagabonds or dealers in dangerous commodities. That was when the Press was in its infancy. The law had gradually been modified, and now it had only a nominal force. Papers might be registered, but it was not compulsory for them to be so. He did not see any reason why the owner of a newspaper should be registered any more than the owner of a coal mine or the owner of a chemical works. A chemical works might destroy the vegetation in a neighbourhood, or it might injure the health or lead to the death of cattle. Persons who suffered by these had their remedy against the proprietor of the works, although these proprietors were not registered. If, in consequence of the working of a coal mine, the surface subsided and injury was sustained by anyone, the people who suffered could sue the coalowners and get redress, and yet the coalowners were not registered. He did not see why newspapers should be treated differently. If newspapers undermined the character of anyone, the persons attacked could get at the owners of the newspaper just as easily as people could get at the owners of chemical works or coal mines. He objected to this exceptional legislation. It was quite true that there had been isolated instances where newspaper proprietors had got out of their responsibilities by quibbling; but these cases were rare. That was a point of the Bill he objected to, and, when in Committee, he would try to modify it or amend it; but the Bill generally was a fair attempt to settle a complicated and difficult subject, and he hoped the House would assist his hon. Friend in giving it the force of law.


said, he thought that reports of the proceedings of Boards of Guardians, of Town Councils, of School Boards, and of other public bodies through which public money was expended, should be held to be privileged. He cited a case in which the law, as it at present affected Boards of Guardians, operated manifestly to the prejudice of the ratepayers. When the Bill got into Committee, he should propose a clause to the effect that any report of any public body having the administration of public funds, such as Town Councils and Boards of Guardians, to whose meetings reporters of the Press were admitted, should be privileged, if such reports were fair and accurate, and published without malice. Such a provision would be a considerable protection to newspapers, and would confer a real benefit upon the public.


said, he rose for the purpose of supporting this Bill warmly. In his opinion, the Bill would be more useful than all the other measures put together which had been brought forward on the Ministerial side of the House since the present Government came into Office. He did not, however, agree with the criticism of the hon. and learned Member for Rye (Mr. Inderwick), as he thought that no definition should be given of a public meeting; but that every case should be left to be decided by a Judge and jury, who would consider all the facts and circumstances of the case. He most strongly supported the 3rd clause, believing that no criminal prosecution for libel should be brought without the consent of the Attorney General. Very often criminal proceedings were taken in respect of libels for the purpose of stopping the mouth of the defendant. Until the time came when the Criminal Code, which was too valuable a measure for the Government to deal with, was before the House, he should not like to say anything on the subject of the propriety of permitting defendants in criminal cases to give evidence.


said, he was sorry to interrupt the harmony which this Bill had brought from every part of the House, including the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton), who as a rule did not sympathize very strongly with attempts at legislation on the part of Liberal Members; but he could not entirely agree with any part of this Bill. The point as to "being privileged" was a good one. As to deciding what a public meeting was, they knew there were a great many bodies who often excluded reporters just as they pleased, and there was also a class of meetings which were semi-private. For instance, meetings of Conservatives in different parts of London, to which admission was almost invariably by ticket, could hardly be termed public meetings. It was unfortunate that they should have to discuss this Bill so much in detail; but it was not their fault, because it in reality consisted of three measures, which might be embodied in three different Bills, and more closely debated in Committee. With regard to prosecutions by the Attorney General, he did not think that provision was all that was wanted. What was wanted was that magistrates should have a discretionary power of dealing with them. They might have the power of inflicting fines or short sentences of imprisonment instead of sending defendants for trial. There was a danger arising from occasions which were not very important, but distinctly libellous. Magistrates desired to give defendants the benefit of the smallest possible doubt. He did not think the scheme, as at present proposed in the third part of the Bill, would work at all. There were two classes of proprietors. They would have to deal with what he might term good proprietors and bad proprietors. This Bill was aimed at the wicked proprietors; but sufficient machinery was not provided to carry out the intention of the Bill in this respect. Very often, too, the printers and the proprietor were entirely different people. The responsibility for libel was now a meaningless one. It was quite right that there should be civil and criminal responsibility; but it was well known that newspaper proprietors were often civilly responsible when they were not criminally; and criminal actions were often brought against publishers who ought not to be implicated at all in the Law of Libel. It should be defined where the criminal responsibility ought to end. He thought the penalty of £10 was a ridiculous one. A wicked proprietor would give the printer an indemnity, unless the amount of the fine was extremely heavy. They would find that under this provision the law would be practically inoperative, and things would go on very much as they did at the present moment. Whatever law was passed, they would find that the man they were seeking to get hold of was seeking to evade the law, and they would be no better off than they were before. He should not oppose the second reading of the Bill; but he thought it might be materially altered in Committee.


said, he fully shared the objections against the Bill which had been raised by the hon. Member who has just spoken. He entirely agreed that the registration of newspaper proprietors was antiquated, obsolete, and unsuited to the present time. As to public meetings, it had been argued that the definition applied only to meetings of corporate bodies or great assemblages open to the public, and did not include the meetings of public companies. But this latter class of meetings were the very class to which it was most necessary often, for the sake of the public, that attention should be called, and fair reports of the proceedings published in the newspapers. He had known instances where companies in a tottering condition had been enabled to keep on drawing in new victims by the absence of fair and full reports of their proceedings. If fair and full reports were given of the proceedings of such concerns, the public might be warned, and the final crash of the company foreshadowed. There was no class of reports out of which libels were more likely to arise than those of the proceedings at meetings of public companies and shareholders. He remembered one case in his own experience in which some of the shareholders of a company felt convinced that one of the officials was literally cooking the accounts and mismanaging the affairs. A meeting of shareholders was called, and the charges were distinctly repeated, and a newspaper with which he (Mr. Justin M'Carthy) was at that time connected published a report of the proceedings. The person accused brought an action for libel, and no doubt would have got a verdict but that his guilt in the meantime was found out and he had to abscond. This incident showed the importance of their not narrowing the scope of the Bill so as to exclude the reports of the public meetings of companies from the category of privileged reports, and he thought some improvement might be made in that particular.


hoped that the Bill would be read a second time: but thought that certain changes would have to be made in Committee. It would be necessary to define more clearly than the 2nd clause did what was a public meeting. With regard to the 3rd clause, he did not entirely agree with it. He thought it was a mistake to vest any more power than was absolutely required in a Minister of the Crown or other central authority. If a summons for libel were obtained, the magistrate was not able to dismiss the case summarily, even if he thought a jury would not convict. He was obliged to send the case to trial. If a newspaper were to say when the claimant came out of prison that the claimant had been in prison, the claimant might go before a magistrate, and might insist on the newspaper proprietor or whoever was responsible being sent for trial at the Old Bailey. He might put him to heavy expense, although there was no doubt there would be an acquittal. It, therefore, seemed to him (Mr. Labouchere) very desirable that, instead of a fiat being obtained from the Attorney General for a trial in such a case, a magistrate should be able to deal summarily with any application made to him on the subject. As to the registration of proprietors, there was formerly not a register of proprietors, but a register in which one person was entered as proprietor. He might have half-a-dozen partners; but it was not necessary to enter their names in the register. The hon. Member for Newcastle (Mr. J. Cowen) had remarked that colliery owners were not registered. The cases were, however, different; and while everybody knew the proprietor of a colliery, it was difficult with regard to newspapers to discover who was the responsible person. In almost all cases the printers and publishers of newspapers were mere dummies. He submitted to the Attorney General whether it would not be possible to render the printer liable if he did not give up the name of some responsible person as proprietor. He did not see the necessity of registering the names of all the proprietors. Some were mere shareholders in a newspaper, and it would only gratify an idle curiosity to put their names in the register. He thought the Bill was in the right direction, and he hoped the House would agree to the second reading.


, said, the Bill appeared to him to be a very useful measure, and he hoped it would not only be read a second time, but that an opportunity would be afforded for reading it a third time. The House would remember that newspaper proprietors had formerly serious cause for complaint in being held liable for criminal proceedings where they had not personally erred, and that this state of things produced considerable discussion some years ago in relation to the liability of newspaper proprietors. But some few years ago, in a case that was heard before the late Lord Chief Justice, the opinion was strongly expressed by the Court that Lord Campbell's Act would protect from criminal proceedings those who had intrusted editorial duties to others and had not been deficient in any want of care themselves. This Bill did not deal with that point, because it was felt by the Committee which considered the matter last year that the law already existing afforded sufficient protection. The Bill was the result of the deliberations of a Select Committee of last Session, on which it could not be said that those interested in newspapers had anything like a preponderating influence, but in which the general public were well represented. One or two objections had been made to the Bill. It had been said that there ought to be greater clearness in the definition of what a public meeting was. As to that objection, he would only observe that those who made it should be good enough to define what was a public meeting. Directly you defined what was a public meeting you excluded all other meetings from the operation of the Bill. He thought it was much safer to leave a judicial tribunal to define the term "public meeting." Prima facie, he should say if reporters were admitted in order to report, the meeting would be regarded as public. The hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Inderwick) said under this Bill a few persons might meet together, and by means of private scandal ruin the character of any man. But no editor would have the protection of this Bill in such a case as that, for the editor must show that the publication was for the public benefit, and that it was not a mere private slander. The objection to Clause 3 which the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) had urged—namely, that the requirement of a fiat from the Attorney General before proceedings for libel could be commenced would have the effect of giving too much power to the Executive Government, was an objection which he would meet by stating that the principle was one which had been much extended of late years. He had always given notice to persons accused to say what they had to say before he issued his fiat; but he would suggest to the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill that the 2nd clause should be so altered in Committee that a fiat should not be issued against editors of newspapers until they had had an opportunity of making a statement before the Attorney General. As to the question of registration, he thought that registration was, on the whole, beneficial to the public, while he did not think it was injurious to editors of newspapers. That, however, was a matter to be discussed in Committee, and he would now content himself by asking the House to allow the Bill to be read a second time.