HC Deb 06 November 1884 vol 293 cc1108-11

asked Mr. Attorney General, If his attention has been called to the following handbill, which was largely distributed by Sir George Sitwell's Committee on Sunday last in Scarborough:— More Disgrace for England.—Terrible News "from Egypt.—Fall of Khartoum.—Capture of General Gordon by the Mahdi. The following telegram, which was received in Scarborough this (Sunday) night, will be read with Shame and Indignation by every patriotic Englishman:—

"'From To
"'Sir T. Bateson, Sir Geo. Sitwell, Bart.,
"'Strand, London. Scarborough.
'Gordon's Capture by the Mahdi is confirmed by information received by Government. Seven thousand of his troops deserted. Fate of Gordon unknown. 'Hold the Government responsible for this Indelible Disgrace;' if he is aware that no printer's or publisher's name was attached to it; and, if he will institute proceedings against the person or persons responsible for its publication, under the eighteenth section of "The Corrupt Practices Act, 1883?"


Before the Attorney General answers the Question, and in consequence of my name having appeared, I venture to trespass on the indulgence of the House for a few minutes in a matter of personal explanation. I was, Sir, informed by what I regarded as a reliable authority—[Cries of "Name!" and "Order!"] If hon. Gentlemen will allow me to conclude, then I will answer any question they put to me. I was informed late on Sunday afternoon that the rumours of the few previous days with reference to the capture of General Gordon by the Mahdi had been confirmed, and that intelligence—I did not say official—had been received by the Government to that effect. The Observer newspaper, at a later period of the evening, felt this intelligence to be of so much importance that the proprietors of that journal actually printed and published a special edition, giving most minute and circumstantial details with reference to this supposed disaster; and I am quite sure the noble Lord the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Richard Grosvenor) will not deny that The Observer newspaper is one of those general supporters of the Government which receive favours from him.


Order, order! The hon. Baronet is entitled to give a personal explanation, but he is not warranted in travelling outside that limit.


I will speak of myself. I fully believed this information to be true on the Sunday evening, and half London also believed it to be true. The Times newspaper evidently believed it the next morning, for it published an article upon it. On the faith of the information I received, I did telegraph to Sir George Sitwell a message somewhat in the terms quoted by the hon. Member, which are substantially correct. I think I said "8,000," and not "7,000." I can only add that nobody will rejoice more than I shall if this information is totally devoid of foundation. I only hope that the Expedition which proved too late to save the life of the gallant Colonel Stewart, has not been too late to rescue his heroic Chief. ["Order!"]


I have received a copy of this document, and it certainly bears no printer's or publisher's name; but as the fact of that publication may be made the subject of proceedings for the recovery of a penalty, I shall not express any positive opinion as to whether an offence has been committed or not. But I understand that the pith of my hon.

Friend's Question is whether, as representing the Crown, I should institute proceedings against the publisher and printer for having committed this alleged offence if his name were furnished to me? Well, apart from the consideration that the power of procedure is in the hands of any person—and certainly in relation to questions arising out of political and electoral contests it is not advisable for the Government unnecessarily to take part in proceedings—I can only in this case apply the rule that I have very frequently to apply to the more general law where the printer's and publisher's name is not affixed to any placard, apart from political considerations. The principle that I apply is to consider what was the object of the suppression of the name, and what is the effect that has been produced by the name not being published. Well, as to the suppression of the publisher's name here, I, of course, will receive any information my hon. Friend is good enough to communicate to me on the subject; but, looking into the document, I cannot suppose there was any intention in the suppression of the name, because I feel even now, after the explanation of the hon. Baronet, although we may feel some curiosity to discover the source of the information which caused him to say that the Government had received information of the capture of General Gordon, I think those who received this intelligence from a Gentleman in his position would not have any reason to doubt the truth of the statement as it was communicated to them. As to the result which was produced by the publication, I do not believe my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Caine) will feel that the result has been a very disastrous one. The more immediate result of the publication has been inconvenience, because it caused the hon. Member to spend the greater part of the "polling" day in a waggonette, explaining to the electors that the information was entirely unfounded; and I believed that he announced to their great satisfaction that General Gordon not only was, but for a number of years would be, in a state of perfect security at Khartoum. ["Order!"]


The hon. and learned Gentleman is now travelling beyond the limits of an answer to the Question. [Cries of "Name!"]


As the hon. Baronet has intimated his readiness to answer any Question that may be put to him, I should like to ask him whether he will give the House the source of his information?


I must appeal to the House not to allow the matter to go further. The course taken by the hon. Baronet was not taken in his capacity of a Member of this House, nor had it any relation to any of the proceedings of this House.