HC Deb 22 April 1887 vol 313 cc1660-73
MR. SAMUEL SMITH (Flintshire),

who had the following Notice on the Paper, which he was precluded by the forms of the House from moving:— That this House deplores the evil done to public morals by the publication in the newspapers of the offensive details of divorce cases, and of others of an indecent character, and urges upon the Government the need of strengthening the law against the publication of obscene matter, said: The subject which I desire to bring before the House is one of a painful character, and nothing but a strong sense of public duty would have induced me to take this course; but I have been so deeply impressed by the injury done to public morals by the foul reports of divorce cases which have recently appeared in the public Press that I could not shirk this duty, and I must ask the indulgence of the House for a short time while I draw their attention to so distasteful a subject. I believe I may state with truth that a widespread feeling exists in this country that something must be done to check this evil, and that feeling is shared by the House, as is shown by the fact that fully 260 Members have responded to an appeal to take action in this matter. I may add that shortly before Parliament met a meeting of the magistracy of Liverpool was held, presided over by the Mayor, at which this resolution was carried nem. con.That this meeting of magistrates sitting at Liverpool, having been specially convened by the Mayor to consider the injury done to the public morals by the publication of detailed reports of divorce cases, is of opinion that it is desirable that the publication of such details should be forbidden by law, and that the same rule should apply to all cases of an indecent character. Several meetings of a similar kind were held in other towns to the same effect; indeed, I may say that something like unanimity exists that a check should be put upon the license of a portion of the Press. It is only of late years that this evil has grown to such magnitude; formerly the Press used to prune these reports, so as to deprive them of prurient details; but, of late years, the habit of reporting at great length has suddenly developed, and some of the lower class of papers have even gone so far as to give verbatim reports of the foulest details of vice. The better class of journals for long resisted this vile practice; but, gradually, one could see the growth of the habit even among them, and if we go on at the rate we are doing there will soon be few exceptions to the rule. Last year was the worst for bad divorce cases for many years, and the evil done by the moral pestilence that emanated from our Divorce Court will never be fully known and measured. There were weeks together when the chief matter of the Press, and of private conversation, was the disgusting details of these infamous cases; a malarious fog brooded over the country, poisoning the moral atmosphere like the emanations from a pest-house.

But what I ask the House chiefly to consider is the effect upon the morals of the young. It is now impossible to keep the newspaper out of the hands of children, and domestic servants; it is part of the daily life of the country. Is there a father in this House who would like his boys and girls to read these abominable cases? I believe there is hardly one who did not use his utmost endeavour to keep them out of their hands; but how vain is it nowadays to hide the newspaper. Our towns are full of revolting placards which thrust this odious knowledge upon everyone. I believe in but few cases can children be kept from this guilty knowledge, and it is impossible for them to get it without their minds being soiled. All moralists, even in heathen countries, have hold that children should be kept innocent in mind as long as possible; but that is virtually impossible now, and probably there never was a time since the world began when children were so widely corrupted by familiarity with vice as in London in this 19th century of Christianity. I will read to the House a letter I have received from one who was formerly a successful head master of a great public school—I refer to Archdeacon Farrar. He writes— I am very glad that you are endeavouring to secure some legal means of suppressing the publication of needless and demoralizing details in divorce cases. No wise man would wish to prevent the publicity which is an effective punishment of guilt; but the deterrent influence of publicity in cases of proved guilt can be perfectly secured without flooding the newspapers with the minutiæ of corrupting narratives. Even Tacitus, the historian of the worst epoch of the Roman Empire, lays down the rule—'Ostendi debent scelera dum puniuntur, abscundi flagitia.' As the head master of a great public school, I found it wholly impossible to limit the perusal of newspapers; and I am sure that every head master in England would tell you that the lengthy and long-continued reports of profligate conduct in the higher ranks of society are fruitful in evil influences upon the minds of the young. The careful supervision over the reading of the young, which is exercised in all Christian homes, is frequently rendered quite nugatory by the licentious matter with which they become familiarized when they are at school. I believe this weighty opinion fairly represents that of all the heads of public schools in the country; and it applies almost as much to girls' schools; and I have been told of painful consequences from reading this literature in them. Then the vast number of children that run about our streets become perfectly familiar with every kind of vileness; indeed, [...]often wonder whether the children heathen lands are exposed to such contamination as that vast multitude of poor uncared-for children who run wild about the streets of our great cities.

And this leads me to say that, accompanying this abuse of the Newspaper Press, there has grown up a fearful amount of depraving literature in this country. A perfect flood of immoral books has come over here of late years from abroad; translations of the bestial novels of Zola, and others of a similar school, are now pouring into this country; and it is almost impossible to enforce the law against such works, while we allow matter equally corrupting to be published by the daily Press without let or hindrance. I fear there are too many tokens that this country is going backward, not forward, in the matter of morality; an insidious laxity is creeping over society; wickedness in high places is condoned in a way that would not have been possible in the earlier years of Her Majesty's Reign. In these matters the descent of a nation is terribly rapid; the severe morality of the Puritans was followed by the profligate times of Charles II., and it looks very much as if England was going through the same process again. I appeal to those who regard the religion and morality of a nation as its highest and noblest possession to do something to check the flood of impure literature which is poisoning the young. If nothing is done to stop it, I believe our course will be rapidly downward, and the end will be that of the great nations of antiquity who perished from their own vices.

I do not underrate the difficulties of this question. I am aware that this country regards publicity as the chief safeguard of justice, and that it values very highly the liberty of the Press. I do not propose that we should close the Courts of Law when divorce cases are tried. I am fully alive to the importance of branding vice by public exposure, and the Press should be allowed reasonable liberty of reporting; but surely there is some middle course between totally suppressing reports of divorce cases, as they now do in France, and publishing the most prurient details. It will be for the wisdom of this House to draw the line, and I feel sure that a large section of the British Press will rejoice to be freed from the compe- tition of the lower class of papers, which live by pandering to the basest appetites of human nature.

I am prepared for the objection of some that we want to shield the wealthy and the great. Now, for my own part, I wish to say that instead of shielding them I would rather they were pilloried tenfold more; the conduct of some of the upper classes in this country would disgrace heathendom; they are jeopardizing the order to which they belong; and if many such exposures take place like those of last year the country may be brought to the verge of a social revolution. For my part, I would not move a finger to arrest th9 just indignation of the people from titled profligates; but I am not prepared to let the whole nation be poisoned by the reports of their debauchery. After all, it is more important to protect the morals of 36,000,000 people, of whom 6,000,000 are children at the most impressionable time of life, than to frighten a few hundred wealthy profligates. In this, as in other things, one has to consider the greatest good of the greatest number. No other nation, so far as I know, permits such extended details of divorce cases. In France it is altogether forbidden; and I doubt whether other European countries allow such latitude as we do.

Let the House further consider the injury done to our good name by the republication of these vile reports all over the world. Some of the worst of these cases were telegraphed to America, the Colonies, and India. They create the impression abroad that we are a most corrupt nation; they tarnish the good name of the country; they are taken too much as samples of average British morality. It is certainly not the way to keep the respect or the affection of the Colonies. But it is in India that the effect is worst. The Native papers there comment on these trials, and assume that their masters have little need to teach them a higher civilization. No one can toll how far they lower the prestige of this country; end, after all, we hold India more by prestige than by force. It is most humiliating for an Englishman abroad to have these odious cases cast up as a reproach upon his nation; he can but hang his head and blush as these hideous records are telegraphed and published week after week.

I think I am not mistaken in assuming that the House will generally agree with me thus far. It is when we come to the remedy for this, that immense difficulties are encountered. No doubt, the simplest method would be to hear all such cases in camerâ; but that method was rejected when the House established the Divorce Court, and it is not likely to alter its decision now. Then there is the plan of giving the Judges power to prevent the publication of what they consider unfit details of evidence. It is alleged that they possess this power theoretically; but it has practically become obsolete; certain it is that the Judges will not now incur the odium of punishing the Press through contempt of Court, unless under express Act of Parliament. I think I may venture to assert that we cannot look for a remedy to the voluntary action of the Judges. I think the view that will commend itself to the House is that we must strengthen the whole law about obscene publications, and prohibit offenders from pleading in defence that it is the report of a public trial. It is too important and difficult a matter to be dealt with by private Members; and I shall propose that the duty be laid on the Government, and I have good reason to believe that it will respond to the appeal. In conclusion, I would wish to quote from a circular, signed by some of the most illustrious names in England; a circular which exactly expresses our views, with the single exception that we seek to give legislative effect to them, believing that in no other way can they be made operative. We, the undersigned, respectfully suggest to all those who have the control of the daily Press the desirability of some combined action by which they may minimize, if they cannot wholly suppress, the details of divorce cases and criminal trials, such as those which of late have occupied so many columns of the newspapers. We are aware that the fear of publicity is one of the most powerful deterrents to the commission of crime, nor have we the least desire to shelter the misdeeds of offenders because of any position in society which they may occupy. But we have a strong conviction that the necessary publicity could be secured without divulgence of details of a demoralizing character, and we have reason to fear that the full record of incidents in these cases ministers to a diseased appetite, and produces a most unwholesome effect on many minds. We desire further to call attention to the inevitable evils which must result from thus familiarizing' with vice the minds of tens of thousands of young persons of both sexes from whom, in these days, it is impossible to keep the daily newspapers. We do not reflect for one moment on the motives of any who have considered it part of their duty to publish full reports of these trials, but we are sure that a combined effort to keep the pages of newspapers as free as possible from the stain of such impurities would be conducive to the public good. This document was signed among others, by the Duke of Westminster, Lord Sol-borne, Archdeacon Farrar, the Eight Hon. W. E. Gladstone, the late Lord Iddesleigh, Professors Huxley and Tyndall, Cardinal Manning, and many others. No words of mine can add to the weight of this appeal. I leave it in the hands of the House, with the full belief that it will act rightly, and do what it can to stop one of the most deadly evils from which this country suffers. I conclude by drawing attention to the Resolution, of which I have given Notice, and which I trust the House will accept.


said, if it had been moved he would have seconded the Motion with great pleasure, and thought that no Member of the House was bettor fitted than the hon. Member for Flintshire (Mr. S. Smith) to bring forward that important but delicate subject. It was not for the House to put upon newspaper proprietors, who were not only public servants, but rivals of each other in business, the duty of striking out of their journals matter which might affect their sale-ability; but he held that, in the interest alike of woman and children, who should be saved the knowledge of unnecessary details, and of public morality generally, and even for the sake of the Press itself, some restriction should be placed on the liberty of publishing the offensive details of divorce cases. It only required the action of the Lord Chancellor and the Government to provide that some proper legal restriction should, with that view, be put upon the Press, without involving the least danger that criminals, however rich or distinguished they were, would be shielded from public criticism, or from the proper consequences of their misdeeds.

MR. FINLAY (Inverness, &c.)

said, he thought they were all sensible of the advantages of publicity in everything connected with the adminisiration of the law. But those advantages might be bought too dearly, and he had a strong impression that, in some instances, they wore bought too dearly. In that matter it was necessary to make a choice of evils. It was an evil, no doubt, that a case should not be reported. On the other hand, were there not infinitely greater evils which attended the publication of the details of certain cases? The present practice was very anomalous, for in all the cases which might have been determined in the old Ecclesiastical Courts for dealing with matrimonial causes the Court might now order them to be heard in camerâ, whore they could not, with due regard to decency, be heard in public. That power existed in certain cases if they could have been dealt with in the old Ecclesiastical Courts. Why should it not extend to other cases where the very same reasons for its exercise existed? There were certain cases in which it was desirable that nothing should be published beyond, it might be, the formal proceedings in the case, and the judgment of the Court. Of course, it was said by removing publicity they would lessen the punishment of the guilty parties. That might be so; but he was not prepared, in order to make the punishment more severe to one or two persons, to demoralize the whole country. He thought, in the interests of public morality, that the remedy which would prove most effectual, particularly in the interests of the young, would be that the presiding Judge should have the power in every case, whether in the Divorce or any other Court, if having regard to the nature of the offence he thought it expedient, to order that no report whatever of the evidence should be published. He did not believe that any remedy short of that would be effectual, while he would not approve of hearing all cases in camerâ. He would leave the Court open to the public; but the Judge should have power to say that the evidence should not be published at all. He was glad that the subject had been brought under the notice of the House, and he hoped that some course might be adopted to suppress what could not be otherwise regarded than as a great scandal, and that something effective would be done.

MR. ADDISON (Ashton-under-Lyne)

said, the feeling of the House seemed to be almost unanimous as to the evil; the only question was the remedy. In the interests of the newspapers themselves, it was desirable that a clear rule should be laid down; because it did seem hard upon respectable and ably conducted newspapers that they should be outbidden and undersold by less scrupulous rivals which gave full details of these indecent cases. He could not agree with the suggestion just made, because he believed it would be eminently distasteful and repugnant to the Judges; but if such a power rested in the Judges, it would not touch some of the worst cases, because it was not merely by the publication of evidence that harm had been done. One of the grossest and most scandalous outrages on the public was perpetrated by a newspaper which made comments in connection with a certain matter, and that was done under the pretence of reading a moral lecture; and it was now followed up by indecent stories, which were being published at that moment in one of the well-known evening newspapers. He thought that was a great outrage on public morality. It would be seen, therefore, that action confined to mere reports would not be effective. He had had an opportunity of speaking to several Judges on the subject, and he found that they differed as to their power in these matters. Some held that there was no privilege in publishing indecent reports, while others held that there was a clear privilege. Then, again, he found that some of them considered that they had no power whatever to regulate or forbid the publication of any matter which might occur in Court. Nor had they power to exclude any part of the public from Courts of Justice. However that might be, every decent man and every father of a family was deeply concerned in this matter, that early every morning their houses were not flooded with publications containing filthy and indecent remarks under the pretence of "news." He thought a very simple and short Act of Parliament might be passed, which would render punishable by imprisonment the publication of indecent or obscene matter, whether in the form of evidence given in a Court of Justice as anecdotes, or as sketches of pretended trials. The law as it stood at present was manifestly insufficient to cope with the evil. There was an unanimous feeling in the House that these indecent publications should in some way be stopped, and he thought that might best be done in the manner he suggested.


said, he did not agree with his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Addison). In his opinion prevention was better than cure; but he could not approve of the course recommended by his hon. and learned Friend, because it would involve an inquiry into the whole of the details which had given offence. He hoped the hon. and learned Attorney General would accept the suggestion of his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Finlay). He must say he dissented from the notion that the Judges ought not to take responsibility in this matter.


said, he need hardly say that Her Majesty's Government were entirely in sympathy with the motives which had induced the hon. Member for Flintshire (Mr. S. Smith) to bring the Motion forward; and they agreed that some alteration, if possible, should be made either in the law, or in its practice, so as to put a stop to what was undoubtedly a monstrous abuse. At the same time, it was an exceedingly difficult question, and the course suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Inverness (Mr. Finlay) was well worthy of consideration. On the other hand, there were difficulties which must not be lost sight of when dealing with any question of this kind. He must differ a little from the law as laid down by his hon. and learned Friend behind him. The state of the law was that at present any report of a trial, which was in fact an indecent publication, was subject to the law as to indecent publications. It was decided many years ago in the case of "Steele v. Brannan" that it was no answer to a charge of indecent publication to say that it was a report of legal proceedings. This was only another branch of the law which was laid down in the case of The Confessional Unmasked—that, however good the motive was, and however necessary it was that certain practices should be called attention to, these were no defence for an obscene publication. He agreed with his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Addison), and with everything that had been said as to the monstrous character of the reports which had been published of certain trials within the last 12 months. At the same time, he thought that the conduct of one of the journals, to which attention had been called, in publishing, under the assumed pretence of doing good to public morality, most disgraceful details, a great many of which, if true at all, had been called into existence by the action of the proprietor of the journal itself, was as bad as anything could be; and, in his judgment, it would be a lasting stain on the career of that journal, whatever might be its future. He thought, after all, the responsibility ought to be made to rest, and must rest, upon the Press itself. It was well known to counsel that there occurred in the Divorce Court every day cases of which the details were disgusting, and of which he was thankful to say the Press took no notice whatever. There were, perhaps, half-a-dozen such cases every week in which the publication of the details would lead to an outcry; but he knew that, as a rule, they were not reported. It was an unfortunate circum-stance that, when persons of high position, or of public position, or whose names were in any way before the public, misconducted themselves, and so came before the Court, the papers published the details of the cases. But he thought the first blame rested upon the Press. It could not be said that it was the course of justice that necessitated that step being taken by the Press; but he agreed it was one of those cases in which it was matter for consideration whether prevention was not better than cure. He agreed with his hon. and learned Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lockwood) that if responsibility, as was suggested, were to be undertaken by anyone, it would, perhaps, be better that it should be exercised by the Judges than by anyone else. At the same time, it was a step that must be taken with very great care, and after carefully considering the extent to which interference should go, It was well known that in cases of circumstantial evidence the publication of facts in the newspapers had often been the means of obtaining important additional evidence. Therefore, those who had considered the matter carefully thought that, if there were any interference with publicity, care should be taken that justice did not fail through publicity being denied in certain cases. While admitting this, he equally agreed that a rule might be devised whereby the necessary publicity should be obtained without the publication of horrible and prurient details. It had been suggested as an alternative that these eases should be hoard in earnerâ. As a matter of fact, these could be heard in camerâ now. One of the Divorce Acts provided that all divorce cases should be heard in public, unless the Judge otherwise ordered. The matter had been under the consideration of the President of the Court, who felt that it would be a strong step to take to avail himself of the powers of hearing all the cases referred to in camerâ. It might be doubted whether public opinion was yet ripe for such a course to be taken. He could only hope that the conductors of the daily papers, recognizing the unanimous feeling on both sides of the House—which was concurred in by Her Majesty's Government—would feel that they had gone too far, and that, although they might have made a few hundred pounds by the extra sale of papers, it was money that was badly earned. He hoped this expression of opinion in the House of Commons would have the effect of checking the tendency to make money out of the publication of these sensational placards and disgusting reports. He could not say that the law as to indecent publications really required alteration. An offender could be proceeded against summarily under Lord Campbell's Act. The only reason why proceedings had not been taken, at any rate by those now in authority, was that there was the great evil that had just been named that if you took proceedings you again incurred the risk of flooding the papers with the details to which objection was taken. It was a very serious responsibility to advise any such prosecutions. Of course, proceedings could be taken by private individuals; but they ought to be undertaken only in flagrant cases. He trusted the result of the discussion would be that it would be less necessary in the future than in the past to think of taking any action; but if it were necessary, any practical proposal would have the fair and candid support of the Government. At the same time, he could not hold out the hope that at the present time the Government would be justified in saying it was in their power to take any steps for the alteration of the law. He hoped that any necessity for such action would be averted by the effect of this debate upon those concerned.

MR. MARK STEWART (Kirkcudbright)

said, he felt disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman the Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster) had not more clearly indicated the line the Government intended to take. There was a very strong feeling throughout the country on this subject. He was, however, rejoiced at the sympathetic feeling expressed on the question from both sides of the House. He thought the only way out of the difficulty was to prohibit the reporting of such cases. A report could be taken by a shorthand writer, which should be furnished to both parties; and, though portions of the evidence might leak out in some quarters, not half the mischief would be done as was the case under the existing system. If reports of divorce cases be withheld from newspapers until the cases were over, it would not be worth while to give details.

MR. SHIRLEY (Yorkshire, W.R., Doncaster)

said, he did not think the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster) quite appreciated the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Member for Inverness (Mr. Finlay). That suggestion was not that these cases should be heard in camerâ. When a case was heard in camerâ, the public were necessarily excluded from hearing the case. But the hon. and learned Member for Inverness desired that the public should be admitted to the hearing of these cases, whether they were divorce trials, cases of indecent assault, charges of rape, or whatever they might happen to be. He quite agreed with the proposal of the hon. and learned Gentleman, as he understood it, and he did not think there would be any practical difficulty in carrying it into effect. At the hearing of any case of the kind—divorce, or rape, or indecent assault—in London or at Assizes or Quarter Sessions, before the commencement of the proceedings, the Judge or Court might say—"This is a case in which the details are necessarily of an indecent character, and we shall, therefore, exclude the representatives of the Press altogether." If it were a case of some general interest, probably some person, con- nected with the Press or not, might supply some details to the newspapers; but in such a case the Judge or Court might have the power to summon before the Court the proprietors of such newspapers, and commit them for contempt of Court. Before sitting down, he desired to express his regret that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General should have gone out of his way to make an attack upon The Pall Mall Gazette. The editor of that journal might have been mistaken in some parts of his conduct; but those who were best able to judge wore agreed that his motives, at all events, were thoroughly pure and patriotic, which was a great deal more than could be said for the proprietors and editors of some of the other journals. He (Mr. Shirley) doubted whether the Government really appreciated the importance with which this subject was regarded by the general public out-side the House. What they wanted was not, as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General seemed to think, a mere profitless discussion, but such a change of the law, or such an enforcement of the existing law, as would in future altogether prevent the publication of the disgusting details of indecent cases.