HC Deb 10 December 1926 vol 200 cc2437-48

"The proprietor of any newspaper shall not be liable to be convicted under this Act if it is shown to the satisfaction of the courts before which he is charged that the publication referred to in the charge was made without his knowledge, authority, or consent."—[Colonel Sir Arthur Holbrook.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I want to apply to this Bill the law as it now stands with regard to libel. Under the decision of a very long case in the law courts, the Queen v. Holbrook, which took place 50 years ago, we established as a point of law that no proprietor of a newspaper could be held criminally liable for a libel inserted without his knowledge, authority or consent, and that decision was upheld by two of the most eminent judges who ever sat on the English bench, Lord Justice Cockburn and Mr. Justice Lush. I am now speaking on behalf of provincial newspaper proprietors, who are generally innocent of any publication which would be calculated to injure public morals, because divorce court proceedings are not the sort of reports we give in the provinces. It is conceivable that a report might appear in a provincial newspaper and the proprietor and publisher would be held liable for something that was published without any knowledge on their part. If a man is going through Regent Street in a motor-car and his driver knocks down and kills a foot passenger, the driver may be prosecuted for manslaughter, but it would be absurd to suggest that the man sitting in the car could be held liable for any criminal neglect, particularly if he could show that he had engaged a responsible and capable driver. In the selection of editors and reporters of newspapers in the provinces we exercise great discretion. We have to study a man's past and if we find that he is not a man who is given to writing libellous matter he is appointed in charge of the paper. It is conceivable that a man living miles away from the place where the paper is published might find himself under this Act suddenly faced with a criminal prosecution for something which is held to be contrary to public morals. I feel that proprietors are entitled to this protection. It seems to me self-evident that it is a matter of justice to them that a Clause of this sort should be inserted.


I beg to second the Motion.

The position of the proprietor of a newspaper is rather different from that of the editor. As the Bill left the Committee, the reporter is no longer liable, under a Clause inserted by the Home Office, and the onus falls on the editor of the newspaper. In a civil action for damages brought against a newspaper for libel, it might possibly be argued that the editor may be a man of straw, therefore it is just that the proprietor should be liable also in order that the plaintiff may recover any damages the courts may award him. But this is a case of criminal proceedings, and the person whom the Bill now holds responsible is not the reporter but the editor. Therefore if, according to this Clause, it is provided that the proprietor shows that the publication was made without his knowledge, authority or consent, it seems just that he should be exonerated from any possible criminal proceedings.


On behalf of the promoters of the Bill I am going to ask the House not to accept the Clause. My hon. and gallant Friend who moved it said lie was not interested in divorce cases. He only referred to cases covered by Sub-section (1) (a), which is really only a repetition of the present common law, and therefore at present the proprietor of a newspaper has this liability. Then the editor may sometimes be the proprietor, and it seems to me in those cases it would be entirely unjust that he should be free from liability for the action of his agent. Surely there might be cases where a newspaper might have made a practice of publishing reports, the publication of which this Bill is framed to prevent. There might be a series of reports. It might make a practice of it, and in those cases it would be entirely just that the proprietor should be the person to suffer. As the Bill now stands, the proprietor and the editor and all the persons liable have considerable protection, because, first of all, you have to get the fiat of the Attorney-General to start any action, and secondly, you have trial by jury, and if a proprietor were entirely innocent the jury probably would not convict. On all those grounds I ask the House not to accept the Clause.


I join in the appeal of the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the House will not accept the Amendment. The key to the whole of this new Clause rests upon the opposition to the Bill as a whole, and one can very well understand that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will put forward any-words designed to upset the whole Measure. I will give just a few reasons in favour of the rejection of this Clause. It appears to me that editors and other journalists will write for their newspaper exactly what the proprietors want. The danger that I see in this connection is that if such a Clause were inserted and the Bill became an Act of Parliament, it would be quite easy for the proprietors of a newspaper to set up in a contract of engagement with the editor or the journalists, a condition throwing upon them responsibility in law for any action they might take under this Measure. That would be a very nice get-out. I am informed on good authority that editors and journalists do not necessarily Personally agree with the policy of the newspaper with which they are connected. There are Liberals employed as editors of Tory newspapers and vice versa, and there will he a few Socialists employed as editors and journalists on papers of both kinds. They do not write their personal opinions, because they know full well what the proprietors of the newspaper want. Therefore, the responsibility for the tone and for the theme of the whole newspaper rests upon the proprietors, who determine the policy of the paper. If the arguments of the hon. and gallant Member who moved the new Clause were to hold good, it seems to me that if the form of contract which I have indicated were entered into, the engagement of a journalist or editor—


Can he enter into a contract which would protect him from criminal proceedings?


The hon. and learned Member knows more about the law than I do, but I have seen some strange contracts entered into between employers and workpeople, and because the work-people have not the money with which to prosecute the ease in a court of law, it goes by default. It ought to be clear to the hon. and learned Member that the law may be on the side of the journalist, but the journalist has not the money with which to fight his way in legal proceedings, and he has no remedy. I ask the House to reject this new Clause, because it is merely a Clause designed to torpedo the Bill.


I should like to oppose this new Clause. This Bill seems to put added responsibility upon the pressman. He already has to guard against libel, which alone is a difficult task. He has to bear in mind the common law as regards cases of indecency. Now he has to take further responsibility under this Bill. If something is to be achieved by this Bill, it is difficult to see how we can avoid putting more responsibility upon him; but the term "pressman" covers really a chain of responsibility of which the reporter, the sub-editor, the editor, the printer and the publisher of the newspaper all form links. In the majority of cases one realises that items of news and reports may easily be put into a newspaper without the consent or authority of the proprietor. In that case I hardly think that he would be blamed, although he might be regarded as ultimately responsible; but if his newspaper persisted in flouting the provisions of this Bill, I cannot see who else would be responsible except the proprietor.

To a certain extent the same thing applies to the editors. Anyone who has seen the rush in a newspaper office at the time the paper is going to press, will, I am sure, admit that a paragraph or other item of news might slip past the most vigilant editor. In that case I think that he would be absolved from blame in the actual case, although he, too, might be held ultimately responsible. In such a case as that, it would surely be very unfair to blame either the printer or the publisher. They have other tasks to perform than checking what come from the editorial department. Then we have the other end of the chain of responsibility. I would quote a case which is not exactly an historical case, although it is a well-known one, of a perfectly respectable and reputable newspaper which published some years ago a most regrettable item of news in its Parliamentary report. The news was entirely unfounded. It was traced to a compositor who had a grievance. In such a case, surely, only one man could be held responsible. If this Bill were to be applied in any spirit of vindictiveness, great injustice could be done to innocent members of an honourable profession; but I do not think we need anticipate any such vindictiveness. I see no danger of it whatever, nor can I imagine the Attorney-General singling out an unoffending subordinate of a news- paper and pointing to him as the man responsible to be prosecuted.

I should be grateful for enlightenment on this point: I am not sure whether a charge could be brought against the news-paper or company as a whole or whether it is necessary actually to cite an individual. I trust that the mere existence of this Bill will obviate any necessity for its use. I certainly do not believe that the Bill will be applied in any unjust spirit or to any but flagrant cases. If it were, I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member for Basingstoke (Sir A. Holbrook), like everybody else, would wish to take his part in combatting an attack upon a profession of which he is a distinguished member. I think it is very desirable to keep the chain of responsibility intact. For that reason I shall vote against the Amendment, and for the same reason I shall vote against the Amendment which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Short)—that is, after the word "person," insert the words "other than an editor, printer or publisher."


I think most hon. Members will agree that it would be very unjust, if the proprietor of a newspaper, say, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Sir A. Holbrook), sitting in Westminster, were convicted for something that occurred in Portsmouth. I do not believe that any such conviction could take place, and, therefore, I do not think we shall suffer if the hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin (Major Kindersley) does not accept the Amendment. Before a man can be criminally convicted, guilty knowledge of what was going on or what was going to take place must be brought home to him by the prosecution. Surely, a Bill like this is not going to abolish the doctrine of mens rea. I do not believe that is intended. I do not believe it can be done in this way. Therefore, I think my hon. Friend's fears are more or less unfounded. Speaking as a newspaper proprietor myself, I shall feel great hesitation in supporting this new Clause, because I do not believe that what he fears can come about.


I hope the House will reject this Amendment. The Bill has taken a very important step in the interests of the moral standards of the nation, and this Amendment attempts to absolve those who are responsible for a trend which has, unfortunately, been intensified by a large section of the Press adverse to the interests of that moral standard. Some years ago a certain section of the press in Scotland adopted the policy of reproducing facts appertaining to extraordinary crimes which took place, and engaged crime experts to deal with these reports. Another section of the press in the same city urged the Government to check this propensity, and fortunately the Government took the necessary steps to see that this was done. The reason for this Bill is that, instead of righteousness flowing through the land like a river, we have had nothing but a stream of pollution through every part of the country. There is no doubt it has led to a deterioration in the standards of public morality.


The hon. Member is now dealing with matters which contemn the whole Measure. The Amendment now before the House is concerned with the responsibilities of the proprietor of a newspaper.


I want the proprietors of a newspaper, who take a particular interest in dictating the policy, made responsible, not the employés, who very often have to follow a course which in their opinion is derogatory to the interests of the staff themselves and of the public. I hope the new Clause will be rejected so that the proprietors individually and collectively shall be responsible. If we fasten the responsibility upon the proprietors themselves a great deal more care will be taken by them in the conduct of the paper, and those who are concerned in earning their daily bread will have the knowledge that the proprietors themselves are to be responsible for what appears in the paper.

Commander WILLIAMS

When I first read this new Clause I thought it was a very commonsense view to take, and that it was one which we could with advantage add to the Bill, but when I heard the hon. and gallant Member for Basingstoke (Sir A. Holbrook) say that he was moving it as an opponent of the Bill I became slightly suspicious. We all know him as a highly honourable opponent of any Measure he objects to, but when he puts forward a proposal as an opponent of the Measure, I, as a supporter of the Bill, cannot do otherwise than consider the matter once again. He told us that if a motor driver ran over a man that the driver himself was responsible, but there are circumstances when the driver would not be held responsible. If he had been urged to drive unnecessarily fast by his employer, some responsibility must necessarily rest on the employer. On further consideration I am not quite certain as to whether there is not some indirect attempt to make it possible for an editor to be a sort of smoke-screen for the owner of the paper. It is a well understood thing, it is generally followed by the whole of the proprietors of newspapers in the country, never under any circumstances to shelter themselves behind the mistakes made by their employés. It has been pointed out by the hon. and gallant Member for Dover (Major Astor) and by the hon. and learned Member for South-West Hull (Mr. Grotrian), both of whom know the details of this subject very well, that there is no real necessity for this new Clause, that it would be better to wipe it out altogether, and, on the whole, I am inclined to vote against the Amendment. I cannot see that it will help or strengthen the Bill.


I only want to say one word, and to ask one question. I want to know whether the word "proprietor" in the new Clause will be held to cover a small shareholder in a. newspaper. A shareholder is legally a proprietor. Will they come under the provisions of the Bill? If they do not, I am quite satisfied. If not, I think some provision should be put in to make it quite clear that the individual who controls the paper, who has the sole controlling interest, shall be liable.


There are many papers which have built up a large circulation by the publication of lurid accounts of actions in the law Courts of this country, by means of which substantial profits have been made. What is going to happen in the case of an editor who desires to maintain this character of the paper on which its circulation has been built up. I do not say that he will break the law, but if he does break the law are the proprietors of the paper to be immune from any liability under the Amendment which has been moved.


I hope the Amendment will be rejected. The position which has been put forward by the supporters of this new Clause would lead us to believe that the least important person in connection with a newspaper is the proprietor, but how anyone can hold that view after what has occurred in the last week or two passes my comprehension. May I give the House one fact which answers the arguments of those who are supporting this new Clause. In the case of one Sunday newspaper, which claims to have one of the largest circulations in the country, a careful census has been taken of the contents of the' paper for some years, at a given period of the year, and the result has been this, that one-third of the newspaper has been occupied by advertisements, and leaving that out of account altogether, one-half of the rest of the space has been entirely occupied by matters of crime of every kind, very largely connected with sexual offences, and that amount of space has been standardised.

My point is this: When a celebrated case is on, we expect certain newspapers to devote a large amount of space to it. The amount of space devoted by this particular paper is not increased at such a time, showing to my mind, that there is quite a definite policy to devote one half of its space to the particular kind of matter to which we object. If that be the case, it is impossible to say that the owner of that paper, who happens to be a very well known individual, is not liable and responsible for the contents of this paper. It cannot be that week after week half of the paper is given up to stuff which degrades and pollutes the reader's mind, and that that is done by ignorance, by inadvertence, by oversight or anything of that sort. I believe that it is a deliberate policy, and I hope that this particular Clause, which would protect the owners, who are more responsible than anyone else connected with a paper, will be rejected.

The SOLICITOR - GENERAL (Sir Thomas Inskip)

The sense of the House, I think, is clearly against the Amendment. Many arguments have been advanced against the acceptance of the Clause and I do not propose to repeat them. If my hon. and gallant Friend presses the matter to a Division, I hope that the House will soon come to a decision. It is almost inconceivable that any editor would, contrary to the wish or the direction of his proprietor, publish any such serious article, offending against this Bill, as would justify the Attorney-General in allowing a charge to me made against the proprietor. If proprietors are encouraged by this Bill to take a close and personal interest in the conduct of their papers, I respectfully suggest that it will be all to the good. The fact that my two hon. Friends, the hon. and gallant Member for Dover (Major Astor) and the hon. Member for South-West Hull (Mr. Grotrian) see no reason for accepting this Clause suggests that the main opinion of the House is a right one.

Colonel APPLIN

Would the Solicitor-General state the position of shareholders as proprietors?


Shareholders are not proprietors. An Act recently passed by this House facilitated procedure against companies which are chargeable with indictable offences.


In view of the feeling of the House, I am quite willing to withdraw the new Clause, but before doing so I ought to justify myself in putting it forward. An hon. Member has said that we have the benefit of being tried by a jury and that a jury would not be likely to convict a man who was not responsible. An ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory. I was twice convicted at Hampshire Assizes for a libel inserted in my newspaper, although I knew nothing of it. My father, brother and I were convicted. We appealed. The case lasted 2½ years. We established the fact that that we were all away from Portsmouth at the time and were absolutely innocent of this libel, and we established the law at the cost of £3,000 to ourselves. Under this Bill something of the same sort may occur. The hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Scrymgeour) suggested that we give instructions to our reporters and editors to publish filthy matter in our papers. There is not a living journalist who will not resent that accusation. No working journalist in this country would accept instructions of that sort. If they were given, the proprietor would be doubly responsible. The Members of the House who have spoken have very little knowledge of the conduct of newspapers.


I have a knowledge of what I am saying.


Then it is quite beyond my experience. I have been 60 years in journalism, and have never heard of such a thing. No man with any self-respect would take an order of that character from his newspaper. He would give up his situation rather than accept the order. I do not want to press the matter, but I feel strongly that the law as it stands, the law of libel, should be extended to the law which we are now proposing to put on the Statute Book. Otherwise it would be a great injustice to those who are trying to conduct newspapers. I agree with an hon. Member who has spoken that there is one newspaper which has been wrong in this matter. Why punish all the thousand papers in this country for the sake of one man? I defy anyone to find in my newspaper any filthy matter ere anything calculated to interfere with public morals. We are asked to exist under the liability that some careless man may publish something of which we know nothing, and we are to be liable to four months' imprisonment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

The following new Clause stood on the Order Paper in the name of Sir F. MEYER:

False and Malicious Reports. If any person knowingly or maliciously publishes or causes to be published the names, addresses, or descriptions of any persons purporting to have been parties or witnesses to any judicial proceedings to which this Act applies, when in fact such persons have not been parties or witnesses to any such proceedings, he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds or to three months' imprisonment, or to both such fine and imprisonment


I have doubt whether this new Clause comes within the scope of the Bill. It appears to me to deal with another branch of the law.


My object in putting this new Clause on the Paper is to protect people from having their name brought before the public in an unfortunate way so as to bring blame upon them, without their being able to defend themselves.


I quite appreciate the hon. Member's intention. My point is, can the Clause come properly within the scope of this Bill? Does it not deal with another branch of the law altogether?


I agree that anyone guilty of doing what is set out in this new Clause is amenable to the law of libel now, the civil law. He does not come within the criminal law. This Bill deals with offences which come within the criminal law.


My point is that this would appear to be an Amendment of the law of libel. I am ready to hear a submission on that point.


I suggest that the new Clause deals with a matter which is quite outside the scope of the Bill. The Bill deals with the regulation of reports so as to prevent injury to public morals. This new Clause appears to be a proposal to prevent injury to the characters of private persons. I suggest that it relates exclusively to the law of libel or defamation, and is not within the scope of this Bill.


That confirms my view that it is outside the scope of the Bill.