HC Deb 20 June 1934 vol 291 cc518-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.4 p.m.


I desire to raise the question of sensational Press reports of criminal cases in which the defendant is bound over not to offend again, and, in doing so, I would like to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for having used, in giving notice of my intention to raise this question, the form of words: Owing to the unsatisfactory nature of the reply. I realise that there was much sympathy in his reply to my question and the real reason why I am raising it further is because the answer was that I could not get from the Government the legislation that I desired to get and I hope very much that he will do some- thing by administrative means. Perhaps it would be best to illustrate the case that I have to put to the House, if I were to take straight away an example of what I mean by sensational reports of criminal cases. The week before last a young man was convicted before the Cambridge magistrates for stealing books. He was already a young man of distinguished scholastic achievements and good character otherwise and at the time he was sitting for an examination. He was arrested, charged and convicted and the magistrates decided to bind him over for two years. They adopted that lenient course with the object of enabling him to reform himself, to regain his self-respect, to become a good citizen and to put at the service of the State the great gifts which clearly were his. No one could fail to approve of that decision, which is so cognisant of the humanity that has grown in our law. Only 100 years ago that young man would have been sent to Tasmania to spend the rest of his life in company with criminals guilty of gross offences. Now he is given, according to the intention of the magistrates, a chance to put his crime behind him. Has he that chance?

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


That young man who had been convicted, the next morning, gratified as he no doubt would be—


May I point out that the hon. Member may put himself in a difficult position because he made certain reflections on one of His Majesty's Dominions. He talked about the criminals of Tasmania.


That is 100 years ago, and since then Tasmania has surely grown in population. Perhaps I need not say any more about it. Let me proceed to my real complaint. On the day after that conviction, the young man in question must have opened his morning paper, as many of us in this House did and, to my knowledge, commented upon it, and found in glaring headlines: "Perfect Boy Turns Thief" and underneath "Parents Who Gave All." I think that the House would be with me in saying that those headlines would merit the words "brutal" and "callous" and were against the best traditions of journalism. Underneath was a photograph, which is probably a worse pillory to-day than were the stocks in the old days. Beneath that were the titbits of the sensational report, and beneath that again was an interview with the parents of the boy—an interview which was pathetic in that the parents could not possibly have known to what a monstrous use their conversation with the reporter was to be put. Perhaps the only comment with which I might sum up that case would be to say that, in spite of—as the magistrates intended-being able to add honour in future to the boy's name, by not only loading it with distinction, but also by the additional achievement of putting his offence behind him, if indeed he is ever going to win honour in this country, he has probably got to change that name for another. I apologise to the House for dragging up that wretched case at all. I do not apologise for dragging up the subject. That case is perhaps a worse than typical case; at the same time, there are other cases frequently appearing in which the comment of the Press is not fair comment and actually contradicts the express purpose of the magistrates in their verdict. The aims of our doctrine of punishment to-day are surely not only to protect the community, but to enable the wrongdoer to reform himself.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department whether or not he could do one of three things. The first is—I recognise that there are difficulties in this, and that it may be quite impossible—could he send out a circular to the magistrates drawing attention to the fact that they can guide the Press in cases of this kind, as to whether or not such comment is likely to detract from their purpose in binding over the offender. That may be quite impossible. If not, could he issue a protest from his Department to the Press themselves possibly saying that, if their discretion were not properly used in the future, it might have to be subjected to legislation analogous to that for the suppression of evidence in the divorce court passed a few years ago? Failing either of those two courses, can he tell me whether, in the very remote and improbable odds of a private Member drawing in the ballot the right to introduce a Bill, such legislation would be welcomed by his Department? I do not know whether I can get a favourable reply on any of these proposals, but I fell that my right hon. Friend will have sympathy with regard to the case that I am raising, and that he will recognise, as the Home Secretary recognised, in reply to my question yesterday, that such comments do often negative the purpose of the magistrates. I hope, therefore, that he will give me a sympathetic reply on this question. I think my raising the matter in the House and a sympathetic reply from him will do something to check the abuse of an ancient right of the Press, which has lately, and on several occasions, been subject to a gross breach of the spirit, if not of the letter.

11.16 p.m.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Douglas Hacking)

My hon. Friend at the beginning of his speech apologised to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for having said, when giving notice that he would raise this subject to-night, that he did not consider the reply of my right hon. Friend satisfactory. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend will be very glad to hear the apology which my hon. Friend has made to him, and that, in fact, the reply was perfectly satisfactory, so far as a reply given across the Floor of the House on such a case could be. My hon. Friend need not apologise for raising the subject to-night. I know that he feels very keenly about the particular instance which he has quoted, and he naturally fears that there may be other cases of a like kind which would be detrimental to the individuals who had been bound over. My hon. Friend must realise, however, that I cannot discuss this particular case in any detail. It would be wrong and out of order to discuss it or the decision of the court. I have very little to add to the reply that was given by my right hon. Friend yesterday, but perhaps it would be right if I let my hon. Friend know the general principle which has hitherto governed the law and practice relating to criminal proceedings. In the submission of His Majesty's Government, proceedings should take place in open court, and, speaking generally, there should be no restriction on the publication of those proceedings. Certain exceptions, as my hon. Friend knows, have been made in the past, under, for example, the Official Secrets Act and for the protection of the interests of the State; but, as regards adult offenders—I am not speaking of young offenders—the general principle is that proceedings should be taken in open court. Perhaps it would be well to refer to a portion of my right hon. Friend's reply to my hon. Friend's question where the Home Secretary stated that he recognised that indiscreet Press reports may make it more difficult for a first offender to rehabilitate himself, and my right hon. Friend expressed the view that it is very desirable that those responsible for reporting criminal cases in the Press should bear this point in mind."—[OFFICIAI, REPORT, 19th June, 1934; col. 193, Vol. 291.] That answers one of the requests made by the hon. Member in his speech tonight. I hope that the Press will take notice not only of what the hon. Member has said, but also of my right hon. Friend's reply to the question yesterday. The only completely effective protection, however, for the individuals whom the hon. Member desires to protect would be to require that the case should be heard in camera, and there are obvious reasons why it would be impracticable to have cases heard in camera. The court would not be in a position to decide whether it intended to deal with the case under the Probation of Offenders Act or otherwise until it had been concluded. The other alternative to holding the case in camera would be to prohibit the publication not merely of the evidence, but also of the result, and it might be that if the result were published without the evidence a wrong interpretation might be placed on the evidence. In other words, it is possible that the result might give the impression to the public that the case was worse than it was in fact, and in cases where the offence is of a trivial nature it is perhaps in the interest of the man himself that the full facts, and not only the result, should be published. Apart from these practical difficulties, there are two considerations of principle which suggest the importance of proceeding with great caution in the direction suggested by the hon. Gentleman. In the first place, there is no doubt that one of the most effective deterrents against the commission of crime is the fear of publicity, and we must bear that fact in mind. Another and equally serious question for consideration is that the hon. Member's proposal might be thought to assist in the hushing up of offences committed by persons who are supposed to be in a position to bring influence to bear. It has been said with great truth that it is of great importance not only that justice should be done but that it should appear to be done.


Would it be possible for magistrates to be given a discretion to prevent the evidence being published, but not the result?


I am coming to that point. There is a risk of magistrates being accused. We in this House would probably be prepared to trust the justice of the country. We hold it in high regard. But if certain cases relating to influencial men did not get into the Press, it might be said by other people that the evidence had not been published because the men concerned were influential, or had friends on the bench. That might be an undesirable thing. The hon. Member has put three questions to me. He has suggested that magistrates should have the power to instruct the Press in certain cases that they should not publish the details. The answer I have given shows that that might not be desirable. The hon. Member requests that we should issue a protest to the Press requesting them to use their discretion. I repeat that I hope that not only my hon. Friends's speech but what I have said tonight, and what my right hon. Friend said yesterday, will have some effect in that direction.

Then the hon. Member asked whether a Private Member's Bill would be looked upon with favour. We must wait some little time before there will be an opportunity for fresh Private Member's Bills to be introduced into this House, and I would prefer to see the Bill, before giving a definite reply to that question. I want to assure my hon. Friend that the Home Office has every sympathy with the introduction of this discussion to-night. Although it is not for me to express any opinion with regard to the individual case mentioned, nevertheless I think I can go so far as to say that that case would come within the category in which publication of the full details might be undesirable.

Having said that, and having indicated that it is desirable that the Press should use their discretion, there is little that I can do, for it is undoubtedly true that without legislation no great power can be used and we are not entitled, I understand, to discuss legislation to-night. So I must leave the matter, I hope not in a very unsatisfactory way, by saying that we have sympathy with my hon. Friend and we hope that the Press will use their discretion in a better way than they have done in such cases in the past. We sincerely hope that, if they do so, few if any cases will arise in the future such as my hon. Friend has brought to the attention of the House to-night.

11.27 p.m.


I would merely add to what has been said that I gathered that the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Crossley) was not so anxious to have suppressed the reports of what actually took place as to have some check put upon the type of comment that newspapers make. Surely that might be considered in future. Let us have reported the actual things that take place in the court, but let us have some check on the sort of comment which is made for sensational purposes by certain newspapers.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.