said, when he yesterday asked, with reference to that very important ordinance, connected with what was called the liberty of the press in Malta, whether it was sanctioned by the commissioners, he was told that if he looked at the report he would see whether it was so sanctioned or recommended or not. He had looked into the report, and he did not find anything there to show that it was recommended by the commissioners. So far from that ordinance being favourable to the liberty of the press, he contended that it was calculated to extirpate the liberty of the press in Malta. He wished to know from the noble Marquess whether the commissioner did really authorize that ordinance or not? and whether there were any objection to laying it upon their Lordships' table? He had been also told that this ordinance was not confirmed. But it turned out that, at all events, it had been acted on; for by this day's mail he had received the Malta Gazette, or newspaper, which he held in his hand, and there he found a report of a trial under the fifth chapter of this law—a conviction for libel, and a sentence of six months' imprisonment for that libel, for censuring without defaming, for if there had been defamation the penalty would have been twelve months imprisonment. This action, it appeared, grew out of some observations on the Roman Catholic religion. One part of this chapter said, that if any person advanced anything hostile to the Roman Catholic religion he should be liable to punishment. Now, he should 312 presume to say, that the fifth chapter meant only to declare that the Roman Catholic religion was better than no religion. It never could mean, that if you denied it to be the best possible religion you thereby libelled it. He thought it would be just as much a libel on an individual—on any noble Lord in that House—if he were to say to that noble Lord that, though he was better than a great many others, yet he did not think, for all that, that he was the very best man in the world. He might say that, without any breach of truth; he might say that, without meaning any disrespect; he might say that, without being guilty of a libel. He could imagine another way in which the matter might be considered. It might be asked, whether it was better to have no religion at all rather than the Roman Catholic religion? Those who would affirm the proposition that it was better to have no religion, held an opinion exceedingly different from his, and, as he conceived, a most erroneous opinion; for, though he denied the truth of the Roman Catholic religion, he looked upon it to be a most exaggerated attack upon that mode of faith to say, that it was better to have no religion at all. The writer who had been convicted in this case of libel said, with reference to the Catholic religion, "that it left the mind at a loss to determine whether it be better than any religion at all:" and for that he was sentenced to six months imprisonment. Now, the statement was not whether the Catholic religion was better than "no religion at all," but whether it was better than "any religion at all." If a man in this country were to say five thousand times over, even of the religion of the Church of England, that "he doubted whether it was better than any religion at all," provided he used the expression in an argumentative manner, temperately and moderately, as a Dissenter might do, what law was there to punish him for that? The late Mr. Coleridge had wittily observed, "When you state that such a religion is better than no religion at all, it is just as if you should say sugar of lead is better than no sugar at all, therefore it is proper that you should put it in your tea —oil of vitriol is better than no oil at all, therefore it was fit that you should compound your salad with it." He might admire the wit, but he disapproved of the conclusion. For any thing he knew, the next packet might bring an 313 account of a man, under this ordinance, being convicted at Malta, for making the most innocent observations—for merely saying that he disapproved of the conduct of another man, and be punished for it. Certainly, the state of the law intended for the liberty of the press in Malta was most monstrous. Why, there was one part of it by which a man about to be libelled, if he did not himself prevent that libel, was liable to conviction and six months' imprisonment. He was considered as an accessory before the fact of his character being libelled by another person. Nothing more absurd or unjust could possibly be imagined. He hoped there would be no objection to lay before Parliament the whole of this matter, and he would now repeat his question as to whether that ordinance was recommended by the Maltese commissioners?
The Marquess of Normanby
would repeat what he had said on a previous occasion, that it would tend much to the convenience of the public service if notice were given of questions of this nature; and it was particularly desirable in his department, otherwise it was possible that his answers might be given without a due knowledge of the subject, and, in consequence, a wrong impression might go forth. Such a course would be not only fair to him, but to his noble Friend who preceded him in the office, and who was much better able to give a reply than himself, inasmuch as a considerable portion of the proceedings took place during the time his noble Friend had held the colonial seals. They were now trying a libel case over again, with an English translation of an Italian version. He thought, from the excitement of the noble and learned Lord, that it would have been desirable for him to have given notice for Monday, or some other day, instead of asking the question now. He would, however, answer the question on the present occasion, but he protested that this was the last time he would answer a question without notice. The ordinance was sent out by his noble Friend who preceded him, on the recommendation of the commissioners, subject to any alteration which the council might consider advisable. The only step he had taken in the matter was to suspend, but not to disallow, the law until her Majesty's pleasure should be made known. After the laborious report of the commissioners, which proved that 314 the subject had received the most serious deliberation, he could not think of disallowing the ordinance until the subject should be duly canvassed. That which had been adopted was nothing more than an experiment, and there was nothing to warrant him at once to undo it. He regretted the absence of his noble Friend, who could have given much more satisfactory information to the House; but he would observe, that there was no liberty of the press at all until the ordinance had been sent out. In fact, there was nothing but a censorship.
could not take any blame to himself for asking the question. The noble Marquess after the discussion of the previous night, could not have been unprepared with an answer; for the slightest degree of male curiosity ought to have induced the noble Marquess to inquire into the matter. It appeared now that the noble Marquess knew a great deal about the question. This law, it was stated, had been most deliberately framed, and was not agreed to until after mature consideration and much discussion. However, two years and a-half had been suffered to elapse between the demand made for the liberty of the press in Malta and its infliction in the present way. Talk of a censorship! the censorship was ten times more harmless than this ordinance, for he should be glad to know what censor, with a head upon his shoulders, would have sent a man to prison for censuring another without defaming him, in a manner that did not even tend to defame him, and that without any power to mitigate the sentence. The noble Marquess had spoken of his excitement. His only excitement was, that he spoke like one who took some interest in the law of libel, and who was opposed to such an unwarrantable ordinance as this, which was worthy of the time of Charles lst.—of the Attorney-generals of the Stuarts, or, to go further back, of the Tudors themselves. This ordinance was given in performance of what? In performance of a promise given in a proclamation, where it was stated, that the Government was resolved to grant the liberty of the press to Malta. When he found that this atrocious law of libel was granted in performance of that solemn promise—when he found that praise was given to the Government in the other House of Parliament for having bestowed such liberty of 315 the press as he had described upon Malta, he could not avoid expressing his astonishment, and in doing so he could not avoid manifesting some degree of warmth. Now, as to the new doctrine introduced to-night by the noble Marquess, namely, that no question should ever be asked without previous notice, he begged leave to dissent from it. In the other House of Parliament, where he sat with the noble Marquess, it was a matter of constant occurrence to put questions to official personages without notice. And those questions were always answered, except they were such as no man could answer without previous consideration. But his question was the most harmless in the world, and one which he supposed could have been very easily answered. In times of great majorities—when there was a strong-minded Administration, and the more strong-minded the greater their courtesy—they did not bluster and demur, and say they could not answer a question without notice. No; questions were uniformly answered, except, as he had before said, when they were questions of such a nature as, involving public matters, required deep consideration. He would now show the different conduct of a council in Malta, where there was copia peritorum, and of another council in Malta where was inopia peritorum. To the last this ordinance was owing. It was presented to a council, in which there was not an English lawyer to consider it; and, whatever the Maltese lawyers might have said, the fact that it was agreed to, proved to him the folly and absurdity of having removed the British judges; for certain it was, that neither the British Chief Justice nor the British Attorney-general were of the council that approved of the ordinance as it now stood. But there had been another council, of which the Chief Justice was a member, and that which occurred there showed the necessity for the appointment. Certain duties had been decided on to the amount of 70,000l. or 80,000l. a-year. It was necessary, however, that certain machinery should be provided, to render legal the levying of those duties. Well, for that purpose a code was drawn up and transmitted to the council; but, when examined, it was found to be altogether objectionable. That code could not be adopted, for it was in many parts illegal. And who pointed out these objections? Why, the Chief Justice, who had 316 been removed. The liberty of the press ordinance was passed in the absence of a chief justice—the presence of a chief justice prevented the adoption in the other case of an illegal code. This showed the difference between having a council assisted by an English lawyer, and having a council attended by a Maltese judge.
The Marquess of Normanby
felt positive that the noble and learned Lord would not have been allowed in the House of Commons to make such a speech as he had made that evening on putting a question. He had yesterday objected to answer the question put by the noble and learned Lord, entirely on the ground of the general inconvenience which would arise if questions put without notice assumed the form of speeches requiring replies of a considerable length, and he had not made the objection on his own account, but for another reason which did not appear to have occurred to the fair and candid mind of the noble and learned Lord, and which was, that the observations of the noble and learned Lord regarded more particularly a noble Friend of his who was absent, and who must be better acquainted with the circumstances to which the noble and learned Lord had referred, and particularly as to the suppression of the offices of Attorney-general and Chief Judge, than he was. As to the other observations which the noble and learned Lord had thought proper to make, he would only say, that whether the present Government was strong or weak, he should exercise his own discretion as to the course which was consistent with his public duty, and he could not think, that it was for the advantage of the public, that public servants should be called upon to answer at once any question which might be put to them without notice. He should say nothing of the tone in which the noble and learned Lord had made his remarks further than to observe, that neither the words nor the gesticulations of the noble and learned Lord could produce any effect upon him, for he fortunately was not of a temper likely to be disturbed by anything of that kind.
said, the noble Marquess had altogether changed his ground, and his complaint now was, not that he had put a question without notice, but that he had made a speech without notice. In answer to that, he begged to 317 observe, that the practice in the two Houses of Parliament was wholly different. He had heard over and over again, speeches made on putting questions, and when the answers were given to the questions, replies were frequently followed by rejoinders, sur-rejoinders, rebutters, and sur-rebutters. If the objection was, that he made a speech without making a motion, what could have been easier for him to do than to make then the motion which he was now about to make?
said no notice was necessary; there was no regulation to that effect; it was a matter of courtesy, and not of right. The motion too which he would make was one of course, and therefore not such as it was usual to give any notice of. He should move for a copy of the ordinance respecting the liberty of the press in Malta, and he begged leave to give notice, that unless by Thursday next he found, that the ordinance was revoked, he should again call the attention of the House to the subject. It was the grossest delusion to say, that there were only two or three objections to the ordinance; it was full of objectionable provisions, and it was quite enough to say, that it would extirpate every vestige of the liberty of the press. The noble Lord concluded by making his motion.
§ The Duke of Wellington
would make one observation on the conversation which had taken place, He thought it was most desirable to adhere to the practice which had been followed in that House, and indeed in every well regulated public assembly, of not making motions without previously giving notice of the nature of the subjects proposed to be discussed when they were made. He begged to remind the noble and learned Lord, that considering the situation which the noble and learned Lord had filled in that House, he ought, of all men, to he anxious to adhere to the rules which had been hitherto observed for preserving order.
could assure the noble Duke, that while he had the honour of holding the situation to which the noble Duke had alluded, he had done everything in his power to preserve something like order among their Lordships, but it was the most hopeless task which he had ever undertaken. The reason was, that 318 the Speaker of that House had no greater power than any other noble Lord, and that made it the more necessary for the noble Duke as well as himself; now to give their best assistance towards the preservation of regularity in the proceedings of the House. The noble Duke would find it a more arduous undertaking than he imagined; but its difficulty was no reason why the noble Duke should not attempt it.
§ Motion agreed to.