HL Deb 11 February 1840 vol 52 cc78-84
Lord Monteagle

, in presenting petitions from Lambeth and Tooting, for inquiry into the doctrines and the proceedings of the Socialists, said, that he hoped he might be allowed to avail himself of that opportunity to make a few observations on what had fallen from a right rev. Prelate (the Bishop of Exeter) in reference to the Stamp-office on a former occasion. He was anxious to give some explanation, as what had fallen from the right rev. Prelate was calculated to give rise to erroneous impressions and to be productive of pain to individuals. He was sure that it was not the intention of the right rev. Prelate to mislead their Lordships, and he wag convinced that if the right rev. Prelate had been fully aware of the facts of the case, the statement to which he alluded would not have been made. The statement was this:—The right rev. Prelate had brought under their Lordships' consideration a certain weekly publication on which he had adverted in terms of strong condemnation; but not stronger he must say, than the publication deserved. The paper to which the right rev. Prelate alluded was called the New Moral World. In the course of his observations, the right rev. Prelate stated, that that paper, which every rational person must allow was open to every possible sort of imputation, from the absurdity and wickedness of the doctrines which it advocated, was returned to the Stamp-office, and he had charged the officers of that department with neglect of duty in not prosecuting a paper of that description. [The Bishop of Exeter—"No, no."] He believed the right rev. Prelate had stated, that the New Moral World was taken in at the Stamp-office, and that therefore there could be no difficulty in suppressing it. If it was not stamped, the right rev. Prelate had said, that it was the duty of the Government to put down a paper of such a character. Now, that statement implied gross neglect on the part of the Stamp-office, and on the part of the Government, as it inferred, that by a guilty remissness on the part of the proper authorities, the publication in question had obtained a certain extent of impunity and of circulation. But the facts were not as had been, he would not say stated, but inferred, by the right rev. Prelate, This publication was net a news- paper. But even if it had been a newspaper, and if it did go to the Stamp-office, it did not go to that office with the view of enabling the officers of that department to exercise any authority over the doctrines which it advocated, or over the matter which it contained. The Stamp-office could exercise no such authority—it could not act as a custos morum—it could take no notice of the doctrines which the publication contained, as it was a mere fiscal department, and could only prosecute for breaches of the revenue laws. But this was not all. If this publication was stamped, it was well known that the stamp was put upon the paper before the impression was made of the matter published: and as the stamping was an act preliminary to the printing, the right rev. Prelate ought to have known that the Stamp-office could not consequently be responsible for what appeared in that paper, or in any other. It was quite true, as the right rev. Prelate had said, that the New Moral World did go to the Stamp-office; but let him ask why? It went to the Stamp-office because every publication containing advertisements was required to be sent to that office for the purpose of enabling that department to see that the duty on those advertisements was paid. In that way newspapers, magazines, or other publications, were sent to the Stamp-office, if they contained advertisements; but he was sure their Lordships would not hold the Stamp-office guilty in not prosecuting those periodicals for any articles they might contain which were deemed improper. The Stamp-office had nothing to do with the contents of those publications, and it was simply the duty of the officers of that department to see that the duty was paid upon the advertisements. It would now be clear to their Lordships, although there was a certain degree of responsibility cast upon the Stamp-office, with reference to the advertisements contained in these publications, that yet there was, in fact, when the matter was properly explained, no responsibility whatever, cast on that office, for the opinions contained in any publication. He had understood, that the right rev. Prelate had made inquiries at the Stamp-office in regard to this subject, that he had sent a person to that office with the view of ascertaining what the facts actually were, but the right rev. Prelate had not applied directly to the chief officers, the Commissioners of Stamps, from whom he would have received most satisfactory explanation, but to some of the subordinate officers, from whom full information could not be obtained. It was on that half information, correct as far as it went, but incomplete that the right rev. Prelate had come down to that House, and made the statement to which he had been alluding, and which was calculated to lead their Lordships to suppose, that there had been neglect on the part of the officers of stamps, which had enabled the publication in question to attain a certain extent of circulation. Before he sat down there was another matter to which he wished shortly to call their Lordships' attention. It had been stated on the best authority—he might say on the highest possible literary authority—that the measure of 1838, which had received the sanction of both Houses of Parliament, and became law, and which was introduced for the purpose of lowering the duty on newspapers, and for the suppression of unstamped publications, had been productive of no results. It was further said, that, by the connivance of the Government, those unstamped publications, which had been so much and so justly complained of, had been encouraged, and that they had, in consequence, greatly increased. Now, he must say, with all respect, that a more groundless charge could not have been brought forward—a greater misrepresentation could not have been made. When the measure for the reduction of the stamp duty on newspapers was introduced, the circulation of the unstamped publications exceeded in amount the circulation of the most-widely circulated newspaper in the metropolis. On one occasion an unstamped Sunday newspaper circulated 40,000 copies, a number exceeding, he believed, the circulation of the other publications coming out on that day. It was said, that the Government had connived at the circulation of these unstamped publications, but he would take it upon himself to say, that no exertion had been spared by the Government of which he had been a member, to put a stop to those publications, nor had any suggestion or recommendation of the law officers of the Crown, or of the revenue officers, been neglected. Upwards of 800 persons had been prosecuted for the sale of these unstamped papers, before the alteration of the stamp duties; but instead of repressing, every prosecution had tended to increase the evil. Those prosecutions had actually tended to encourage the publication of those papers, for when a conviction was obtained and a fine imposed, a subscription was entered into for the payment of the penalties, and a reward was actually given for the violation of the laws, What now were the facts? Since the time that the stamp-duty on newspapers had been reduced, no prosecution had been instituted, and when it was recollected, that those publications might be prosecuted at the instance of the magistrates, he thought, that that was a proof that their number was not so great as formerly. But that was not all. Those publications had rivals in trade who were sure to complain if they increased in numbers. He alluded to the stamped press, and after having inquired into the subject that day, he had found that, except in one instance, not one single complaint had been made. It was true, that their Lordships might have seen publications in the shape of newspapers, but those publications were not legally newspapers. He had to apologise to their Lordships for intruding himself on their attention at such length; but he believed, that he had only performed his duty in defending the gentlemen of the Stamp-office.

The Bishop of Exeter

said, the noble Baron had complained that he had made a statement to their Lordships upon half information. The noble Baron, however, had himself come down to that House with Jess than half information in reference to what he (the Bishop of Exeter) had stated on a former occasion; or on that occasion as the noble Baron might have learned had he taken the trouble to inquire fully into the matter, he had made no charge, no complaint whatever, against the Stamp-office. All he had said was, that the Government must have been cognizant of the existence of the New Moral World, as that publication went to the Stamp-office; and he had added that the Government had the power, even should that publication not be stamped, to suppress it under the act for the reduction of the duty on newspapers. If the publication was stamped, he had said that it was still more within the reach of the Government, and it was of the Government therefore, and not of the Stamp-office, he had complained. If the noble Baron had had the courtesy to inform him of what he complained, he would have learned that there was no foundation for the charge which the noble Baron had brought against him. The principal officer of stamps and taxes had written to him upon this subject, and that officer had understood from him (the Bishop of Exeter) that no complaint whatever had been made against the Stamp-office. His complaint has been made against the Govern- ment alone, as, whether the publication was stamped or unstamped, it was filed at the Stamp-office, and therefore within the cognizance of the Government, whom he had blamed for taking no steps for its suppression. He would refer the noble Baron to the reports in the newspapers of what he (the Bishop of Exeter) had said on the occasion alluded to, and if the noble Baron would examine the report given in The Times, he would at once see that no complaint had been made against the Stamp-office. But he was in the recollection of their Lordships whether he had made any complaint or charge whatever against the officers of stamps, and he could not understand, therefore, how it had got into the head of the noble Baron that such a charge had been made. The noble Baron had said, that the New Moral World was not a newspaper in the legal sense of the term; let them, therefore, see how the matter really stood. In the schedule of the act of William 4th. for the reduction of the newspaper duty a newspaper was thus defined:— Also any paper printed in any part of the United Kingdom, weekly or oftener, or at intervals not exceeding twenty-six days, containing only or principally advertisements; and also any paper containing any public news, intelligence, or occurrences, or any remarks or observations thereon, printed in any part of the United Kingdom for sale, and published periodically, or in parts or numbers or shall be published for sale for a less sum than 6d. Now, it would not be denied that the New Moral World was published at intervals less than twenty-six days, or that it was sold for a less sum than six-pence. The question, therefore, was, whether it contained any public news. Now, he held in his hand a copy of the number preceding the last; for he had not been able to procure a copy of the last number, and in the last page he found it stated that "the Bishop of Exeter has presented the petitions of which he had given notice, and on that occasion he made a speech of two or three hours' duration." It then went on to comment on the speech which he had addressed to their Lordships. Now, that, in his opinion, was to be considered public intelligence. Then, again, he found a long article on "Social reform," in which remarks were made on the progress of Socialism in Preston and other places. That, too, was certainly to be considered public intelligence. He apprehended, therefore, that this publication was to be considered a newspaper under the statute of William, and that therefore all the provisions of that statute were applicable to it. If it was stamped, the Government had the power to suppress it under the stringent provisions of the act to which be had alluded, If it was not stamped, still, as it contained advertisements, it was necessary that it should be forwarded to the Stamp-office, and it thus came within the reach and knowledge of the Government. The Government, if they exerted themselves, had the power of knowing what was the state of the periodical press, and it was because they had that power, and because they also had the power to suppress publications of this description, that he had complained that they had not exercised the authority, which they possessed. That was his complaint. He had complained of the conduct of the Government, and he had made no complaint whatever against the Stamp-office. He could only say, in conclusion, that the Government was bound to look at this publication, and to inquire into its character and tendency, as it was regularly filed at one of the public offices, and they could not, therefore, be ignorant of its existence.

Lard Monteagle

wished to say a few wards in explanation. If this publication was received at the Stamp-office, and if it ought to be stamped, the officers of stamps became responsible if they did not prosecute for the injury done to the revenue. Taking, therefore, the right rev. Prelate's view of the law, it was dear that he distinctly repeated his complaint against the Stamp-office. If, because a paper was sent to the Stamp-office for the purpose of counting the advertisements which it contained, the Government or the Stamp-office was to be held responsible for the doctrines which it advocated, he would leave it to their Lordships, who must see at every club house a variety of these publications, to say whether, in common sense and candour, any charge: could be brought against the Government for not knowing everything which those innumerable publications contained. The right rev. Prelate had taken upon himself to say what the law was in reference to these publications, and he had said, that any publication containing information as to the progress of Socialism was to be considered a newspaper under the statute. If the doctrine of the right rev. Prelate were correct, the Government would be called upon to proceed against some of the best periodical publications affording literary intelligence to the public—[The Bishop of Exeter.—Name.] He might mention the publication of the proceedings of the British and Foreign School Society, which had been encouraged and supported by his Majesty George 4th. That society published a journal of their transactions, which contained foreign intelligence. He would allude to a very different publication also. There was the Western Vindicator, which had excited much observation, and had been brought under the notice of the Government; but the law officers of the Crown were of opinion that the number first submitted to them was not a newspaper, but subsequent numbers containing news, were considered to be liable to prosecution,—proceedings were taken, and that paper no longer exists.

The Bishop of Exeter

had only to remark upon that observation of the noble Baron's which related to the publication of the British and Foreign School Society. He was not cognizant of that publication; but he thought it was not a publication within the short period required by the statute—namely, twenty-six days. If it did come within that period, then he had not the slightest hesitation in saying, that it appeared to him as much open to the charge of being a newspaper as the one to which he had alluded as being so. If the noble Baron did not know that to be the case, surely he might as well have talked of anything else not in the remotest degree connected with the subject.—[Lord Monteagle—Well, the Saturday Magazine.] Oh ! the noble Baron changed the name. His first attempt not succeeding, he tried what the Saturday Magazine would do. He did not believe that that publication contained public intelligence. He thought it was made up chiefly of information certainly, but not of current day-going information. He lamented that the noble Baron had not told him at once what be had been told he (the Bishop of Exeter) had said, or what the noble Baron fancied he had said, for he would have thereby spared their Lordships this conversation.

Subject dropped.

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