HL Deb 16 February 1857 vol 144 cc697-9

in presenting Petitions praying their Lordships to take into consideration the present state of the law with reference to the publication in newspapers of reports of the proceedings at public meetings, and to consent to an alteration in that law, enacting that the publication of a fair and accurate report, without malice, of such proceedings should not subject the publisher to an action for libel, said—My Lords, this is a very important subject, and very well deserves the consideration of your Lordships sitting as a branch of the Legislature. There came before the Court of Queen's Bench last term, in the case of Davison v. Duncan, the question whether all the proceedings of all public meetings, when published bonâ fide, may be published without any danger of any legal proceedings, however much they may calumniate an individual and be injurious to private character. I and my brethren in that Court arrived, without the slightest hesitation, at the conclusion that, as the law of England now stands there is no such immunity. We were not at liberty to consider whether the privilege sought for ought to be given to the Press. It would have been a most monstrous usurpation if we had decided that the publication before us was not liable to an action; for it had been determined over and over again by our predecessors, by whose decisions we are bound, that if there be anything slanderous in a writing it is subject for an action, and that it is no justification to plead that the slanderous matter has been written or spoken by another person other than he who published it. Such is the law of England at present; and to call upon us to alter the law, if we think it wrong, would be as preposterous as to say that we are at liberty to set aside the law of primogeniture and divide the landed estate of a deceased person equally among all his children. We sit "jus dicere, non jus dare." Our duty is to administer the law, not to abolish or even amend it. When I had the honour to propose in this House a Bill which afterwards became law, and which effected a most material improvement in the law of libel, I submitted a clause very limited in its nature—for I was afraid to go very far—providing that any bonâ fide account of the proceedings of either House of Parliament should be privileged, and not subject to an action. I was unable to carry it; there was a majority against me, because it was said not only that the law gave no such privilege, but that it ought not to be given. After having failed as a Member of this House to alter the law, it would have been a breach of my duty if, sitting as a Judge in a court of justice, I had declared the law to be contrary to what your Lordships had decided it to be. Your Lordships may reconsider that decision; and, in that case, if my proposal with respect to the proceedings of the two Houses should be again submitted, I shall be glad to give it my most ardent support. For it seems to me monstrous to say that if there be a bonâ fide report of a speech in Parliament published the publisher should be liable to an action. That is different from a case which occurred about fifty years ago, when a noble Earl in this House made a speech calumniating his steward, and published it himself. The publication in question led to an action, because it was not a bonâ fide account of the proceedings in this House, but was intended to calumniate a private individual; and such an action would continue to he available if the clause which I proposed were passed into a law to-morrow. But while, as far as the proceedings of the two Houses of Parliament are concerned, I would zealously support the extension of the privileges of the Press, I am not prepared to grant the same immunity to reports of the proceedings of all public meetings; because to say that the publication in newspapers of whatever is said at any public meeting, or at anything which may be called a public meeting, should be privileged would lead to very alarming consequences. It has been said that the person calumniated may bring an action against the man who makes the speech; but it must be remembered that a speech spoken is a smaller injury than one that is published and sent all over the world. Still I am not prepared to say that the liberty of publication should not be extended to all public meetings under certain limitations and restrictions; but I bold that it would be preposterous for the Judges sitting on the bench to legislate as well as to declare what the law of England is, and I hope that such a precedent will never be established in this country.

House adjourned till To-morrow.