HL Deb 13 July 1857 vol 146 cc1363-6

laid on the table the Report of the Select Committee which had been appointed to consider how far the privilege now given to reports of proceedings in the Courts of Law in newspapers might be extended to reports of the proceedings in the two Houses of Parliament, and in other public assemblies. The prayer of all the petitions laid before the Committee was substantially the same—namely, that there should be entire immunity to newspapers for printing and publishing anything whatever spoken at a public meeting. They heard the petitioners and their witnesses in support of that prayer; but the Committee came to the unanimous resolution that it was a prayer that could not be safely granted in the latitude in which it was sought, because a mob might be called a public meeting, and if a newspaper could lawfully publish whatever was said by any one member of that mob it would lead to the most mischievous consequences, for sedition might be spoken, and the most acrimonious attacks made upon private character. It was proposed by the petitioners also that the remedy should be against the speaker, and not in any instance against the journal; but that would in many instances leave the party calumniated without a remedy, because a man of straw might be put forward to say things to gratify the malice of some one who remained behind; and, as the law now stood, a speaker would in many cases be protected by taking refuge under the plea that he had made a privileged communication. No action would lie against a speaker for merely saying that a man was a liar or a scoundrel, or that a woman was unchaste; but when put into writing or published such language became actionable. Supposing a newspaper were to contain an account of a speech attacking private character, in which a man was called a liar, a coward, or a scoundrel, and it was circulated all over the world, to say that no action could be brought against the publisher of the journal would be to leave the person whose character was assailed without a remedy; for, as he had already said, no action lay against spoken words that merely amounted to general abuse. Parliament might, of course, make a speaker liable for a printed report of everything that was spoken by him, and thus take away all distinction between written and spoken, slander; but it would be a most important change in the law of England, and, as he believed, was wholly unnecessary. The committee thought that such a concession was unnecessary, and could not be safely granted to those who petitioned for it; but they at the same time believed that, with perfect safety to the public, there might be a protection granted against vexatious suits that did not now exist. A majority of the Committee were of opinion that a faithful report of the proceedings of either House of Parliament, when strangers were permitted to be present, should have the same privilege as a report of the proceedings of a court of justice. The majority thought that all the reasons which existed for giving that privilege to a faithful report of the proceedings of courts of justice extended to the two Houses of Parliament. It was equally important to the public that the proceedings in Parliament should be published, and that those who published them should not run the peril of an action or indictment. As to the Standing Orders forbidding the publication of the proceedings of either House of Parliament, it was hoped that these antiquated rules—which were, in fact, mere waste paper—would be speedily repealed as they were merely an impediment to that which was for the public interest. But the most important practical alteration proposed in the law for the protection of the public press was this:—At present, if a journal containing a faithful report of a meeting, called for a lawful purpose, contained anything against an individual, though he had sustained no damage whatever, he might bring an action, and if the case was proved, the Judge was bound to tell the jury to find a verdict for the plaintiff, and they were compelled to do so, giving, perhaps, a farthing damages. By a late Act of Parliament, which certainly; had checked this class of actions, the plaintiff could get no more costs than damages, so that a farthing damages only carried farthing costs; but then the defendant was burdened with his own costs. In the case of "Davidson v. Duncan," which had caused so much apprehension, though the jury, with the approbation of the Judge, found that the report was a faithful report of the proceedings of a public meeting, that there was no malice whatever, and that the plaintiff had suffered no damage, they were obliged to give a verdict for the plaintiff, which they did with a farthing damages; but the defendant was obliged to pay the costs of his own defence, which were said to be above £400. Now it was proposed that if an action was brought against a public journal for that which professed to be a report of a public meeting the defendant might plead that it was a faithful report, and that the plaintiff had sustained no actual damage; and if the jury should be of that opinion, then they could find a verdict for the defendant, and the plaintiff, instead of recovering damages or costs, would be obliged to pay all the costs of the vexatious action which he had brought. But the difficulty arose as to what should be considered a public meeting; and on this point the Committee were of opinion that public meetings should be those lawfully called by the sheriff of a county, or the mayor of a borough, for the purpose of petitioning the Queen or either House of Parliament, meetings of a town council, or board of health, or of any body acting under the authority of an Act of Parliament met to impose a rate, or to consider the local affairs of any district. These were public meetings, of which it was very important the localities in which they took place should be informed, and faithful reports of the proceedings of which should be protected; therefore the Committee came to the resolution that where a faithful report of the proceedings of such, a public meeting was given, and a plaintiff brought an action, having sustained no damage, the jury should find a verdict for the defendant, and the plaintiff be compelled to pay all costs. It would be in vain to think of legislating on such a subject as this during the present Session. He could not personally make the attempt as he was about to go on circuit; but he gave notice that at the beginning of another Session he would frame a Bill upon the Resolutions agreed to by the Committee, and submit it to their Lordships. He hoped the Bill would receive the approbation of that and the other House of Parliament and of the Queen, so that the class of vexatious actions to which he referred might never occur again.

House adjourned at Nine o'clock, till to-Morrow, Half past Ten o'clock.