HC Deb 01 April 1846 vol 85 cc375-81

, in resuming the adjourned debate on the subject of the action brought against the editor of a Wolverhampton paper for the republication of a report of the rev. Mr. Allen, an inspector of schools under the Education Commissioners, published and circulated by order of Parliament, said he wished to obtain a reply from some Member of the Government as to their intentions with respect to this case, which not only was one of great individual hardship, but in which an important public principle was involved. It was alleged that the school in question had suffered great diminution of its funds, and had been kept closed for six years in consequence of the misconduct of the master, part of which misconduct, consisted in his ill treatment of two boys, for which he was subjected to examination by a magistrate, one of the boys having been confined to his bed under surgical advice for a fortnight. The master of the school, Mr. Coppenthwaite Smith, was since dead; but an action had been brought against Mr. Parker, the Government printer of the Report of the Education Commissioners; and an action had also been brought against Mr. Wood, the editor of the newspaper. His learned Friend the Attorney General appeared for Mr. Parker; but the defence of Mr. Parker was abandoned on the ground that the Report which had been laid on the Table of that House was false. What he complained of was, that the editor of a publication of this kind should be subjected to penalties for copying a report appearing as an official document, which was afterwards stated to be false. Where could the conductors of public journals look for accurate reports if not to the documents laid on the Table of that House? The petitioner, Mr. Wood, having received no answer to his applications to the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State for the Home Department, a memorial was forwarded to the Treasury, signed individually by the mayor and other members of the corporation of the city of Lichfield. Mr. Allen might be, and he had no doubt was, a very respectable man, and anxious to do his duty; but in this case he had totally neglected it, for he had never gone near the school, nor examined a single person, but took the whole of the reports made to him for granted, although he was obliged afterwards to admit that a great part of them were false. Mr. Parker, as he had said, was defended by the Treasury, and damages of 40s. brought in against him; whereas the petitioner was at the last moment thrown overboard by the solicitor, and the Treasury, who relinquished the defence, and a fine of 50l., with costs, was inflicted. Although he admitted that the petitioner had no claim upon the Treasury, he hoped a recommendation would be conveyed to Mr. Allen, that Mr. Wood be remunerated by him for the expenses he had incurred. Having thus brought the case under the notice of the Government and the House, as it was necessary for him to make a Motion, he should conclude with merely moving— That there be laid before this House, a Copy of the Memorial presented to the Treasury by Mr. Thomas Wood, proprietor of the Wolverhampton Chronicle, in relation to the Lichfield Free School.


observed, that the Memorial was, in point of words, nearly identical with the petition which the noble Lord had presented to the House. He entirely concurred in the admission of the noble Lord, that the petitioner had no claim upon the Treasury. The memorial con- cluded with a prayer that the Lord's of the Treasury would take the memorialist's case into consideration, and issue an order for the payment of such damages and expenses as it should be found he had justly incurred. This prayer was considered by the Treasury not entitled to their concurrence. As far as he knew the facts of the case, he believed it to be true that the Commissioners of Education had felt it their duty to institute an inquiry into the state of the school at Lichfield, which was conducted by the very respectable gentleman who performed the duty of their inspector; and the report to which the noble noble Lord referred was presented to the Commissioners. It was of great importance that the substance of investigations of this kind should be circulated in a cheap shape in order to convey general information connected with the important subject of education; and the report so circulated in this case was copied into the newspaper of which the petitioner was proprietor and conductor. And parties upon whom certain observations were made brought actions against the person who originally printed the report, and against the proprietor of the newspaper; and his learned Friend the Attorney General, who was instructed by the Government to defend Mr. Parker, on considering the evidence that could be adduced to support the plea of justification which had been originally entered, did not think it right to maintain that plea, but submitted to a verdict; and the lowest fine that would carry costs was imposed, which was paid by the Government which had been published under their authority. But with regard to this petitioner, it appeared that he, acting in his ordinary avocation, copied this report, and added some remarks of his own. He did not enter upon the question whether anything in the verdict of the jury turned upon those additional remarks or not; but the jury who pronounced that verdict knew the grounds of the defence—namely, that the document was an official one. It was impossible, with all the caution that could be exercised, to conduct inquiries of this kind without occasionally receiving information which might be prejudicial to individuals; and he did not think that the Government were responsible for any statements of that kind into which the Commissioner might have been betrayed. There was no class of persons in the community to whom it was of greater importance that questions regarding the discharge of their duty should be governed by the decision of a jury, than the conductors of newspapers themselves. The noble Lord admitted that the petitioner had no claim for public money, and he hoped the House would feel that there was no just grounds for any imputation upon the Treasury.


observed, that the additional remarks to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, merely had reference to the corporation of Lichfield, who had put the master in the school, and had nothing to do with the subject of the Report. The hardship of which he complained was, that Mr. Wood could have done much better if the Treasury had left him altogether to his own defence, instead of abandoning him at the last moment, when it was not possible for him to put his case in a proper state for the decision of the jury.


said, he hardly know in what position the matter was before the House, because his noble Friend admitted that the petitioner was wholly without a claim. He was afraid that if he even thought that Mr. Allen ought to pay the damages and costs, and recommended him, as his noble Friend wished, to do so, his influence would be of very little avail; but he did not think that Mr. Allen was at all called upon to interfere in that way. He did not think that the original remarks which had been referred to were without any effect upon the verdict, because their object was invidiously to direct public attention to the school and to the master. They began with a Latin quotation, "Ecce iterum Crispinus"—"Lo, here he comes again"—and proceeded to designate the school as a "notorious" one. The heading given to the report of the inspector, and the invidious remarks made thereupon, to direct public attention to the conduct of the schoolmaster, had been in some way effectual in procuring such a verdict. The House would recollect a case in which the heading of a report of a trial was made the subject of an action for libel. A faithful report of the trial which had taken place would have been justifiable; but it was headed, "Shameful Conduct of an Attorney;" and the printer was made answerable for an action for libel. He differed from the noble Lord if he supposed that the additional remarks had no effect in influencing the jury. Now, with regard to his own conduct, there was a plea of justification drawn up, and certain evidence in support of that plea was laid before him. The whole of it, however, could not be proved satisfactorily; and in point of law the justification was not fully established. He did not consider it to be consistent with his duty, under these circumstances, to proceed with the defence. The case of Mr. Wood was quite distinct from that of Mr. Parker, and he was defended by a different solicitor. Mr. Wood refused to apologize to Mr. Smith in open court, and they found a verdict of 50l. damages. He should like to know how anything which had been done by Mr. Parker in the matter could justify their calling on Mr. Allen to reimburse Mr. Wood for publishing what he must say was an improper extract from a book—the report regarding the Lichfield school, and parading it before the public? He did not well understand what his noble Friend called upon the House to do; but he thought the House would not wish to interfere in a matter of that kind.


thought that the noble Lord was fully justified in bringing this matter before the House. The state of the law was imperfect which made a newspaper responsible for publishing a copy of an official document, published under official sanction, and sent into circulation on the authority of Government. The Motion of the noble Lord would have the effect of directing public attention to the subject, and would help to clear the way for an amendment of the law.


said, it was impossible that the state of things connected with the school of Lichfield, where Dr. Johnson was brought up, should not attract and excite the feelings of the nation; and it was not surprising that the editor of a newspaper in the neighbourhood should have quoted a report relating to the lamentable state of that school. He thought that some understanding should be come to—whether parties had or had not the right to consider documents published under the authority of Parliament such as might be used by them for the purpose of criticism and statement. If they had not that right, of what use were the documents? They were not got up for private use, but that the public attention might be directed to them. He considered that this gentleman was not actuated by any personal malice, but that, being strongly excited at the lamentable state of things in his own neighbourhood, he reprinted an authentic document, accompanying it with some expressions arising from the facts as he viewed them.


happened to know something of the case, because he was subpoenaed at the trial. This was not a case of merely copying a report. If Mr. Wood had done that, he would have a different case, and the verdict might be considered hard upon him. But he commented upon the report in every way, and accompanied it with remarks which were most unjust, unsound, and untrue. That made the greatest difference in the case.


said, that his noble Friend brought forward this case in order to call the attention of the House and the Government to the great principle involved in it. The question was, whether those who conducted the newspapers of England could with safety, or without the risk of actual ruin, republish those documents laid in the shape of great blue books, or small papers, on the Table of the House—whether they could legally publish those documents which were published under the authority of that House. In the present instance he admitted that the gravamen did not consist in publishing the document, but in the heading prefixed to it, although Mr. Parker, who had the direct sanction of the House, and published the document, only had a verdict against him amounting to 40s. damages; yet he thought that Her Majesty's Government would be only exercising a wholesome discretion, if, as they did on other instances, they reimbursed Mr. Wood for the expenses which he had incurred. He offered to make every apology that a reasonable man could be expected to make; and unless they were prepared to sanction the principle that their reports should be commented upon by none who had not the privilege of Parliament—that no person should speak of their reports unless within the four walls of that House, he could not but think that some indulgence should be shown to this gentleman, who had done no more than other proprietors of newspapers had done with respect to similar reports, namely, call attention to a report which spoke of a state of things connected with his neighbourhood.


said, that the line was distinct between the legislative functions of that House and the exercise of any legal authority. The less the House attempted to involve itself with the proceedings of the courts of law the better. He thought that a case had been made out for a change in the law, but that none had been made out for the interference of the House in the case brought before them. Whenever public documents were issued relating to the public good, they ought to be animadverted on by the public press of this country. While on this subject, he begged to put a question to the right hon. Baronet with regard to the important subject of the reform of the grammar schools of this country. It was now two years since the Report of the Commissioners on this subject had been laid on the Table, and he wished to know whether it was the intention of the Government to bring in any Bill on the subject founded on the Report of the Commissioners.


said, that in consequence of the immense accumulation of other public business to which his attention was directed, he had not given that attention to the subject to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which it required. With regard to the particular case before the House, he must observe, in reference to what had fallen from the hon. Member for the University of Oxford, that this was not so much a question of publishing a public document as one respecting the documents which accompanied it. The jury did not question the right to publish a public document; but they seemed to deny the justice of the comments made; and in the present case they drew the distinction, because in the case of Mr. Parker they awarded only 40s. damages; but, in estimating the damages to be given for the comments which accompanied the document, the jury came to a different conclusion, for they found a verdict for 50l., marking thereby that in their opinion there was malice in the comments, and not a desire to do justice. He thought it would be most unreasonable and highly inconvenient if, under these circumstances, and after two verdicts had passed, the House were to interfere in the matter.

Motion withdrawn.