§ MR. MITCHELL HENRY
I am sorry, Sir, to interpose for a short time between the House and the special Business which is set down for this evening, but I have no alternative. I have to call your attention to a serious breach of Privilege, which is contained in a leading article which appeared in The Times newspaper of Tuesday last, reflecting on the conduct and misrepresenting the action of Members of this House. I have provided myself with a copy of the newspaper in question, and I have marked the portion of it to which I have to take exception, and if it is your wish, Sir, I will hand it in to be read from the Table, or I will now state as shortly as I can the substance of it, and it can then be read. In bringing this matter forward, I feel that it is only under the gravest circumstances that I should be justified in doing so. Having carefully considered the article in question, and the position of Members of this House, I can come to no other conclusion than that it is a deliberate attempt to intimidate hon. Members in the discharge of their duty, and also a reckless misstatement of facts occurring in this House. The law of Parliament on this subject I hold to be perfectly clear. It is a distinct breach of the Privileges of this House, and destructive of the freedom of Parliament, for anyone to publish the names of hon. Members of the House, and to reflect on and misrepresent their proceedings. Now, The Times newspaper of Tuesday published an article referring to the proceedings of the House as to the alteration of its Rules, and I am prepared to read a short epitome of it. I may here state that I am named individually, and that, therefore, I should have a right, as a Member of Parliament, to bring this matter under the notice of the House; but I believe I am also supported by a very considerable number—I may say by all—of the Members who are around me, and who are also referred to in the article. Sir, The Times says in that article that the Home Rulers watched the debates in Parliament on this subject — that is to say, as to our Rules—"with a malign intent," and at a given moment, 1842 as soon as the opposition of the independent Members appeared to have exhausted itself, and a compromise was coming into view, the Obstructionists "emerged from their ambush" for the purpose of putting into operation "their policy of exasperation." The article goes on to say—The proceedings in the House last night reveal a resolution to obstruct progress as clear as that which has been conspicuous in former debates.And referring to myself and another Member by name, the article points out that the Home Rulers voted in minorities of 49 and 31; and adds that we, whom it calls "Obstructionists," seemed almost to have succeeded in postponing a division on the first of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Resolutions till another night. Another inference is further added that—The irritation of the priesthood against the Government, and the approach of a General Election, combine to give the Obstructionist view a temporary predominance.Now, Sir, lam in a position to prove, from the Division Lists, that a more unfounded statement was never made. In all the Divisions, except one, that took place, there were more English than Irish Members; but it seems to me that whatever may be the opinion of the writer of this article, it is a very serious matter for any person to allow himself to accuse hon. Members of this House of lying in wait with "malign intent," to commit a breach of the Privileges of the House. Obstruction is a distinct Parliamentary offence, punishable by the Rules of the House; and to attribute deliberate obstruction to Members of this House is to attribute to them a serious offence against the House itself, of which the House ought to take cognizance. If these charges of obstruction are to be made without foundation, I submit that there is an insult to the majesty of Parliament itself. To show that the House of Commons is obliged to submit to obstruction of this character, and that it is not able to vindicate its authority, is, I submit, not for the benefit of this House. But the Division Lists will show how far this charge was well founded, or the reverse. The debates commenced on Monday, the 17th of February. In the first Division the 1843 minority consisted of 77 Members, 50 of whom were English and 27 were Irish. In the second Division the minority consisted of 71 Members, 45 of whom were English and 26 Irish. In the Divisions on Thursday the minority in the first was composed of 68 Members, 42 of whom were English and 26 Irish. In the second Division the minority consisted of 57 Members, of whom 37 were English and 20 Irish. In the third Division the Question of Adjournment was moved by an English Member, and seconded by another English Member. The Mover was the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Rylands), and the Seconder the hon. Member for East Gloucestershire (Mr. J. R. Yorke), who sits on the other side of the House. The minority consisted of 45 Members, of whom 25 were English and 20 Irish. On the 24th of February the minority in the first Division consisted of 81 Members, of whom 62 were English and 19 were Irish; and I may mention, to show the difference of opinion which existed as to the proposed alteration of these Rules, that in the minority was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich, while the Leader of the Opposition voted on the opposite side. In the second Division, which was one taken on a Motion of my own to divide the Estimates, and specially alluded to in the article, the minority consisted of 51, of whom 29 were English and 22 were Irish. To show whether there is any foundation for the libellous article of The Times, I may mention that in the minority was the hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Beresford Hope), and I think he will be surprised to hear himself called an Obstructionist. I always thought the Gentleman the University of Cambridge honoured by making its Representative did honour to the University in return. On the third night there was one Division in which the number of Irish Members was larger than the number of English Members. In the Division, which related specially to Ireland, the minority consisted of 33; but there were 10 English Members who voted in it. In another Division on that night the minority consisted of 49, of whom 24 were English and 25 Irish; but amongst the English Members were the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke), and the 1844 hon. Member for the City of Bristol (Mr. Morley), and an hon. and gallant Colonel (Colonel Mure), so that I think there must have been some reason in the Division. In the fifth Division the minority consisted of 52 Members—30 English and 22 Irish; and the last consisted of 52 Members, who were also made up of 30 English and 22 Irish, and amongst them were the hon. Member for the University of Cambridge, who has been so consistent throughout the discussion of this question, and other hon. Members on the Government side of the House. I think, therefore, it is proved beyond the shadow of doubt or cavil that the charge of wilful obstruction in the House against the Home Rulers is a totally unfounded and improper charge. The House, I suggest, is now sitting in a judicial capacity, and I think it ought to lay aside for a moment—if it will allow me to say so—all Party considerations and to consider whether the freedom of hon. Members of all classes should not be vindicated when it is assailed in this way. If these statements appeared in an uninfluential journal, I would not have occupied the time of the House by calling attention to them; but The Times is regarded at home as the leading journal of this country, while on the Continent it is considered to be the leading journal of Europe. Numbers of persons take their opinions from The Times, and believe nothing except what they read in its leading articles. The Times, as it came out in the Parliamentary Committee on Reporting, has exceptional advantages in the Reporters' Gallery. It has specially assigned to it a place for a summary writer, or leader writer; and, therefore, it may very well be that this very article, which totally misrepresented the facts, was written by one who at the very time, from the place in which he has a right to sit, had an opportunity of ascertaining the real facts of the case. I think Gentlemen who are proprietors of newspapers in this House occupy a peculiar position. The hon. Member who is known to be the proprietor of The Times is a gentleman whom everyone respects, and, of course, he has an opportunity of combatting the opinions of hon. Members from his place in this House. But it is a very serious matter beyond that, when in his paper the conduct and demeanour of Members 1845 of this House are misrepresented in a journal under the control of the hon. Member who is to go without responsibility. After this article in The Times has been road from the Table I shall move that it is a distinct breach of the Privileges of this House, and if the House be of that opinion, I shall make a further Motion respecting the proprietor and publisher of the paper. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh; but I beg to say this is a matter of great seriousness. The only thing that could be accomplished by it, and the only object of that article, is to bring odium on the Members of this House, and to excite ill-feeling between the two countries of England and Ireland. For my part, I do not think that ill-feeling ought to be more stimulated at the present moment; and if this House is not ready to protect hon. Members in the discharge of their duties, I can only say that we shall very much fail in our duty if we allow ourselves to be intimidated by such articles as this. In conclusion, I beg to say these charges of Obstruction appear to me to be becoming to be made a little too often, and, in fact, the House is losing its dignity. [Ironical cheers]. I expected these cheers, and I was prepared for them. There is nothing now in this charge of Obstruction. When the Government at present in Office was not in Office, the noble Lord the Member for Haddington (Lord Elcho), in a debate on the Business of the House, expressed himself to the effect that the House ought to be cautious in allowing the two front Benches to arrange the Business. The noble Lord went on to remark—The burden of the speeches of Ministerial Members during the Recess has been that the conduct of the Opposition last Session brought Public Business to a standstill, and that the Forms of the House must be altered, so as to take away from the minority powers which had been improperly exercised.That charge, made against Gentlemen who are not usually called Obstructionists, is the very charge now brought against those Irish Members who maintain their right to debate fully every question. The shrinking from a fair stand-up fight on a particular question is a characteristic of an effete Parliament. If we are to have our debates of a namby-pamby order, we had better go to the country at once. I am not willing—I have no right 1846 —to put any Question to the Chair; but I will appeal to experienced Members of the House, whether there has or has not been on any one of these occasions anything that could fairly be called Obstruction? I have shown that if there was Obstruction, it existed on the part of English Members more than on the part of Irish Members; but I repudiate this wretched charge of Obstruction. We have duties to discharge in this House. We must discharge them manfully, and, if necessary, with pertinacity. Some years ago another newspaper charged hon. Members in this House with venality, and an hon. Member, who is now no more, brought the matter before Parliament. The Irish Members at that time were called "Ultramontanes." They were previously to that called "the Pope's Brass Band," and they are now called "Obstructionists." There is always some opprobrious name to be attached to the Irish Members. On that occasion The Pall Mall Gazette—a journal which says it is written for gentlemen by gentlemen— the next day apologized for the statement, which drew from both sides very strong condemnation. In its apology, it said that the gentleman usually employed to write the article was away, and the leader had been entrusted to a fresh hand. May I not hope that perhaps the leading journal on this occasion found not its proper leader writer, but an apprentice hand, and one who, in making this accusation, has not brought credit on that journal, but very considerable odium on himself, and injury to the dignity of the House? I beg to move that this article be read.
§ [Complaint made to the House by Mr. Mitchell Henry, Member for Gal-way County, of an article in the "Times" newspaper of the 25th day of this instant February.]
§ MR. SPEAKER
Let the hon. Member bring it up.
The said paper was delivered in and the article complained of read.
§ MR. MITCHELL HENRY
I move that—The said article contains libellous reflections upon certain Members of this House in breach of the Privileges of this House.
Motion made, and Question proposed;
That the said article contains libellous reflections upon certain Members of this House in breach of the Privileges of this House."—(Mr. Mitchell Henry.)
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
Sir, the relations between the House of Commons and the Press are always, I think, delicate, and we must be careful of the way in which we take notice of comments which are made upon our proceedings in the journals of the day. Undoubtedly we do see, from time to time, articles in papers of the highest character which appear to us, or some of us, to give an inaccurate, and sometimes, as we think, an unfair, account of what takes place within the walls of this House. Sometimes, no doubt, remarks and comments are made upon the speeches and actions of hon. Members which are of a nature to cause dissatisfaction, and sometimes to induce us to take notice of them, either by correction addressed to the paper itself, or if thought worthy of the attention of the House by calling that attention. But I think there is a general feeling among us that in all these matters we ought to be very tender, and not to interfere with the fair liberty of the Press. We do not require to insist upon privileges of, perhaps, a rather obsolete character, which would enable us entirely to forbid or prevent any remarks upon what has taken place in this House. We do not desire in any way to object to fair comments, although those comments may sometimes appear to be mistaken and unfair. But I do think that it is quite right and proper that Members who may feel themselves specially aggrieved by anything that has been said should call attention to it, and should ask the protection of the House against such misrepresentation. Now, Sir, we have heard read the article of which the hon. Gentleman complains. Undoubtedly, in listening to that article, one cannot help feeling that it contained some severe remarks upon the conduct of Members of this House, and that the writer of the article used one expression which was worthy of special notice. I refer to the words that the Irish Members "had watched the debate with a malign intent." Now, if there is one Rule that is more strictly observed than another amongst Members of this House, it is that we object to one Member imputing motives 1848 and intentions to other Members, and that which we object to amongst ourselves we regard with some jealousy when it is applied by others. Well, what was "the malign intent" with which the Irish Members were charged? It was the malign intent of obstructing Public Business. Now, the question arises whether hon. Members opposite consider that to be a serious offence? I have heard language upon former occasions which induced me to think that they would have hardly looked upon that as so serious an offence as I am glad to see that the hon. Member and his Friends consider it. I must say I think it is a matter for special congratulation that the hon. Member, occupying, as he does, so prominent a position amongst the ranks of the Irish Members, should have distinctly put it as one of the grounds of complaint that the article in question accuses him and hon. Members near him of being guilty of that which is a distinct Parliamentary offence. [Cheers.] He is perfectly right in stating, in my opinion, that wilful and deliberate obstruction of the Business of the House is a distinct Parliamentary offence; and we gladly welcome from him and from hon. Members sitting near him, as I gather from their cheers, that there is no intention to minimize or palliate that offence. In these circumstances, the question as to what was intended in the three nights to which reference has been made is one which we must consider in the light of the facts which the hon. Gentleman has brought before us. Unquestionably, if the opposition offered to the Resolutions on the Business of the House was of an obstructive character, the hon. Member has proved his case that the charge of obstruction cannot be altogether confined to any particular section of the House, or to the Irish Members. A considerable number of Members of the House felt that the proposals contained in these Resolutions were important, and that they raised questions which in their view were deserving of very long and serious consideration, and of opposition which might be carried to a very considerable length. Among those were Members who clearly cannot be accused of having the slightest sympathy with obstruction. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Beresford 1849 Hope), for instance, is a man whom nobody would think of accusing, under any circumstances, of obstruction, and yet that hon. Gentleman was quite as vigorous as anybody else during the debate. I am glad that the matter has been brought forward in the way it has been by the hon. Member — good-humouredly and temperately. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that if a charge of obstruction could be maintained it would be a serious one; because obstruction is a distinctly Parliamentary offence, and he disclaimed for himself and those who sit near him any such intention. I hope, in the circumstances, we shall not be called upon to go further than what has now passed. We may place ourselves in a position of some embarrassment if we are called upon to vote on the Question that he has moved. Supposing the House were to decide that these words did amount to a breach of Privilege, we should have to follow that up by calling the proprietor and printer of The Times to the Bar; and I do not think it would be either for the interest of the House or of the public that we should engage in a conflict of that kind. On the whole, therefore, I venture to think that, having called attention to the subject in the manner he has done, the hon. Member would do well to withdraw his Motion.
§ MR. BERESFORD HOPE
Having been mentioned in the article, by the hon. Gentleman opposite, and by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I hope the House may allow me to say a few words on the question. I thank my right hon. Friend for vindicating me so thoroughly from the charge of obstruction. So far from obstructing, I was obstructed by the Forms of the House, because it happened that on the greater part of the second night's debate I was prevented from speaking at all. On the first night I proposed an Amendment which did not quite satisfy me; on the second, therefore, I asked leave to withdraw it, in order that it might be cast in a better form—such leave was a matter of course, and would have been the work of only a few seconds; but my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oxford (Sir William Harcourt) took the occasion to deliver one of those noble orations after the manner of the ancients to which we always listen with such delight. The general 1850 debate thus raised in so irregular a way, on a question in which the House was very much interested, occupied the greater part of the night, and I was the only Member that was precluded from speaking on it. I cannot accept the history which is given in this article of what took place during the three nights as accurate; but though it may be inaccurate, I cannot say that it is libellous. Members of Parliament must, above all things, show that they are not thin-skinned. Parliament is the great institution of the country, but the Press is a great institution, too. If there is anything in the Press which it is our duty, in the interest of public morality, to protest against, let us do it—but do not, I repeat, let us be thin-skinned on merely personal matters. The Resolution now before the House would, in my opinion, inflict a blow on the liberty of the Press, though the hon. Member cannot intend to do such a thing. To censure The Times for an article which, at the worst, is a little inaccurate and one-sided, would, in my judgment, not be a wise thing to do.
THE MARQUESS OF HARTENGTON
Sir, I am extremely anxious, if possible, to avoid entering into a debate on what was the meaning of The Times' article, and, therefore, I make no apology for rising thus early in the discussion. I would appeal to my hon. Friend to consider the advice given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I presume the object of my hon. Friend was to have an opportunity of repudiating the accusation of obstruction put upon the conduct of himself and his Friends rather than to bring the publisher of The Times to the Bar of this House for punishment. I think my hon. Friend has entirely gained his object. The Leader of the House has stated, with very general assent, that the account which has been given in The Times was inaccurate, and that an unfair construction has been put upon the conduct of the Home Rule Members. I think my hon. Friend will do well to be satisfied with that statement, and will not press the matter further. The House will remember that two Sessions ago I endeavoured to induce the House to re-consider the Rules which regulate its relations with the Press. The House, I am sorrj1 to say, was not willing to entertain those proposals, and the Standing Orders and Rules which regulate 1851 these relations still remain, in my opinion, of a most unsatisfactory and obsolete character. Such as they are, it is absolutely necessary that we should avoid placing ourselves in a very unworthy and discreditable position. We must exercise the great Privileges we possess with great caution and forbearance. Therefore, I think it would be undesirable, in such a case as this, to carry the matter further. I do not wish to say a word in palliation of the article in The Times; I do not wish to invite the House to enter upon that subject; but I would point out, for the satisfaction of my hon. Friend, that the obstruction imputed to him is not that wilful obstruction which I understand has been declared by the highest authority as an offence against the Privileges and dignity of the House, but that kind of obstruction which, from time to time, is practised in all parts of the House, and about which there is great difference of opinion. We shall never agree whether speeches are too long or not, or whether an undue number of speeches are made. I do not think, so far as the article in The Times is concerned, there was any intention of imputing "wilful" obstruction. However, we should waste our time in attempting to settle that point. I think my hon. Friend will be satisfied with the expression of opinion which he has obtained from the Leader of the House.
§ MR. SHAW
I venture, also, to express a hope that my hon. Friend will not press his Motion to a division. I read the article, and think it went considerably further than the Chancellor of the Exchequer would seem to imply. It appeared to me to grossly misrepresent the action of certain Members of the House who were in a minority. When my hon. Friend expressed his intention of bringing forward his Motion I was completely staggered; and I said to him that as there was exactly the same kind of descriptions of our conduct to be seen in the English papers week after week, that it would be useless to take the trouble of puffing into notoriety an article which would pass out of mind the day after its appearance. If we are to fight a battle we must not be thin-skinned. I am not a bit afraid myself if the whole House and the whole Press of the country called me an Obstructionist. Where I honestly oppose a Bill I shall oppose it, no matter what the 1852 papers say about me. We must not do anything that would in any way prevent comment in the Press upon the conduct of Members of this House. I believe the liberty of the Press was of still more importance than some of the privileges we enjoy in this House. For my own part, the only newspaper I am afraid of is The Skibbereen Eagle, which made a greater man than me—the late Lord Chancellor—tremble in his shoes. The article complained of went beyond the customary rule of comment and imputed improper motives; but the hon. Member having elicited a strong expression of opinion from both sides of the House as to its impropriety might, I consider, fairly withdraw his Motion.
§ MR. PARNELL
presumed his hon. Friend the Member for Galway had fulfilled the object he had in view, and therefore it would not be necessary for him to go to a Division. He rose merely to point out that there was something more serious than many people thought in the practice of The Times and other newspapers in misrepresenting the conduct of the Irish Members. Their desire was, above all things, to cultivate the good opinion of England with reference to Irish questions, and such articles in The Times would mislead public opinion with regard to them. The outside public would, therefore, be entirely misinformed as to the motives and action of Irish Members, and a feeling would be got up against them so as to prevent Irish Members doing their duty in the House. A proposition was made before the Select Committee last year that when any Member was accused of obstruction a Division might be taken without debate, and a decision come to summarily on the conduct of the Member in question and the punishment to be inflicted on him. If such a Rule were enforced —and it might be by the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the present Session—the opinion of the Members of the House might be so perverted by the publication of such articles that many who had not heard the speech of the Irish Member whose conduct was impugned might come in and vote for his suspension and the suspension of the rights of his constituency, not on the ground of their actual observation of his conduct, but by reason of the injurious impression derived from reading such articles. He submitted, in these 1853 circumstances, such articles assumed a much more serious complexion. The article in question imputed a deliberate intention to commit a Parliamentary offence, and, in a most invidious way, drew a line between English and Irish Members. But having performed a public duty in calling attention to the article, and having elicited an expression of opinion from all sides of the House as to its unwarrantable character, he hoped his lion. Friend would withdraw his Motion.
§ MR. MITCHELL HENRY
My object in bringing this matter before the House was, not because I want to make a stand against the newspapers of the country, or to unduly curtail their liberty of fair comment and criticism. I believe I have most conclusively shown that there is not the slightest foundation for the mis-statements which appear in the article to which I have drawn the attention of the House. At the same time, I do not think the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a fair and generous acknowledgment of the erroneous character of the article as I should have expected; but the noble Lord has done so. Other Members may have their own opinions about it; but in withdrawing my Motion, in deference to the expressed wishes of the House on both sides, I hope the House will remember that if ever an accusation of this serious character be again made, it may turn out on examination to be as equally unfounded as the present.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.