The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
The Newspaper Limitation Bill, which is to be introduced by the Hon. Mr. McKenzie, is a most extraordinary measure. It is on a par with "The Printers and Registration Act of 1868," an enactment the chief clauses of which are ignored by every printer in New Zealand. In the "Newspaper Limitation Bill," clause 4 provides that the "name and address of the writer have to be placed after every article or letter which appears in a newspaper, or the writer, proprietor, editor, printer, and publisher" render themselves liable to a penalty of not less than £5 and not more than £50. We have not seen the Bill itself, but from a pretty full summary of it which we publish elsewhere, we gather that the above is something like one of the provisions in this unique measure. We do not know what can be the object of the Ministry in bringing in such a Bill, because it strikes at once at the "liberty of the press." Much has been said and written for and against the compulsory signature of newspaper articles and letters. Journalism may not be a very popular institution with some public men; but we suspect that the dislike with which it is viewed is due to its having too much rather than too little influence, and the hope and expectation of those who demand a law of signature is that a press which is no longer anonymous will be less and not more influential. There may be evils attached to an anonymous press, but, on the whole, we believe it to be of incalculable advantage to both the writer and reader, who is called upon to exercise his judgment unfettered by external influences which, under other circumstances, bias or overawe him. It may be said, of course, that a reader will often yield to an anonymous authority the same blind and unthinking acquiescence which a superior station or established name might have imposed on him; but this is only to say that the disease is stronger than the remedy, and the incurableness of the particular patient is no proof of the inutility of a medicine. But it is, above all, in respect to the writers that we think it will be found the anonymous system conduces to the public interest. It is an anonymous press alone which offers to any man, whatever his private station or his personal means, the opportunity of taking part in public affairs and bringing the resources of his mind to bear on national opinion. It is idle to say that this could be as equally well done above a signature. In the first place, many able and competent writers who now occupy themselves with public questions would be compelled to desist from pursuits which might be deemed inconsistent with their professional avocations. Journalism would be left in the hands of a few monotonous and professional contributors, and would lose all the variety, originality, and copiousness, which it derives from the resources of writers taken from every condition and occupation of life. "John Smith" or "Tommy Jones" may take just as deep an interest in politics, and be just as capable of discussing public affairs as any man. If either of them, however, send their idea to a newspaper, everyone would be asking "who is John Smith," or saying "What does Tommy Jones know about the matter." But let either of them write a leading article, or put an anonymous signature to their letters, hundreds of people will read what each has got to say just because they do not know who it is that is addressing them. It very often happens that "John Smith" or "Tommy Jones" has something to say which is quite as well worth the public's while to read as any topic by persons of "established position," and we confess we should think it a public loss if the only medium were to be destroyed through which it is now possible they may make their sentiments heard. It may be that men of "established position" dislike an intrusion which introduces rivals into a field in which they would be otherwise pre-eminent. For our part, however, we think the handicap is a fair one, and the more horses are entered the better is likely to be the page 27 race. It may be said that the influence which the anonymous system confers is both irresponsible and inordinate, that it may be abused we are not concerned to deny, for this is an objection which is common to all power. That writers are often too rash in assertion, loose in argument, and at times unscrupulous in attack may be true. But we do not find that the publicity of the speeches of men on the platform is any cure for this evil, which is imputed as the peculiar vices of the press. An anonymous press is as necessary as the ballot-box at an election. The former gives a man the power to express his views as he dares to think and the latter enables him to vote as he pleases. We are surprised at Mr. McKenzie introducing such a "Star Chamber" measure, which, if passed into law, would be as likely to injure his own friends to as great a degree as it would his opponents, against whom it is directed.