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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

New Zealand Herald

page 3

New Zealand Herald.

It is difficult to know how to take the Hon. J. McKenzie's Libel Act Amendment Bill. It is said that it is a mere remnant of a comprehensive measure on the subject, devised by Mr. McKenzie's encyclopædic mind, with the assistance, we presume, of Mr. O'Hara Smith. But his colleagues insisted on cutting it down, till it is now only a reminiscence of its former glory. But it is still difficult to find out what is meant by it. No one can ascertain whether it is a Cabinet measure. It has not been stated whether it is a Government Bill, on which the Ministerial whips will drive all the Government supporters into the right lobby, whatever they may think, or whether in bringing it in Mr. McKenzie is simply fighting for his own hand. We have not even been told whether it is a serious effort to revolutionise the newspaper press and the law of libel, or whether it is a joke, after the model of the famous Washers and Manglers Bill of Mr. Buckland. We can scarcely credit the joke theory. Mr. McKenzie is a Scotchman, and is of the elephantine type which no doubt Sydney Smith had in his eye. He hates newspapers with a perfect hatred. They annoy and irritate him, and he is determined to put a gag in their mouths. His Bill provides that every article and letter appearing in a newspaper must be signed by the name and address of the writer. We have not seen the precise terms of the Bill, but according to a Wellington paper, theatrical notices and almost every second paragraph in a paper would have to be signed by a name and address. Such a system prevails nowhere in the world. Mr. McKenzie goes far beyond any law or custom in France. The signature to an article, or letter, be it remembered, would in no way protect the proprietor of the newspaper from an action for libel, and the only result would be to show to a curious public who wrote the articles or paragraphs.

Such an innovation would be opposed to the whole history of Anglo-Saxon journalism, and would be impossible to be carried out. In some of our magazines the articles are now signed by the writers, the chief purpose being to advertise. An article stands a greater chance of being read if it is signed by a man who is already known as an authority on the subject, or who has obtained a reputation for a bright, striking style. The system has its drawbacks too, for conductors of magazines like to parade the name of a person of rank, or of a well-known individual, although he or she may be by no means the person best fitted to deal with the topic in hand. But magazines are generally different from newspapers. A magazine will one month have an article dealing with a social or political question, and in its next issue it will contain a scathing reply. Newspapers do the same in their correspondence columns, but they could not pursue such a policy in their leading articles. The whole system of newspaper management in England, America, and the colonies is against the plan of everything being signed. The person who really directs the policy of the paper, and who is responsible for its utterances, may not write anything in it at all. All articles, contributions, and criticisms pass under a supervision, and are subject to alteration, which is sometimes rather extensive. In such a case, who is to sign the article, the person who wrote the original draft, or the person who has made, perhaps, radical changes in it? Moreover, it can be a matter of no interest at all to the public to see the names and addresses of the staff of a newspaper printed all over its pages every morning. In regard to letters, that is a matter which is under the control of every editor. Sometimes he considers himself justified in declining to publish a letter unless it is signed by the name of the writer, on the ground that the person making such statements ought to take the full responsibility for them. But it often occurs that some very serious evil has been brought to light by a person who cannot safely write unless his page 4 anonymity is preserved. Many excellent letters are written to a paper whose authors would not endure to see their names in type. To insist on all letters therefore being signed would have no good result whatever.

In regard to their conduct and management, Mr. McKenzie had better leave the newspapers alone. He knows nothing of the subject, and cannot form an idea of how any changes he may make would operate in practice. If he really wants to amend the law of libel he had better give up at once the idea of being an original reformer, and, striking out a new line, take up the law as it exists in England, and get that enacted here.