The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
The absurdity of confiding so important a measure as a Bill to amend the law of libel to the hands of such an ignorant and prejudiced a gentleman as the Hon. John McKenzie is self-evident, but it has received a very practical illustration by the ridiculous character of the Bill he is now reported to have evolved from that curious creation of providence, his alleged brain. We have not yet received a copy of the Bill, but we learn from Wellington that it will make compulsory the signing of all leading articles and newspaper correspondence with the true name of the writer. The exact nature of what is fair comment upon the public actions of politicians and others are also to be defined. If the Minister of Lands can arrive at such a definition, and at one which, while providing against personal abuse and unfair comment, shall not at the same time trench upon the necessary liberty of discussion in newspapers of public men and their public actions, he will have achieved something which will do him the highest credit, but we have no hope whatever that such will prove to be the case. Judging from his own speeches, the only comment upon matters political which the honourable John would deem to be "fair" and "proper" is wholesale "buttering-up," a fulsome flattery of himself and his colleagues, and of all their respective deeds and words. We shall be mighty curious to see this Bill, and to be enlightened as to the exact nature of the fair comment which the McKenzian brain has evolved. As to the alleged requirement that all leading articles and correspondence in newspapers shall be signed, it is altogether too absurd. Of course it would exactly suit the present Ministry to be able to spot every writer of a letter who happens to criticise the Government and their administration, for the malignancy with which certain Ministers pursue all those who dare to hold opinions of the "wrong colour" is already a matter of notoriety amongst pressmen. The House will not, we hope and trust, consent to such a regulation as that proposed by the honourable gentleman. What he wants to see is a toadying, truckling, subservient, and therefore a despised and worthless press; but the public, we think, and hon. members too, we hope, would never agree to such a dastardly blow at the liberty of the press, and at the independence of public criticism. By causing every leading article to be signed by the name of its writer, Mr. McKenzie would prevent newspapers from availing themselves of the very valuable service of experts in various branches of knowledge who are at present called in to assist the regular editorial staff of a newspaper, but who might not deem it desirable for public—and with such a Government as this in office—for private reasons, to allow their names to be published. We await a copy of the Bill with considerable curiosity, and we have little doubt that when we get it we shall be able to make it the subject of an article which will be both entertaining and instructive, page 28 although to our modern Press Censor, the Hon. John McKenzie, it may prove somewhat unpalatable. The "gentleman" who could so far forget all sense of decency as to call a fellow member "a dirty little black devil," is himself mightily averse to be treated to a little wholesome criticism, and howls like a whipped cur when any public journal administers to him a well-merited castigation.
Mr. John McKenzie's Newspaper Libel Limitation Bill is as foolish and vicious a measure as his bitterest enemy might have wished to draw up. We cannot imagine it possible that the House will pass it, and we are at a loss to understand how his fellow Ministers could have ever allowed him to introduce such a Bill. Our readers are well aware that the Minister of Lands holds the newspaper press of this Colony in the most decided detestation and complete contempt, and no doubt some of them may be inclined to say "Oh, let McKenzie and these newspaper fellows fight out their battles between themselves, and not bother us about it." We think, however, that when the public are made acquainted with the full details and import of the Bill which the Minister in question has thought fit to introduce, and understand how wide-reaching would be the effect of such a measure were it by some malign stroke of misfortune to become law, they will speedily change their opinion and see for themselves the full extent to which Ministerial folly and Ministerial bitterness of feeling can be pushed, and will also become aware how seriously the general interests of the community at large are effected by this most preposterous piece of would-be legislation. The chief operative clause of the Bill reads as follows:—"In so far as concerns the proprietor, editor, printer or publisher of a newspaper, any article or letter published therein is privileged if such article or letter be published without malice, and discloses in print at its foot the true and full name and address of its writer. But nothing contained in this section shall be construed to in any way protect such writer, even though he be such proprietor, editor, printer, or publisher. Further, it is sought to be enacted by this Bill that if in any newspaper there be published any article or letter which does not disclose in print at its foot the true and full name and address of its writer, the proprietor, editor, printer, and publisher are severally liable to a penalty of not less than £5 nor more than £50, to be recovered summarily before the Stipendiary Magistrate." Then it is further stipulated that no penalty inflicted under the Act shall in any way be an answer or bar (whether by way of mitigation or otherwise) to any civil or criminal proceedings for libel. In any such proceedings the absence of the full name and address of the writer of the alleged libellous matter is to be evidence of express malice. As to the real meaning and effect of the above clauses, should the Bill become law, we shall now quote from a very able article which has appeared in the Dunedin Star, one of the most influential and most ably conducted journals in the Colony. After pointing out that the Bill will establish a Press Censorship, which would be much more suitable to Russia than to a British colony, the Star proceeds thus:—"It is notorious that the Minister of Lands writhes under the criticism to which he is subjected in the newspapers from one end of the colony to the other, so he proposes to 'scotch these vipers' by withdrawing from the writers of articles and letters the shield of anonymity. The Bill, it appears, makes it compulsory that all articles and letters should be signed by leader-writers and contributors in their proper names, the object being, no doubt, to enable the Government to crush out or dispose of in some more pleasant way those who wield powerful pens against their policy and upon the evils of their administration. The anonymity of the press is universally regarded throughout page 29 the Empire and the States of the Great Republic as the greatest safeguard against administrative tyranny, official corruption, and public and private wrongs. It is thus that the people are warned in time as to the mischief in contemplation, and the first steps are taken to redress grievances by a full exposition of the circumstances. In many instances were silence to be preserved until demonstrative proof were forthcoming, the mischief would be done before the exposure was made. Leaving aside the consideration of articles, in regard to which an enactment requiring the signature of the writer would be easily evaded, as it is in France—a special employe being engaged in the leading offices to sign such as may be dangerous and take the consequences—the public interests would, it is at once manifest, suffer materially by the practical suppression of newspaper correspondence. The most able and intelligent citizens are accustomed to ventilate their opinions on matters of general or local interest by this means, and it affects the arguments in no degree that the identity of the writer is covered by a nom de plume. Those best informed in regard to a subject are, as a rule, debarred from personal intervention, and information often of extreme value, would most certainly be withheld if the writer could not give it except under his own name. The reasons for this may be well understood, particularly in communities comparatively small, and where business, social, and domestic interests are closely interwoven." Our Dunedin contemporary, it will have been observed, deals with the question of compulsorily signed correspondence in much the same terms as we used in our first article on the Bill, and proves, we think, very conclusively the very serious inconvenience and injustice which would be done to a large and intelligent section of the community were this wretched measure of Mr. McKenzie's allowed to pass, preventing as it undoubtedly would a full expression of opinion on the political and social questions of the day. The whole Bill is intended to check free discussion of political questions, to exclude from the public press all correspondence in which flattery and self-seeking toadyism are not the salient features, and to harass and embarrass the journalistic profession as much as possible. Why Mr. McKenzie should be so bitter against the newspaper press of this colony we do not know, but we can tell him that if he expects to stamp out adverse press criticisms of his methods and measures by such a contemptible legislative abortion as he has been pleased to father, he is vastly mistaken. In the first place we do not think the House, even when threatened with the big boots of the Minister of Lands, will ever pass the Bill; and even should such a calamity happen—a calamity it would be for the members of the majority—the journalists of the colony will not be the men we give them credit for being if they cannot very easily devise ways and means of making the law and its makers the laughing stock of the colony before the measure has been on the Statute Book a month. In conclusion, we give our readers a quotation from Sheridan's famous speech in the House of Commons, delivered in 1810. The quotation shows, we think, the true reason why Mr. McKenzie is so very anxious to throttle the press of this Colony; and let our readers mark well the full import of Sheridan's eloquent words:—" Give me but the liberty of the press, and I will give to the Minister a venal House of Peers. I will give him a corrupt and servile House of Commons. I will give him the full swing of the patronage of office. I will give him the whole post of Ministerial influence. I will give him all the power that place can confer upon him to purchase up submission and overawe resistance; and yet, armed with the liberty of the press, I will go forth to meet him undismayed. I will attack the mighty fabric he has raised with a mightier engine. I will shake down from its height corruption, and bury it beneath the ruins it was meant to shelter." It is exactly page 30 this liberty of the press—which Sheridan declares to be so powerful for good in the State—that John McKenzie, Minister of the Crown, wishes to destroy, once and for all, in this Colony. Will the House allow him to compass the wished-for destruction? We trow not.