The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
North Otago Times
North Otago Times.
We have enfranchised women; we have introduced one-man-one-vote; we have established a State Bank; and one of our heaven-born Ministers is now going to abolish the liberty of the press. Some will, perhaps, consider this a retrograde measure, but that is because they have not been initiated in the true doctrine of New Zealand Liberalism. Mr. McKenzie holds that the press is the great obstacle to progress in the colony. The largest section of it has actually dared to criticise and condemn the measures brought forward by a Liberal Government. This is quite intolerable in the hon. gentleman's eyes, and he has accordingly hit upon a plan for putting a ring in its nose. For some years back a new Libel Bill has been widely and loudly demanded. Such a Bill has, in fact, been, session after session, introduced. The last time, if we remember right, it was talked out by Mr. George Fisher, a gentleman who somehow has at least had a great spite against the press. The Libel Bill the country wanted was one to protect newspapers in the performance of their public functions. At present many of their reports are not privileged; indeed, none of them are except those of Parliament and the Courts of Law. This is a great disadvantage to the public, who are often kept in ignorance of things which ought to be known, but newspapers cannot of course run the risk of libel actions, though they are sometimes mulcted in damages through mere inadvertency. The press should certainly be protected in giving a fair report of a public meeting, or of the meeting of a local body. There is no valid reason why such reports should not be privileged as well as reports of the proceedings in Parliament and the Law Courts. Some member accordingly asked Mr. Seddon when he would bring down the Libel Bil. The hon. gentleman, to the surprise of the House, said that he had handed it over to his colleague, the Minister for Lands. The other day Mr. W. Hutchison made further enquiry with regard to the Bill, when Mr. McKenzie, to the still greater surprise of members, announced that the Premier had, in a weak moment, agreed to bring in a Libel Bill, but that he (the Lands' Minister) was getting one drafted that would effectually prevent all libels. It was at once concluded that the Minister of Lands intended to muzzle the press instead of granting it greater liberty in serving the public interests. His Bill, which was introduced on Thursday, amply confirms that conclusion. No such Bill has ever been introduced in the Parliament of any British community. It is simply a wanton outrage not only on the liberty of the press but also on the liberties of the people. It is beyond question the sensation of the session. If it became law it would be a warning to everybody with any spark of self-respect to leave the colony, but we cannot believe that such an infamous measure can pass; indeed, it would bring the contempt and derision of the world upon New Zealand. The Ministerial majority have shown a most unpatriotic subserviency to their masters, but we will not believe till we see it that they have sunk so low as to vote away the public liberties, for that is exactly what passing the Bill would mean. There is something shockingly out page 35 rageous as well as ludicrously incongruous in an ignoramus like Mr. McKenzie assuming to prescribe what is not legitimate comment on public measures and public men. The people will rub their eyes and ask whether they live in Russia or under the British crown. Ministers do not seem to have the least idea that the anonymity of the press is one of those British institutions which the people would no more think of parting with than they would think of parting with trial by jury. If they are really in earnest they must be mad. That is the only thing to say of them, and it is an old proverb that whom the gods wish to destroy they first bereave of their wits. If then the Government really wish to have this Bill passed their destruction cannot be far off. The motive of the measure is evident enough. It is simply to punish the press for daring to ridicule and oppose their policy; but we could not have believed and we can scarcely believe yet that any set of British Ministers could seriously contemplate the passing of a Bill which would be in exact accord with the mind of His Majesty the Emperor of Russia. We shall have a good deal more to say about Ministers and their Libel Bill.
In his Libel Bill, Mr. John McKenzie intends, in order to reach his opponents, to trample under foot one of the most cherished planks of the Liberal platform—the freedom of the press. Who will suffer most—viewed from the Liberal standpoint—by the introduction of such a Russian measure? Will it be the poor man or the rich? Unquestionably the former, for the existence of such a law will stifle the exposure of many wrongs which those who are poor may be called upon to submit to. Few men in a subservient position will care to ventilate a grievance if they have to sign their names to their communications. Yet John McKenzie is a Liberal! It is one of the idiosyncracies of this gentleman to imagine, with his overbearing and dogmatic manner, coupled with a naturally perverted imagination, that everything that walks, creeps, or crawls, should be viewed through Liberal spectacles. But in this case he has overreached himself. It is not given to the Minister for Lands to discriminate between what is fair and what is unfair. His mental vision is limited to discriminating between what is Liberal and what is Conservative—what is of the right colour and what of the wrong. And it is this want of proper discriminating force, or rather want of sense, that has led him to believe that in bringing in his Libel Bill he will succeed in scotching his political opponents, losing sight altogether of the fact that the measure will act as a wet blanket to the party he deludes into believing he only lives to serve. We do not for a moment anticipate that the Liberal party or any other party will allow themselves to be made catspaws of by this cantankerous individual he forced a number of his followers into rebellion over his Land for Settlements Bill, and he is apparently determined to immolate himself in his morbid anxiety to get at his political enemies, for the Liberal party will surely see that this Libel Bill is designed to increase the power of wealth. We do not say that the anonymity of the press is not often abused, but better that this should be so than that the power of rectifying abuses should be abrogated in this senseless way.