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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Southland News

Southland News.

Quite a flutter has been caused in journalistic and other dove-cots by the announcement that the Hon. John McKenzie's Newspaper Libel Bill contains, among other provisions, one making the "signed article" compulsory. The clause reads that "if in any newspaper there be published any article or letter which does not disclose at its foot the name and address of its writer, the proprietor of such newspaper is liable to a penalty of not less than £5, nor more than £50." It is further provided page 43 that no penalty under this clause is in any way an answer to proceedings for libel. In any proceedings for libel the fact that the libellous matter is contained in an article or letter which does not disclose the name and address of its writer is evidence of express malice. Speaking some days ago of the (this) Bill he intended to introduce, Mr. McKenzie is said to have expressed the belief that it would give general satisfaction, but there are already unmistakable indications to the contrary. The Wellington gentleman who does the "political notes and comments" for our Dunedin and Invercargill morning contemporaries, for instance, is evidently renderad unhappy by the prospect of having to disclose his identity. In accents at once plaintive, deprecatory and denunciatory, he says:—"There has been no public man in the country, perhaps, who upon his merits has been treated by the press of New Zealand with more fairness and consideration than the Hon. John McKenzie, and it seems like the irony of fate that he should find himself the proud political father of such a bastard brat as the Newspaper Libel Limitation Bill, which, like all bastard progeny, is the offspring of undisciplined passion." The italics are our own—they emphasise a delicate qualification of the assertion that "no public man has been treated with more fairness and consideration than the Hon. John McKenzie"—"on his merits." But then you see so much depends upon the writer's conception of what are the merits of the "shepherd from the hills." It may be only another way of saying that what he got served him right. He certainly has a good claim to the title of the best abused politician in the colony in so far as the Tory press—of which the Wellington correspondent under notice is a myrmidon—is concerned. "It is argued," says this angry critic, "that as the Bill has passed the Cabinet it must necessarily be treated as a Government measure, the rejection of which will be tantamount to a substantive adverse motion. But this surely cannot be, for it is impossible to suppose that the Minister for Education, himself a democratic journalist, intends to support a Bill that will emasculate journalism and incidentally compel him to sign every leader he may write." "Emasculate journalism" sounds well. Inferentially it claims for the press as it is to-day virility, masculine strength, vigour, honesty, and out-spokenness. Taking the journalism of the colony as a whole, are these its attributes? Is it not rather—we will not insult the sex by saying feminine—suggestive of the neuter gender? Instead of emasculating, may not Mr. McKenzie's Bill have the effect of imparting to journalism a vigour of which it is at present deficient? One good thing, at any rate, it is calculated to do—it will shut out or relegate to their proper sphere the reptilian writers whose pens are, like those of free lances, at the service of the best paymasters. Their occupation would be gone, and nobody would be sorry except those who believe that journalists and lawyers should be classed in the same category, and sell their powers of intellect to the highest bidder. The question, on the fringe only of which we have touched, has been of late years a good deal under discussion in the parent country—the trend of opinion being distinctly in favour of the signed article. In France it has been for long the practice, and has decidedly not tended to bring journalism into disrepute. On the contrary, the profession is a leading avenue to political distinction. "In a British community," it has been well said, "a man may be a politician in spite of being a journalist. In a French one he is a politician because he is a journalist." As to whether the Ministry regard the measure as one upon which they are prepared to stand or fall, or simply as a tentative essay, we are not in a position to determine. Probably on the second reading its sponsor will make this clear. Considering that the colony has adopted female franchise, and thus gone beyond the most advanced of European communities, it will not be page 44 surprising to find its Government prepared to make a lesser innovation part of its policy.