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THE LAW OF LIBEL., Issue 7956, 11 July 1889
THE LAW OF LIBEL.
We cordially welcome the fact that the law relating to libel in New Zealand is likely to be placed upon a satisfactory footing during the present session of Parliament. The wonder is that the much-needed step has not been taken before, though perhaps reasons may be adduced for delay in such a matter. For one chief agent in the bringing about of desirable reform is undoubtedly the Press; and the question of libel is a subject upon which newspapers, being very directly interested, naturally shrink from agitating continually, and upon which also their utterances are apt to be suspiciously regarded as ex parte pleas. We think, however, that specific occurrences have proved the inadequacy of our present law with sufficient clearness to render agitation unnecessary and suspicion gratuitous. A proper adjustment of the law relating to libel has already been effected in the Home Parliament, and the Bill which Sir Frederick Whitaker, on behalf of the Government, has just introduced into the Legislative Council follows the lines of the English Act. The Adage “ better late than never ” holds good in this case; but we would point out, as we have often done before, that on questions where legislation is obviously needed, and principles are admitted, there is not the slightest necessity for a colonial Legislature to wait modestly until the English Parliament has led the way. Upon experimental questions of doubtful nature our legislators are often only too ready to try th eir ’prentice hand, while proposals of undoubted desirability have to receive the sanction of previous adoption elsewhere. Excepting one important omission, which, we hear, is likely to be supplied, Sir Frederick Whitaker’s Bill commends itself in its essentials to our approval, and we trust that it will not fail to pass both Houses before the session closes. The third section of the Bill provides that “afair and accura f e report “in any newspaper of proceedings “publicly heard before any Court “ exercising judicial authority shall,- if “ published contemporaneously with “ such proceedings, be privileged: “ provided that nothing in this section “ shall authorise the publication of “ any blasphemous or indecent matter.” We may just remark in passing that the word “contemporaneously” directs a practical impossibility, though the intention of the carelessly worded provision is obvious. Section 4 extends the privilege to fair and accurate reports of the proceedings of public meetings, and (except where the public and reporters are excluded) of meetings of councils and local bodies, committees appointed by such bodies, select committees of the Houses of Parliament, meetings of Justices of the Peace, etc., “ unless it “ shall be proved that such report or “publication was published or made “maliciously.” We do not see the necessity for this latter proviso. If the report be a fair and accurate one, as required, there can be no question of malice in the matter at all. Public meetings for the purposes of the Bill are defined as “ any meeting bona fide “ and lawfully held for a lawful pur“pose, and for the furtherance “or discussion of any matter of “ public concern, whether the admis- “ sion thereto be general or restricted.” It will thus be seen that if this Bill becomes law fair and accurate reporting of what has actually been said in public will cease to be a work of continual risk; the burden of responsibility will lie simply on the shoulders of the public speaker, and will not extend to the newspaper which reports his words for the public convenience. The protection is so manifestly just and reasonable that in future times people will only marvel that it was for so long unjustly and unreasonably withheld We may observe, in passing, that in the definition of a public meeting the words “ discussion of any matter of public concern ” are rather too narrow and susceptible of debate; and we object more strongly to the analogous proviso that “ nothing in this section “contained shall be deemed or con- “ strued ... to protect the pub- “ lication of any matter not of public “ concern.” If the meeting in question is one where reporters are admitted , an accurate report of everything said (not blasphemous or indecent) should be allowed, at the discretion of the newspaper. We recognise in the words “ public concern” a loophole for attack altogether inconsistent with the spirit , of the Bill. We may even add that in these days it is rather a hard task to , fix the boundary line of “blasphemy.” . The fifth section of the Bill gives a defendant power to adduce evidence in mitigation of damages, to the effect that the plaintiff has already brought actions in regard to libels to the same effect. The sixth section gives the Judge power to consolidate two or more ; actions in regard to the same, or substantially the same libel; and, in case of the plaintiff being successful, to apportion the damages and costs between the different defendants. Other actions provide for the necessity of obtaining a Judge’s consent in Chambers to the commencement of a criminal : prosecution for libel; for allowing the omittance of obscene passages in the indictment against the publisher of an obscene libel; for the admittance, without enforcement, of the evidence of the husband or wife of a person charged criminally with libel; and fqr the constitution of a Court of summary jurisdiction in criminal cases, with
power to dismiss frivolous charges and punish trivial offences. We alluded near the commencement nf this article to an important omission in the Bill, to which it is understood that Sir Frederick Whitaker's attention has been drawn with favorable results. We refer to the desirability of a Judge being empowered, upon adequate representations, to call upon the plaintiff in an action for damages for libel to give security for the costs for which he will be liable in case the action goes against him. A Court of summary jurisdiction of some kind is needed quite as much in civil as in criminal cases. It is intolerable that the proprietors of a newspaper should have to defend a frivolous or speculative action, brought by some unprincipled adventurer who has no character to be damaged, with the certainty that they will have to pay their own costs whatever the issue may be. There is small danger of any injustice being done in the case of a poor man having any real grievance to adduce j it may be taken for granted that Judges would be exceedingly careful in the exercise of such powers, and public opinion would be very watchful. But in cases of patent frivolity or stupidity bankruptcy ought certainly to be considered a bar to the luxury of litigation.
THE LAW OF LIBEL., Issue 7956, 11 July 1889
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