Blackmail.

Part of Orders of the Day — Civil Services Supplementary Estimates, 1924–25. – in the House of Commons on 10th March 1925.

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Photo of Sir Gerald Hohler Sir Gerald Hohler , Rochester Gillingham

The Motion which has been moved is one of great interest, but I agree with my hon. Friend the late Under-Secretary for Home Affairs (Mr. Rhys Davies) that it certainly does import that the question of whether or not a case should be heard in camera should be left to the discretion of the Judge. The word are: enable all such cases to be tried in camera. I can only conceive that that must mean that it is the Judge who will ultimately determine whether the case should be heard in camera or not, and I very greatly deprecate that. I have the greatest confidence in Judges, but they are human, though great. It may be that one Judge will take one view and another Judge another, and for the administration of the law in so important a matter as this the law itself should be clear and definite. It should not be left to the discretion of any of His Majesty's Judges, however great, to decide when a case came on whether it should be heard in camera or not.

No doubt blackmailing cases are not uncommon; that is beyond question, and through the newspapers one has become familiar with the great range they cover. It may be that they are concerned with financial reasons—some financial frauds. It may be that a newspaper—so I have heard, and no doubt it may be true—may say, "We will publish this about you or about your company unless you pay us so much." That is one class of case. Then you have cases in which a man may have been guilty of some vile offence. Cases vary infinitely. I have known of a case in which a publican was threatened with opposition to his licence unless he paid so much, because he was, so it was alleged, carrying on a betting business on his premises. The word "blackmail" may cover a vast number of cases; they may be financial or they may be personal.

Are you sure that if you do alter the law you are going to enable more convictions to be secured, or enable more prosecutions to be undertaken, or encourage them? I am by no means certain. I think it is inevitable that something will leak out, or it may leak out. It is quite true that you may not have the temporary and unenviable felicity of being in the newspapers for a week—we generally forget all about it in a fortnight—but it will be known, and it will be known by whom? By your friends; and to my mind that is the real thing with which we are concerned. We all know how little we know of human nature in the sense of personal acquaintance with people, and it is quite immaterial to people whether Smith or Jones has done this or that. They see it in the papers, but they do not know it; but to anybody knowing Smith or Jones it is a totally different matter—that is where it is felt. In regard to financial matters, a man s financial status may be ruined, and it may be that in the existing state of the law there is a chance for people to extort money by stating that they will publish something of disadvantage to you, your business, your surroundings, or your life, and that is exceedingly unfortunate.

I think it was a little unkind of the right hon. Gentleman the late Under-Secretary for Home Affairs to suggest about women being seduced by rich men. May I point out to him the remedy? If wrong has been done, a child is born, and there is an affiliation summons, and that is surely publicity enough and protection enough. Nobody can call that blackmail. I am not laying down the law in regard to actual cases, hut I do not think it would be wrong for anyone to write to a man and say, "You have seduced me, and I am in the family way, and I ask you to make proper and right provision." I do not call that blackmailing, I think it is a woman's right, and if the man does not do it, then I say the woman has been kind to him, and so far from its being any menace or threat, I would say, "I advise you without hesitation to take affiliation proceedings." If he has done wrong and is a rich man, all I lament is that the law is not strong enough to enable her to have such provision as his riches can afford.

I cannot help thinking the Mover of this Motion has never put his thoughts into the form of a Bill. These wide Resolutions, in my submission, do not add very largely either to the progress of opinion or of the law. This is loose language, and we need to get down to concrete provisions and carefully examine them. That is the value of Committee work in this House, that we really do get something which is good law, even though it may be delayed for some years. Having said that, I am going humbly to announce my opinion in regard to this matter. It seems to me there is one great principle at stake. Is it more in the interests of the community that our legal proceedings should be published abroad, or that, for the benefit, and it may not be for the advantage, of particular individuals who have, I will not say sinned against the law, but sinned against that which we think morally right they should be protected by closed Courts? I doubt it. I am in favour of publicity in these matters. I do not believe that you can add largely to the convictions, or to the prosecutions; and when I use the word conviction, I am assuming the guilt of the persons charged by reason of the prosecution.

There is the Robinson case, of which we have all heard. I never knew one of the parties, and I do not suppose I ever shall, and I do not want to, for it does not concern me. In that case, for example, how would this proposal have operated? That was a most notorious case which aroused more interest and was more widely published than almost any other case in my time. This was an action against a bank for money alleged to have been wrongfully paid out, and there you had the whole of the proceedings published, although the only person blackmailed was not induced to come forward to give evidence. You might obtain this security in the common criminal prosecution, but if anybody or any newspaper was told to publish it, in case it involved a criminal offence or a man's credit in his business, and the words spoken turned out to be a slander, nobody could prevent it being made the subject of a slander action.

For these reasons I doubt whether any useful purpose would be served by adopting this Resolution. I think the overwhelming opinion is that the whole of our legal proceedings in this country should give the right to publish. One cannot agree with all the newspapers publish, but I do believe that the just carrying out of the law is best secured by publicity. It is not to be assumed that the Judges do not make mistakes. Let us assume that there had been a serious statement made in regard to a. person who was to come before a grand jury. Is it not far better that that fact should be known in order that the Judges may he controlled as well as other people.

I am opposed to this Resolution. I cannot help thinking that although I cannot support it there is a worse form of this evil existing at the present time, which is apparently encouraged by newspapers and by the public taste. Some unfortunate woman or a man is a litigant in some suit which interests public opinion, and they find themselves pilloried in the newspapers by the publication of their photographs. In my judgment that is abominable. Hon. Members will recollect that I spoke of this practice in regard to the terrible case at Eastbourne, and I suggested that if possible proceedings should be taken. Even to-day you have the case of a poor woman in a case which is exciting considerable public interest; her photograph is published in all the papers, and I think that is a grave scandal. There is a feeling that a matter of this kind might be dealt with, but it is very doubtful whether it Would come within the powers of contempt of Court.

I think that, is blackmail of the worst kind, because you may have the case of a woman or a man who cannot get justice because the newspapers have in the first instance published a photograph. I know of an actual case of a very eminent King's Counsel—not myself—who was actually photographed and inserted in a newspaper under the title of "Mr. Hobbs." I have a very clear opinion that the best interests of the community will be served by the courage of its citizens, and I think it is very desirable that in our Law Courts all the proceedings should be open, and subject to good taste and discretion, all our Courts should be open to the Press.