Our First Libel Case

Plaintiffs’ Original Sin
Nearly twelve months ago, at the instance of the General Secretary and Executive Committee of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, a writ for libel was issued against certain individuals, several of whom were not even members of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Mainly as a result of this mistake of the Plaintiffs or of their legal advisors the hearing of the action has been delayed and the bill of costs greatly lengthened. Several of our comrades have appeared at different times before the Master in Chambers upon Plaintiffs’ Solicitors’ applications for “Directions” and other “wangles” that go to make up the Game of Law. It has been interesting to watch the wonderment of the lawyers and their office boys at the unusual spectacle of half-a-dozen members of the Socialist working class up against the legal luminaries engaged, at a heavy fee, to “clear the character” of Mr. R. Bell, M.P., and his fellow officials of the the A.S.R.S. And the legal luminaries have not always scored.

The Trial
Originally, many were sued, but ultimately, two were chosen. These, Comrades A. Anderson and J. Fitzgerald duly appeared before Mr. Justice Darling on July 15th. Arrayed against them were an eminent K.C., Mr. C. F. Gill, and two other Barristers-at-Law, Messrs. Edmond Browne and E. A. Hume, all instructed by Messrs. Pattinson & Brewer, Plaintiffs’ Solicitors. Several files of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD, from No. 1 to date, as well as single copies of last August issue, were referred to, quoted from, and passed up to the Judge and the Jury. The Second Edition of our Manifesto was also in evidence. Mr. Gill did his best to “confuse the issue” by withholding, until “m’Lud” drew attention to it, the fact that the E.C. of the A.S.R.S. deliberatety ignored the vote of the members concerned and took action in direct opposition to the voting. He also endeavoured to prejudice the Jury by suggesting that the defendants desired to deprive respectable citizens (like himself) of what they had worked hard for and hoped to enjoy in their old age and misrepresented the position of this Party concerning Trade Unions by quoting a resolution which was moved at a Party meeting and ultimately rejected. He also, assisted by Mr. Bell, impressed the Court that those who voted against accepting the concessions voted in favour of a strike, which was not true. He quoted extracts from back numbers of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD which had nothing to do with the case until pulled up by the Judge, who “hoped they would get to the libel shortly.” He put Mr. R. Bell, M.P., J.P., into the box and after asking him a few questions, left him to the tender mercies of our comrades. If Mr. Bell’s attitude in the witness box, under the raking fire of Anderson and Fitzgerald, was typical of his general demeanour, it is impossible for him to give a straight answer. He is a shuffler, first, last, and always.

Mr. Bell, M.P., Labour Misleader
Not only is Mr. Bell a shuffler, but judging by his answer to one of Fitzgerald’s questions, he is cynically indifferent to the conditions under which many of the members of the A.S.R.S. work. He and his Counsel made much of the fact that only 3,000 out of 10,000 N.E.R. men voted, but when asked whether large numbers were at work and therefore unable to attend the meetings he replied “I am not responsible for that.” And his reply to a further question as to whether, when his Executive issued the call for a vote, they intended to abide by the result, should also be carefully noted by railway workers. He practically admitted that there was no intention of carrying out the expressed wishes of the N.E.R. men, unless they coincided with the previously formed views of the Executive. Thus the funds of the Union were wasted and the men fooled. Mr. Bell, in the witness-box, referred to himself as a Trade Union “Leader.” We have no hesitation in describing him as a Misleader of the working class.

The Verdict and After
Following upon their searching questions, the speeches of our comrades Anderson and Fitzgerald must have come as a surprise to the Court. Of the working class, eating their bread by the sweat of their faces, when permitted by the master class to do so, lacking all the advantages possessed by the bewigged and begowned masters of the forensic art, our comrades logically and eloquently submitted our case to the Jury. But, of course, the verdict went against us. We were prepared for that. Mr. R. Bell and his fellow plaintiffs were awarded damages to the amount of forty shillings ! For ourselves, we shall continue our comments on political and industrial events without fear or favour. We shall say what we think at all times, in whatever language we consider the circumstances justify. This is our first libel action but it may not be our last. We will take that risk and others that may arise. The Socialist Party of Great Britain came into existence to fearlessly advocate the Cause of the Working Class and that Cause will be advocated, by voice and pen, until finally our fellow-workers shall see the light and, discarding their misleaders, capitalist and “labour,” will unite in a conscious effort to emancipate themselves by assuming control of the means of wealth production and distribution.

(Before Mr. JUSTICE DARLING and a Special Jury.)

This was an action for an alleged libel which appeared in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD. The plaintiffs were Mr. Richard Bell, M.P., the general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, a society registered under the Trade Union Acts of 1871 and 1876, and the other members of the executive committee of the society. The defendants were Messrs. A. Anderson and J. Fitzgerald, sued on behalf of themselves and the other members of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. The matter complained of consisted of the words “Found Out” in large leaded capitals, and immediately below in lighter capitals, “Labour Leaders Sell the Union Members, and their Apologist gets a Warm Reception,” followed by an account of a mass meeting of servants of the North-Eastern Railway, held at Newcastle on July 15th, 1906, for the purpose of considering a report by the plaintiff Mr. Bell as to certain negotiations carried on by the executive committee on behalf of the society with the North-Eastern Railway. The defendants denied malice, and denied that the statements complained of were false, and they pleaded fair comment.

Mr. Gill, K.C., Mr. Edmond Browne, and Mr. E. A. Hume appeared for the plaintiffs; the defendants Anderson and Fitzgerald appeared in person.

Mr. GILL said that the above society was a very powerful trade union, with a large number of members and branches, its object being to improve the condition of the members and the relations of employers and employed and to promote the safety of railway travelling. From time to time there was what was known as an “all grades” movement in connexion with the North-Eastern Railway, and the general secretary’s report presented to the meeting at Cardiff in October, 1906, stated that the movement was sanctioned by the executive committee in 1903. The matter having been threshed out, a conclusion was recommended for acceptance by the men, and that was agreed to in May, 1906, at a conference of the men and the representatives of the railway. An expression of opinion was sought from the men, but so few troubled to vote that when the matter came before the executive committee, which represented the whole society and not merely the servants of one railway, they, on July 12th, 1906, found that only 3,000 out of 10,000 had voted on the question, there being a majority of about 800 in favour of rejecting the terms. Later the executive committee resolved that as so few voted they instructed their secretary to write to the North-Eastern Railway accepting the concessions. All the committee but two voted in favour of that, but Mr. Bell, the secretary, did not vote at all. The rules of the society provided that there was power in the executive committee to take any decisive action subject to a right of appeal to the general meeting, and the committee had power to decide whether they would order a strike at the expense of the whole society. In this case the committee thought it desirable to accept the concessions, although a majority of the members who were servants of that railway were unwilling to do so. Some of the servants of the North-Eastern Railway afterwards expressed adverse opinions as to the benefits which had been derived from the negotiations. The matter attracted the attention of the defendants, known as The Socialist Party of Great Britain, which published a paper called THE SOCIALIST STANDARD.

Mr. GILL said he did not propose to rove over the whole of the paper, interesting as he found it yesterday afternoon.

The JUDGE.—It is not a Sunday paper.

Mr. GILL.—I think it is peculiarly adapted for Sunday consumption, and walking in the park one sometimes hears a little of it.

Mr. GILL said that in the August, 1906 number the matter complained of appeared—namely, “Found out. Labour Leaders sell the union members and their apologist gets a warm reception.” If this was confined to the Socialist party and was only read in their family circles no one would complain, but they gratuitously distributed copies of the paper to the branches of the society. The action was not brought to recover money, as one did not expect to get money from people who held these views. One of the chief reasons why people worked was to save a little money and have it for themselves. The action was, however, brought to prevent the mischief caused by such statements as the libel in question.

Mr. Richard Bell, M.P. for Derby, one of the plaintiffs, stated that he had been general secretary of the society for ten years. It had 90,000 members and 650 branches. An enormous amount of labour was devoted to the negotiations with the North-Eastern Railway, and certain conclusions were agreed to by the representatives of the company and the men. In July, 1906, the executive committee determined that the terms should be accepted and the negotiations should be continued with a view to a conciliation board being appointed. The matter was referred to in witness’s report to the general meeting, and at a meeting of the servants of the North-Eastern Railway some disapproval was expressed. There was no foundation for the imputations made upon him in the alleged libel. The executive committee had considered the interests of the society as a whole. They represented the whole of the members, and not a section.

Cross-examined by Mr. ANDERSON.—The result of the negotiations was submitted to a conference of delegates held at Darlington, and they decided to adjourn the conference to take the opinion of the members of their branches. That adjournment was irregular, and the executive committee decided that they could take the opinion of the branches without the expense of an adjourned conference. There was a majority of 802 against accepting the terms. In spite of this adverse majority, the executive committee accepted the terms. Witness did not think that was dishonourable. He got rather an unfavourable reception, but that was nothing new.

By Mr. FITZGERALD.—The executive committee had to take into consideration the interests of the whole society and not of a section.

Why did you ask for a vote if you were not going to act upon it ?—Just to get their opinion; there were 10.000 men altogether, and only 3,000 voted.

Did you not know that owing to Sunday duty many could not get away ?—I am not responsible for that.

Mr. FITZGERALD.—The men are not either. Did you ask for instructions and then ignore them ? —No, we asked for an opinion, and two-thirds declined to express an opinion.

Continuing, witness said that the executive committee had power and were justified in declining to authorise a strike on the vote of 800 men. So far as work was concerned, he believed that nearly the whole of the men interested could have attended.

Mr. ANDERSON.—When you issued the call to the members of the society, did you, as the paid servant of the men, intend to act on the result of the vote ?—We intended to act as the circumstances justified.

Is it your opinion that the members who did vote voted with the idea that their vote would be acted on if they had a two-thirds majority ?—I cannot say what each individual had in his mind.

Mr. FITZGERALD.—Is it a fact that since the Newcastle meeting you have been appointed a justice of the peace ?

Mr. JUSTICE DARLING created roars of laughter when he remarked that Mr. Fitzgerald was entitled to ask anything to Mr. Bell’s discredit, but “I cannot say sitting here that even if that is so the world ought to think any the worse of him.”

Mr. FITZGERALD was prompt with his retort: I did not want to discredit him: I wanted to show that not a great deal of damage had been inflicted.

Mr. BELL.—I don’t know that the Newcastle meeting had anything to do with the J. P.

Mr. ANDERSON, addressing the jury, declared that the headings were justified. The men were asked to vote on a question, and were then tricked, imposed on, and sold.

At Newcastle, where Mr. Bell went to explain and apologise for the action of the union, he got a very hostile reception. Mr. Anderson said he was a member of the working class and a Socialist. Mr. Gill had attacked his position as a Socialist, which had nothing to do with the case, and it would have been just as relevant if he had referred to Mr. Bell’s attack on Labour leaders, such as Mr. Philip Snowden and Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, who neglected their Parliamentary duties to write articles for capitalist newspapers and the Harmsworth brigade.

Mr. FITZGERALD also briefly addressed the jury.

Mr. JUSTICE DARLING, in summing up, said that under the rules the executive committee were not bound to obey the majority of the members who were employed by the North-Eastern Railway and who voted on the question, but they had to consider the interests of the society as a whole. If the plaintiffs had not betrayed their trust they were entitled to a verdict.

The jury found a verdict for the plaintiffs for 40s.

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