Mexborough and Swinton Times July 23 1920
Matter of public interest
Pleas for the defence
Addressing the jury on behalf of the defendant, Mr Mortimer said they had a very important duty to perform and a very important point to decide. It was to the interest of every one of them that they should be free expression of opinion. His case was that that was a perfectly innocuous speech on “how to make a brighter England.” And although they might take different views on that subject, no one would doubt that the matter was of great public interest to the people of that district, in view of the fact, which they now know, that an application had been made for granting Urban Powers to that particular district.
Lady Mabel was very keenly interested in social affairs, and she was acquainted with the conditions of the life of the people she was addressing, and he asked them to say that, in all the circumstances, it was an extremely mild one. She said:
“I know a good deal about Denaby, not more than I care to know for my peace of mind about the conditions of Denaby.”
Could any person say seriously that that was going too far? The doctor had said that it would not have affected his peace of mind, and that he could not imagine any sane person having their peace of mind disturbed by the presence of privy middens.
He (Counsel) thought that if there was one person ought to have lent a hand for the health of the people it should have been the doctor. But he was content to alter what was apparently meant to be a sneer at the plaintiff, has suggested that the reason why her peace of mind was disturbed was that she was not in her right mind. He (Counsel) left the doctor to the mercies of the jury, and hoped that his speech would not be criticised as the defendant had. Then Lady Mabel said:
“I read in this enquiry that the colliery company holds lands on which it intends to build houses in the near future. It rests with you to say how those houses should be built.”
He could not see what objection the colliery company could have to this. And Lady Mabel said:
“Are you going to let perpetrate in the 20th century open courts and all the other horrors that there are here perpetuated again.”
What possible objection could there be to that? Anyone whohad seen Denaby as they are seeing it, and had heard the evidence they had heard, knew that there were horrors. The district nurse said that she would use a stronger word. They ought not to consider that remark in the cold light of a court of law. We must consider the person who is making the speech, the circumstances under which it was made, and the persons to whom the speech was made. It was not intended to suggest that the colliery company would build in the future houses like they had built in the past.
At this stage the court adjourned for the day.
When the hearing was resumed on Tuesday, Mr Justice Shearman intimated that it seemed to him that the really difficult question was the passage beginning:
“I read in this enquiry that the Colliery Company holds lands” and said he would like the jury to be in possession of the whole of the speech.
Mr Mortimer, resuming his address to the jury, said that onbehalf ofthe defendant, he would desire that they should consider the whole of the speech and the circumstances and plays in which it was made. And he suggested that in order to make that a slander upon the plaintiffs they had to twist – it was necessary for the plaintive to twist – the natural meaning of the words spoken under the conditions under which they were spoken.
The speaker said the Colliery Company intend to perpetuate the condition of things existing now, there was good ground was saying that was not fair – although it would be the ultimate question in the case – but even if that said, it would have to be considered more seriously in the light of the facts. But did the statement amount to any more than this:
“I hear houses are to be built by the colliery company.” – That did not exclude the possibility that other persons might engage in building operations within this district
“I know people, through the people you elect, are ultimately responsible for seeing that the houses that are built built according to modern standards and under modern conditions.”
The expression “perpetuation of old horrors” was, of course, a dramatic expression, but could anyone doubt, having heard the evidence of Dr Dunne and Nurse Swallow – two perfectly independent witnesses – and judge for themselves from what they had seen – could anyone doubt that there were horrors there, and that there are horrors there even today? And was it too much for a speaker to say, who was interested in the life of the district,
“For heaven’s sake, see that whenever building takes place, whoever builds, that these horrors are not perpetuated .”
Lady Mabel was in that speech, aiming at guiding the people to take an interest in their own affairs, and that she was not out that night to make an attack upon the plaintiffs. He quite agreed that whatever might be her motives, if in fact she did attack some individual beyond the limits of his comment, then, however innocent her motives might be, the jury were entitled to give a verdict against, if it was slanderous. But ifit was fair, and it, on the facts in their possession, the comment was said as a fair person, however prejudiced might be, then there was no slander at all.
He asked them to say that the defendant statements were not slanderous and that comments on the facts were perfectly fair.