How the Secrets Were Revealed

Newspaper clippings in the Scrapbook Debates of the Parliament of Canada

Photo: Sessional Clippings Book, 1891

HOW THE SECRETS WERE REVEALED

A journey towards the making of BC Legislative Assembly Sessional Clippings Books

by: Law Librarian Sarah Miller and Zehra Abrar, work study student

It was in 1738 that the British House of Commons passed a resolution calling it a breach of privilege for any newspaper or magazine to publish a record of its proceedings, even during the recess.[1]

This resolution was harsher than previous resolutions limiting newspaper publications of house proceedings, to ensure that the conversations of parliament remained secret; whoever was found guilty of reporting was charged and silenced.[2]

While some journalists tried to veil the fact that they were publishing the discussions by calling them debates of fictitious societies or bodies (such as the Debates of the Senate of Magna Lilliputia),[3] others were more open in their approach, resulting in reprimand by House Speakers, and imprisonment.[4] However, the practice of punishing journalists with fines and imprisonments was eventually relaxed, partly due to campaigns defending free speech.

A leader in these campaigns was John Wilkes, an MP whose controversial publications and elections and expulsions from the House renewed interest in publications of House proceedings.[5] In 1771, the House called eight newspapers to appear before the Bar of the House.[6] 

With support from Wilkes and his allies, three publishers fled to the City of London, whose officials (including John Wilkes who was a London alderman) refused to arrest the publishers. In response, two city magistrates were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, a move that was not supported by the public nor did it stop the publication of House debates.

At the end of the House’s session, the magistrates were released and the House conceded that it was unable to stop newspapers from publishing the debates, leading to its implicit allowance.[7]

Although the freedom to publish parliamentary debates was granted to British journalists in the late 18th century, the same wasn’t true in Canada. Newspapers were tightly controlled by the Family Compact, described as “the small, influential group of English aristocrats who dominated the government of Upper Canada.”[8]

This limited the news publications to accounts favourable to the Family Compact, otherwise risking fines or imprisonment. This control continued until the Act of the Union in 1840, which united Upper and Lower Canada, though reluctance remained in allowing a full publication of parliamentary proceedings.[9]

In the 1860s, there was agreement among legislators that the Confederacy debates needed to be recorded, but resulting reports, produced via contracts, were expensive and incomplete, further showcasing the need for an official publication.[10] This need was filled in 1880, when the federal government began publishing the daily official record of the debates (known as ‘Hansard’).[11]

The adoption of an official Hansard did not extend to the provincial legislative assemblies until the mid-20th century. In British Columbia, Hansard was instituted in 1970, in a limited fashion, with the publication of full debates starting in 1972.[12]

Between 1891 and 1970, newspaper reports were relied on for accounts of the debates of the legislature. The Legislative Library would clip any such reports from the local papers and preserved the clippings in sessional clipping books.[13] It was the unofficial accounts of various newspapers and other print outlets that covered the highly secretive debates of the legislature.

These Sessional Clippings Books augment the Journals, which provide a summary of the daily activity of the Legislative Assembly.[14] A part of the collection of the Legislative Library in Victoria BC, “the original sessional clippings books comprise 351 ledger size print volumes.”[15]

The vast majority of the volumes are 13.34 x 9-inch volumes containing approximately 200 pages per volume. The clippings are in chronological order by month. A finding aid listing the newspapers is included in each volume contained in the Tri-University Libraries (TRIUL) files at UVic Special Collections and University Archives. The TRIUL files also contain background information on the 1970s microfilming of the sessional clippings books.

In 1977, the print volumes were microfilmed onto 26 reels. The project was conducted by TRIUL with the permission of the BC Legislative Library.[16] Interested libraries had to commit ahead of time to purchase; between 10 and 18 sets were produced according to the information in the TRIUL files. UVic paid, in 1976 dollars, $1,200.00 for the set.

This digital collection was created by scanning the 26 microfilm reels. Scanning from the print volumes would have been cost-prohibitive. Through the initiative of UVic Law Librarian Caron Rollins, CRKN Canadiana’s digitization unit scanned the film and created the files. The files follow the same monthly chronological arrangement as the film.

For more information:

[1] John Vice & Stephen Farrell, The History of Hansard, (London, UK: House of Lords Hansard), online at 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid at 7.

[4] Peter DG Thomas, “The Beginning of Parliamentary Reporting in Newspapers, 1768-1771” (1959) 74:293 English Historical Review 623 at 624.

[5] UK Parliament, “John Wilkes – Liberty and Parliament” (Accessed 18 April 2020), online: UK Parliament.

[6] Thomas, “Beginning of Parliamentary Reporting”, supra note 4 at 628.

[7] Peter DG Thomas, “John Wilkes and the Freedom of the Press (1771)” (1960) 33:87 Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 86.

[8] Hansard Association of Canada, “Hansard History” (accessed 18 April 2020), online: Hansard Association of Canada at para 4.

[9] Ibid at para 5.

[10] Ibid at para 7.

[11] Ibid at para 9.

[12] Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, “Hansard Services” (accessed 18 April 2020), online: Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.

[13] University of Victoria Libraries, “British Columbia Legislative Sessional Clippings Books” (10 July 2019), online: Vault.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid

 

References

Hansard Association of Canada, “Hansard History” (accessed 18 April 2020), online: Hansard Association of Canada.

Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, “Hansard Services” (accessed 18 April 2020), online: Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.

Thomas, Peter DG, “John Wilkes and the Freedom of the Press (1771)” (1960) 33:87 Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 86.

Thomas, Peter DG, “The Beginning of Parliamentary Reporting in Newspapers, 1768-1771” (1959) 74:293 English Historical Review 623.

UK Parliament, “John Wilkes – Liberty and Parliament” (Accessed 18 April 2020), online: UK Parliament.

University of Victoria Libraries, “British Columbia Legislative Sessional Clippings Books” (10 July 2019), online: Vault.

Vice, John & Stephen Farrell, The History of Hansard, (London, UK: House of Lords Hansard), online.