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Colonial Cases

Connor v. Clarkson, 1874



Connor v. Clarkson

Police Court, Palmerston
Price SM, 6 May 1874
Source: Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 8 May 1874, p 3



Wednesday, May 6.

(Before Mr. Price, S.M., Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Gardiner.)
Connor v. Clarkson-Claim for £100 on account of alleged defamation
of character.
Mr. Smith for the plaintiff, and Mr. Rudall for the defendant.
In this case, M. L. Connor, Senior Warden, complained that the defendant, as printer and publisher of the Northern Territory Times, had libelled him in the columns of that paper.
Plaintiff was examined, and it appeared that the libel complained of consisted of two things-a statement reported to have been made by the Hon. T. Reynolds at a public meeting, in which plaintiff was alleged amongst other things to be too intimate with the only lawyer in the place; and a paragraph in which it was stated that plaintiff had received a reprimand for not understanding a telegram which had been sent to him about closing the Warden's Court. Plaintiff now denied the accusations contained in these alleged libellous statements; and his lawyer, Mr. Smith, called a number of witnesses to state that when they read the paragraphs they considered them more or less offensive to the plaintiff and injurious to his character. The plaintiff, however, on cross-examination stated that he did not consider that the publisher or the reputed writer of the articles bore any malice towards him;
but that they were impelled by others in Adelaide who had an influence with the paper.
Court adjourned to the following day.
Thursday, May 7.
(Before Mr. Price, S.M., Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Gardiner.)
In the matter of Connor v. Clarkson, Mr. Smith recapitulated the case, and urged upon the Court the necessity of giving his client substantial damages.
Mr. Rudall, who called no witnesses, addressed the Court for the defence, and pointed out that although the speech of the Hon. T. Reynolds was made on the 16th January, no action was brought against the paper until the 27th March. The report of the speech, moreover, was bona fide, and contained no malice. Then, as to the paper having said that plaintiff had been reprimanded for not understanding a telegram, he had stated in his own evidence that there was a misunderstanding about the telegram; and he also admitted that he had read reports in the Adelaide papers of a deputation which had waited on the Government, when the result was unfavorable to himself. However, he would leave the case in the hands of the Court, satisfied that even if they should consider that anything libellous had been uttered, yet it was of such a trifling character that the smallest damages would be sufficient to compensate the plaintiff for his character, which he said had been injured.
Judgment for £5 and costs.


Source: Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 3 April 1874, p 2

We have received a lawyer's letter from Mr. Smith, demanding £10 and an apology for having committed a false and malicious libel against Mr. Conner, the Senior Warden of Goldfields, by publishing the following paragraph, which appeared in our last issue:

"It seems that Adcock and Smith pride themselves upon their recent doings about the 'closing' of the Warden's Court. But what are the facts? Their gigantic efforts really produced nothing. All cases of disputed title have remained to be tried by the Commission, as was originally intended; and the only real result of their interference has been that the Senior Warden has received a reprimand for not understanding the first telegram-a telegram which we know, as a matter of fact, said nothing whatever about the 'closing' of his Court."

We have looked very carefully to find the false and malicious libel which is complained of; but we cannot see it. Is it a libel to say that the Senior Warden did not understand the telegram which was received: or is it a libel to state that he was reprimanded because he did not understand that telegram? Perhaps he objects to the word "reprimand," which means that he has been blamed or found fault with; and perhaps he wishes to say that he has not been reprimanded, or blamed, or found fault with, by anybody on this subject. It will be observed that our paragraph does not say by whom he has been reprimanded-whether by ourselves, by the public, by the Ministry, or by the Government Resident; and at present we cannot for the life of us make out what portions of the words are objected to as a false and malicious libel.

On this point we should like to have a little more information. But in the meantime we may say that it is perfectly aburd [sic] to suppose that this paper entertains any malice towards Mr. Connor. We have never republished from the Adelaide papers any of the remarks about his appointment, which we certainly should have done if we had felt any malice towards him.

With regard to the question whether Mr. Connor has been wrongly blamed, by public opinion or otherwise, on the subject of misunderstanding the telegram, we are assured that the fault was not with him, because the telegram was not sent direct to him, but to the Government Resident. On this point, therefore, if we have fallen into error, we have done so quite inadvertently, and certainly without the slightest intention of perpetrating a false and malicious libel. In fact, if we wanted to commit a libel we should go to work in a very different way, and should use language very different from that which is contained in the harmless paragraph which is now under consideration.


Source: Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 8 May 1874, p 2

It is seldom that the Local Court is occupied for the best part of two days with such a paltry case as that of Connor v. Clarkson. In this case the complainant, who is Senior Warden of the Goldfields (residing in Palmerston where there are no goldfields), complained that the defendant had libelled him, and asked for £100 damages, that being the highest amount which he could sue for in this Court, and which must not therefore be taken as the utmost value which he puts upon his character.

But, after a patient hearing, and after listening to a lot of witnesses, who were brought up like a string of schoolboys to speak to the meaning of a word about which nobody disputed, the Court instead of giving the very highest amount which the law allowed here, and which the plaintiff claimed, actually contented themselves by awarding him a miserable £5!

We hope that Mr. Connor is satisfied with this, and that those persons who considered him "degraded," when they read the objectionable paragraphs about him, will now feel joyful and elated to know that the alleged damage to his reputation has been repaired at so trifling an expense. Why, the amount awarded to him is only one half of what his lawyer demanded of us when he sent his blustering letter about apologies and telegrams and "retractations," which were to be published and circulated at our expense throughout the breadth of the land, in order that the world might know, from one end of the Globe to the other, that the Chief Warden was pure and immaculate. But we declined to pay the £10, and we declined to make any apology, and it appears that we were right, even in the eyes of the Court; for they award only £5, and we save our ink and type for something better than apologies.

With regard to the real merits of the case, we suppose there are no persons who will think that this paper committed an offence by publishing the words that were uttered by the Hon. Thos. Reynolds at the public meeting in January last; and in reference to the statement which we made about Mr. Connor's having misunderstood a telegram, we do that on the strength of words used by the Attorney-General and the Commissioner of Crown Lands, as fully reported in the Register and Advertiser newspapers of the 30th January, where they can be seen by any persons who are curious in the matter.

But, although the damages given in this case are so trumpery, compared with the high-flown estimate raised by the plaintiffs counsel, it is a noteworthy fact that even this paltry amount could not have been given if the law of libel had not been strained against the defendant, so as to try and punish him for a bona fide report of a speech made by the Hon. Thos. Reynolds; and for a paragraph in accordance with unquestioned reports of censures uttered by the Attorney-General and the Commissioner of Crown Lands in Adelaide, where they have been published in both the morning-papers;  though we are warned that thev must not be published here, because in this warm climate the reputations of Government officers become so delicate and brittle that they are incapable of standing the fair and manly comment which they can very well submit to in colder latitudes. Truly, if a newspaper in Port Darwin is not allowed to publish what is published every day by newspapers in Adelaide, this place will soon become too good and too virtuous for any ordinary mortals to live in.

However, it is not this paper which ought to complain; for the result of of the trial is really this--The Court, in their wisdom, say that a libel has been committed, and that a defamation of character has been written and published, yet, at the same time, they consider that five pounds is ample compensation to be awarded to the maligned, the aggrieved, and the suffering plaintiff.


Source: Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 15 May 1874, p 3

The Law of Libel.


Sir-Public men, or would-be public men, have a great horror of newspapers; but where there are old-established Courts of Law they think twice before rushing into litigation against the Press, because they know that even if they get a verdict (which is generally very doubtful) the result is more disagreeable to themselves than it is to anybody else. And the reason of this is obvious. People say immediately that a man's character must be very poor, indeed, if it cannot stand its ground without verdicts by juries; and then, moreover, the verdict itself is generally so different from the estimate which the litigant puts upon his own character that the public are amused for ever afterwards at the ridiculous valuation which he has caused to be attached to his own name.

Besides, the cowardice of proceeding against a newspaper for words uttered by a political opponent in a public speech is a consideration which of itself deters most men from going into Court on alleged libels of that kind. I do not believe, in fact, that throughout the records of the Supreme Court of South Australia there can be found a single case in which a public man has brought an action against a newspaper for words, fairly reported, alter having been uttered by another public man.

The fact is a jury would have no sympathy whatever with the plaintiffin such a case knowing, as they would do, that the speaker of the words himself was within reach, and could be dealt with by the aggrieved person in any way he chose. Newspaper reports, it is well known, are written-especially for daily newspapers-under very disadvantageous circumstances. They are prepared hastily, as a matter of necessity, and the proprietors of a newspaper are often not in a position to revise them. If, therefore, they are given with fair intention a jury will in nine cases out of ten prefer that the speaker rather than the reporter shall be held responsible for any objectionable words which they may contain. But the truth is-the few public men who have taken up their abode in the Northern Territory cannot be expected to be very impartial judges in this matter. They remember too well the stinging lessons which they have received from the Press, on various occasions, during their unsuccessful careers elsewhere, and they are too ready to jump at any opportunity for a little retaliation. But in doing this they ought to be careful not lo put the person who complains of a libel in a worse position than he was in before. For my own part, if 1 were to complain that my character had been grievously injured by what I considered to be a libel, I should much rather prefer that the libel should he pronounced to be no libel at all than that I should be awarded some paltry amount in compensation for my injured character; because if there were no libel it would be a declaration that my character was not injured; whereas to say that there is a libel, and that my character has been injured, and vet only to award me the most trifling compensation is an insult to justice and an outrage on common-sense.

I am, Sir, &c.,



Source: Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 19 September 1874, p 2

Mr. Conner, the Chief Warden, swore in the Local Court last May that he had never been reprimanded by the Government in any way whatever; and the Court therefore fined this paper £5 for saying he had been. Yet we now see from the Parliamentary papers published in our issue of last week that Mr. Conner wrote as follows to the Government Resident on the 7th of March last:-"ln the telegram which you showed me on the 3rd inst., I perceive to my regret that I am censured by the Government for same observations which are reported in a newspaper to have emanated from me on the day I closed my Court." After this Mr. Conner cannot, as a conscientious and truthful man, refuse to pay us our £5 back again as quickly as possible

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School