How Parliament’s veil of secrecy was broken

Sunday saw the 230th anniversary of the death of Brass Crosby.

Despite the years that have passed since then, his legacy lives on, having given the press the freedom to write exactly what was said in Parliament. It wasn’t a freedom easily won; in 1771 Mayor of London, Brass Crosby and Alderman Oliver were sent to the Tower of London for their stand on this which infuriated the establishment in Parliament.

In those days, when George III was on the throne and Lord North ruled in Parliament, there was much unrest and dissent in the country – much like today, although the City of London was at the heart of this. Newspapers of the time were not allowed to print exactly what was said in Parliament, and there was no record kept.

As more people became interested in parliamentary debates, more individuals published unofficial accounts of them. Under fictitious names like “proceedings of the lower room of the Robin Hood Society” and “Debates of a Certain Assembly” of a “Political Club”. As time went on, speakers’ names were anagrams of the real name, or names with some of the letters removed, but it was getting too close for comfort for Colonel George Onslow. There had been, for instance, in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser on 5 January 1771 an article beginning “George O_____s’s Speech in the Robin Hood Society on the 6th December”.

Brass Crosby was an MP at the time, though one for a rotten borough, in a constituency now of Lib Dem fame, Honiton. He was also the Mayor of London, and thus the Chief Magistrate. Parliament had demanded that printers of various newspapers be brought before them to be punished, but one was brought before Brass Crosby. Ridden with gout, so in his bed in the Mansion House, surrounded by Alderman Oliver and many officials, he ruled that the printer was innocent and could be set free.

Parliament was furious and after much wrangling sent Crosby and Oliver to the Tower of London. They were released some months later, to much jubilation, and from that day on the press have had the freedom to print exactly what was said in Parliament.

If only the press of today used this wisely for the good of distributing information for people in a way that they can easily access, and make their own minds up without distortion according the views of editors. Far too often what is said is condensed, taken out of context, and selectively quoted to reflect the views of newspapers and other news providers. People are given versions that heavily reflect the views of the news giver with disastrous effects in both elections and of course the Brexit referendum.

What Brass Crosby bravely stood up for was for the facts to be available, for what different views were expressed.

230 years on, how much of that is respected or even understood. Was imprisonment in the Tower worth it?

If you’re interested in knowing more about the story, or in Brass Crosby generally, more information, including her book, can be found on Suzanne’s website.

* Suzanne Fletcher was a councillor for nearly 30 years and a voluntary advice worker with the CAB for 40 years. Now retired, she is active as a campaigner in the community both as a Lib Dem and with local organisations and author of "Bold as Brass?", the story of Brass Crosby.

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This entry was posted in Liberal History.
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2 Comments

  • Leon Duveen 6th Feb '23 - 6:18pm

    I can remember, in the day before Parliament was broadcast on radio, when the broadsheets would carry daily extracts from Hansard of water had been said in debates, sadly no longer.
    We would all do well to commemorate Brass Crosby and remember the our freedoms have often been won by people willing to be jailed or worse. We should treasure them & not surrender them to an increasingly authoritarian Government.

  • Tristan Ward 6th Feb '23 - 6:58pm

    You can, if you want, watch Parliamnet live here:https://parliamentlive.tv/Commons.

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