Judgement is to go by default. Those who bear our proudest names and fill our highest stations are to stand for ever under the slur of the most terrible imputations that can be brought against human beings.
That is the meaning of the faint-hearted and cowardly refusal of the Government to prosecute the Pall Mall Gazette, and so unmask the criminals on whose doings it has cast such a lurid light, announced by Sir Richard Cross to the House of Commons last night. Confidence in the administration of justice in this country will receive a rude shock from this cowardly running away from public duty on the part of public men.
It is not that the Pall Mall Gazette had, so far as can be seen, committed any illegality by calling attention to the rampant rottenness of London. Its stories were not the familiar narratives of immorality which the world has had to face since the foundation of society. The accusations which our contemporary — inspired by a burning sense of shame and duty — put before its readers, were accusations not of vice but of crime. They were directed not against the degraded outcasts of civilisation who infest large cities, but against the rich and powerful of society. They were stories, not of mutual wrong-doing, but of offence against the defenceless; of crime in which the victims were the helpless and the innocent, whose youth should have saved them from the cruel wrong, as it certainly should have ensured them the protection and the avenging interference of the State. The first and ready mode of bringing these crimes into the purview of justice was through a Government prosecution of the newspaper that dared to throw across them the light of day. That prosecution is now not to be begun. It would, no doubt, have failed of its first object. Not a line of the writings that have shocked the old and the new world has been challenged as belonging to the order of literature with which certain moralists have striven to class the journal which has done such service for the oppressed and the sufferers from cruel wrong. No man or woman whose opinion is worth having, or whose character adds authority to his or her conclusions, has offered one word of censure or one syllable of condemnation. The Prince of Wales and Mr. Cavendish Bentinck have withdrawn their names from the circulation list of the journal. One or two journals, more remarkable for partnership than for purity, have affected hypocritical disgust at the publication, though none at the perpetration of nameless outrage. But bishops and ministers, men and women who work in the labyrinth of London, have hastened to pay a glowing tribute of thanks and praise for the first great public effort to stamp out evils which cast the trail of the serpent over our civilisation. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the Bishop of London, and Mr. Samuel Morley have consented to act as a committee, before whom will be produced in confidence the evidence of the reality of the Crimes which have bean unveiled. But though the verdict of this commission may prove the crime, it will not punish the criminals. Had there been any public procedure against the Pall Mall Gazette, the public prosecution and punishment of the offenders must have followed, and that would have done more to purify the atmosphere than a legion of private inquiries. The prosecution of the Pall Mall Gazette would have been only on incident in such an investigation. It was not the purity or the pruriency of a public journal that the statesmen who rule England were called, as solemnly and inexcusably as ever men were called before, to weigh and consider. Ministers were confronted with the statement that in London are daily committed most horrible and loathsome crimes, for which the statute law provides its sharpest punishment. They were confronted with this, and with the fact that they, and they only of all Englishmen, have authority to investigate the crime or power to punish the criminal. If ever the path of duty lay clear before the men who fill the almost godlike functions of the government of a people, it lay clear before Her Majesties Ministers. A few days of the searching ordeal of a Court of Law would have either cleansed this country of horrible imputations, or convicted some of the most loathsome criminals that ever disgraced a people. Yet inquiry is denied — through influences we may guess — by the only authorities who have power to order it. Had the revelations of Modern Babylon merely referred to systematic theft, our law authorities here now would have tracked and arrested every man and woman mentioned in them. But because the rich and the powerful are the criminals there is to be no investigation of the crime, and the Government have let slip the grandest opportunity of defending the oppressed and shaming the oppressor ever offered to men.