Telegraph Department cleared of 'hacking' charges

10 November 1871

Telegraph operators at work, c. 1900 (Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19031029-6-4)

A series of events in 1870-71 led Otago Daily Times editor George Barton to claim in his newspaper that the government had been intercepting telegraphs for political gain.

After the government sued Barton for libel and he counter-sued Telegraph Department head Charles Lemon, a parliamentary select committee was convened to investigate the affair. On 10 November 1871 its report, which exonerated the department of any wrongdoing, was tabled in Parliament.

This was in the days before overseas telegrams, so any major international news came by ship and was then sent internally (by Morse code) via the telegraph system, along with thousands of other communications. The telegraph system stretched in a line from Invercargill to Auckland (apart from a small gap in the Coromandel across which telegrams had to be carried by courier until 1872). Any suggestion that the department that controlled the telegraph system might be abusing its power was a cause for concern.

The accusations against the Telegraph Department might appear tame compared to recent phone-hacking scandals, but at the time they were taken very seriously. They included delaying passing major international news items on to newspapers that didn’t support the government, illegally intercepting a journalist’s telegram about a speech by an opposition politician – and that Charles Lemon had been moonlighting as a grain merchant for his brother. 

The fact that the government chose to sue its accuser, and then took the extraordinary step of offering Otago Daily Times staff a ‘pardon in advance’ so they wouldn’t incriminate themselves in giving evidence against Barton, seems to have caused as much of a backlash as the accusations of departmental wrongdoing.

An Evening Post editorial claimed the incident was an abuse of government power and money and could be seen as setting an unacceptable precedent:

No Editor of a public journal will in future dare to expose abuses, however glaring, censure the proceedings of a corrupt Government, or stand up for the rights of the people if he knows that he is liable to be criminally prosecuted at the will of the Government.

Barton left the Otago Daily Times shortly after the case against him concluded and went into legal practice in Dunedin. Charles Lemon continued as Superintendent of Electric Lines in the Post and Telegraph Department until his retirement in 1894, having survived a number of other enquiries since the telegraph scandal of 1870-71.

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This Today in History entry is adapted from 'The Great New Zealand Telegram-hacking Scandal (1871)' (pdf) by Dave Wilton.

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