Senior Liberal Minsters cleared of corruption charges
The Marconi station in Clifden, Co. Galway. The power of wireless telegraphy was vividly illustrated last year when it was used to save lives at sea after the sinking of the Titanic. Photo: National Library of Ireland, LCAB 04374

Senior Liberal Minsters cleared of corruption charges

Investigation into 'Marconi Scandal' ends

Published: 20 June 1913

Three senior Cabinet Ministers have been cleared of using their influence to secure a major contract for the Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Company. A Select Parliamentary Committee, which began its investigations into the so-called ‘Marconi Scandal’ last October, also found that there was ‘no foundation’ to charges that Mr Herbert Samuel (Postmaster General), Sir Rufus Isaacs (Attorney General) and Mr Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer) had abused their office by purchasing shares in the well-known telegraphy company in the knowledge that their value would rise when news of the contract became public.

In exonerating the three leading Liberals, the Committee, on which Mr. William Redmond of the Irish Party served, denounced those publications which had encouraged rumours they had ‘no reason’ to believe were true. It was claimed that there had been a ‘slander of particularly vile character on the Ministers against whom it was immediately directed, and on the whole public life of the nation.’

The judgment of the Select Committee was anything but unanimous, however. Two minority reports, published alongside the majority report, are less forgiving of the Liberal Ministers, accusing them of ‘grave impropriety’ and criticising their lack of frankness in failing to declare their shareholding in the American Marconi Company, a sister company of the one awarded the contract, when addressing the matter in Parliament last October.

Punch magazine takes a jaundiced view of the Marconi Comittee’s proceedings, 7 May 1913.

Speaking in a House of Commons debate on the publication of the reports, Sir Rufus Isaacs, whose brother Geoffrey Isaacs is the Marconi Managing Director and was a key figure in brokering the contract, rejected any suggestion of deliberate deception. ‘I assure the House that no such intention was ever present in our minds’, he said. ‘All that we meant was that this was not the opportunity; that the proper opportunity was at the Select Committee. I think also that in all probability, looking back upon it, our minds—certainly my mind—was a little too full of the indignity of the charges of corruption which were then being circulated.’

The Marconi scandal has its origins in the decision of the Postmaster General, in March 1912, to accept a tender by the Marconi Company to build the first of six stations of a wireless chain to link up the British Empire. The decision to establish a Select Committee to investigate this contract came when rumours of corruption began to circulate alleging that the aforementioned Ministers had speculated in Marconi shares and abused their public office. 

These rumours have already given rise to two separate libel actions, including one against the French journal Le Matin. Interestingly, during this case, Sir Rufus Isaacs and Herbert Samuel were represented by Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Edward Carson K.C. Although successful, the action taken against Le Matin only helped fuel the furore by bringing into the public realm for the first time the revelation that Sir Rufus Isaacs had purchased shares in the American Marconi Company before selling some on to Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Lord Murray, then Government chief whip.

Liberal hopes that the conclusion of the Select Committee’s work would draw a line under this damaging episode have evaporated on the floor of the House of Commons in recent days. As with the reports of the Select Committee, the two-day debate was divided along party lines. In the end, however, an opposition motion regretting the transactions of the Ministers and their ‘want of frankness’ before House was defeated; the Government, with the support of Irish Party MPs, won by 348 votes to 268.

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