There’s a footnote about W.T. Stead in my new book, Bad News. But he’s such a fascinating character that he’s deserving of much more than that. So here’s a reminder of the biography published a few years back and which is still a cracking read…
William Thomas Stead, who died on the Titanic, was not only Britain’s first investigative journalist, he also epitomised the profession’s strengths and dark side within his own career.
He was at times brilliant, unearthing horrors and using the power of publicity to secure reform, and at times appalling, bending the truth and ruining people’s lives as he abandoned accuracy for melodramatic fiction.
Central to this mixed record was his ‘purchase’ in 1885 of a 13-year-old child, Eliza Armstrong, and transportation of her to a brothel, supposedly to expose child prostitution. He took the stunt far further than necessary, forcibly, deceitfully and unnecessarily keeping the family split up and out of touch with each other well beyond any need to demonstrate the scandal of child prostitution. Initially, it worked for him – shock headlines, scrambling politicians and a legislative panic. It looks like at least some of Stead’s accounts involved a degree of falsehood and running through them was a hypocrisy that would become a journalistic mainstay: expressing horror at something before going on to describe its details at enthusiastic length. Stead’s actions can be partly defended at helping to shock the public – and politicians – into action. By the end of his career, however, such behaviour had caught up with him and he was a discredited figure.
His lively writing style, his love of stunts and the way they could catch both the public’s attention and the public policy agenda of the day left a legacy that, wittingly or not, generations of British journalists have followed, in both its exuberant and its distasteful respects. So too in the ways that he often twisted his journalism to fit a particular political objective: selecting his political enemy or his desired election outcome and then writing to fit that script. Indeed, he even once claimed that it was the moral obligation of every newspaper editor to help the Liberal Party back into office.
W Sydney Robinson documents all this in an entertaining and brisk tale. The writing style is relaxed and with a touch of the JK Rowling about it – that is, as likely to provoke sniffs from expert wordsmiths about its detailed failings as it is to supply enjoyment to everyone else. For such a complex character as Stead, it is no criticism to say that book never really quite works out what made him tick. His behaviour was so eccentric and changeable that there is bound to be a degree of mystery about his inner psychology a century on.
The book is particularly convincing on the details of the Eliza Armstrong case and how badly Stead treated her and her family, making for a very different story than the sanctified version of his life that suggests he only ended up being prosecuted on a legal technicality and did not really do anything wrong. Robinson demolishes that outlook and points out that it was the political panic he generated that prompted the Parliamentary Bill which was amended to make homosexuality between men illegal in Britain. Rushed through in the panic, these legal provisions remained the law until the 1960s.
An excellent read, and a good insight into modern as well as Victorian journalism.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.