Sunday, 22 April 2012

A pioneer of investigative journalism

Last week was the centenary of the death of William Thomas Stead.

When Stead became editor of the Darlington Northern Echo at 22, he was the youngest newspaper editor in the country. His innovative methods made the Northern Echo one of the leading daily papers in the north of England. He adopted the radical Liberal policies of the time: compulsory primary and secondary school education, universal male and female suffrage, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, ‘social purity’ in politics, collective bargaining in industrial relations, the eight-hour day for coalminers, poor law reform and Home Rule for Ireland.

In 1883 Stead became editor of the Pall Mall Gazette in London. He promoted the Gazette using techniques such as bold headlines, illustrations and  special interviews

Chinese Gordon's arrival in London … having been announced in yesterday's papers, a communication was immediately addressed to him… asking him if he would consent to hold a conversation on the subject of the Soudan with a representative of the Pall Mall Gazette.

‘With characteristic modesty, General Gordon begged to be excused …. Our representative [Stead himself] left town by the next train, and found General Gordon at his sister's house …. He showed considerable disinclination to express his opinions upon the subject, but on its being represented to him very strongly that he of all men now in the country was best acquainted with the Soudan, and therefore was best able to speak with authority on the question of the hour, he consented to enter upon the subject.’

Prostitution and the exploitation of women were among the concerns of social reformers in the nineteenth century. The age of consent for girls in England had been raised from twelve to thirteen in 1875. Campaigners wanted it raised further to sixteen; in 1885 Stead was approached to help publicise the issue.

Josephine Butler and Bramwell Booth helped Stead to acquire a thirteen year old girl, Eliza Armstrong. Eliza’s mother was paid £5, Mrs Armstrong (it was claimed) being given to understand that Eliza was being procured for prostitution.

Stead then wrote a series of sensational articles. The first was titled  The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, with subheadings ‘The Violation of Virgins‘, ’The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper‘, ‘How Girls Were Bought and Ruined‘, ‘A Child of Thirteen Bought for £5’.

Many influential people praised Stead. Others denounced him, some for raising such matters at all in what was supposed to be a family paper, others for the sensationalist way in which he treated it. He was accused of  ‘peddling pornography’. W. H. Smith refused to sell those issues of the Gazette. Where it was available, the Gazette sold out rapidly. Second hand copies changed hands at inflated prices. 

There were demonstrations demanding that legislation on the age of consent be passed immediately. Initially the government and Parliament were unwilling to act under pressure from sensational journalism, but as demand from public opinion increased, the government had to back down and legislation raising the age of consent to sixteen was passed in August 1885.  

Rival newspapers carried out their own investigations. Although Stead had disguised Eliza’s identity, The Times tracked down her mother. It was revealed that it was Stead himself who had purchased her, a fact he had not included in his own articles. Mrs Armstrong said she had not, as Stead had claimed, known that she was (supposedly) selling her daughter into prostitution. Eliza’s father said that he had not consented to  Eliza being taken away.  Although the age of consent was thirteen, it was illegal to take away a girl under sixteen without the consent of her parents or guardian. 

Stead and others were charged with the assault and abduction of Eliza Armstrong. Stead and two women were convicted. The women were sentenced to six months, Stead to three months in prison.

Social issues continued to be a priority. In 1888, when writing about the Whitechapel Murders: ‘Here in London lie certain foul slums, which The Times describes as "the kitchen middens of humanity," in which the human being putrefies, and where tens of thousands of our fellow creatures are begotten and reared in an atmosphere of godless brutality, a species of human sewage, the very drainage of the vilest productions of ordinary vice…. Philanthropists have repeatedly, and in vain, called attention to their existence. The Bitter Cry of Outcast London has fallen upon heedless ears.

Stead’s methods alienated the majority of the press and many politicians, including hs former patron, Gladstone. He left the Pall Mall Gazette in early January 1890 and moved on to other journalistic and publishing ventures.

Stead had a lifelong interest in spiritualism. Over time this damaged his reputation, as he began to be seen as something of a crank.

He became involved in the peace movement of the time, advocating arms limitation and strong Anglo-American co-operation.

In 1912 he was invited to speak at a Peace Conference in New York. He sailed on the Titanic. After the liner struck the iceberg he was seen helping women and children into the lifeboats. One account (probably fictional), said that after all the boats had gone, Stead went into the First Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen sitting in a chair reading a book. His body was not recovered. It was believed that he would have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year. He had predicted that he would die by drowning, apparently having received spiritualist messages to that effect.

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