Jonathan Mirsky

‘Am I not God’s chosen?’

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W. Sydney Robinson

The Robson Press, pp. 281, £

Never write blurbs. That is my modest advice to Sir Harold Evans, who in his endorsement of Muckraker describes the life of W.T. Stead as ‘ennobling’. This is particularly odd because Stead (1849-1912) was the shameless precursor of the gutter journalism that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and Sun have inflicted on the UK — something that Sir Harold, once editor of Murdoch’s classier Times, knows all too well.

Most symptoms of the current red-top plague were rampant in Stead’s style of journalism: the claim to speak for the decent majority, the vow to drive bad people from office by exposing them, the conceit that those who run newspapers should not only advocate, but create, policy, and that no person or subject, whether local or international, is immune to high-minded scrutiny.

All this, as Stead wrote in his diary, must be ‘lively, amusing and newsy’. Together with these agreeable qualities, however, went deceit, scandal-mongering, especially about sexual matters, and anything-goes dirt-digging. In a final possible precursor of today’s scandals, Stead went to jail.

Ian Hislop’s blurb gets Stead partly right, describing him as ‘a radical, maverick innovator’. He doesn’t mntion that he was also a liar, woman-exploiter and weirdo.

From a nonconformist, devil-fearing, joyless background, Stead, at 21, became Britain’s youngest newspaper editor, of the respectable Northern Echo in Darlington. Just before taking up the position, he said this — words that defined the rest of his life:

To be an editor! To think, write & speak for thousands. It is the position of a Viceroy. But God calls, and now points to the only true throne in England, the editor’s chair and offers me the real sceptre. Am I not God’s chosen, to be his soldier against wrong?

From Darlington, Stead moved to London, to become deputy and then editor of the upwardly striving Pall Mall Gazette.There he laid down his 30-page ‘Gospel According to the Pall Mall Gazette.’ Two headings stand out admirably:

‘The Independence of Women’, and ‘The Establishment of a United States of Europe’, topics that continue to agitate the press today.

As was ever the case with Stead, none of his causes was namby-pamby. ‘Woman, no longer the mere ancillary of man, to be petted or enslaved to his will, is to have as independent a voice in the disposal of her life as he.’ But women were Stead’s weakness, as they were of many high-minded men at the time, including Gladstone. An omnivorous flirt, hugger and kisser all his life of any pretty woman within reach, Stead was a frequenter of brothels, allegedly in the interests of research; whether there was more than that, W. Sydney Robinson could not establish. It was to a woman that Stead likened himself to Jesus.

He was similarly conflicted about imperialism. He condemned

our rowdies, our filibusters, our slave traders and our rum-sellers who go forth armed with the resources of our civilisation to exploit  and plunder the native populations of the uncivilised world.

He foresaw that the British empire’s ‘success was to be measured by the efficiency with which it digs its own grave’. But while he railed against imperialism in his news-paper, Stead campaigned equally hard — and fatally — for General Gordon to be sent to the Sudan to crush the Mahdi’s uprising, and for Cecil Rhodes to be encouraged to expand his interests in Africa while Britain took on the Boers.

For many others at the time, the deed that defined Stead’s principles — and his lack of them — was his campaign to expose how very young children were sexually exploited by the rich and supposedly moral. First came a series in his paper called ‘The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon,’ that provided the perfect backdrop for his puritan melodrama. The public response, Robinson says, was ‘electric’, heightened by placards advertising the series with headlines like ‘Why the Cries of the Victims are not Heard,’ ‘Strapping Girls Down, ‘ and ‘I Order Five Virgins’ — the latter being an account of Stead’s personal investigation of this national scandal.

So far, so worthy. Ever unscrupulous, however, Stead arranged for the purchase, purportedly for sex, of the unsuspecting 13- year-old Eliza Armstrong. He pretended he was seeking such a girl, arranged a probe to insure her virginity — during which her anguish was extreme —and organised her transport to do housework for two months, far from her family, in France. As Robinson observes:

It cannot be doubted that her ordeal and new surroundings would have greatly traumatised the girl, whose travels had hitherto been limited to a school trip to Richmond.

It eventually emerged that Stead, who never shrank from lying in what he took to be a good cause, had procured a wholly innocent child to further his campaign. The inevitable public outcry resulted in his imprisonment for three months, although in such luxurious surroundings that he enjoyed himself. Typically, writes Robinson,

Stead managed to turn this ostensible disaster into the defining moment of his life, celebrating the anniversary of his conviction each year by travelling to work in his prison uniform and reinventing himself as the philosopher king of his trade.

When he was in prison, he asked a visiting friend to name the man he thought most important in the world, and before his friend could reply, Stead said: ‘I could only find one answer — the prisoner in this cell.’

But many of his admirers fell away, and after Stead’s death one of them, George Bernard Shaw, resurrected Eliza Armstrong as Pygmalion’s Eliza Doolittle, ‘a no less tragic victim of misplaced philanthropy’.

I can’t resist mentioning two further facts about Stead. Over-dramatic to the end, he went down with the Titanic. And he credited — wait for it — The Spectator with igniting ‘his lifelong romance with newspapers’. A more unlikely romance I can’t imagine.

Robinson has written the biography — not the first, he generously notes — of a journalist I confess I had barely heard of. He sometimes tells us more than we need to know — editors should look out for this in enthusiastic young authors — and he overuses ‘perhaps’ and ‘probably’ when the known facts are vivid and gripping enough. Books nowadays rarely include illustrations. I would like to have seen some of the beautiful women Stead kissed. I grew to quite dislike him as I read Muckraker, but that’s because Robinson knows how to tell a story.