WT Stead pictured in relaxed mode
Published: 31 May, 2012
by GERALD ISAAMAN
He sank with the Titanic a hundred years ago, and has largely been forgotten ever since – hardly a lasting epitaph for a man whose youthful desire was “to make a name for myself and to be great and famous”.
So how is it that William Thomas Stead is lauded as “arguably the most important journalist of all time” by historian Tristram Hunt MP in his foreword to this compelling biography of a man given the jaundiced epithet of “Muckraker” by biographer W Sydney Robinson?
Robinson dubs Stead “Britain’s first investigative journalist” and the pioneer of the interview – all done from memory – without having any obvious knowledge of Gordon Bennett, who actually created the interview and was accused of creating the “gutter press” by his detractors (see panel below in bold).
Yes, the expletive is in fact a backhand tribute to two men, father and son of the same name, both journalists.
The elder Bennett left his native Scotland as a lad to emigrate, first to Canada, then America, where he founded the New York Herald in 1835. He “created” the interview and was the first journalist to question an American president.
Bennett was accused of creating the “gutter press” by, for example, offering rewards to any woman willing to catch a parson in flagrante delicto with someone else’s wife.
His son is best remembered for hiring Stanley to go off to Africa to find the missing explorer Dr Livingstone.
In any case, “muckraker” is an American word, not part of the English vernacular, and although Stead deserves belated recognition for his remarkable achievements they don’t, in my view, rise to such exalted heights.
Certainly not when the muckraking being revealed by the Leveson inquiry raises the level of media corruption and chicanery to such disgusting heights.
After all, as Robinson acknowledges, Alfred Harmsworth, brought up in the Vale of Health, who began his career on the Ham & High, became Lord Northcliffe, a tycoon who, like Beaverbrook and Murdoch after him, ruthlessly tried to manipulate governments.
Northcliffe created the Daily Mail, the first newspaper in the world to sell a million copies, and Stead, the son of a nonconformist minister, never achieved that.
Nor did he make himself a millionaire like the Bennetts.
Indeed, there is a schizophrenia in this saga of Stead, who edited the Northern Echo at 21, declaring that newspapers were the “only Bible which millions read”, and declaring: “God calls 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?”
Yet, as editor of London’s Pall Mall Gazette, Stead became a dominant national figure, insisting his mission was to be the voice of the people, despite Gladstone denouncing him as the man who had done more damage to journalism “than any other individual ever known”.
Stead regarded himself as “the uncrowned king of the educated democracy”, pleading for a the chance to “go round the world and whip the wicked out of it”.
His circle of admirers including Edward VII, the tsars of Russia, Cecil Rhodes, Andrew Carnegie and Cardinal Manning.
The peak of his bold, relentless reporting came when he exposed the scandal of childhood prostitution by “buying” a girl of 13 and successfully campaigning for the age of consent to be raised to 16 – the personal price being his imprisonment for three months for abduction.
But nothing deterred Stead who, as a lad, was thought “daft” and called “Queer Bill” because he ran everywhere. He tenaciously took on all foes, filled with righteous indignation, and later sought an end to slum housing, opposed the Boer War, supported Oscar Wilde and campaigned for world peace.
Like all those who lust for power – and politicians and newspaper barons are prime examples – Stead was undoubtedly a flawed character, an egomaniac seeking enduring fame, a hypocrite with his own sexual demands to sustain, who also doctored facts and pictures – all faults that marred his mission to be the moral guardian of the masses.
Robinson also paints a “dark side” picture of Stead as a demented maverick who demanded kisses from female visitors to his office, and became seduced by spiritualism and the occult. The journalistic tornado, Robinson suggests, was equally a scandaliser guilty of his own awful scandals.
This somewhat dents the superlative claims made for his moral crusader status, except perhaps when Stead stood on deck as the Titanic hit the iceberg.
He heroically gave his life-jacket to a fellow passenger and helped women and children into the lifeboats.
The last of Stead anyone saw was of him reading his penny Bible.
What an epitaph!
• Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of WT Stead. By W Sydney Robinson. The Robson Press, £20