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John Horgan

Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W.T. Stead, Britain’s First Investigative Journalist, by W Sydney Robinson, Robson Press, £20, 281 pp, ISBN: 978-1849542944.

There are few recognisably pivotal points in the history of journalism, but WT Stead’s editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette is surely one of them. There’s hardly a serious journalist who hasn’t heard of him, or who would not be aware, in a hazy sort way, of how he scandalised British society almost one hundred and fifty years ago by buying a young girl in order to expose the evil of child prostitution in Victorian England.

And yet, as so often happens in journalism itself, the attention given even to important occurrences and persons is short-lived, as celebrities rise and fall with metronomic regularity. It is almost a century since the publication of the original two-volume biography of Stead by Frederic Whyte, which Robinson describes as useful if “excessively laudatory”. Although there has been other relevant work in the interim, particularly JW Robertson Scott’s memoirs, which provided Robinson with important insights, Scott’s books comprise his memories of numerous editors, and there has really been a Stead-shaped gap ever since.

Robinson has now filled this gap with energy, flair, and a fair-mindedness which must, at times, have been difficult to maintain in the face of his subject’s bewildering eccentricity, intermittent megalomania, occasional flights of fancy, and a moral compass that did not always point to true north. It is tempting to suggest that these characteristics may also be found, to some extent, in other editors of note, but that is another day’s work and, even if it were true, Stead exhibited them all to such a degree that it is inconceivable that any journalist resembling him today would ever be entrusted by any pin-striped board of directors with the stewardship of a national newspaper. Not the least paradoxical aspect of Stead’s character is that when he was asked in 1901 who he considered to be the greatest journalist then living, he named the Irishman EJ Dillon, who was temperamentally almost the diametric opposite of the flamboyant editor of the Gazette and was, in Stead’s words of praise, “a little man who hides his light under a bushel and shuns the public gaze as the plague”.

There are, of course, different theories about how and why journalism changed in the late nineteenth century, in the era of what came to be called that of the “new journalism”. It is unarguable that newspapers at this point became less staid, less the stenographers to power, and that they found that entertainment and celebrity generated at least as much, and increasingly more, profit than the mere supply of information. Some of the congratulations that flowed into the Irish Independent following its first appearance with a new name and a new set of journalistic techniques in 1905 hailed it as a “tabloid”. By this, of course, they meant to salute its abandonment of the traditional slavish adherence to interminable accounts of political speeches in favour of leaner accounts of the events of the day, more highly flavoured for public consumption.

Recent scholarship suggests that this new “celebrity journalism” was leavened, in the United States at least, by the need to appeal to the politics of poor immigrants and the working class, and that this segued into the development of radical political campaigning that helped to create and develop mass readership. Robinson’s book adds an important dimension to this analysis. He charts the way in which Stead’s papers and others came to realise that editors hectoring or lobbying politicians was, in the long run, less effective in influencing political events than using and dramatising issues and topics to build a mass circulation among readers whose opinions and priorities, educated and on occasion inflamed by this journalism, the politicians could not safely ignore. Stead’s predecessor as editor of the Gazette, John Morley, was of the old school, and believed that every article in the paper should be written by a “qualified expert”. Stead, in contrast, believed passionately that it should be the job of journalists to stand “between those who know everything and those who know nothing, and it is his duty to interpret the knowledge of the few for the understanding of the many”.

The event at the core of Stead’s reputation – the abduction of a young girl to demonstrate how easy it was to purchase a virgin for sex – certainly had the positive effect that Stead had hoped and campaigned for, that is the raising of the age of consent for girls. But Robinson’s forensic account of what actually happened in the course of this escapade quite chills the blood. Numerous laws were broken. There were two attempts – the first one, in a brothel, unsuccessful – to examine the child internally, under the influence of chloroform, to demonstrate that she was a virgin. Stead pointedly ignored any evidence that might have tended to challenge his assumption that her parents had no interest in, or feeling for, their daughter. After the second phase of the operation, which involved spiriting her away to France, he to all intents and purpose washed his hands of her, displaying little or no interest in her subsequent welfare. It is hard to come to any conclusion other than that the three-month prison sentence which he afterwards received for his involvement in these events would have been higher but for his role as a crusading editor, and higher still if the moral sensitivities of the era had been more developed in relation to the rights of children generally.

Stead broke the law, he of course argued, in a good cause, and the concept of the “public interest” as a justification for invasions of privacy and even for law-breaking, has a strong currency up to our own day. The decision of the High Court to protect the RTÉ investigative report into the Leas Cross nursing home scandal is a case in point, involving as it did the use of hidden cameras by a journalist who misrepresented himself in order to secure employment at the care home concerned. But the verdict on whether Stead could have achieved the same objective by different means, or by means which could have avoided the acute distress – terror even – visited on the thirteen-year-old Eliza Armstrong, has to remain open.

It is difficult at this remove to take accurately the moral and ethical temperature of 1885, uninformed as that era was by any developed code of journalistic behaviour or even by any strong sense of human rights, and Robinson provides some useful evidence that it was as difficult to assess then as now. Taking the high moral ground – and appropriate insurance against subsequent retribution – Stead had the vocal and practical prior support of Bramwell Booth, chief of staff of the Salvation Army. He also went so far as to write to three prominent churchmen (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Bishop of London, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster) to tell them in advance of his intentions. The Archbishop of Canterbury was the only one of these three divines to advise against it, on the altogether reasonable grounds that it was too severe a remedy for the crimes that were allegedly being perpetrated. One might have expected Cardinal Manning of Westminster to be somewhat troubled by the implicit argument that the end justified the means, but Manning not only implied approval by his silence, but remained on close terms with Stead for many years afterwards.

The moral panic created by Stead’s articles was double-edged, not that this troubled their author overmuch. The accelerated passage through parliament of what became known, not unfairly, as “Stead’s Act”, was not rapid enough to prevent the addition to the legislation, by amendment, of a provision criminalising “gross indecency” by a male “with another male person”. This provision was not repealed until some eight decades later in Britain, and later than that again in Ireland.

This is probably a minor part of the debit side of Stead’s journalistic ledger, given that he had no direct responsibility for it. His megalomania – I may have been kind to him earlier in describing it as “intermittent” – is more problematic. He was heavily involved in influence-peddling at some stages of his career, sometimes for admirable objectives, sometimes in pursuit of a personal agenda that made up in intensity what it lacked in consistency. From a very early age was imbued with a passionate belief in the divine right, if not of kings, then certainly of editors. Although his predecessor, Morley, as depicted in this book, was undoubtedly something of a fogey, it is difficult not to sympathise with him, at least to a degree, in his objections to what he described as Stead’s attachment to “government by journalism”.

Stead once told his clergyman father that he wanted God to give him a “big whip” so that he could “go round the world and whip the wicked out of it”. On the eve of taking up his first editorial appointment on the Darlington Echo he confided to his diary:

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?

It is probably fair to say that any modern editor found harbouring such sentiments would be promptly dealt with by the men in white coats. In his subsequent pursuit of these and other ‑ if we are to believe him ‑ heaven-inspired political objectives, Stead had an on-off relationship with Gladstone and Balfour; acted almost as an unofficial public relations manager to Edward, Prince of Wales, and to Cecil Rhodes; engineered the destruction of the innocent Sir Charles Dilke on the basis of a personal animus; and even did his best to support Parnell until a misunderstanding led him to believe – inaccurately and unfairly – that the Irish leader had lied to him about his relationship with Katherine O’Shea. Not all his campaigns were invested with realism or foresight. He succeeded in having General Gordon sent to Khartoum, with results of which everyone has been aware ever since. On Parnell, he assured Archbishop Walsh of Dublin that the whole scandal would quickly blow over. On another occasion, he visited Rome, apparently persuaded that he could convince Pope Leo XIII of the necessity for the emancipation of women.

His own attitude to women was interesting to say the least, and dutifully – if unwisely – often confided to his diary. Before his terminal misunderstanding with Parnell, he regarded the Irishman’s relationship with Mrs O’Shea (the significance of which had escaped him) as little more blameworthy than having one glass of post-prandial brandy too many. He pursued and apparently captured, at various stages, the affections of a number of intelligent and spirited women, including a glamorous Russian. There is still disagreement about whether these relationships moved from the emotional to the carnal, with the probable exception of that involving his Russian femme fatale, and the evidence is inconclusive enough to support either hypothesis. Among those who remained immune to his charms was Constance Markiewicz. His relationship with his own wife was characterised by a somewhat stern and evidently not uncritical loyalty on her part, and an intermittent uxoriousness on his, leavened not only by the relationships already mentioned but by his habit of surrounding himself, in some of his editorial roles, by attractive, and on occasion clearly smitten, female interns.

Some of his ideas have worn better than others. He was in favour of a united states of Europe. He was energetically dismissive of the crime correspondents of his era, criticising them, at the time of the Ripper murders, for bringing out special editions “dripping with gore ... almost as ‘creepy’ and revolting as the gashed and mangled corpses” of the murderer’s victims. His concern for the British underclass at the end of the nineteenth century was unalloyed and fiercely committed. If he was wrong-headed, as he frequently was, it was rarely because he saw commercial advantage in whatever position he was adopting, and his passionate desire to reform the world was interleaved with a patent desire, born no doubt from his own Puritan ancestry, to also reform himself. He was equally successful – or unsuccessful, depending on whether you believe the bottle to be half-empty or half-full – in both these endeavours. Perhaps the fact that he is nowadays remembered more for the success of his campaign against child prostitution than for the peculiar strategy and tactics he adopted to achieve that objective is, at the end of the day, a reasonable and fair response to the life of a complex, driven and skilful wordsmith to whom all modern journalists are at least partially in debt and who, at the end of the day, was as unknowable as all humans are in the deepest personal sense. Robinson has done a fine biographical job, which can be read with pleasure and profit, even if he might with advantage have taken the risk of ahistoricism head on, and essayed a more rounded and detailed assessment of his subject in his concluding chapter.

And what of Stead’s inheritors? Investigative journalism as such has always been a hit and miss affair. Douglas Gageby of The Irish Times believed ‑ despite his support for journalists like Michael Viney – that it was not really the appropriate territory for a daily newspaper, which had so many other, equally vital, functions to fulfil, and it is certainly true that investigative journalism is only one of journalism’s many essential tasks, many of them routine, even humdrum. The weeklies, Gageby thought, were the place for the more exotic growths.

The reason is not far to seek. Investigative journalism is extraordinarily expensive. It takes weeks, and sometimes months, of a reporter’s time, and at the end of it all the hypothesis/story may fall flat on its face, or an editor may simply run out of money. The pioneering work of journalists like Joe McAnthony and his brave editor, Conor O’Brien, at the Sunday Independent pointed the finger of suspicion first at the highly dubious international activities of the Irish Sweeps organisation in 1973, and at Ray Burke as along ago as – wait for it – 1974. McAnthony’s reward was to have his modest wage differential abolished as part of a general wage round in the Independent stable. When he asked O’Brien whether it could be restored, the latter advised him, with considerable and genuine regret, that if he was seriously interested in enhancing his career in journalism he might be better off trying somewhere else. RTÉ then aborted a six-month contract with him, paying him but refusing him entry to the station to make programmes. At this point he went to Canada, where his talents were eagerly snapped up by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for which he made a number of award-winning investigative documentaries.

The trajectory of contemporary Irish journalism provides evidence to support this curate’s egg scenario. Publications like Magill and Hibernia have blazed a trail, accompanied intermittently by the weekly newspapers, but daily newspapers have had little enough to show. Even their current interest in the salaries and expenses of public servants and politicians, together with leaks from tribunals, while useful and sometimes valuable additions to public discourse at a time of economic crisis, are largely based on data-mining, on the Freedom of Information Act or on the private or political agendas of conveniently anonymous sources as much as on investigative journalism in its truest sense. Luckily this is not universal: the urge to dig and to expose is still present: one story from an Irish newspaper has made it successfully into Unesco’s Global Investigative Journalism Casebook. Little wonder that the comparatively better-funded RTÉ has been the medium which has, in recent times, consistently broken most of the new ground, even though the quality has been uneven. The ground-breaking work of the early Seven Days was impressive in places: later, Michael Heney’s potentially explosive documentary on the Irish Sweeps scandal was deep-sixed for years, despite its accuracy, and Mary Raftery’s ground-breaking documentaries on clerical child abuse had to overcome many obstacles before they were screened. More recently, RTÉ’s targets have been occasionally arbitrary, and some of its attempts in that genre have misfired, not least the spectacular Father Reynolds own goal.

Investigative journalism in the United States appears at first sight to be healthy: a whole new generation of non-profit organisations – some sixty in total ‑ has sprung up. Usually operating in tandem with traditional media outlets, they are hugely supported financially by trusts. Only one of them – Politico – makes a profit. The others are supported (Propublica to the tune of $10 million annually) by the charitable organisations for which the USA is justly famous, or even by crowd-funding, in which individual journalists or teams of journalists pitch ideas over the web for funding in small individual amounts by the population as a whole. But how deep are the pockets of these organisations and individuals, and how long will the goodwill last?

The Irish public, swamped in information but too often deprived of meaning and analysis, may be unaware of how fragile are the links of the chain that support the investigative endeavour. At the end of the day, expensive and risky investigative journalism may well seem, to cost-strapped editors and managements, as an option that can be dispensed with, and perhaps not as profitable as hiring people who can produce controversial opinions for money. In a media world where the competition for public attention is fiercer than ever, ego can all too easily trump effort. And in the welter of discussion about the deadly serious economic threats which all forms of journalism are facing at the moment, there is little realisation of the magnitude of the loss that would occur if investigative journalism – the really tough kind, the kind that identifies the areas where real political and economic and social power reside and explores them skilfully and fearlessly ‑ is allowed to wither on the vine. As the American critic Eric Alterman has pointed out, it has been left to a fiction-writer to explore this modern dilemma in real time – to portray the dilemma facing any editor who has to attempt to balance the monetary cost of a story against its societal value.

In this context, Robinson’s book is a kind of parable, focusing as it does on the erratic but ultimately fascinating life of a man whose work, hit and miss alike, exemplified the core value of all journalism, and especially of its investigative strand: that it is writing and broadcasting with a public purpose, a public responsibility, and a public role.

John Horgan has worked as a journalist, politician and academic since 1962. He is currently the Press Ombudsman.