The Only True Throne

John Pemble

  • Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W.T. Stead by W. Sydney Robinson
    Robson, 281 pp, £20.00, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 84954 294 4

‘Nothing like being an editor for getting a swollen head,’ the Fleet Street veteran A.G. Gardiner wrote in his memoirs. He must have had W.T. Stead especially in mind, because no editorial head was bigger than Stead’s. In the 1880s, first as deputy editor then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he’d been able (he said) to ‘wreck cabinets [and] let loose a tide of war upon helpless populations’. He was responsible – in his own words – for ‘ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, bills transformed, estimates remodelled, acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither, war proclaimed and war averted’. It’s no wonder he had such a high opinion of himself: Victorian journalists were always being told how important and powerful they were. Bulwer-Lytton’s lines of 1838 – ‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great/The pen is mightier than the sword’ – coined a proverb, and by common consent no pen was mightier than that employed by ‘the press’. This 18th-century term, originally used to refer to periodical literature in general, by early Victorian times meant first and foremost the daily papers. In 1828 Macaulay identified the press as ‘a Fourth Estate of the Realm’; by the 1850s, when William Russell was reporting from the Crimea for the Times and his editor, John Delane, was fulminating against the mismanagement of the war, nobody could argue with it. ‘This country is ruled by the Times,’ the Saturday Review declared. ‘We all know it, or if we do not know it, we ought to know it.’

Once, governments had controlled the press, and what they didn’t control they suppressed – or tried to. In Victorian times, however, the press appeared to be controlling governments and claimed an increasing share of establishment honours and favours. It collected knighthoods and peerages; it held a passport to everything, everyone and everywhere that mattered – including Parliament, though strictly speaking it had no right to be there. Parliamentary rules officially forbade the reporting of debates and the presence of ‘strangers’, but no one dreamed of excluding the press – it was the reporters’ gallery, indeed, that inspired Macaulay to write of a Fourth Estate. Stead’s contemporary Lord Esher said that as editor of the Pall Mall Gazette Stead ‘came nearer to ruling the British Empire than any living man’. He seemed to be instrumental in every headline-grabbing event of the turbulent 1880s: the sending of the heroic but ungovernable General Gordon on his disastrous mission to rescue the British garrison besieged in Khartoum; the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, bane of Victorian feminists; the public disgrace and political ruin of Parnell and the rising political star Charles Dilke following high-profile divorce cases; and, most sensational of all, the wave of moral rearmament that landed Britain with a regime of censorship, surveillance and repression.

In 1885, following Stead’s revelations about child prostitution in London in a series of articles entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, the government rushed to tighten the law against sexual offences, and the National Vigilance Association was launched at a huge rally in Hyde Park. Its mission was to clean up the capital and decontaminate the nation by uncovering ‘pernicious literature’ and initiating prosecutions. Its vigilantes prowled the country stalking smut in theatres, music halls, bookshops and seaside peepshows, and brought retribution down on culprits ranging from retailers of saucy postcards to the publisher Henry Vizetelly, jailed for issuing Zola’s works in translation.

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