‘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 He was responsible – in his own words – for ‘ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, bills transformed, estimates remodelled, acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither,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.
Taking stock in 1891, Oscar Wilde complained that the Fourth Estate ‘has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by journalism … The tyranny that it proposes to exercise over people’s private lives seems to me to be quite extraordinary.’ Four years later he was himself caught up and broken by the juggernaut set in motion by the PMG. In their urgency to satisfy Stead and appease public opinion, ministers had turned the tables on Henry Labouchere, a maverick radical MP who ran a scandal sheet called Truth. Labouchere had tried to wreck the badly drafted Criminal Law Amendment Bill by compounding its absurdity: he proposed an additional clause to outlaw sexual practices common among the elite – especially at universities and public schools. But the government accepted his amendment in order to save the bill, and so criminalised not only ‘carnal knowledge’ of girls under 16, but ‘gross indecency’ between males as well. It was under the terms of ‘Stead’s Act’ that Wilde was sentenced to two years with hard labour, and made a public spectacle when he was transferred in convict uniform first from Holloway to Wandsworth, and then from Wandsworth to Reading Gaol.
The notion of a Fourth Estate acquired real political purchase when most of the population was able to vote, read and afford a daily. The abolition of stamp duty on newsprint (1855) and of the tax on paper (1861) helped, and so did electoral reforms and universal elementary education. Democracy, literacy and affordability meant that the press would be courted and cultivated, in ways that were often dubious and sometimes worse, by every party leader fighting an election and every politician with an agenda – from Gladstone and Irish Home Rule to Blair and the war in Iraq. But the press is a backfiring political weapon: ‘It is full of ability, novelty, variety, sensation, sympathy, generous instincts,’ Matthew Arnold wrote in 1887: ‘Its one great fault is that it is feather-brained.’ Wilde was more scathing: ‘The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.’ Desperate for scoops and hikes in circulation, the papers went downmarket not only by discarding gravitas for frivolity, but by stretching truth and grubbing in muck. The Times came a cropper after a series of articles of 1887, based on confidential letters acquired for £30,000 (more than £3,000,000 now), accused Parnell and other Irish leaders of condoning the recent assassination of English officials in Dublin. Parnell denounced the letters as forgeries and was vindicated by a parliamentary commission, which identified a crooked journalist called Pigott as the culprit. Parnell never sued for libel, but the Times had to pay the costs of the inquiry. The paper’s support was now a liability to opponents of Home Rule.
As Sydney Robinson makes clear in his lively and laconic biography, Stead was a pioneer of what Arnold called the ‘New Journalism’. Under its first editors, the PMG had lived up to its fictional namesake: the paper ‘written by gentlemen for gentlemen’ that features in Thackeray’s Pendennis. Its contributors were academically eminent and soberly intellectual, and its tone was unimpeachably respectable, even though John Morley, its second editor, was an agnostic with Liberal and even radical sympathies. Its readers were bonded by Oxbridge culture and metropolitan chic (they pronounced ‘Pall Mall’ as ‘Pell Mell’). In 1883 Morley quit journalism for politics and Stead was appointed editor. He’d been recruited as Morley’s deputy three years earlier after making a name for himself as a provincial journalist and ardent Gladstonian. Nevertheless Morley couldn’t have had a less likely successor. Stead was neither agnostic nor a gentleman. He was a Tyneside Congregationalist who relished his reputation as a ‘barbarian of the North’. He’d left school at 14 and completed his education and learned his trade on the staff of the Northern Echo in Darlington. He didn’t say ‘Pell Mell’, he didn’t set foot inside a theatre until he was past fifty, and Thomas Cook’s Temperance Club was the only club he ever joined. When it came to protocol he either hadn’t a clue or couldn’t care less. He turned up at the Hôtel Matignon to meet the French prime minister wearing a cheap tweed suit and a grubby sealskin cap, which he forgot to take off. Emily Crawford, the journalist who’d arranged the appointment, said he looked like a dog thief. During an audience with the tsar at Gatchina, he took the initiative and brought the conversation to an end, leaving the British ambassador aghast because he’d ‘dismissed the tsar’. He referred in print to the Prince of Wales as ‘the fat little bald man in red’ who was a threat to the monarchy.
What he lacked in polish and politesse he more than made up for with presumption and push. Doors opened for him (the pope’s, alas, remained closed) and he aimed high. He felt slighted when he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His ego, like his appetite for work, was inflated by an overpowering sense of mission. His hero was Cromwell, and like Cromwell he claimed to be an amanuensis of the Lord, speaking with divine authority and wielding a pen truly mightier in God’s service than the sword. ‘God calls,’ he wrote when offered the editorship of the Northern Echo, ‘and now points … to the only true throne in England, the Editor’s Chair.’ He was both fearlessly innovative and naively reckless. He was all in favour of ‘leaps in the dark and venturesome experiments’, from newfangled American typography with crossheads, to maps and diagrams, to interviews with people in the news and a style of investigative journalism that defied the law in its pursuit of righteous causes and less righteous readers. When searching for evidence of child prostitution, he passed himself off as a client and then revealed in his ‘Maiden Tribute’ articles how easy it was to procure an underage girl. When the girl in question was identified, he was charged with abduction, convicted and sent to prison. Since he’d acted with the backing of the Bishop of London, Cardinal Manning and the Salvation Army, he received only a token sentence. He was remanded to Holloway for two months as a first-class misdemeanant, which meant that he could continue to work at his trade and, for a rent of six shillings a week, enjoy home comforts. Nothing could be more different from Wilde’s prison experience ten years later. ‘I sat amid the ruins of my wonderful life,’ Wilde wrote, ‘crushed by anguish, bewildered with terror, dazed through pain.’ ‘Never had a pleasanter holiday,’ Stead wrote.
But the stunt blighted his career. He was branded a muckraker masquerading as a moralist, a pornographer posing as a puritan, a panderer to paedophiles. Westminster shunned the PMG, clubland cancelled its subscriptions, advertisers pulled out. Gladstone said Stead had ‘done more harm to journalism than any other individual ever known’. He was repentant, or seemed to be. ‘We are not going Maiden Tributing any more,’ he promised the proprietor of his paper, and when offered the Pigott letters prudently turned them down. But he went on writing about ‘everything from the secret intrigue of the palace to the obscene orgies of our pothouse Sodoms’, pleading in justification that he was campaigning for ‘the disinherited of the world’. He was forced out of the PMG in 1890 and spent the rest of his life evangelising for international peace, philandering with high society women, conversing with the dead via ‘Julia’, his contact on the Other Side, and trying to stage a professional comeback. In 1886 he’d written that there would be a catastrophe if liners were allowed to sail with insufficient lifeboats, and he should have remembered his own warnings. He went down with the Titanic, at the age of 62, on his way to a Christian revivalist convention in New York.
Robinson claims that Stead was ‘one of the most powerful people in the country’, but Stead’s contemporary Alfred Milner, who described Stead as a cross between Don Quixote and Phineas Barnum, was probably nearer the truth. When Morley left the PMG, he walked out of journalism into history. He became a Liberal eminence and a viscount, serving in three cabinets as chief secretary for Ireland, and in two as secretary of state for India. When Stead left the PMG, he was either forgotten or written off as a crank. Two very different sequels, both of which seem to teach the same lesson: men who make history don’t write news. Even in his heyday, Stead was diminished by the people whose celebrity became entangled with his own. There’s a fatality about figures like Wilde, Gordon and Parnell that leaves him looking like a minor presence moving noisily but inconsequentially on the margins of their lives, and he often comes across not so much as leading events as being overtaken by them. The campaign for moral rearmament, hijacked by hope-and-glory imperialists fearful of racial emasculation, took a direction he’d neither anticipated nor desired. ‘If all persons guilty of Oscar Wilde’s offences were to be clapped into gaol,’ he said, ‘there would be a very surprising exodus from Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Winchester to Pentonville and Holloway.’ He was dismayed by the whole business, and acknowledged with uncharacteristic humility the power of Wilde’s prison testimony, De Profundis. In time it proved very easy to write the history of the Victorian age almost without mentioning him. What had seemed so much larger than life shrank to a couple of footnotes and a passing mention. He counted himself among ‘the men who … stand out from the canvas, like scarlet figures in a great painting’, and for a while that’s how others saw him. But the scarlet of the painting very soon became the monochrome of a faded Victorian photograph.
All this undermines the idea of a Fourth Estate. No one has demonstrated convincingly that such a thing ever really existed, and Stephen Koss, in his two-volume study of the political press in Britain, argued authoritatively that if it ever did, it didn’t last long. Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), who by 1896 owned both the Evening News and the Daily Mail, said: ‘I see my way to getting a large circulation, but how am I to get influence? Tell me that.’ And no one could, Koss contends, because the political weight of the press had declined as its circulation increased. Delane and his like had been influential because they addressed the man in the club, and the man in the club was a political animal. But the man in the street wasn’t – and neither was the woman on the bus. So the press could survive only by diluting politics with magazine material. In 1873, the Manchester Guardian carried a full transcription, in eight broadsheet columns of small print without paragraphs, of a three-hour speech by Disraeli. A hundred years later, he would have been lucky to get a single paragraph paraphrase with a picture. And once the BBC popularised news without views, the papers increasingly postured as impartial and independent, and either kept party flags for election time or discarded them altogether. Because he was highly political, Stead was a hostage to the idea of a Fourth Estate, but because he was also a popular journalist, he did as much as anyone to make the Fourth Estate a figment. His grim end on the Titanic was his second death. Professionally, he’d already gone down with the grand idea he had himself done so much to scupper. As he once said, with characteristic vainglory, ‘all my ideals ended in martyrdom.’