The man who made headlines scream
JOURNALISM: PATRICK SKENE CAITLINGreviews Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of WT Stead By W Sydney Robinson Robson Press, 281pp. £20
‘THE MEN WITH muck-rakes are often indispensable to the wellbeing of society,” the US president Theodore Roosevelt said, remarkably tolerantly, “but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.” William Thomas Stead (1849-1912) was a muckraker par excellence, a Victorian newspaper editor who thought of himself as “the uncrowned king of an educated democracy” but did not know when to stop what he was doing until he was a passenger aboard Titanic and noticed that the ship was sinking.
Stead (pronounced Sted) was a pioneer investigative journalist and scandalmonger, able to arouse public indignation to influence governmental policies while he increased the circulation of his newspaper. W Sydney Robinson, a freelance journalist with, among others, the Spectator, is himself a resourceful investigator and a connoisseur of human paradox.
In this informative and entertaining biography of a shabby Fleet Street icon with feet of muck, he describes Stead as a “Puritan and sex fanatic, Little Englander and Imperialist, ‘saint’ and criminal convict, Liberal and Russophile, ‘Pope’ and clairvoyant”. Stead was familiar with brothels and once had the telegraphic address “Vatican, London”.
A megalomaniacal, sexually obsessive sociopath who called God his “Senior Partner”, Stead, more than any other newspaperman in the annals of sleaze, made tabloid journalism the racket it is today. The Leveson Inquiry is more than 100 years too late to disentangle improper connections between the press and politicians.
Stead was born in Embleton, Northumberland, one of the six children of the Rev William Stead, a Congregationalist minister and an obdurate conservative. Young William was educated at home until he was 12. His father’s lessons began at 6am and continued all day. The subjects included Latin, Hebrew, French and German. When the children returned from church on Sundays they had to write summaries of their father’s long sermons. Stead later claimed this exercise trained his memory so well he never had to take notes.
At the age of 12 he was sent away to a Congregationalist boarding school. As a schoolboy William wrote pious letters to his sister Mary, urging her to give her heart to God. As a journalist Stead wrote in a hectoring evangelical style, with implications that noncompliance with his advice would invite fire and brimstone.
As a young man Stead contributed fierily opinionated articles to the Northern Echo, in Darlington, without pay. In what he called his apprenticeship he typically deplored “conventional charity”, which, in his opinion, “debases instead of ennobling” and is “the fruitful parent of vice, indolence, ignorance, falsehood and crime”. “Dirty, vicious, drunken and deceitful” people solicited charity “because they find begging pays better than working”.