Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead, Britains First Investigative Journalist

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His own attitude to women was interesting to say the least, and dutifully — if unwisely — often confided to his diary.

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.

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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. 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. Investigative journalism as such has always been a hit and miss affair. The weeklies, Gageby thought, were the place for the more exotic growths.

The reason is not far to seek. Investigative journalism is extraordinarily expensive. 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. 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.

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W. T. Stead and the Civic Church, 1886-1895: The Vision Behind ‘If Christ Came to Chicago!’

Usually operating in tandem with traditional media outlets, they are hugely supported financially by trusts. Only one of them — Politico — makes a profit. But how deep are the pockets of these organisations and individuals, and how long will the goodwill last?

W. T. Stead

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.


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In a media world where the competition for public attention is fiercer than ever, ego can all too easily trump effort. 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.

Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead, Britain's First Investigative Journalist

John Horgan has worked as a journalist, politician and academic since He is currently the Press Ombudsman. It deserves all the support that can be given it. The Dublin Review of Books is free and will continue to be free. At the age of 14, when first he went to work in Newcastle, Stead had to pass through the seedy Quay area where prostitution was rife. He never forgot those 'wretched ruins of humanity, women stamped and crushed into devils by society' and called prostitution 'one of the subjects on which I have always been quite mad'.

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Yet as with his contemporary Gladstone there was surely an unhealthy fascination with the social evil he professed to loathe. His biographer suggests that the inveterate flirt and moraliser had surely indulged in the very vices he castigated with such power and passion. Stead had always been appalled by the youthfulness of some of the girls available for sale - and many other Victorian worthies shared his concern.

In he determined to expose the trade in children in a series of articles called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. And he would prove his point in the most shocking way. Stead conspired to buy a year-old called Eliza Armstrong from her alcoholic mother, subject her to a medical examination to confirm her virginity, drug her, and take her to a brothel where he would play the part of a typical client.

After the encounter - which terrified the poor child - Stead had her subjected to another ghastly examination to prove she was still a virgin, then sent her to the South of France to work as a laundress, far from anyone she knew. The language Stead used to describe these horrible events was salacious and - frankly - revolting.


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His first instalment was trailed with a warning guaranteed to make the Pall Mall Gazette sell out. Copies changed hands for 20 times their original value and the office was besieged.

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Stead's admirers thought he had performed a service in exposing the appalling reality of 'white slavery'. But even many of his friends had grave doubts about the way he had treated a frightened child while his critics denounced 'the vilest parcel of obscenity ever issued from the public press'. In the autumn of that year he was imprisoned for three months for procuring Eliza Armstrong without her father's consent.

He remained unrepentant and continued to edit the Gazette from prison. Always a maverick, he gradually lost any influence, was mistrusted and widely disliked and became a spiritualist and laughing-stock. But he still had some admirers - and in was invited to America to lecture. His hosts paid for him to sail in splendour on the Titanic.

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Extraordinarily, in he'd warned of the disaster that could happen if liners were sent to sea with too few life-boats and in wrote a story about a vessel called Majestic which collides with an iceberg. It was bizarrely fitting that this great, flawed newspaperman should perish in one of the greatest stories of all time.

As my colleague Littlejohn always says, you couldn't make it up. No comments have so far been submitted.