Book review: Muckraker, W Sydney Robinson

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Robson Press, £20

IT WAS a dirty job but someone had to do it: probe the sex trade in Scotland’s capital city and come back with a scoop. The glamourpuss of the features department would get the byline, the glory and the chat-show appearances, but she needed a man for the eye-witness account of the saunas suspected of being brothels – a leg-man, or more accurately, leg-over man.

This reporter would get the anecdote, the memento of the expenses claim returned to him for framing (“Late-duty tea: entertaining Gloria, £3.95”), and the satisfaction of knowing he’d volunteered while others of a more sheltered upbringing – me included – shirked from the task. Truly, he was a son of WT Stead.

WT who? Only the father of modern tabloid journalism, the pioneer of investigative reporting. Thirty-odd years ago, we chided overzealous hacks thus: “Who do you think you are, Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein?” Really, though, it should have been “Slow down, you’re not WT Stead.” I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of Stead until reading this fine biography, although it seems he’s been under-appreciated for a while. Tristram Hunt in the foreword is amazed this is the first biog of “arguably the most important journalist of all time”.

Like many great editors, Stead was equal parts genius and madman. “He twisted facts, invented stories, lied, betrayed confidences,” writes W Sydney Robinson, “but always with a great desire to reform the world, and himself.” In 1870, aged 21, he was Britain’s youngest newspaper editor and, with the Northern Echo, put Darlington and himself on the journalistic map by attacking the Tory government over the Bulgarian Atrocities.

Stead was also a towering egomaniac and a raging moralist. As well as reforming the country, he was also reforming newspapers. He introduced maps, diagrams and sub-headings. He kicked dons and civil servants off his pages, believing it was the job of the journalist to “stand between those who know everything and those who know nothing”. Then he moved to London and the Pall Mall Gazette to deploy the first 24-point headline – “TOO LATE!” (about the fall of Khartoum) – and invent the interview.

Newspapers, he told his staff, were “the only Bible which millions read”. A raging moralist, then, but one with what he admitted was a “crazy appetite for sex”. The campaign among many which defined his career was the Maiden Tribute. To expose the scandal of child prostitution, he abducted 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong. A 50,000-word narrative was dictated to relays of shorthand writers. With trademark Stead cross-headings reading “I order five virgins”, this puritanical melodrama caused a sensation. The PMG ran out of paper; copies changed hands for 20 times the 1d cover price. One of the most infamous characters, the “Minotaur of London”, is reckoned to have inspired Jekyll and Hyde, while Armstrong was the basis for Eliza Doolittle. Stead was credited with helping raise the age of consent for girls but he was jailed for his actions and his reputation never really recovered.

Presumably Robinson was working towards a deadline of the centenary of Stead’s death, unaware it would coincide with the convulsing of the tabloid press his subject helped create. Stead died on the Titanic and was last seen turning the pages of a penny Bible in the first-class reading room. «