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"On Trial" W.T. Stead (1960)

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The Father of Modern British Journalism

Author: theowinthrop from United States
4 November 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Another episode of the "On Trial" series that I never saw, but which has a set of stories based on actual British trials of history up to the 1920s. This episode dealt with a man who, like Horatio Bottomley, was a newspaper editor. He was also controversial. But for all the controversy dealing with William Thomas Stead, his reputation remains fairly good nearly a century after his death as opposed to Bottomley's. Yet, like Bottomley, he got himself into trouble with the law and suffered - but it was a brief matter, and it actually enhanced his position in journalistic history.

Stead was the editor of "The Pall Mall Gazette". A daily newspaper in London, Stead changed it from a dull, staid journal to one that got into social issues and (to be truthful) into more reporting of sensational events (such a murders, crimes, shipwrecks). But he was innovative in some ways. Stead invented the newspaper interview in 1884 - he went to visit General Charles "Chinese" Gordon to ask him his opinions about the Mahdi's revolt in the Sudan and Egypt, and the resulting interview helped convince Gladstone to send Gordon to Khartoum (and to Gordon's martyrdom). He also hired various people to work on his newspapers. Some were questionable (the Jack the Ripper suspect Dr. D'Onston Stevenson was a writer on the occult - a subject that Stead was fascinated by). Others felt wasted - George Bernard Shaw was hired to be a literary reviewer (of novels!).

Stead was passionate on certain matters - possibly too passionate. He was a Puritan in his sexual feelings, and helped destroy the careers of several figures in society who were ruined in sexual scandals (politicians Sir Charles Dilke and Charles Stewart Parnell, and dramatist/poet/novelist Oscar Wilde). The destructions of Dilke and Parnell was done by Stead without a qualm (and with some sardonic satisfaction - he taunted some of Parnell's followers regarding his helping destroy the Home Rule leader). Parnell and Dilke actually were liberals (as Stead was, supposedly), and his turning on them was somewhat short sighted. Wilde's homosexuality was too much for Stead to not comment about.

But at his best he could deliver at cost to himself. In 1885 he attacked the "white slave trade" in London in a series, "the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon". He gave figures and names of people trafficking in London in female flesh and (here it got sticky) in children! Stead was determined to bring it to public attention. He contacted a family named Armstrong, and purchased their daughter (it was to show how easy it was to do this). But in doing this (and admitting it) Stead set himself up for attack by his enemies. He broke the law, and he was arrested and tried for trafficking in child bondage.

Stead was convicted of illegally trafficking in child bondage, and he was sentenced to four months in prison (because the court recognized his actions were not meant for sexual perversion reasons). But for the rest of his life (on the anniversary of the date of his arrival at prison) Stead would wear his prison outfit to work.

It did not stop him. He went after the divorce laws and their failure to protect women (in the notorious Langworthy case). He got involved in the issue of homicide cases and capital punishment in the Lipski Case in 1887. Here he went too far with attempting to develop "trial by newspaper readership" but Lipski's so-called confession ended that.

For the rest of his career he mingled great social arguments with crazy personal activities. He stood for international peace, but he worked with a woman who was actually a paid agent of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia who was trying to manipulate the peace movement for Russian foreign policy reasons. He lost the management of the Gazette in the early 1890s, but became editor of "The Review Of Reviews" where he continued his social agendas. In 1893 he visited Chicago during the World Columbian Exposition, and the following year published his book, "If Christ Came To Chicago", in which he attacked the corruption in that city. He described, in one editorial, a dream he had about being on a new steamship that was sinking and had too few lifeboats on board - he then attacked the inadequate Board of Trade rules on lifeboat space. And he discussed his views on the spirit world and the occult.

Up to the end he was a public figure of importance. In 1912 President Taft, also a supporter of international peace, asked Stead to come to the U.S. to speak at the peace conference being held there. Stead agreed, and decided to report on the voyage of the world's larges steamship on it's maiden voyage. So he was on board the Titanic when it hit the iceberg and sank. He was calm during the disaster, just reading a book for most of the hours of the sinking. He also watched the ocean towards the end. He may have thought of that article from the 1890s he wrote about the lifeboat problem - one that he was now watching close up. Stead died in the disaster. His final article would have been quite interesting if he had lived long enough to write it.

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