One hundred and one years ago today, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic; on board was one of the greatest newspapermen of his age, and the most famous Englishman on the ship – William Thomas Stead.
Yet Stead was a towering figure in Victorian England, the man who invented tabloid journalism.
He was the first journalist to break the law in the public interest, the man whose actions first raised the question of ethics in newspaper reporting – before Rupert Murdoch was even born.
A hundred and fifty years later the lessons of Stead’s life are still startlingly relevant.
He was the son of a reverend, had read much of the Bible by the time he was five years old.
Well perhaps; but Stead also had a dark side, as we shall see.
His mother had campaigned on behalf of prostitutes in the seedy Quay area of Newcastle where prostitution was rife.
He called prostitution ‘one of the subjects on which I have always been quite mad’.
So when he became assistant editor of the Liberal Pall Mall Gazette, (a forerunner of the London Evening Standard) he set out to use the power of the press to change the world.
His sensationalist tactics revolutionized journalism then – and now.
When Gordon died in the siege of Khartoum in January 1885, before his relief force could arrive, Stead ran the very first 24-point headline in newspaper history:
Determined to expose the sex trade in children he went underground in London’s East End, procuring a 13-year-old girl called Eliza Armstrong from her alcoholic mother for just five pounds.
He then drugged her and took her to brothel, writing the story in a style guaranteed to shock the Victorian public – and sell newspapers.
The salacious headlines – “The Violation of Virgins”, “The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper” “How Girls Were Bought and Ruined” – ensured the first instalment quickly sold out, subsequent copies changing hands for twenty times their original value.
Nothing like it had been done before. This was Sixty Minutes, Victorian style. In Fleet Street, tens of thousands of people crowded the offices of the Pall Mall Gazette desperate to get their hands on the next instalment.
Porn with a purpose.
Fearing riots, the government was pressured to alter the Criminal Amendment Act, increasing the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16. The bill was later dubbed the Stead Act.
The story inspired George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (later the movie My Fair Lady) who named his lead character Eliza.
Another of the characters described in Stead’s story, the “Minotaur of London”, is thought to have inspired Jekyll and Hyde.
But the campaign made Stead powerful enemies in London’s Establishment, and within weeks he was arrested for breaking the very law he had brought into effect – procuring Eliza without her father’s consent.
He was imprisoned for three months. He continued to edit the Gazette from prison.
Stead was an enigma – he was the first editor to employ female journalists and the first to take sexual advantage of them.
He was not averse to twisting the truth and breaking confidences to right society’s wrongs. He was a moral crusader who could be deeply immoral.
The Stead Act was the high point of his career.
His spiritualist beliefs made him a figure of fun.
An ardent pacifist, in 1912 he was invited to take part in a peace congress at Carnegie Hall in New York at the invitation of William Howard Taft.
His hosts paid for him to sail in splendour on the Titanic.
Did he have a portent of his own end? He often compared the transition life to death as a journey by boat from the Old to the New World.
“Let us imagine the grave as if it were the Atlantic Ocean,” he wrote in 1909.
In 1886 he had published an article warning of what might happen if ocean liners were sent to sea short of lifeboats.
In 1892 he published another story in which a ship called the Majestic rescued survivors of another ship that collided with an iceberg.
When the Titanic went down Stead remained courageous and resolute. He helped several women and children into the lifeboats, and then gave his life jacket to another passenger.
He was last seen clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV.
His body was never recovered.
He died as part one of the greatest headline stories of the twentieth century, the perfect end for perhaps the world’s greatest newspaper man.
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