Monday, 25 July 2011

A Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

The Sunday Times last week extolled the virtues of investigative journalism, and highlighted the various coups it had performed 'in the national interest'. Although perhaps the meaning of 'national interest' has changed, this style of journalism is over a century old. The election of John Morley to parliament in 1883 led to the promotion of W T Stead (shown below) the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.

 Having already made his name as a journalist who approached stories from a different perspective, Stead set about transforming the style of the Pall Mall Gazette, and subsequently British journalism as a whole. What became known as 'New Journalism' incorporated illustrations, large headlines, and interviews, all very familiar parts of newspapers today. Furthermore, he introduced the 'scoop', along with high profile campaigns which highlighted a wide variety of injustice, scandal and political inadequacies. Much like the power the Murdoch press has been found to have had over contemporary governments, Stead's campaigns carried considerable clout in high circles. Not only were they picked up and amplified by other newspapers, but they were also instrumental in changing government policy. 
His other campaigns, such as the one against white slavery and child prostitution, are possibly higher profile, but The Truth About the Navy and its Coaling Stations (By One Who Knows the Facts), was crucial in changing public opinion towards naval reform and away from the Liberal government's policy of low spending on the navy and naval infrastructure. Although (like many contemporary newspapers) the figures quoted by Stead were questionable, he utilised contacts in high places, along with popular support from high profile figures in the Admiralty, to lend an authenticity to his claims. The campaign was taken up by other newspapers, questions were asked in Parliament, and even Queen Victoria asked Gladstone what his government proposed to do about the coaling problem. The panicked Prime Minister proposed token measures for coaling station defence, but Stead had brought naval issues to the public attention, and pressure continued until a Conservative government at the end of the 1880s proposed widespread naval and coaling station defence works. 
Little remembered now, W T Stead was an instrumental influence in both introducing a new style of journalism, and also changing public and government views on important contemporary issues. He died as a passenger of the Titanic in 1912. Memorial plaques dedicated to him are present in New York NY, 91st St and Central Park East and the Embankment in London near to Fleet Street, and a plaque is outside his house in Smith Square, Westminster.

Sources: Griffiths, Dennis (ed), The Encyclopaedia of the British Press, 1422-1992, (London: Macmillan, 1992)

Monday, 18 July 2011

A Dirty Business...

Coaling wasn’t the cleanest or most pleasant of processes, as shown by the words of E.E.K Lowndes and pictures featured in the Illustrated London News. The arduous and dirty nature of coaling was one of the reasons cited for the adoption of oil fuelled vessels in the early twentieth century.

From A Ship in Dock Coaling by E.E.K. Lowndes
                ‘...a ship in dock coaling is not the pleasantest place imaginable... From eight in the morning until ten at night, working by electric light, a procession of wagons loaded with coal went slowly by. As they stopped, strong natives, begrimed with coal-dust, each seized a bag and emptied it into the ship. Canvas was put up and port-holes closed; but the coal dust penetrated everywhere.’

Coaling was dusty and physically demanding 
British Sailors wash in the sea after coaling

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The difficult second blog post. A widening gap in television?

So it has been a week since my last blog post, and it seems the world of tabloid fuelled celebrity  has been turned on its head.

I am not going to try and write anything regarding the scandal, other than the allegations are deplorable, but unsurprising.

But it did make me think. Much has been made of the rise of 'celebrity' culture, but that has been around a long time. Nelson, Rhodes, Wellington were all superstars of their day. Even the celebrity 'villain' goes a long way back (Admiral Bing for a start). But these celebrities were at least 'famous' for doing something major. There seems to be an almost weekly addition to the plethora of 'reality docudramas' celebrating vacuous, talentless and, frankly, depressing, groups of people.

This rise has, however, been concurrent with a rise of 'academic' television. The popularisation of science, led by Brian Cox, the lauding of David Attenborough, and the plethora of historical documentaries showing on television all attests this. However 'popular' these are, many are excellent, and are doing a fantastic job of closing the gap between academics and 'ordinary' people.

These observations bring me to my final question. What does the rise of these programs at either end of the spectrum tell us? At first glance, it would appear that there is a widening gap between two groups of television  watchers. While that might be true to an extent, it is plausible that many of the audiences for the 'reality docudramas' watch them as they are intended, with tongue firmly in cheek. It is difficult, however, not to link the events of the last week with the rise of  (z list) celebrity culture. Although the News of the World did some disgraceful (and illegal) things, the only reason they did was to fuel a public appetite for titbits of celebrity gossip and a 'need' to dish the dirt on anyone they fancied.

N.b. Dont worry, I go back to talking about history next time.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Oceans, Empires and Coal

I thought I would use my first real blog piece to explain a little about what I am looking at doing in a more general and historiographical way.  

Napoleon famously remarked in 1803 that ‘no colonies are possible without a Navy’, yet when scholars have thought about the British Empire they have thought more about the terra firma of the empire. To look at arguably the most famous map of the British Empire (shown below) it is easy to concentrate on the large swathes of land coloured in pink, but if one looks more closely, also present are the great commercial sea lanes, the empire’s lifeblood, and small strategic naval and coaling stations which extended British influence far beyond its ‘formal empire’. 

 There has, however, been a movement towards both oceanic history (most prominent of which is Atlantic History) and Global and Transnational History (although both these are in their infancy).  This has led scholars to ask the question suggested by Karen Wigen and Jessica Harland-Jacobs, ‘What if seas were shifted from the margins to the centre of academic vision?’ If we apply this question to the history of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, then we must take coal and coaling very seriously indeed. Coal was crucial to steam navy’s ability to both protect British trade and interests and in acting as a deterrent and bargaining lever in any disputes. Thus the availability and protection of coal and its infrastructure were a constant source of worry and tension in the years c1870-1914.
Thus, my task over the next couple of years is to understand how coal fitted into wider questions of imperial defence, imperial federation, cultural exchange and imperial infrastructure.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A journey must start somewhere

As I am contemporary and modern and all that jazz.... and because I want to share ideas, ask for help and generally become part of bigger online debates, I am blogging (is blog a verb?), as will seem fairly obvious.  I think my next post will be asking some wider questions about maritime and imperial histories, and hopefully that will explain what I am trying to do and why (I think) it is important to how we understand these histories.

Cheers for now,