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)


  1. Had heard of this fellow somewhere quite recently, so thanks for that and good luck with the blog, will follow with interest.

  2. So history is just repeating itself except mr stead wasn't involved in phone hacking.

  3. He most certainly wasn't. It does seem to be the beginning of modern tabloidism (?) but I don't think Stead would have envisaged he would create this monster