The timing of this book is impeccable. With one of today's dominating issues (in the UK, at any rate) the relationship between Press and politicians, and a century having elapsed since the Titanic`s maiden voyage ended rather sooner than expected, a biography of William Thomas Stead (1849-1912), patron saint of tabloid journalism and a gentleman last glimpsed standing alone on the deck of the doomed vessel, absorbed in his final late-night-extra reflections, 'Muckraker' could not have appeared at a more opportune moment.
To some extent, of course, this may have been pure luck, and it was most certainly pure luck which shaped the early years of Stead's extraordinary career. Coming from a humble background but always with an eye to the main chance, rather like a real-life Denry Machin, he seized every opportunity that came his way. A nine-year stint as editor of Darlington's 'Northern Echo', waging a vigorous campaign against the Bulgarian atrocities, enabled him to secure the post of assistant editor on the 'Pall Mall Gazette', a London evening newspaper. He became editor in 1883, somewhat unexpectedly, and over a period of six years launched one crusade after another, capturing the popular initiative time and time again and, seemingly, causing the Governments of the day to dance to whatever tune took his fancy. He proclaimed, with some justification, that the PMG had become a galvanising force in the land and that it dared to shine bright lights into murky areas ignored by its competitors. `Muckraking' became his stock in trade and the hallmark of the `new journalism'. His most notorious exploit, as a means of securing the long-delayed passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in the mid-1880s, was to purchase a thirteen-year-old girl for the sum of £5 to demonstrate just how easily `the white slave trade' could acquire fresh victims - a misrepresented exploit for which he was eventually sent to prison for three months. He regarded incarceration as a triumph equivalent to martyrdom and proudly wore his uniform on anniversary dates thereafter. One way and the other, he thoroughly enjoyed himself. The Salvation Army and Cardinal Manning cautiously endorsed his activities. But he became something of an embarrassment so far as the owner of the PMG was concerned and there was a parting of the ways in 1889, when he went off to found 'The Review of Reviews'. Respectably married, and a profoundly religious man, he was also a libertine deeply interested in spiritualism. Sexual thoughts loomed increasingly large in both his journalism and his private life. And, in later years, one crazy venture after another attracted his attention and endorsement.
He led, in short, an action-packed and rather astonishing life. The daunting challenge for a biographer is to capture it in all its aspects. Frederick Whyte, in 1925, needed two substantial volumes, but was obliged to draw a veil over some of Stead's more dubious activities. Raymond L. Schults, in 1972, cast a scholarly eye over Stead's journalistic ventures, but only so far as the PMG was concerned. Now, forty years later, and in a book of much the same length, Mr Robinson has tackled the whole of Stead's career. His is a fast-moving, genial account, and he has a neat turn of phrase. While impressed by Stead's energy and zeal, he is by no means an unblinkered admirer. He is fully aware of the man's shortcomings and his massive conceit. He also points out that Stead was blissfully unaware of the extent to which he was adroitly used as a cat's-paw by several major politicians and potential Empire-builders: quite often a puppet, in fact, rather than a puller of strings. It is a fascinating, absorbing account, elegantly packaged and based on an impressive range of sources. One's only regret is that Mr Robinson had so much ground to cover that towards the end his narrative speeds up a little too much: fresh characters rush on and do extraordinary things, but they disappear before we have a chance to fully grasp the latest bewildering plot-twists. Yet it could be argued that to leave the audience clamouring for more (a ploy which would have met with Stead's firm approval) is itself something of a triumph! A stimulating and very enjoyable book from Mr Robinson; one hopes that there will be more to come.