W.T. Stead by E.T. Cook

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W.T. Stead by E.T. Cook

The Contemporary Review, (June, 1912) Reprinted in Frederick Whyte, The Life of W.T. Stead (London: Johnathan Cape, 1925), vol. II, pp. 353-356.

I remember once asking an eminent man of wide experience who was the cleverest person he had ever met. “In sheer intellectual ability,” he replied, “I have never met anyone who surpassed our friend Stead.” This is an estimate which would, I believe, be endorsed by many who knew that remarkable man in his prime.

Not only in intellectual energy and quickness, but also in strength of will, in driving power, and in force of personality, the Editor successively of the Pall Mall Gazette and the Review of Reviews had few equals among his contemporaries. He had that combination of gifts, and that touch of genius, which must have achieved distinction in whatever walk of life his lot had been cast. In one only of the qualities which make for practical success was he sometimes deficient; had his judgment been equal to his other faculties, there is no measure of success which he might not in any calling have attained. Journalism was, however, the sphere in which his life’s work lay, and in it his influence was deep and wide – far more so than is, perhaps, realized by a younger generation. If the history of modern English journalism should ever adequately be written, Mr. Stead will, I am confident, figure as the most creative and invigorating force in it.

Carlyle pictured the newspaper as the modern Church. “Look well, thou seest everywhere a new clergy of the Mendicant Orders, some barefooted, some almost barebacked, fashion itself into shape, and teach and preach zealously enough for copper alms and the love of God.” Most people, I suppose, pause before “and the love of God,” in order to read a sardonic laugh between the lines – as Carlyle, it is likely enough, intended. But the passage as it stands expresses precisely Mr. Stead’s conception of journalism and his work in it. Not, indeed, that he was ever very careful about the “copper alms.” He made, it is true, a financial success, as he well deserved, out of the Review of Reviews; but I can conceive that some of those about him would say that such success, though in one sense all the Editor’s own, was in other ways attained more in his despite than by his aid. Mr. Stead was of all men the most unworldly, and of editors the least susceptible to the “business side.” But in another sense he was a consummate master in the art of attracting “the copper alms.” He knew, that is to say, that a newspaper in order to have influence must be read, and that an editor’s first business, therefore, is to make his sheet readable. It must have circulation – not by any means necessarily “the widest circulation,” but circulation amongst the people in many different spheres who count for most. This was what Mr. Stead set himself to attract to the Pall Mall Gazette, both when he was assistant-editor under Lord Morley, and during his own editorship. He acclimatized the “interview”; and the way he had with him, assisted by a prodigious memory and literary art, made him supreme in the use of this journalistic form. He developed the “special article” and the “signed contribution.” He was the pioneer in daily journalism of maps and other illustrations. Indeed there are few, if any, among laudable features in “the new journalism” which the historian will not have to trace back to the Pall Mall Gazette and Budget, and Extras of Mr. Stead’s time. The amount of personal initiative in idea and of personal work in execution which Mr. Stead threw into the paper would be incredible if one had not witnessed it. He would think nothing of writing the leading article, half-a-dozen “Occasional Notes,” a special article or an interview, and a column of “exclusive information,” all in one day’s paper. The personal and confidential talks which lay behind such information were innumerable. The great Delane himself was not acquainted with more important personages, and Mr. Stead’s range of curiosity was far wider. In politics Mr. Stead had a footing behind the scenes in both camps. He used to correspond with Lord Salisbury, and even Mr. Stead’s deputy had at one time the privilege of almost daily conversations with Lord Randolph Churchill. A story of Mr. Stead’s famous audience of the Tsar has been told elsewhere. But there was one great man nearer home whom Mr. Stead failed, after trial, to interview. On his return from one of his visits to Russia the time seemed to have come. Mr. Stead had important messages, and had seen Lord Salisbury and a yet more exalted personage. He informed Mr. Chamberlain to that effect, and begged leave to lay his report before the Minister in person. But Mr. Chamberlain was not even so to be caught, and replied to some such effect as this: that “as Mr. Stead had already seen the Prime Minister, Mr. Chamberlain feels that he has no right to ask Mr. Stead to call on a subordinate Minister.” Mr. Stead laughed heartily as he recalled the clever letter. It was one of his many engaging personal traits that he told the story of any discomfiture with the same gusto that he brought to the recital of his triumphs. The triumphs were many, the discomfitures few.

Mr. Stead, then, made his Gazette and his Review interesting and readable. He did this by taking infinite pains, and as the expression of his own inexhaustible vigour and curiosity. No journalist of the time procured so much “good copy” and none knew better how to present it in a vivid and arresting manner. All this, however, was the “copper alms” side of the business – the first thing needful in his conception of journalism; but only the first, and not the chief. The essential thing was to “teach and preach zealously for the love of God.” One or two reminiscences will serve to bring out this side of Mr. Stead’s journalism. I recall as vividly as if it were yesterday a scene in the old room at Northumberland Street around the Editor’s table at which Mr. Greenwood, Lord Morley, and Mr. Stead had successively worked. The Pall Mall in those days, as some of my readers will remember, was a small sheet, and its front page was wholly consecrated to the leading-article and the beginning of a “special article.” There was a conference of the powers that were, at which it was proposed, in the interests of the business side, to enlarge the sheet, and to place theatrical advertisements in a first column alongside of the “leader.” Discussion was long and lively, and in the end Mr. Stead yielded; “but I warn you,” he added, “that it may be the ruin of the paper.” I think he underestimated the attraction of his leaders in themselves, and exaggerated the importance of giving them pontifical seclusion; but the tale well illustrates his intense conviction that the day’s sermon was the thing. In an account cabled to the Star of Mr. Stead’s table-talk on board the Titanic, he is reported as saying that he had impressed on Mr. Hearst the importance of giving a “soul” to “sensational journalism.” By “a soul” he meant “a definite moral purpose in some social movement or political reform.” This was the essence of Mr. Stead’s own journalism; and at one time he placed in the hands of every member of his staff a copy of “The Gospel according to the P.M.G.” – “a rough outline,” he explained, “scribbled off at such fragmentary hours as were available after my return from the office, of the things which are more surely received among us.”

Mr. Stead did not take amiss any harmless liberty on the part of his subordinates and an otherwise trivial sequel may be recounted to illustrate the relations between the editor and his staff. A few days later a letter arrived from a reader, beginning: “Sir,-You have ruined your paper. Henceforth I shall buy only the St. James’s Gazette.” And then Mr. Stead’s subordinate, who had opened the letter, paused, as if that were all. “Ah”‘ said Mr. Stead, “did I not tell them all so?” But tragedy passed into comedy, as the subordinate continued to read: “The St. James’s Gazette is now the only paper left of a convenient size for wrapping one’s shoes in.” Mr. Stead enjoyed the pleasantry as heartily as anyone else.

“The Gospel according to the P.M.G.,” as preached by Mr. Stead, has had great and far-reaching influence. This is a country governed by public opinion, and Mr. Stead was a potent moulder of public opinion in the political and social sphere. His work in the cause of womanhood is, I understand, discussed elsewhere in this Review, and this was the work which he considered his greatest. In the field of politics Mr. Stead was the most powerful of the journalists who contributed to form and maintain public opinion on the side of a strong Navy. He was amongst the first, and was easily the most persistent, in advocating a good understanding with Russia. He was one of the pioneers in familiarizing the ideas roughly expressed in the phrase “Imperial Federation.” He was a constant advocate of Anglo-American friendship, and the later years of his life were largely devoted to the cause of International Arbitration. But his influence was widest in a sphere which is less palpable and which less touches particular problems of specific solutions. He was profoundly religious, and his beliefs became more and more touched with mysticism; but the practical gospel, for which those beliefs gave sanction, was the service of man as the service of God. It is impossible to write anything about Mr. Stead without quoting the poet whose words were most often in his mouth and at the point of his pen. He took his marching orders from Lowell:-

“He’s true to God who’s true to man; wherever wrong is done,
To the humblest and the weakest ‘neath the all beholding sun.”

The gospel of social service, the politics of social betterment, were what was nearest to his heart. And here he greatly widened his influence by personal intercourse and exhortation. He was not satisfied with preaching only in his paper or his review. He was as instant on the platform and in the chapel as in the printed page. One cannot measure such things precisely; but it cannot be doubted that his persistency of preaching in the Press, his Link (“A Journal for the Servants of Man”) his “Association of Helpers,” and his personal influence with individuals, have exercised a very powerful force. And, besides, he practised what he preached – not always, it may be, with judicious discrimination, but always with a self-denying generosity. As has been said of him elsewhere, “it was enough in a man and a woman to be unfortunate, for Mr. Stead to befriend them.”

As I close these remarks, a letter reaches me, in which a friend of his recites a recent conversation. “When my work is done,” he said, “I shall die a violent death.” “How do you know?” “I cannot tell; but I have had a vision, and I know that it will be true, as surely as that I am talking to you.” It is unlikely that we shall ever be told how he died; but those who knew him will be in no doubt. He must have faced his doom unflinchingly; for he knew no fear, and he did not believe that death meant separation. And, if occasion arose, he must have comforted any weaker brother within his reach. It was what he was doing all his life.