W.T. Stead by Sir Wemyss Reid

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W.T. Stead by Sir Wemyss Reid

Excerpted from Stuart J. Reid (ed.) The Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid, 1842-1885 (London, 1905) ch. 9-10

[Excerpted from ch. 9] One day in 1871 or 1872 – that is to say, soon after I became editor of the Leeds Mercury – I was told on returning home that a gentleman was waiting to see me who had brought a letter of introduction, which my servant placed in my hands. The letter was from my father, and its object was to introduce to me the son of his old friend, the Rev. William Stead, of Howden, near Newcastle.

I need not say that an introduction from my father would in itself have sufficed to ensure for the bearer a warm reception; but in any case the story which young Mr. Stead had to tell me at once enlisted my interest and sympathy. Like myself, he was the son of a Nonconformist minister, and on leaving school he had entered upon a business career as a clerk on the quayside at Newcastle. But he had been irresistibly drawn towards journalism, just as I myself had been a dozen years earlier, and after contributing articles to various newspapers, he had received the offer of the editorship of the Northern Echo, a halfpenny newspaper which had been recently established at Darlington.

Strange to say, when this post was offered to and accepted by him, he was not only absolutely without editorial experience, but, as he himself told me, had never seen the inside of a newspaper office in his life. With that remarkable promptitude and directness of action which, as I afterwards discovered, was one of his great characteristics, he had no sooner accepted the editorship than he sought to qualify himself for it by making the acquaintance and obtaining the advice of someone who had actual experience in editorial work. It happened that I was the only editor to whom he could get a personal introduction, and so he came to me at Leeds to get what guidance and help I could afford him at the outset of his journalistic career. Remembering to what a height of fame he has since risen as a journalist, I confess that I look back upon the days when he thus approached me as a neophyte with some amusement. No doubt I was already, in his eyes, one of the old fogeys of the Press, and it must be admitted that there was something of the ugly duckling about his first appearance in my comparatively tame editorial establishment.

Stead interested me immensely during this first visit that he paid me. He was pleasingly distinguished by an entire lack of diffidence, and from the first made no concealment of his own views upon any of the subjects we discussed together. It is true that when I took him down to the Mercury office that evening, and wrote my leader whilst he sat at my desk beside me, he regarded me with the admiring eyes of the novice; but he had, even then, his own ideas as to how leaders ought to be written and newspapers edited, and he did not affect to conceal them. There was something that was irresistible in his candour, his enthusiasm, and his self-confidence. The Press was the greatest agency for influencing public opinion in the world. It was the true and only lever by which Thrones and Governments could be shaken and the masses of the people raised. In all this I was in strong sympathy with his opinions. But I was staggered by the audacity of the schemes for revolutionising English journalism which he poured into my ears on this the first evening on which he had ever entered a newspaper office. For hour after hour he talked with an ardour and a freshness which delighted me. If he had come to me in the guise of a pupil, he very quickly reversed our positions, and lectured me for my own good on questions of journalistic usage which I thought I had settled for myself a dozen years before I had met him.

Often I thought his ideas ridiculous: once or twice I thought that he himself must be mad; but even then I admired his splendid enthusiasm and his engaging frankness. Occasionally I said to him, “If you were ever to get your way, you would make the Press a wonderful thing, no doubt; but you would make the Pressman the best-hated creature in the Universe.” At this he would burst into a roar of laughter, in which I was constrained to join. “I see, you think I’m crazy,” he said once. “Well, not crazy, perhaps, but distinctly eccentric. You will come all right, however, when you have had a little experience.” Thus, in my blind belief in my own superior experience and wisdom, I thought and spoke. Many a time since then I have recalled that long night’s talk when I have recognised in some daring development of modern journalism one of the many schemes which Stead then flashed before my eyes. We had talked – or, rather, he had talked – for hours after getting home from work. I was far from being weary of his conversation, but I knew that the night had passed, and I rose and drew aside the curtains. Never shall I forget the look of amazement that overspread Stead’s face when the sunshine streamed into the room. “Why, it is daylight!” he exclaimed, with an air of bewilderment. “I never sat up till daylight in my life before.”

This was my first knowledge of one of the most remarkable and brilliant journalists of my time. We parted with, I think, mutual feelings of regard and goodwill, feelings which I, at least, have never lost. I recognised my visitor from the first as a man of remarkable gifts, of something that came near to genius. I recognised, too, his honesty and sincerity, though I had, even then, forebodings as to what might be the consequences of his impetuous ardour and reckless defiance of old customs and conventions.

After this, I heard a good deal from Stead during his remarkable editorship of the Northern Echo, nor was I long in discovering that he was really determined to put what I regarded as his wild theories of journalism into practice. Of course, it took time to enable him to make his personality felt in the little paper he edited, but he took care to keep me acquainted with all that he was doing. Whenever an article of special interest appeared in the Echo I received a copy of it, marked with a blue pencil by Stead. At the end of twelve months from his first engagement as editor, he wrote to me asking if I would give him my opinion in writing of his work during the year, and the capacity he had shown as a journalist. With great willingness I wrote to express my high opinion, not only of his ability, but of his growing aptitude as an editor. Back in a few days came a reply from this extraordinary man. It was to tell me that he had shown my letter to the proprietor of the Northern Echo, Mr. Bell, and on the strength of it had succeeded in obtaining an increase of salary, an increase which I am sure was fully deserved. For two years, if I remember aright, he went through this formality. I am confident that Mr. Stead himself, if he should read these lines, will not make any objection to my revelation of these little episodes in his early career. I have told them because, whilst they are so thoroughly characteristic of the man, they are not in any way derogatory to his reputation.

By-and-by, however, a change took place in our relationship. Stead was rapidly working his way to the front, and some of the means which he employed did not commend themselves to my judgment. For example, he was in the habit of sending marked copies of any article he wrote on political questions to the statesmen or other public men to whom he had chanced to refer. I had always been very sensitive myself as to this practice, regarding it as an attempt to force oneself upon the notice of public men in a way that was not consistent with an editor’s independence, to say nothing of his dignity.

I may have been wrong in my view. Certainly I have known other journalists besides Stead who adopted his practice, and I have no right to sit in judgment upon any of them. But my personal view was that an editor ought to say honestly what he thought for the benefit of the readers of his journal, and that he ought neither to obtrude his own individuality upon those readers, nor to seek to come into close contact with the men whose actions it was his duty to criticise. Long before this period in my life I had laid down a rule for myself which I have consistently observed ever since. This was that I would never seek an introduction to any public man, or bring under his personal notice anything that I had written. Stead took another course, and though I could no longer regard him as a protege of my own, I did not like it, and I daresay I did not conceal my feelings from him. But he could well afford to treat my disapproval with contempt, for his policy answered even beyond his own expectation. The fact that his paper was a very small one, published in a small town, gave, I have no doubt, additional zest to his very acute and intelligent criticisms of public affairs. Mr. Bright, if I remember rightly, was the first public man of eminence who drew attention to the articles in the Northern Echo, and he very soon afterwards received a visit from the enterprising editor. Then Stead, carrying still further his theory of a journalist’s duties, sought interviews with others among the foremost men of the time. Carlyle was one of those who succumbed to his fascinations, and when Carlyle one day referred to him in conversation as “that good man Stead,” the fact quickly became known to the public. Mr. Forster was another of Stead’s earlier heroes and friends, and by-and-by the young editor at Darlington became known to a considerable circle of prominent persons. Thus was the New Journalism born. To me, as an Old Journalist, it is not a thing with which I can pretend to have much sympathy, but I must acknowledge its brightness, its alertness, its close grip of actualities, and its rapid and remarkable success. I need hardly say that it was no longer necessary for the editor of the Northern Echo, the friend of many of the distinguished personages of the day, to seek my testimony as to his value to his employer. He quickly became recognised for what he was – a journalist of exceptional capacity and of great originality and daring.

Differences upon political questions drove us further apart, however, than any question of the ethics of editorial conduct. The Eastern Question, of which I have already spoken, excited Stead greatly, and he distinguished himself not so much by the vehemence of his attacks upon the unspeakable Turk, as by his uncompromising championship of Russia and her policy in South-Eastern Europe. It was not a popular line to take, but Stead followed it with something like enthusiasm. It was at this time that he fell under the influence of Madame Novikoff, who, whether accredited or unaccredited, was generally regarded as the unofficial representative of Russia in this country. She was, and is, a lady of great talent and plausibility, and she undoubtedly exercised at one time an extraordinary amount of influence over many distinguished British politicians. I am not prepared to say that Stead took his inspiration upon Russian politics solely from Madame Novikoff; but at any rate he never wrote anything in the Northern Echo in those days of which that lady could not heartily approve, and thus he made another powerful and enthusiastic friend in the political society of our time.

Years afterwards, somewhere in the ‘nineties, I happened to sit beside Madame Novikoff at a luncheon party in Mayfair. “I believe you know my great friend, Stead?” she said, by way of opening our conversation at the table. I told her I had known him for many years. “And what do you think of him?” she asked, with an air of innocent curiosity that sat well upon her guileless countenance. “Is he not wonderful? I think him, for my part, one of the greatest men alive. What do you think?” I replied, in a more restrained spirit, that I thought him extremely able, and that he had certainly accomplished some wonderful achievements as a journalist. “Ah!” said Madame Novikoff, with an air of quickened curiosity, “you think that? Now tell me what, in your opinion, is his most wonderful achievement.” I told her that I thought it was his success in championing the cause of a certain lady. (The story has nothing to do with this narrative, but it was a cause celebre in which Stead employed the methods of the New Journalism in order to secure justice for a woman who had been gravely wronged.) No sooner had I explained myself to Madame Novikoff than that lady’s face fell. “Ah, I am sorry to hear you say that. That was not his greatest achievement. But Stead has always been ready to go crusading at a woman’s bidding.” Madame Novikoff must have known what she was talking about.

Among the leading politicians of the North in those days was my old friend and fellow-townsman, Joseph Cowen, of Newcastle. He had been to some extent alienated from Mr. Gladstone and from the Liberal party by disappointment, but he still called himself a Liberal, and there was no reason to doubt that his political instincts were sound, and that he might again become one of the Liberal leaders of the North. He took, as he had always taken, a strong line with regard to Russia, which he looked upon as the parent of Continental despotism and the traditional enemy of human freedom. Mr. Stead, full of zeal for the cause represented by Madame Novikoff, made a series of vehement and persistent attacks upon Cowen because of his views regarding Russia and the Eastern Question generally. One day he sent me one of his marked papers containing a particularly impassioned onslaught upon the member for Newcastle. I considered that he had invited comment by sending me this article, and I wrote to him to expostulate with him on the line he was taking, pointing out that Cowen, who was a very sensitive man, was not unlikely to be driven out of the party if these attacks were persisted in, and that his loss would be a serious one to the Liberalism of the North of England. I don’t think I said anything particularly harsh in this letter, which was in my opinion justified by my relations both with Cowen and with Stead.

The rejoinder was not what I had expected. It came in the shape of an immensely long article in the Northern Echo entitled, if I remember aright, “The Editor of the Leeds Mercury and Mr. Cowen.” In this article something I had written about Cowen in the Mercury – I forget what – was held up to ridicule, and was compared with my private sentiments regarding the member for Newcastle as they had been gleaned by Mr. Stead in that night-long conversation under my roof, of which I have spoken in this chapter. Needless to say, my talk was not faithfully remembered or accurately represented. That, in itself, was a small matter, but the illustration thus afforded me of the practical working of the New Journalism was not altogether a pleasant one, and for some years after this episode there was a distinct coolness between Mr. Stead and myself. The incident arouses no bitterness now. Mr. Stead honestly believed that he was entitled to use my frank obiter dicta for the purpose of correcting what he regarded as my public errors. I was not the last and by no means the greatest sufferer from this theory on the part of the founder of the New Journalism; but, as having been in some small degree a sufferer at his hands, I am, perhaps, the better able to bear testimony to his absolute honesty of intention, and to his unfailing conviction that in even his greatest indiscretions he was acting under the justification of a high moral purpose.

In the spring or summer of 1880 I received a note from John Morley, who had by this time become editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. It was to inform me that he had secured a notable man from my part of the world to assist him in his editorial duties. He was Mr. Stead of Darlington, and Morley wished to know my opinion of him. My reply did not please Mr. Morley; for while I told him how highly I admired Mr. Stead’s abilities, I warned him that he would need to be watched closely, as he was a man of such extreme views and of such daring originality in his manner of conducting a journal that, if he were not kept under strict control, he might at any moment seriously commit the newspaper with which he was connected. At the time Morley took this warning with a very bad grace, plainly implying that he thought that my feeling with regard to Mr. Stead was founded on the fact that he was a more real Liberal than myself. But there came a time when the distinguished politician and man of letters acknowledged that my hint had been only too fully justified.

[Excerpted from ch. 10] The retirement of John Morley from the Pall Mall Gazette had led to Mr. Stead’s promotion, and he had become the virtual, if not the nominal editor of the paper. He was not long in impressing the public with the fact that a new and original force had entered English public life. “I am riding on the crest of the wave,” he wrote to me one day, and such was indeed the fact. The influence of the paper which he controlled became for a time almost paramount, and Mr. Stead revelled in his power with all the zest of a schoolboy who has suddenly been called to sit on the throne of an autocrat. He calmly undertook the direction of the foreign policy of Great Britain, and ordered Ministers to do his bidding with an audacity which would have been absurd but for the fact that Ministers seemed ready to take him at his word. He it was who first advised them to the evil course of sending Gordon to Khartoum. “Sarawak the Soudan” was the cry he raised, his proposal being that Gordon should be sent to found an empire of his own on the upper Nile. Ministers yielded to his vehemence, and Gordon was sent to Khartoum, with what results everybody knows. Mr. Stead had the courage of his opinions, and he was not in the least disconcerted when he found that his advice had involved the country in the tragical and disastrous expedition for Gordon’s relief. Talking to me one day at that time, he said, “John Morley told me yesterday that I ought not to be able to sleep in my bed at nights for thinking of all the men who have lost their lives over this business.” If at any time in my life I had been inclined to believe in government by newspapers, I should certainly have been cured of that delusion after seeing what a mess even so brilliant a journalist as Stead made of the attempt to control the policy of a nation from an editor’s desk.