In Stead was found the new journalist

In these days of sting operations, tabloid phone-tapping and reality TV, this article is devoted to the man who ushered in what was known as ‘New Journalism’ during the high noon of the British Empire. There is an added aptness in remembering William Thomas Stead at this point of time, for it has been exactly one hundred years and a month that he perished on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He was last seen sitting on a leather chair and reading a book in the first class waiting room, after he had helped several women and children onto the life-boats that were available.

Stead was only 63 when he went down with the ship, a lot younger than what his bewhiskered photographs (and occasional newsreel) make him out to be. In a crowded professional career, he had been alternately investigative journalist, spiritualist, publisher, anti-war activist and an Esperanto enthusiast. In 1886, for instance, he may have had a premonition of his end, and published an article about a mail steamer going down in the Atlantic, and many dying owing to lack of lifeboats. He was even more prescient in 1892 when he published a story about a ship colliding with an iceberg: it’s a pity James Cameron did not have this character on board his celluloid shipwreck.

My interest in Stead, however, has more to do with a kind of gonzo journalism he practiced in the last quarter of the 19th century. He became editor of the regional Darlington Northern Echo newspaper at the improbable age of 24 and soon became a force to reckon with in London politics. In 1880, he is supposed to have a played a major role in the election victory of William Gladstone. But his career entered its most sensational phase when he left the Northern Echo and joined the London-based Pall Mall Gazette in the early 1880s. It was at the Pall Mall that he pulled off one of the most audacious journalistic coups of all time, the so-called ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ affair.

The facts in the case are briefly as follows: a Criminal Law Amendment bill had been languishing in Parliament for four years, since 1881. If passed, the law would have raised the age of consent for women to 16 from the 13 legislated in 1875. When it was clear that the bill would be sent back to cold storage in 1885, an election year, Benjamin Scott, an anti-vice campaigner went to Stead in desperation. Together the two men hatched a daring plan. Stead set up a committee to investigate child prostitution and white slavery; two members of the committee — a journalist, and the activist Josephine Butler—posing as prostitutes, infiltrated the brothels to find out as much as they could before their cover was blown. Josephine Butler then reportedly spent £100 over the next ten days ‘buying’ children from various brothels.

But Stead did not deem this enough. He now wanted to publicly demonstrate that underage children could indeed be bought in London, and prevailed upon Rebecca Jarrett, an ex-prostitute, to broker a deal with an alcoholic chimney sweep in East London to sell her 13-year-old daughter. On 3 June 1885, the mother sold the daughter, Eliza Armstrong, to W T Stead for the sum of £5. Stead then went through all the motions in such cases of abduction — she was first taken to a midwife who vouched for her virginity, and then to a brothel where she waited for her purchaser in a state of chloroformed stupor. A boozed-up Stead entered her room and the girl screamed. At this point, she was handed over to the Salvation Army and she was taken to France to be lodged with a Salvationist family.

All hell broke loose when the Stead published the first installment of his four-part expose titled ‘Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon’. Screaming headlines and suggestive sub-heads whipped the reading public into a lather of panic, with crowds fighting for copies of the newspaper and even second-hand copies changing hands for as much as a shilling, 12 times the usual price of the penny newspaper. Pressured by the rising tide of public opinion, the government resumed discussions on the becalmed bill in July and managed to pass it by the middle of August. However, Stead’s triumph was to come with a price. Eliza Armstrong’s mother lodged a police complaint that her daughter had been taken from her on false pretences — eventually, Stead and his associates were brought to trial on charges of abduction and convicted. Varying degrees of sentences were handed out, and Stead was sentenced to prison for three months.

Now fast forward to nearly a hundred years later, 1981. Followers of Indian journalism will remember how a journalist from the Indian Express, Ashwini Sarin, did a Stead by breaking the law and actually purchasing a woman known as ‘Kamla’ from Dholpur, Madhya Pradesh. In Dholpur to cover an election, Sarin accidentally stumbled on the case from an overheard conversation in a tea-shop, and later purchased ‘Kamla’ for Rs 2,300. Sarin’s report ‘Buying girls from a Circuit House’ was published in the Indian Express of April 27 1981 and opened with the following words: ‘Yesterday, I bought a short-statured skinny woman belonging to a village near Shivapuri in Madhya Pradesh for Rs. 2,300. Even I find it hard to believe that I have returned to the Capital this morning buying this middle aged woman for half the price one pays for a buffalo in Punjab.’

Unlike Stead, Sarin did not go to jail, though he did have to contend later with an unflattering portrayal in Vijay Tendulkar’s play Kamala. The real-life Kamla later disappeared from an orphanage where she had been lodged, and many felt that the newspaper’s zeal to expose women’s trafficking had made an unwitting victim of ‘Kamla’ herself. It is a pity that the state so signally failed to ensure her safety and well-being, something which did not in fact happen during the Eliza Armstrong case.

Three decades after the ‘Kamla’ incident, one would like to think that such desperate measures are no longer necessary for highlighting social evils. But the recent sensation over a TV programme on female foeticide would seem to indicate otherwise. It is a depressing datum that despite the tireless and dedicated work of NGO professionals and journalists in exposing female foeticide, it took a TV programme to ensure the closing of 65 rogue abortion centres in Madhya Pradesh.  A mature and functioning state should have no need for the ‘new journalism’ of W T Stead.

Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University.
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