Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal (Part 2)
Sunday 11 May 2008
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In Flat Earth News Nick Davies criticises other journalists for failing to confirm their stories before publishing them. Yet in offering the view of journalism he presents in his book he has failed to check the most basic facts of all – the facts of history.
ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING facts about Nick Davies’s best selling critique of modern journalism is the reason it bears the title it does: Flat Earth News.
The book itself is strangely reticent about this. That was not so on 17 November 2007 when, three months before the book’s publication, Davies gave a speech to a conference held at the London School of Economics on the theme ‘The First Casualty? War, Truth and the Media Today’.
His speech was entitled ‘How Flat Earth news is killing journalism’ and in it Davies said this:
From these words and their cavalier reference to ‘someone, Galileo or Copernicus’ it is clear that Davies, even though he had based the title of his book on the idea ‘that for hundreds of years everyone knew the Earth was flat’, hadn’t taken the trouble to check what the true story actually was. Had he done so he would have discovered that it was neither Galileo (1564-1642) nor Copernicus (1473-1543) who established the sphericity of the earth. As early as the 6th century BC Pythagoras maintained that all celestial bodies were spherical. In about 330 BC Aristotle provided observational evidence of the earth’s sphericity and around 240 BC Eratosthenes actually measured the earth’s circumference with a reasonable degree of accuracy. By the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder was in a position to claim that everyone agreed on the spherical shape of Earth.
According to the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell ‘with extraordinarily few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat.’ Indeed in 1945, the received view – that medieval Christians were flat earthers – was listed by the Historical Association as the second of the twenty most common errors in history.
That Nick Davies should have chosen to characterise the kind of falsity and distortion common in modern journalism by reference to a version of history which is itself false and distorted is ironic indeed.
However, what is far more significant than Davies’s failure to check the facts about flat earth theories is his failure to give any account of the history of modern journalism and of the origins of the tradition of investigative journalism in which he himself writes.
Although Davies identifies himself at the outset of his book as ‘a Guardian man’ even the history of the Guardian itself is passed over without comment. C. P. Scott, the editor who placed his imprint both on the Guardian and on modern journalism is afforded a single reference – and this merely concerns a comment he made about the relationship which ought to exist between editors and their business managers (see p. 302).
Davies does make a number of references to Harold Evans. But he writes as thought he is unaware of the journalistic tradition which to which Evans, as a former editor of the Northern Echo, was heir. The man who is frequently seen as the creator of the tradition of modern investigative journalism – the former editor of the Northern Echo – W.T Stead, does not figure at all in his story.
One the consequences of Davies’s almost complete neglect of history is that we are given no insight at all into the factor without an understanding of which it is impossible to grasp one of the principal cultural functions of the newspaper industry. I have in mind here the extraordinarily close relationship which existed historically between the birth of modern journalism, the advent of universal suffrage, and the decline of what had previously been one of the chief engines of ideological orthodoxy – namely institutionalised religion.
Although we now tend to associate journalism with an entirely secular view, the newspapers which are now most proudly secular, if they have historical roots at all, have their roots in a religious view of the world.
But one of the reasons it is necessary to take this argument further is that it helps to illuminate not only what is wrong with Davies’s analysis of modern journalism, but also one of the facts about modern journalistic error which he signally fails to deal with in his book: namely that modern journalists spend a significant amount of their time crusading against what are perceived as evils. It is when they are doing this that secular journalists are often, like their religious precursors, at their most credulous. An examination of the origins of modern investigative journalism may help to explain why this is so.
The Manchester Guardian was born in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre. In August 1819 St Peter's Field in Manchester had seen tens of thousands of people gathering in the open air to back demands that the industrial towns of Britain should have the right to elect MPs. This was at a time when less than 2% of the population had the vote, and when Manchester and Leeds returned no members of parliament .
Whether or not this was the case, nine men, a woman and a child were killed and hundreds of people were wounded by sabre slashes or by being crushed in the panic. The Manchester Guardian was formed in 1821 in reaction to these events by eleven middle-class reformers who had been radicalised by the tragedy and by the government’s attempts to prevent news of it reaching the wider public.
Writing on C. P. Scott’s death in January 1932, Kingsley Martin, recalled in the New Statesman the religious sense of vocation with which he had approached the role of editor: ‘I remember his saying that there was a definite moment in his life, the equivalent of a religious conversion, when he dedicated his life wholly to his paper and the causes it served.’
To his journal he confided his more intimate thoughts. To ‘think write and speak for thousands,’ he reflected, ‘ … is the position of a viceroy’. But ‘God calls …and now points … to the only true throne in England, the Editor’s chair, and offers me the real sceptre … Am I not God’s chosen … to be his soldier against wrong?’
He later said that he ‘felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands, to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed.’
At this very early stage in his career Stead was already indebted to American journalism and had learned the lessons that it taught. He believed that newspapers should be both informative and entertaining, and not, as was then customary, full of long, tedious transcriptions of parliamentary debate. In particular he regarded the interview, as developed by the New York Herald Tribune and the New York World, as one of the most effective techniques for gaining good copy.
Infusing the Northern Echo with his own vibrant personality and his own crusading zeal for social justice, Stead rapidly turned it into one of the most readable papers in Britain. Sped by the railways to every part of the nation, this ‘heartiest fighting morning paper’ soon attracted the attention of leading politicians, including Joseph Chamberlain and the former and future prime minister, Gladstone.
THROUGHOUT THIS FORMATIVE period Stead found his greatest inspiration in James Russell Lowell’s brief preface to his ‘Pious Editor’s Creed’. In Lowell’s Christian-secularist vision, organised religion was already in decline. Priests and the church belonged to ancient history; journalism was the road to modernity, justice and the future.
The traditional Christian preacher, his eye fixed upon eternity, was by now little more than an irrelevance who had ‘faded into an emblematic figure at christenings, weddings, and funerals’ or who addressed dwindling and slumbering congregations in marginal churches. ‘Meanwhile,’ wrote Lowell:
Seized by a Puritan sense of righteousness, and aspiring to be just the kind of Moses Lowell had envisioned, Stead began his editorial career in the manner he would continue it – as a campaigner against vice, corruption, poverty and injustice.
In October 1871, when he was still only 22 years old, he wrote a crusading article on prostitution, which he described as ‘the ghastliest curse which haunts civilised society, which is steadily sapping the very foundations of our morality’. Prostitution was ‘bitterest scourge of our race’, ‘a contagion which pervades all classes’ and the ‘monstrous plague spot of our social system’. Those who bore ultimate responsibility for the spreading stain of sexual sin in Britain’s industrial cities were not the women who plied the trade in order to avoid starvation but the ‘men of wealth and respectability’ who supported it.’
In his early years as an editor Stead campaigned on a broad range of social and political issues with the same vigour that he attacked prostitution and it was the breadth of his campaigning which established his reputation
But in 1885, after moving to London and taking over the editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette from John Morley, Stead returned to the subject which fascinated him most by becoming involved in the crusade against sexual vice that was being waged in the capital at that time.
Campaigning alongside Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army and Rev Benjamin Waugh, the founder of the NSPCC, Stead set out to combat one of the real social ills of Victorian London – the prevalence of child prostitution. Specifically his aim was ensure that a parliamentary bill designed to outlaw child prostitution by raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen would not be defeated in the House of Commons.
The cause was undoubtedly a good one. But what distinguished Stead’s contribution was that, borrowing journalistic sensation from some of the more popular Sunday popular newspapers, and combining this with a tone of high moral seriousness, he effectively created a template for modern investigative journalism.
After a hastily conducted inquiry into the brothels of London, he compiled a lengthy report which he planned to publish in four successive daily installments under the title ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’.
On Saturday 4 July 1885, just before the first installment was due to appear, the Pall Mall Gazette carried a solemn editorial under the heading ‘Notice to our Readers: A Frank Warning’. Having explained the perilous state of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill and the need to mobilise public opinion, Stead announced his intention to publish in the paper ‘an infernal narrative’ of modern sexual vice:
THIS ANNOUNCEMENT THAT A Victorian daily newspaper was about to deal, in unprudish detail, with some of the gravest forms of what Stead called ‘sexual criminality’, created, as it was clearly intended to, an unprecedented frisson. By Monday a good part of London, and indeed of the entire nation, waited expectantly for the journalistic sensation which had been promised. Stead began by introducing what he called the ‘maze of London brotheldom’ within which labyrinth there wandered ‘like lost souls, the vast host of London prostitutes, whose numbers no man can compute, but who are probably not much below 50,000 strong.’ He went on to talk of the existence of a ‘white slave trade’ in the streets of London: ‘It is a veritable slave trade that is going on around us; but as it takes place in the heart of London, it is a scandal – an outrage on public morality – even to allude to it. We have kept silence far too long.’
After breaking this silence with a series of sensational descriptions of the vices of London, Stead ended his first installment with what was to be the highlight of the entire series – an account of how he had, with the assistance of a reformed procuress and her brothel-keeper acquaintance, managed to buy a 13-year-old girl for £5. The brothel-keeper, said Stead, had in fact purchased the child for a sovereign from her mother, who was ‘poor, dissolute, and indifferent to everything but drink’. She had then sold the child to the procuress for an advance of £3 with £2 payable when she had been certified as a virgin.
Stead described how the girl had been taken to a midwife to be examined and, having been pronounced intact, had then been prepared, with the help of chloroform to ease the pain, for her purchaser. The child, referred to in the article as ‘Lily’, was in no danger since the purchaser was Stead himself. ‘That was but one case among many,’ he wrote, ‘and by no means the worst. It only differs from the rest because I have been able to verify the facts. Many a similar cry will be raised this very night in the brothels of London, unheeded by man, but not unheard by the pitying ear of Heaven …’
The long first installment of ‘A Maiden Tribute’ was, without doubt, the most sensational piece of journalism which had appeared in Britain in living memory – or perhaps ever. Because Stead had carefully prepared the ground on the preceding Saturday, the response was instant. The newspaper was a sensational sell-out and Stead’s offices, mobbed by newsboys seeking more copies went into an almost continuous reprint.
The jubilation expressed by Stead’s supporters however, was not universally shared. On the morning after the first sensational part of his ‘Maiden Tribute’ appeared, most newspapers were silent. But the Manchester Guardian, in an article which was quite possibly written by C. P. Scott himself, judged it ‘prurient’. Elsewhere it was described as ‘the vilest parcel of obscenity … ever … issued from the London Press’, and W. H. Smith’s, who enjoyed a virtual monopoly of railway newsstands, refused to sell the paper on the grounds of its indecency.
In some respects their judgment was sound. The articles Stead produced contained virtually no explicit sexual detail. The sub-headlines he used, however, which included ‘The Violation of Virgins’, ‘Confessions of a Brothel-keeper’ and ‘Strapping Girls Down’ were sensational in themselves. He had been told, he wrote, of the ‘violation’ of ‘unwilling virgins, paid and procured to rich men.’ In underground rooms, or rooms with thick walls, nightly floggings were undertaken: ‘to some men… the shriek of torture is the essence of their delight.’
In that the substance of his articles endlessly described prostitution and the rape of young girls, what Stead wrote was, quite literally, pornographic. It was also, as the Guardian suggested, deeply prurient. Above all, the articles projected an image of the massive sexual power of men, while simultaneously portraying women as weak, passive and defenceless.
Seeming almost to relish the rapacious sexuality he so vigorously condemned, it was Stead’s genius to have re-created for the Victorian age a genre of writing whose roots go back to the Bible – the pornography of righteousness. As Dan Jacobson has written, in words which refer to the Old Testament prophets, but which might equally well be applied to W. T. Stead and the modern child protection movement, ‘A conviction that one is writing or speaking on the side of virtue can license an indulgence in fantasies that virtue itself would ordinarily compel one to foreswear.’ (The Story of Stories: The Chosen People and Its God, page 83.)
The fact that W. H. Smith’s banned Stead’s newspaper from their shelves and the city solicitor attempted to ban its sale in the city of London, only made its appeal more powerful. On this occasion at least, the lurid pornography which the country’s largest newsagent refused to sell was distributed enthusiastically by the Salvation Army.
As the Northern Echo journalist and historian Chris Lloyd has noted, Stead used sex to sell newspapers. He was perhaps the first British broadsheet newspaper editor to do so; he was certainly the most influential and he may well have done so quite deliberately: ‘Sex passion … like steam,’ he wrote in 1898, ‘… is the driving force if it is kept within bounds. In excess, it bursts the boiler.’
In 1885, at least, Stead’s calculated use of sexual sensationalism for political ends proved successful. His articles produced uproar in London, and the government, perhaps sensing that inaction might lead to insurrection, almost immediately agreed to reopen debate on the Criminal Law Amendment Bill. MPs were urgently summoned back from the country and even before the Gazette’s presses had stopped rolling, the home secretary moved the resumption of the second reading. ‘An earthquake,’ said the Bishop of Truro, ‘has shaken the foundations of England.’
In the campaign which followed a massive petition of almost 400,000 signatures – two and a half miles long when unrolled – was taken from Clapton in East London to Parliament. It was conveyed in a carriage drawn by four white horses draped with banners inscribed ‘This iniquity shall cease’ and ‘Beware!’ and flanked by soldiers of the Salvation Army.
At the beginning of August a demonstration in Hyde Park attracted nearly a quarter of a million people and within a month of the publication of Stead’s articles, on 7 August 1885, the bill to raise the age of consent received its third and final reading. A week later it passed into law.
WHAT STEAD RECOGNISED, perhaps before any other newspaper editor had done, was that the combined effect of the 1870 Education Act in establishing the habit of reading, and of the campaign for universal suffrage in gaining the vote for every newspaper reader, was about to transform the very nature of democratic government. It was this which led him early on in his career to the conclusion he outlined to one of his fellow editors, namely that he believed the press to be ‘the greatest agency for influencing public opinion in the world … the only true lever by which Thrones and Governments could be shaken and the masses raised.’
In May 1886 Stead created a new sensation when his essay ‘Government by Journalism’ was published by the Contemporary Review. In this essay he argued that the process of democratisation had made the press more representative of the will of the people than parliament and therefore ‘the most immediate and most unmistakable exponent of the national mind’:
In Stead’s view journalism is, in short, nothing less than ‘a substitute for the Commons’ since it is ‘the eye and the ear and the tongue of the people’. He then went on to use the same phrase – ‘an instrument of government’ – that C. P Scott would apply to journalism in his centenary Guardian editorial more than thirty years later:
To those who, like Matthew Arnold, scorned Stead’s ‘New Journalism’ as sensationalism, Stead replied that sensationalism was sometimes necessary ‘to arrest the eye of the public and compel them to admit the necessity of action.’
Partly because he understood the immense power which resided in the very sensationalism which Arnold disparaged, Stead exercised an incalculable and direct influence on the manner in which newspapers developed in Britain in the twentieth century.
Influenced both by the popular press and by American journalism, he perfected the art of the interview, established investigative journalism as a new genre and demonstrated the enormous power the campaigning editor could exercise directly over parliament.
Although he remained resolutely a liberal non-conformist in his views, Stead’s New Journalism exercised a massive influence over the press empire which was developed by the conservative press baron Lord Northcliffe. By 1914, when he owned the Times as well as the Daily Mail, Northcliffe controlled roughly 40 per cent of the morning, 45 per cent of the evening and 15 per cent of the Sunday total newspaper circulations in Britain. He more than anyone applied Stead’s philosophy of ‘government by journalism’ to his empire. It would be no exaggeration to claim that in doing so – and particularly during the First World War – he played a role in shaping the course of British history.
The pulpit, the editor’s chair and the survival of orthodoxy
STEAD’S IDEAS ABOUT ‘government by journalism’ are significant in themselves. He more than any editor set the British press on a course which led it to the position of political power it still enjoys today.
But the strength of Stead’s special interest in parliamentary government and party politics should not be allowed to obscure a dimension of his thinking which is even more important. It is Stead himself, with his earnest comparison of the role of the editor to that of the preacher, who points to this dimension. ‘The editorial chair’, he wrote, is ‘the most powerful pulpit in which to preach’.
To the time of his death on the Titanic in 1912, Stead never ceased to see himself as a new Cromwell, as God’s ‘soldier against wrong’ and his religious beliefs continued to engage him more than any party allegiance.
One of the reasons Stead remains so important in any attempt to understand our cultural history is that he stands at the crossroads that lead from a traditional Christian outlook, where the Church of England and the non-conformist churches still possessed institutional power, to a new secular age.
Until this point there could be little doubt that the main disseminators of cultural orthodoxy remained the Christian churches. If the main role in this respect had once been played by the Church of England, then ever since the Civil War the centre of ideological gravity in Britain had been passing to Cromwell’s heirs – to the non-conformist preachers and their followers among the mass of the populace – the Methodists, the Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Unitarians and the Quakers.
But from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards it was the non-conformist press – and in particular the Manchester Guardian and the Northern Echo who began to take over this role. For gradually, to a degree which we have never sufficiently recognised, the role of the churches as the chief purveyors and disseminators of orthodoxy has been passed in this, our secular age, in the first place to politicians, and in the second place to the proprietors and editors of newspapers. Although it is the former who exercise nominal power over our society, it is arguably the latter who now exercise real power.
This does not mean that there has ever been or ever could be one uncontested version of orthodoxy. For just as different churches have competed throughout Christian history over which version of religious faith should be dominant, so newspaper editors have disagreed, and will continue to disagree, over the secularised versions of orthodoxy they have inherited from an age of faith.
Precisely because it is in the very of nature of secularised orthodoxies that, rather than celebrating themselves in acts of worship, they seek to disappear from view altogether, many people would resist the idea that there is any such thing as a surviving cultural orthodoxy.
These paragraphs are, I believe, among the most penetrating which have ever been written by any modern historian. For what they ask us to recognise is that our own society and our own modes of thought and feeling are the product of the forced internalisation of a body of sacred doctrine (a body of doctrine which has by now been almost completely secularised). As Christopher Hill himself implies, it is only if we compare our cultural history with the history of Stalinisation in Russia or of Mao’s cultural revolution in China that we can begin to comprehend the depth and the implications of the cultural conditioning to which, historically, we have ourselves been subject.
Although we may not associate it with the protestant ethic, or with ethics of any kind, even the News of the World has at least some of the characteristics of a puritan newspaper. On its original publication in 1843 it proclaimed: ‘Our motto is truth. Our practice is the fearless advocacy of the truth.’ It maintains this motto today and no paper dispenses so flagrantly the kind of deeply prurient righteousness which Puritanism inadvertently encouraged and Stead so assiduously practised.
The sentiments Nick Davies describes here, which, as noted before, concern both the desire to exercise political power and to crusade against corruption, are wholly in keeping with the philosophy of journalism worked out by Stead. But they have disappeared entirely from the portrait of journalism Davies draws in his book.
Only because these statements appear in a book from which all history and all culture have been eliminated is it possible for Davies to make them without their shallowness and absurdity being immediately apparent.
Democracy and the role of the press
FOR IT WOULD BE QUITE WRONG to suggest that Nick Davies is alone in misconceiving the cultural function of journalists. One of the reasons that he is able to present his view without immediately engendering scepticism is that something very similar to the position he adopts is already widely held by many of his colleagues in the profession.
Here we find, succinctly formulated, the orthodox view of journalism’s cultural function from which Davies’s position appears to be derived. The view holds that, since democracy supposedly vests power in the people, who delegate their power to the elected representative who make up the government, the people need to be provided with the information they need in order to cast their votes wisely. The ‘true’ function of journalism on this view is that of holding powerful elected politicians to account, informing the citizens of the facts, encouraging debate and dissent and seeking to promote a complex understanding of a complex world.
Sections of this article originally appeared in the penultimate chapter of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, ‘Attacking the Devil’. I am in the debt here, as I was there, to Owen Mulpetre’s extraordinarily rich and beautifully designed W T Stead Resource Site. I have also used two more sources, Lucy Bland’s Banishing the Beast: Feminism, Sex and Morality (Tauris, 2002) and J. O. Baylen’s ‘The “New Journalism” in Late Victorian Britain’, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, 1972, 18, 3, 367.
PART 3 of ‘Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal’, will pay particular attention to the role which has always been played by fantasy and demonology, and by ‘torture pornography’ in maintaining our overarching ideology of orthodoxy. It will also trace the manner in which the modern child protection movement has, with the help of journalists, taken over the role of disseminating such collective fantasies.
Part 3 will not appear for at least 3 weeks and possibly longer
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Richard Webster is the author of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt (2005). The long-delayed paperback of this book, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing, will be published later this year. His earlier article on the Jersey story, Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal was published here on 4 April.
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© Richard Webster, 2008 www.richardwebster.net