Scarcely has the press been so intensely political or politics so shamelessly journalistic since the end of the nineteenth century. At that time one in ten MPs came from Fleet Street and nearly every paper was the blatant organ of one party or another. In Andy Coulson we have both the symptom and the potential cure of this most pernicious of political ills, which reappears every so often like the pathogen of some accursed medieval plague.
The basic problem for the “free press” in the 19th century was that it simply didn’t pay. This meant that proprietors saw their publications as luxury items, useful only as tools to gain status or seats in parliament for unspecified “services to the party”. The scribblers they employed were scarcely more exalted, often succumbing to the same temptation to cash in their chips with a ruling elite.
This unholy alliance between press and politics was only broken when two remarkable journalists, Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) of the Daily Mail and W. T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, realised that the status quo was not the only option. While the former was driven by a desire to become fantastically rich, Stead believed it to be an editor’s duty to stand in permanent opposition to every government, holding a mirror up to the hypocritical morality of the age.
Yet today it is only Harmsworth who is remembered. This is partly because the kind of journalism he invented was essentially the forerunner of the cheap, brainless, entertainment that seems to be the driving force of our popular culture today. Stead’s vision, by contrast, was far more ambitious, leading him to pioneer the sort of investigative journalism that has never been fully embraced by the mainstream in this country. This is well demonstrated by the combining of both men’s traditions on the lurid pages of The News of the World; a newspaper that combines noble causes with gross levity far more successfully than any of its rivals.
Stead’s notion of journalist as moral crusader led him to expose child prostitution in Victorian London. However, as the subsequent investigation of his original claims showed, he was not above deliberately misleading the public to get the…