Stead and the Law

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Transcript Stead and the Law

Stead and
the Law
Can Morality ever Justify
Breaking the Law?
Barry Turner, Senior Lecturer in Media Law Lincoln School of Journalism and
The Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Nottingham Trent University
W.T. Stead
• William Thomas Stead was one of the most
famous journalists in history
• One of the most influential
• One of the most controversial
• Sometimes called the originator of
investigative reporting
• Sometimes the father of tabloid journalism
Attacking the Devil!
• In April 1871 Stead wrote to a friend…
• What a glorious opportunity of attacking the
devil isn't it?
• As a devoutly religious man he believed his
work as journalist was a moral crusade
• But can anyone break the law to make the
• Or… to get a best selling story?
Media as Law Maker
• Stead is remembered for his moral crusade
against the evils of child prostitution
• This phenomena was a product of inadequate
laws (Offences against the Persons Act 1861)
• Laws that Stead was determined to change
Media as Law Maker
• The media by Stead’s time already had a long
tradition of influencing the legislature
• Often by ‘underhand’ means
• In the mid 18th Century another reformer
Henry Fielding used his considerable influence
to convince parliament to finance his police
force for London
Media as Law Maker
• It cannot be doubted that the media has
always had a political role on changing society
• It can be strongly argued that modern
democracy is a product not of politicians but
of journalists
• And recent events have demonstrated yet
again how journalists can bring huge political
Media as Law Maker
• The Eliza Armstrong case is well known for its
sensational impact on the law
• A moral crusade in an immoral age
• The sensational impact was surely for the
• But can that justify breaking the law?
Law and Morality
• ‘So long as human beings can gain sufficient
cooperation from some to enable them to
dominate others, they will use the forms of law
as one of their instruments. Wicked men will
enact wicked rules which others will enforce.
What surely is most needed in order to make
men clear sighted in confronting the official
abuse of power, is that they should preserve the
sense that the certification of something as
legally valid is not conclusive of the question of
obedience and that….,
Law and Morality
• ….however great the aura of majesty or
authority which the official system may have,
its demands must in the end be submitted to
moral scrutiny’.
H.L.A Hart, The Concept of Law (1994)
• Who is responsible for this ‘moral scrutiny’?
• Do the press have a role?
• Did Stead?
Scrutiny for Wicked Laws
Stead was a sensationalist
Dramatic effect was a ‘necessity’
So he broke the law to show how easy it was
In the public interest (and certainly of interest
to the public)
• But his attack on the law was more profound
that the staged buying of a child
• He attacked the authority of the executive
The Outrage
• The stories in the Pall Mall Gazette caused a
huge moral outrage
• The mixture of morality and prurient detail
suited the Victorian public’s double standards
just as it does today
• The Home Secretary feared public disorder
asking Stead to tone down the stories
• Stead made demands akin to blackmail
Public Interest Defence?
• “Neither the absence of a corrupt motive, nor
the presence of a good motive is any answer
to this charge. Is it to be said that the law of
the land is to be violated with impunity
because the person violating it thinks some
good may ensue?”
Mr. Justice Henry Charles Lopes' The Old Bailey (November 7, 1885)
Violating Law for the Good?
• In a pluralist democracy under the rule of law
there are legitimate mechanisms for changing
• Campaigning
• Voting
• Lobbying
• Protesting
• And the press has a (legitimate)role to pay
Stead’s role in Changing
an Unjust Law
• The sensational and shocking articles in the
Pall Mall Gazette stirred up the Victorian
• But did he need to commit a crime to make
the point?
• For all the professed morality Stead showed
little respect for Eliza Armstrong, her parents
or his co-conspirators
Stead’s role in Changing
an Unjust Law
• The legislature of the early 1880’s was no
doubt tardy in changing an ineffective and
careless law
• But as today Parliament had many issues to
deal with and the abuse of children was one
of many abuses that late Victorian Britain
struggled with
• The OPA 1861 is still with us and still
The Relevance of the Case Today
• Investigative reporting requires an ability to
get to the truth
• That sometimes requires extraordinary
• Subterfuge and deceit can be the tools of the
• And deceit can be criminal!
The Relevance of the Case Today
• Stead had enormous influence over politicians
• In Britain and abroad
• Editors dining with Prime Ministers is nothing
• Stead broke the law to get a story (or perhaps
to fight evil in the public interest)
• The politicians of the 19th and early 20th
century were frightened of the media
Law and Morality
• The debate on law and morality has raged since
time immemorial.
• Law is ‘a rule laid down for the guidance of an
intelligent being by intelligent beings having
power over him’
Austin 1832: 18
• This is law as an imposition of power
• The Law as government
Acting in the Public Interest
• Stead could not avail himself of a public
interest defence
• In a pluralist democracy under the rule of law
the media has a duty to inform
• But not a right to break the law, as it sees fit
• It is not in the public interest that an
unelected self interest group be given latitude
to impose its morality by forcing the hand of
the legislature.
Breaking the Law
• "The Daily Mail took a monumental risk with
that headline and in many ways it was an
outrageous, unprecedented step. But I'd like
to think that as a result we did a huge amount
of good and made a little bit of history that
Paul Dacre
Contempt of Court
• The Contempt of Court Act 1981 is designed
to protect the administration of justice
• It is undoubtedly far from perfect
• A fair administration is without doubt in the
public interest
• As is a free press
• Can a free press ride roughshod on the law ‘in
the public interest?’