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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.

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Stead and the Law

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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

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

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 law?

  • Or… to get a best selling story?

Media as law maker

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 maker1

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 maker2

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 change

Media as law maker3

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 good

  • But can that justify breaking the law?

Law and morality

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 morality1

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

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 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

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

Violating Law for the Good?

  • In a pluralist democracy under the rule of law there are legitimate mechanisms for changing law

  • Campaigning

  • Voting

  • Lobbying

  • Protesting

  • And the press has a (legitimate)role to pay

Stead s role in changing an unjust law

Stead’s role in Changing an Unjust Law

  • The sensational and shocking articles in the Pall Mall Gazette stirred up the Victorian public

  • 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 law1

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 inadequate

The relevance of the case today

The Relevance of the Case Today

  • Investigative reporting requires an ability to get to the truth

  • That sometimes requires extraordinary methods

  • Subterfuge and deceit can be the tools of the trade

  • And deceit can be criminal!

The relevance of the case today1

The Relevance of the Case Today

  • Stead had enormous influence over politicians

  • In Britain and abroad

  • Editors dining with Prime Ministers is nothing new

  • 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 morality2

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

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

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 day."

  • Paul Dacre

Contempt of court

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?’

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