Matthew Arnold, W. T. Stead, and the Pall Mall Gazette: ‘New Journalism’ and the role of religious difference

Philip March
Birkbeck, London

This paper offers an alternative reading of the evolution of the term ‘New Journalism’. Significantly, it also explores the influence of religious difference in the debate between Matthew Arnold and the journalist W. T. Stead over this innovatory press development. Arnold’s May 1887 essay ‘Up to Easter’ is conventionally cited in critical literature as the location of the first appearance of the term ‘New Journalism’. Academics have consequently largely focused on Arnold’s condemnation of Stead’s management of the Pall Mall Gazette and the influence of New Journalism’s technological advances, brighter style of writing, cleaner layout, sensationalist content and growing commercialism.

I argue that this oppositional pairing of Arnold and Stead has remained a prominent feature of academic writing on New Journalism. Such antagonistic positioning has provided a convenient way in which to locate and explore the colliding cultural and political forces of late Victorian Britain.

However, this fashioning of the Arnold-Stead debate has overshadowed, perhaps, the most important element, that represented by religious difference. For Arnold and Stead clashed through the antagonistic forces of the Church of England and Protestant Nonconformity in which the Christian religion represented for both men the fundamental driving force required for all effective educational, political, and social development. In Arnold’s view, however, both the New Journalism and the new democracy were ‘feather-brained’. More contentiously, Arnold attacked the Pall Mall for its unwillingness to state the truth and to correct error in its reporting.

‘New Journalism’ was, however, a phrase shaped from two previous skirmishes in print between the Pall Mall and its critics. The initial salvo was launched in May 1880 as a direct consequence of the unexpected general election victory of Gladstone and the Liberal Party. Frederick Greenwood, founding editor of the Pall Mall in 1865 and a High Liberal resigned as the paper underwent an abrupt change of political direction in favour of the Gladstone government. The second attack came in June 1884 from Edmund Yates, the founding editor of the weekly World. Yates’s criticisms foresaw those that Arnold would make three years later.

An active and traceable religious engagement lay at the heart of the disagreement over New Journalism. While Arnold concentrated upon the ‘sweetness and light’ of the best of English culture, Stead’s Nonconformity brought with it an evangelising force, scope for social agitation, and the promotion of moral revivalism. Arnold’s preference for a detached equanimity was infused with the poetry of Christianity and rejected Stead’s noisy plain-speaking and Nonconformist values.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900