Journalists and Police Detectives in Victorian and Edwardian England: An Uneasy Reciprocal Relationship

By Shpayer-Makov, Haia | Journal of Social History, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Journalists and Police Detectives in Victorian and Edwardian England: An Uneasy Reciprocal Relationship


Shpayer-Makov, Haia, Journal of Social History


Detectives are sometimes likened to historians and vice versa. (1) On closer examination, the resemblance between detectives and journalists is no less noticeable. The latter likeness, specifically between police detectives and journalists who wrote for newspapers on crime and policing, was particularly striking during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Interestingly, the two occupations were not only similar, but also evolved in parallel. More importantly, in the process they developed links and interdependencies that helped them perform their respective duties. However, while contacts between them were mutually beneficial, they were also marked by tension and conflict. This duality of interdependence and conflict continued to characterise relations between journalists and detectives (and the police generally) after the First World War, but this topic has been investigated. (2) The present paper proposes to reveal the complex relations that unfolded between them during their formative period in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such research has not yet been undertaken, although these relations were distinctive of the period and, furthermore, vital to the development of both occupations. An analysis of the special relationship between them thus sheds light on hitherto unexplored but significant aspects of the worlds of policing as well as of journalism. Moreover, their relationship played a major role in determining the material about law enforcement that reached the public through the press. The circumstances under which this material was moulded constitute another important topic of this article.

The article concerns the relationships between journalists and detectives in all of England, but with strong emphasis on London where the links were far more intensive and consequential. London was the media centre of the country. Either because Scotland Yard was located in London or because the Yard constituted a kind of a national detective organisation, providing services to localities other than the metropolis, and dealing mainly with serious crime, it became a focus of interest for media people and an object of widespread coverage, considerably more than any other detective department in the country. While some local crime and law enforcement managed to draw the attention of the national channels of communication, the flow of news items and articles about crime and detection from London outwards was substantial. (3) London detectives thus enjoyed media exposure throughout the country. In fact, to many people, Scotland Yard detectives represented the English detective. Thus, to understand the basic characteristics of the links between police detectives and pressmen, focus should be laid on London with occas3ional references to the provinces. It should also be noted that since police detectives were part and parcel of the police organisation as a whole, and affected by developments there, mention will be made of these facets when relevant.

To a great extent, the activity of Victorian and Edwardian detectives and journalists was similar and, increasingly, they were expected to do similar things. The essence of their work relied on investigation--on the act of probing and exposing. Indeed, journalists often called themselves "investigators". (4) In their professional capacity, both developed the skills of taking evidence, interviewing witnesses and, on the basis of scattered pieces of information, constructing a narrative, often explaining a burning or puzzling issue. Their professional status depended on their ability to perform these tasks repeatedly and successfully. The limited use during that period of scientific means in investigations meant that stress was put on individual merit. Accordingly, both detectives and journalists were expected to possess a distinctive mix of qualities to fulfill their jobs adequately--determination, persistence, an inquisitive and analytical mind, and sharp observation.

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