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Politics, Press and Scandal in the Mid-1880s: French and British Cabals?

Politique, presse et scandale au milieu des années 1880 : des cabales françaises et britanniques ?
Michael Palmer


This article considers two scandals in France and Britain in the late 1880s which effectively ended the careers of two prominent radical politicians. It highlights the role of the press at a period (1850s-1880s) when the political, fiscal and technical conditions in which daily newspapers operated, when popular dailies emerged, and when the impact of a so-called “American” or “new” journalism was debated. The politicians, Charles Dilke in Britain, Daniel Wilson in France considered themselves persecuted in the press; but Wilson was himself an early “chain” newspaper-owner and Dilke was closely associated with Liberal newspapers. Victorian Christian morality contributed to the opprobrium surrounding Dilke; Wilson was lambasted for nefarious business activities.

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1In the mid-1880s two politicians in France and Britain — Daniel Wilson and Charles Dilke — appeared near the top of “the greasy pole” (Disraeli), with a promising future. This included factors such as proximity to other major politicians, recognition of parliamentary prowess, lasting constituency support and the role of political newspapers. By the end of the decade, scandals leading to court proceedings effectively ended their political careers. This article highlights a nexus of inter-related features about the press and politics in London and Paris suggestive of the background to what happened.

2The state of political parties and of the political press in France and Britain in the 1880s appears dissimilar. Britain was a long-established constitutional monarchy; two major parties, Whig-Liberals and Tory-Conservatives occupied power alternately, even if there were factions within each (the Whigs included Liberals and Radicals for instance; by the 1880s, divisions opposed social reformers and traditionalists; Gladstone's own supporters would be torn apart over Ireland). The British empire, ranging from Canada and Ireland to Australia, appeared to encompass a territory “on which the sun never sets”; France was less of a colonial power, and British territorial expansion often succeeded, to the detriment of the French, as, recently (1881-2) in Egypt.

3France, since 1789, regularly underwent “regime change”; a near civil war had occurred as recently as 1871; the current regime, the Republic, dated from 4 September 1870, and as recently as October 1885, anti-republican forces increased in influence, with over a third of MPs; from May 1887, the republican government depended on the tacit support of the Right, partly because of the infighting between republican parliamentary “groups”, a notion rarely respected. In this, there was similarity with the British Parliamentary scene: in the Commons, “Grand Old Man” (GOM) Gladstone, Liberal prime minister for the second time, 1880-85, registered successes — the Third Reform Act which, extending the vote to agricultural labourers, added six million to the electorate and the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885, for which Dilke successfully pressed for single-member constituencies His government was buffeted by successive crises in Egypt (culminating in the Fall of Khartoum, Sudan) and over Ireland, where his government took repressive measures. A short-lived, seven-month Tory ministry of Lord Salisbury (June ’85-January ’86), before the return of a Gladstone ministry (February-August ’86) demonstrated parliamentary instability. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill for Ireland was defeated in June 1886 with 93 Liberal MP opponents, leading to a lasting Liberal split; Parliament was dissolved.

Dilke and Wilson

4Dilke in Britain, Wilson in France, were prominent left-of-centre politicians. A Radical among the Liberals, once championing a republic in Britain, Dilke had many ties with France, had experienced the 1871 Commune, counted Léon Gambetta as a friend, and had a property near Toulon. Dilke, MP for Chelsea from 1868, was a leading Radical Left politician — along with his close colleague, Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham industrialist, mayor, and MP from 1876. Dilke favoured municipal socialism.

  • 1 Wilson was counted a friend by Scotsmen in Paris, cf. Barclay, Thomas, The Anglo-French Entente fro (...)

5Wilson, the son of a Scottish engineer of the same name who had made a fortune in France in the early stages of its industrial revolution, was of an age (1840-1919) similar to Dilke’s (1843-1911). Wilson rose in part through his friendship with Jules Grévy (1807-1891), a senior moderate republican politician, elected president of the Republic in January 1879; this friendship was cemented when Wilson married Grévy’s only child, Alice, in 1881.1 While Wilson was seen as primarily important through his ties with Grévy (with whom he and Alice lived in the Presidential Elysée palace), his role in the Left Radical Parliamentary group and knowledge of state finances, were recognized as he moved to the Left when so many fellow republican MPs moved in the opposite direction. Dilke occupied ministerial posts under Gladstone; Wilson was a junior minister (1879-81), and schemed against the Gambetta and Ferry governments of 1881-2, 1883-5), in the press and the Chamber of Deputies. Resented by their supporters, he refused to accept Grévy’s request that he cease his business activities, while outlining in the Chamber a Radical fiscal programme; Grévy backed him throughout, even arguing that it was Wilson’s cheap newspapers that motivated attacks on him.

An archival imbalance

  • 2 Tapuscrit, NAF, BNF, mostly reproduced in Lavergne, Bernard, Les Deux présidences de Jules Grévy, 1 (...)

6British and French memorialists of the period and historians later — notably Stephen Koss and Alan Lee — evoke the interplay between politics and the press. Koss, working through many politicians’ papers, demonstrated this interplay at the national level; Lee exhumed the politician-newspaper interplay at the local or regional level. Politicians’ relations with the press in the 1880s appear better documented in British archives than in the French; Wilson and Grévy, 1879-87, in the Elysée are glimpsed largely through the entries in the notebooks of Bernard Lavergne, a senator close to Grévy.2 In some respects, researching the political and press activities of Daniel Wilson helps offset this archival imbalance. While the focus of attention in this article centers on the role of the press during the scandals involving first Dilke in 1885-6 and then Wilson in 1887-8, their relations with the press date from long before the scandals that effectively destroyed their political importance.

The British newspaper scene

7In Britain, the abolition of the taxes on knowledge, 1853-61 (advertisement duty 1853, newspaper stamp duty: 1855, paper duty 1861) helped transform newspaper economics and, incidentally, lessen The Times dominance of the London press. Revenue from subscription and street-sales (including kiosks) changed in importance. Alongside The Times, at four pennies an issue, the Daily Telegraph appeared at, ultimately (late 1855), one penny an issue. In major regional towns and cities, the Crimean War prompted a number of half-penny evening titles, unstamped “war telegraphs”. The advent of the electric telegraph and innovative news agencies (Reuters in London, 1851, with commercial and general news services paid for by London dailies, including The Times from 1858 and the Press Association, a provincial newspaper co-operative from 1868) increased both the provision and speed of recent foreign, imperial and provincial news. MPs and other politicians’ ties with the owners and chief editors of major local morning titles changed little insofar as leader-writers were expected to side more often than not with the local MP, but the hastening speed with which news circulated occasionally lessened the time for reflection. Some titles carried weight through the views they expressed (and can be dubbed “viewspapers”); others, like the Daily Telegraph, were notable for their news-columns. The Times was respected both for its views and its news but lost credit from April 1887 on publishing a forged letter incriminating the Irish parliamentary leader Charles Parnell.

The French newspaper scene

  • 3 Grands journaux were mostly broadsheets and before the 1881 “freedom of the press law” paid the sta (...)

8In France, the situation was different. Until 1870, censorship on political newspapers remained stringent, with only some slight lessening of control in the closing years of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1868-70). While republicans, in power from September 1870, abolished many controls — suppressing stamp duty, for instance — the conservative, indeed monarchist-inclined governments of the “moral order” period in the mid-1870s, reimposed severe controls. It was only after the defeat in 1877 of a conservative coup d’état that the climate slowly improved so that in July 188I a law finally guaranteeing the freedom of the press from the state was passed in Parliament and promulgated by Jules Grévy. The duty on paper only ended in 1886. This helped small format dailies to increase their format: they became grands journaux akin to many other leading dailies. For instance, in the course of some twenty years, Le Petit Journal, launched on 31 January 1863 as a small format literary and non-political daily at 5 centimes per copy (a sum akin to the British halfpenny), benefited from the abolition in September 1870 of stamp duty; thus, to its popular content — serialized novels, crime and other human-interest “stories” — it added coverage of politics; with the abolition of the paper duty, it increased the size or format of its four pages. This first French lastingly successful popular daily combined news-editorial and entertainment content and a national sales-distributive network, fed by rapid overnight express trains from Paris, with a low sale-price affordable by a lower-class readership. While, under the management in the 1870s (1872-81) and the moderate republicanism of Émile de Girardin (1802-1881) it was thought to attract peasants and artisans across France to the Republic; it carried less influence among the political élite and upper-classes. The latter preferred to read Le Temps, a “quality daily” founded in 1861 of moderate republican views, close to the new republican ‘Establishment”, or the conservative Le Figaro, long hostile to the Republic, among many other grands journaux: many dailies were very politicized.3

9France had enjoyed universal male suffrage since 1848; the constitution of the Republic, adopted in I875, was slightly revised in 1884. Republicans enacted compulsory, secular, free primary education in 1881-2; reading newspapers was seen as furthering the practice of literacy. Republicans considered that many long-established local newspapers hostile to their regime were better implanted in the regions than pro-republican papers. Slowly they launched low-priced (sometimes 5 centimes) weekly, bi- or tri-weekly and, occasionally daily, titles to counteract the conservative press. Yet, if the anti-republican press was sometimes Bonapartist and sometimes monarchist, the republican titles were riven by divisions between moderates (“opportunists”) and radicals. The number of newspapers, even dailies, slowly grew, as did divisions.

British newspapers and politics in the 1880s

  • 4 Lee, Alan J., The Origins of the Popular Press in England, 1855-1914, (London, Croom Helm, 1976), p (...)

10In Britain, as suggested, divisions opposing moderate Gladstonian Liberals and Radicals increased, further exacerbated by the “GOM’s” preoccupation with Home Rule for Ireland. National and local Liberal-inclining papers took varying stances on these issues. Alan Lee classified the political stance of English provincial dailies in 1886 thus: “Liberal; Liberal-Independent; Independent (but Liberal); Neutral (but Liberal)”4. This suggests the complexity of the situation.

11In his relations with the press, Charles Dilke resembled many other leading British politicians of his generation. Earlier, his father, also named C.W. Dilke, had been part proprietor and editor of the Atheneum magazine. In 1846, he became editor of the Daily News of London, the main Liberal daily. His son followed closely the Daily News and the Pall Mall Gazette (PMG), which from 1880 supported the Liberals. From 1880, its assistant editor and, from 1883, editor, William Thomas Stead (1849-1912) had earlier, in Darlington, editing, in his twenties, the Northern Echo, exposed vice and poverty; he came from a Nonconformist background and often referred to God and the devil. He championed Gladstone’s denunciation of Turkish massacres of Bulgarians (1876) and later wrote: “I am apparently more useful than ever. The Bulgarian atrocity agitation was in a great measure my work”.

12Stead ran sensational campaigns in the PMG and cut its price to one penny. He modernized its layout and content with techniques later held to foreshadow tabloid journalism – banner headlines, shorter, more readable paragraphs, illustrations, diagrams and maps to break up the text. Stead published human-interest stories and championed causes. Advocating “government by journalism”, he showed the press influencing both public opinion and government policy.

13In 1884, Stead, having conducted “a conversation” with ‘Chinese Gordon’, pressured the government to send this former Governor-General of the Sudan to Khartoum to protect British interests against the insurrectionary Mahdi. After government procrastination, Gordon disobeyed orders, Khartoum was besieged and the failure of the expensive  Relief Expedition to save Gordon proved an imperial disaster. After Gordon's death in January 1885, Stead ran an early 24-point headline in “TOO LATE!”, bemoaning the relief force’s failure to rescue a hero.

14In 1885, sensational “investigative journalism” began when Stead bought thirteen-year-old Eliza Armstrong from her mother for a mere £5, thus showing how easy it was to buy children; his PMG campaign used crossheads, such as “The Violation of Virgins” and “Strapping Girls Down”. Copies of this “Maiden Tribute of Babylon series” were bought for 20 times their original price; PMG offices were besieged; the PMG ran out of paper. The government ultimately raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and arrested Stead for “unlawful taking of a child”; he later took pride in wearing his jail clothes. In 1886, he successfully campaigned for the British government to increase naval expenditure. A question arose: did Stead create a news event rather than just report it? Tiring of Stead, the PMG’s owner dismissed him in 1889. But not before Dilke ran foul of him.

  • 5 Nicholls, David, The Lost Prime Minister (London, The Hambledon Press, 1995), p. 200.

15In 1886, Dilke was exonerated in the first trial of the Crawford scandal, a divorce case at which he did not testify; the suspicion of sexual impropriety remained. Virginia Crawford, the young wife of Donald Crawford, another Liberal politician, claimed Dilke was her lover from 1882. Stead, after initial fair-seeming overtures, attacked him. Dilke’s 1995 biographer, David Nicholls, suggests Stead sought to attack Chamberlain via Dilke. Stead’s campaign contributed to Dilke’s misguided attempt to clear his name and his consequent ruin. Nicholls writes of “the murky world of the scandal...The tightly-interwoven structure of Victorian upper middle-class society provided fertile conditions for the nurturing of dark plots”.5 Stead even employed the divorcee Virginia Crawford.

16For five years (1886-91), London high society was troubled by divorce cases involving top politicians, including Dilke and the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell. The poorer classes were alarmed by the Jack the Ripper Whitechapel murders (1888-1891). Newspaper coverage of both, but especially the “Ripper” murders, boosted circulations, particularly of penny weeklies. Dilke’s involvement in the Crawford divorce case was grist to the mill of Stead’s moralizing. In 1885, Stead backed a new purity society, the National Vigilance Association, which he termed a “New Factor in Politics”; people bore personal responsibility for the moral health of the nation – men should be chaste as part of the re-Christianization of society.

17Was Stead motivated by seeking justice or increasing circulation? Both were no doubt present.

Wilson and the press

18Involved in local newspaper ownership and management since 1869, initially in Tours and then elsewhere in counties of the Centre-West (a term he coined), Wilson, as his political career progressed, became the dominant figure in the 1870s in the running of La Correspondance républicaine, the news-and-comment bulletin of one of the main republican Parliamentary groups; it provided editorial guidance for like-minded, poorly funded provincial titles. In the 1880s, as moderate republican parliamentary forces gained power, this Wilsonian tool was thought to earn increasing advertising revenue. From 1882, Wilson launched or acquired 5-centimes (un sou) regional dailies, generally titled la Petite France first in the Centre-West, and later in Burgundy and the Franche-Comté. Opportunist and Gambettist politicians and newspapers considered that Wilson, Grévy’s son-in-law, plotted against the short-lived Gambetta government of 1880-1, and that of Jules Ferry 1883-5. In 1879, Wilson was the only MP to become a founding member of the PRD, the republican association of newspaper owners and editors. There, as in La Correspondance républicaine, his journalistic alter ego was Alphonse Bertrand (1850-1907), a lifelong colleague. For La Petite France, he recruited Jules Toulouze (d.1885), considered the most skilled lobby correspondent of the time, masterly in weaning out political indiscretions.

19Newspaper finance had preoccupied Wilson since the 1870s: most provincial republican titles lacked funds; many depended on the Havas news and advertising agency for “non-local” copy. Financing “news via telegraph wires” was onerous, as Wilson developed a network of petits journaux à un sou in the regions; he counted much on “non-local” advertising revenue, some of which stemmed from Le Bulletin financier, reports of companies quoted on the Paris stock exchange, of which not all seemed disinterested. Wilson himself was often reported to speculate heavily.

Journalism: both trade and profession

  • 6 In 1880, the radical journalist Edgar Monteil issued 1,000 copies of a circular urging the creation (...)

20In London, as in Paris, in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, lobby correspondents in particular and political journalists more generally — indeed the journalistic profession and trade as a whole — formed associations or bodies ranging from friendly societies to incipient trade unions. Half trade, half profession, journalism began to be organized, often, as in France, on political lines, individualism remained strong,6 the variety of career patterns considerable, with only a few established titles having some permanent staff. In France, after the political turmoil of the 1870s, with the Republic, journalism, including political journalism, appeared in flux. In Le Matin (launched: 1884), leading articles signed by prominent columnists of different political views — a “multicoloured” appearance — broke with the traditional ‘unicolour’ political stance of most political dailies; the use of interviews and the role of reporters increased; descriptive “colour” writing of the scenes where events occurred marked copy produced by journalists previously termed “matter of fact” men.

  • 7 Arnold, Matthew, “Up to Easter”, The Nineteenth Century, CXXIII, May 1887.

21In the London press, probably more influenced by US journalism trends than the Parisian, a so-called “new journalism”, fond of sensationalism, was practiced. Ever since the revelations of the poor state of British military conditions during the Crimean War by William Howard Russell in The Times, which had helped precipitate the fall of the Aberdeen government in 1855, investigative reporting by journalists was increasingly feared. But while The Times was respected and authoritative, “the new journalism” à la Stead was dubbed “”feather-brained” by the Victorian sage Matthew Arnold.7 Stead's use of the interview was criticized for giving a platform to any “politician, religionist, social reformer, man of science, artist, tradesman, rogue, madman, or anyone else who cared to advertise himself, or his prospects or pursuits, and in whom the public could be expected to take any interest”.

Wilson’s implication in the 1887 decorations scandal

22In October 1887 a press campaign beginning with revelations about the sale of the legion of honour decoration ultimately led to a lawsuit against Daniel Wilson and the downfall of Jules Grévy.

  • 8 Albert, Pierre, in Cl. Bellanger et al., Histoire générale de la presse française (Paris, PUF,1972) (...)

23Stead was never accused of blackmail, unlike Albert-Édouard Portalis (1845-1918), who launched the decorations scandal. A great grandson of the Portalis of Napoléon’s Code civil, he went to the US when young, after apparently stealing his mother’s money; he returned convinced of the power of the press. From 1869 to the early ’90s, in his various newspapers, he made many a journalistic coup. Of “the freedom of the press law” of 29 July 1881 he cited article 35 that he considered allowed him to demonstrate proof of shady practices by companies appealing to people’s savings. He instructed his journalists: “you must unleash the storm”.8 He fled France in the mid- 90s, facing blackmail charges, but beforehand had campaigned against the million-circulation and advertising-rich Le Petit Journal, he called “le pickpocket”. He proved one of the main press assailants of Daniel Wilson, implicated in the decorations scandal. On 15 September 1887, Portalis transformed his Le XIXème Siècle by cutting its prices from 15 centimes to 5 centimes and modernising its lay-out, with cross heads and briefer articles. To break a scandal would doubtless help this relaunch.

24Portalis and his journalists relied much on police informers, as did the nascent breed of “reporters” (a word used increasingly in the 1880s). The archives of the Paris police prefecture are rich in police reports on pressmen and politicians – some reliable, many not. Accusations about trafficking in the legion of honour decoration occurred after scandals about journalist embezzlements and acting as police informers. The political scene was marked by the nascent popularity of the sacked sabre-rattling war minister, general Boulanger and an undeniable lassitude with president Grévy and his successive governments. Wilson was not popular, disliked by many politicians, and suspected for his business dealings. Did he and his minions sell the legion of honour?

25Portalis himself, relating his version of Wilson’s implication in “the decorations affair” — an account composed after he had fled France — writes of his reporters’ links with the prefecture. The police Sûreté second-in-command Marie-François Goron, directing police agents investigating the affair, recounts how reporters sequestered witnesses and suspects even before the police could interview them. Goron was himself under a cloud, suspected of having authorised the making of card-holders out of the skin of a murderer, Henri Pranzini, executed on 31 August. He was a childhood friend — both were born in Rennes — of Emile Gautier, formerly an anarchist, who in 1887, was a XIXème Siècle reporter. In his book published after fleeing France, Un guêt-apens judiciaire (1895), Portalis details how Gautier and Goron together wrote the article which, published on 7 October, “broke” the news of the “decorations scandal”. He even indicates who authored which part.

26The article did not name or allude to Wilson but, trumpeting “Decorations scandal!”, made allusions showing that the authors knew more than they wrote. Wilson’s name only circulated later, after the central figures, women trafficking in the sale of decorations, referred to him; his name suggested protection from “high-up”... Although they retracted the charge, a violent press campaign ensued. Wilson was portrayed as corruption incarnate. Some newspaper assailants recalled Wilson’s profligate youth.

  • 9 An example of a political sensation: he proposed in his L’Avenir national (April 1873) a Bonapartis (...)
  • 10 Wartelle, Jean-Claude, Edouard Portalis (Paris, Henri Veyrier, Kronos n°3, 1990), p.104.
  • 11 Speech to his electors in in St Dié, 3 August 1889, in Gaillard, Jean-Michel, Jules Ferry (Paris, F (...)

27Portalis, a master of the sensation (le coup) since the 1870s, perpetrated blows primarily, but not solely, in politics.9 His Le XIXème Siècle headlined, 2 November: “Attempted Assassination of the Director of Le XIXème Siècle.10 Wilson was behind it, he alleged. On 17 November, during the campaign against Wilson, the Chamber of Deputies authorised court proceedings against him and on 2 December Jules Grévy, aged 80, having tried to delay matters, resigned the presidency. Since May 1887, his government, headed by Maurice Rouvier, relied on tacit right-wing support; this, in addition to the accusations against Wilson of selling the legion of honour decoration and other malpractices, compromised the 80-year-old Grévy. Detestation of Wilson’s improper political news-seeking and other activities was later expressed by Jules Ferry, twice prime minister and long close to Gambetta; he wrote scathingly of Wilson’s intrigues against him and fellow “Gambettists” in the Chamber and the Élysée. He considered Wilson “the most contemptible” of them all.11

  • 12 A.J. Lee among others, pp. 224-32.
  • 13 Les Deux présidences de Jules Grévy, 1879-1887, op. cit., p. 119.

28La rage du reportage” reigned. In both Paris and London, there emerged, journalism traits considered American. “Reportage” — English borrowed the French term; in French “reportérisme” briefly appeared — and “stunts” circulated in the late 19th century American, British, and French press. “New journalism” was bandied about in English and American. Generalisations, like comparisons (says Shakespeare’s Dogberry) are “odorous” (= odious); yet contemporaries and subsequently scholars debate the Americanization of the European press, comparing newspapers in France and Britain during the period.12 Despite their different standpoints, the vituperation of Portalis and the indignation of Le Petit Journal about Wilson differed in tone from the moralizing vehemence of Stead in the PMG about Dilke. French newspapers mixed facts and accusations in a flow of copy about revelations and drama in Parliament and the courts. Ernest Judet, recently appointed political director of Le Petit Journal had earlier unsuccessfully sought Grévy’s intervention in a violent polemic with the Corsican MP Emmanuel Arène. Previously Portalis had battled with Wilson over the acquisition of a newspaper (noted a police report). A third major newspaper assailant of Wilson during the scandal, Paris initially (1881), a paper backing Gambetta — was edited by Charles Laurent, reputedly the illegitimate son of Girardin and the actress Marie Laurent and owned by the Veil-Picard bankers from Besançon, one of whom Charles-Edmond, had signed a cheque for 10,000 francs to be given to anyone who secured the legion of honour decoration for him. Wilson’s La Petite France later published a facsimile of this cheque and the promissory note. Thus, Le Petit Journal, Le XIXème Siècle and Paris, the major newspaper assailants of Wilson, had motives for their attacks. Politicians complained of Wilson’s zealous political news-seeking activities. A reporter described seeing Wilson dictating dispatches in Parliament hostile to Jules Ferry.13

  • 14 Verdès-Leroux, Jeannine, Scandale financier et antisémitisme catholique. Le krach de l’Union généra (...)
  • 15 Wartelle, Jean-Claude, Edouard Portalis (1845-1918), patron de presse à l'américaine (Paris, Henri (...)

29The moralizing, nonconformist rhetoric accompanying Stead’s hostile journalism against Dilke, was echoed in French newspaper attacks on Wilson not about sex but about nefarious practices by an elite businessman-politician. Scandals appeared nineteen to the dozen to judge from book titles of the 1880s; Les Scandales de Paris (1887 Les Scandales de Berlin (1888) for instance. Les Scandales de Londres dévoilés par le Pall Mall Gazette were a translation of Stead’s “The Maiden Tribute of Babylon” revelations. Later (27 January 1893), the venerable “quality” daily, Le Journal des Débats, deploring the addiction to scandal, bemoaned: “give us today our daily scandal”.14 Portalis accused Wilson’s henchmen of an attempted assassination.15 Some newspaper assailants recalled Wilson’s profligate youth. This mattered less than his zealous political news-seeking activities.


  • 16 Palmer, Michael, Les Wilson-Grévy-familles claniques : aux origines d’un scandale à l’Elysée (Paris (...)

30The role of sensation-seeking newspapermen in the Wilson and Dilke affairs differed but helped end these politicians’ prominence. Stead’s journalism offended some but boosted PMG’s circulation. It was during its coverage of the Wilson “decorations’ scandal that Le Petit Journal first topped the one-million mark. This raised several issues. Since the increase in 5 centimes papers (journaux à un sou) in 1885-6, when the abolition of paper duty coincided with general elections, themselves conducive to newspaper launches, Le Petit Journal’s rate of expansion in the provinces slowed, as its company annual reports guardedly indicated. Did Wilson’s nascent regional “press group” really appear a threat, concerning both advertising revenue and newspaper-sales? Transmitting telegraphed news to Wilson’s regional printers in Tours, Poitiers, Dijon and Besançon promised to give the papers they printed fresher, updated, news than in the provincial edition of Le Petit Journal printed in Paris. The jury is out. Newspaper owners may have given this more importance provincial readers themselves, in the Franche-Comté at least, sometimes reluctant to buy a paper, possibly not over-impressed by “the latest news fast”, but tempted by accessing cheap paper containing popular serialized novels.16

31Contemporaries and, later, scholars discuss the Americanization of the Parisian and London press. In Paris, the Morning News and Le Matin (1883 and 1884) were launched by US businessmen; distinctive features included “multicolour” opinion columnists — pieces from prominent figures of different political affiliations — and rapid international news-reporting. In both capitals, hard-news reporting and colourful descriptive pieces gained prominence, as did reporters’ “interviews”. “Stunts” were a slightly later phenomenon. “Reportage”, “reportérisme” (sic), multiplied, and, during the decorations affair, became “la rage du reportage”. The Dilke and Wilson scandals marked the collective memory less than the Jack the Ripper Whitechapel murders in Britain or the press exposure and its own corruption in the Panama scandal in France; yet had not Le Petit Journal’s man-hunt for the murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppmann in 1869 help set off la rage du reportage?

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Pinsolle, Dominique, “Le Matin, les affaires et la politique,1884-1897”, Le Mouvement social, n°23 (juillet-septembre 2010), pp. 91-107.

Verdès-Leroux, Jeanine, Scandale financier et antisémitisme catholique. Le krach de l’Union générale (Paris, Le Centurion, 1969).

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1 Wilson was counted a friend by Scotsmen in Paris, cf. Barclay, Thomas, The Anglo-French Entente from Within (Boston and New York, Houghton, 1915), pp. 9-11.

2 Tapuscrit, NAF, BNF, mostly reproduced in Lavergne, Bernard, Les Deux présidences de Jules Grévy, 1879-1887. Mémoires de Bernard Lavergne (Paris, Fischbacher, 1967).

3 Grands journaux were mostly broadsheets and before the 1881 “freedom of the press law” paid the state caution-money as a deposit enabling them to discuss politics. “Petits journaux” were mostly literary, theatrical, satirical, etc. reviews that before 1870 (except briefly during the Second Republic) could not cover politics. As noted, the situation changed in the 1880s. In English, “the quality/popular” distinction occurred later.

4 Lee, Alan J., The Origins of the Popular Press in England, 1855-1914, (London, Croom Helm, 1976), p. 284.

5 Nicholls, David, The Lost Prime Minister (London, The Hambledon Press, 1995), p. 200.

6 In 1880, the radical journalist Edgar Monteil issued 1,000 copies of a circular urging the creation of a republican press association; two people replied. Palmer, Michael, Les Wilson-Grévy-familles claniques : aux origines d’un scandale à l’Elysée (Paris, Honoré Champion 2018), p.314.

7 Arnold, Matthew, “Up to Easter”, The Nineteenth Century, CXXIII, May 1887.

8 Albert, Pierre, in Cl. Bellanger et al., Histoire générale de la presse française (Paris, PUF,1972), vol iii, p. 363.

9 An example of a political sensation: he proposed in his L’Avenir national (April 1873) a Bonapartist-radical alliance.

10 Wartelle, Jean-Claude, Edouard Portalis (Paris, Henri Veyrier, Kronos n°3, 1990), p.104.

11 Speech to his electors in in St Dié, 3 August 1889, in Gaillard, Jean-Michel, Jules Ferry (Paris, Fayard, 1989), pp. 321-2. In October 1883, a report in Wilson’s La Petite France threatened to compromise a visit to Paris by the Spanish king, Alphonse XII; Ferry, prime minister, was outraged.

12 A.J. Lee among others, pp. 224-32.

13 Les Deux présidences de Jules Grévy, 1879-1887, op. cit., p. 119.

14 Verdès-Leroux, Jeannine, Scandale financier et antisémitisme catholique. Le krach de l’Union générale (Paris, Le Centurion, 1969), p.190.

15 Wartelle, Jean-Claude, Edouard Portalis (1845-1918), patron de presse à l'américaine (Paris, Henri Veyrier, Kronos n° 3 ,1990), p.104.

16 Palmer, Michael, Les Wilson-Grévy-familles claniques : aux origines d’un scandale à l’Elysée (Paris, Honoré Champion 2018), p.348.

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Electronic reference

Michael Palmer, Politics, Press and Scandal in the Mid-1880s: French and British Cabals?Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVIII-1 | 2023, Online since 03 February 2023, connection on 18 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Michael Palmer

Michael Palmer, professeur émérite, université de la Sorbonne nouvelle. Auteur ou coauteur de 13 ouvrages et 150 articles dans des revues à comité de lecture. Laboratoire Communication Information Médias (CIM), EA1484.

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