The Titanic disaster was the world's first truly global media event.

News began reaching the North American mainland, through the wonders of the new Marconi wireless, within minutes of the Titanic hitting her iceberg. In hours the story spread throughout America: the mighty Titanic was damaged and calling for help. It was an astounding story, unrolling in real time, sometimes obscured, delayed or inaccurate, but always dramatic. It was an event of mythic proportions, a story like no other. 

During my research for The Midnight Watch I visited newspaper archives in London, Liverpool, New York, Boston and online, reading about the Titanic disaster and the Californian incident.  I was so fascinated by what I found that I decided in my novel to tell the story of the Californian from the point of view of a newspaper journalist. 

For us in the dirty business of newspapers it was the time of the great muckraking crusades. Pulitzer and Hearst battled to outdo each other. Pulitzer started it all with The World down in New York – with its stories of crimes, scandals and monstrosities – but Hearst had taken things to new heights. Or lows. He would stop at nothing...
— John Steadman, journalist for the Boston American
Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst

You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.
— William Randolph Hearst

In The Midnight Watch, Steadman is working at the end of the great period of ‘yellow journalism’ in America. Newspapers in the big cities had become big business, with enormous circulation, capitalization and profits. When the Titanic story began to break, this media machine became overheated, spinning and whirring so much that it seemed it might fly apart. Headlines suggested a world pushed to the brink of madness: ‘Crazed by Wreck Talk’, ‘Reads of Titanic Disaster; Crazed; Wades Into Lake’, ‘He Was Driven Insane by the Titanic Tragedy’, ‘Wreck Causes Rich Woman to Throw Self Into Ocean’, ‘Editor Killed in Office’.

But the newspapers also tried to reassure troubled nations. The sinking of the Titanic was a blow to confidence; it represented a catastrophic failure of the British technology that built her and the American capital that funded her.  ‘But don’t worry,’ the newspapers said. ‘The Titanic disaster just shows us how brave our men are!’

In the midst of harrowing recitals shines the heroism of American manhood, which protected the weak and helpless.
— The Washington Post, 1912
The tale of the sinking of the steamship Titanic is a story of heroism. There were brave men on board that ship.
— The Boston Daily Globe, 1912

The Titanic disaster was not the only challenge to male confidence and supremacy. There was another equally destabilising force: the women’s suffrage movement. By April 1912 it had gained real momentum. A campaign of window smashing by London suffragettes had taken place only weeks before the disaster; on the very day the Titanic hit her iceberg The New York Times reported a ‘Suffragists’ Thirst Strike’, ‘Chinese Women to Parade for Woman Suffrage’ and ‘Howls Greet Suffragists’ (14-15 April 1912). 

This is a new age, papa, and girls don’t always do what their fathers say!
— Harriet Steadman, The Midnight Watch
The suffrage demonstration organised in Hyde Park this afternoon to protest against the alleged forcible feeding of suffragettes now in prison for window smashing produced very noisy scenes...
— The New York Times, 1912

By coincidence the largest suffrage parade in American history – planned before the Titanic sank – took place on the same day as the funeral of John Jacob Astor, the Titanic’s richest passenger. Astor had stood back to let his wife and other women board the lifeboats, and his body was later recovered from the Atlantic with hundreds of pounds and thousands of dollars in his pocket. There were some calls for the suffragettes’ parade to be cancelled because of the Titanic disaster, but it went ahead.  Fifteen thousand women marched up Fifth Avenue. Astor's funeral was pushed off the front pages: a symbol, perhaps, of the new narrative of female power nudging aside the old story of wealthy male heroism. 

The Women's Suffrage Parade, New York City, 6 May 1912

The Women's Suffrage Parade, New York City, 6 May 1912

Votes for women!”
Was the cry,
Reaching upward
To the sky.
Crashing glass
And flashing eye –
”Votes for women!”
Was the cry

”Boats for women!”
Was the cry,
When the brave
Were come to die.
When the end
Was drawing nigh –
”Boats for women!”
Was the cry...
— Clark McAdams, St Louis Post-Dispatch, 1912

But the Titanic disaster caused real problems for the suffragettes. The narrative of gender equality was challenged by the stark inequality in survivorship: 77% of the women on board were saved, but only 19% of the men. How did ‘women and children first!’ square with women’s demand for the vote? The Titanic disaster, suggested commentators, proved that at times of crisis, chivalry was better protection for women than the vote. 

If the suffragettes truly wanted the vote, then could they still expect the protection and courtesy of men’s chivalry to be extended to them? Were they asking to keep their cake and eat it too? This issue proved difficult for the suffragettes and their attempts to defend their cause were problematic. Some argued that ‘by natural law women and children should be saved first’ (The New York Times) and even Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia argued that there was ‘no special chivalry’ aboard the Titanic because ‘it was the universal rule in cases of shipwreck that women and children should be saved first’  (The New York Times). But to affirm ‘natural laws’ and ‘universal rules’ in this way tended to subvert the narrative of women’s equality and suffrage. If, after all, it is a natural or universal rule that women should be saved first from a sinking ship, then is it not also natural and universal that they should confine themselves to the domestic sphere and leave politics and voting to the men? 

Is it to be boats for women or votes for women? Well, if we must choose, then I say to my sisters: Don’t get in the boat!
— Olive Steadman, The Midnight Watch