The Death Of Fleet Street

The Arts

af12fee388f4a5d94067c80556e75d4a

The Fleet Street play ‘Ink’ has transferred from Islington’s local Almeida Theatre to the Duke of York’s in St Martin’s Lane, where I just saw it, and is a good example of a play whose seemingly esoteric subject reminds us of a pivotal point in British social history.

It concerns the beginning of the end, when editor Larry Lamb took over an ailing newspaper, The Sun, and explores his faustian relationship with its owner, publisher Rupert Murdoch. We know what happened; the soaraway Sun paradoxically won the circulation war by doing away with ‘real’ news. But at what cost to us?

The author, James Graham, trusts his material enough to avoid preaching; we know what’s at stake – the end of traditional reporting based on the accumulation of empirical data and the start of ‘giving the people what they want’ – gossip, sex, sport, the chance to win stuff. Every writer who got the words ‘WIN’, ‘FREE’, and ‘LOVE’ on the paper’s cover received a bonus. It’s a fact-packed three-hour play made for an audience who remembers the shockwaves caused by the takeover, gets the jokes and understands the morality of the times.

On a towering set of hot type and cool grey desks, Lamb assembles his motley crew of non-reporters, together with an astrologer (‘It’s all bollocks, isn’t it?’) and a hand-drawn masthead, readying them to take on the Daily Mirror, then the world’s biggest selling newspaper. Hugh Cudlipp, the Mirror’s establishment  head, isn’t worried, comparing the fight to David and Goliath until he is reminded who actually won that match.

There’s a very funny brainstorming session where Lamb tries align his new staff to reader mentality by asking them to describe their own secret passions, only for one to reveal that what he really enjoys is translating the lesser-known works of Émile Zola from French to English.

Bertie Carvel is unsurprisingly brilliant as Murdoch, macho and volatile, hunched and questioning, finally shy and even ashamed of what he has unleashed because it reduces his own standing. I would have liked a scene in which Murdoch admits to and possibly explains his real motives for taking on – and taking out – the British establishment, but perhaps that’s trying to cover too much. Graham also avoids the later years of notorious headlines like ‘Gotcha!’ for the sinking of the Belgrano because he needs to keep us focussed.

Ink-Almeida-641

There’s a sensational piece of physical theatre in the transferred production as we see, in a kind of Eagle cutaway painting, the entire laborious process of producing a newspaper from pouring hot lead to fighting the intransigent print chapels (wasn’t it Private Eye who repositioned NATSOPA as NOTSOBER?)

In the second half the tone of the play darkens as predictions – that if you create a monster you have to keep feeding it – come home to roost, startlingly so with the horrific kidnap and murder of the wife of the Sun’s deputy chairman, a sensational event I’d forgotten about until now.

The five Ws of journalism — who, what, where, when, why — glow on the set as a constant reminder of what has been lost. And there’s no doubt that it has been lost; the Sun’s success laid the way for the purchase and downward repositioning of the Times, a paper once world-renowned for its quality, now not fit to wipe the boots of the New York Times.

So Britain’s press landscape is all the poorer for Murdoch’s poisoned intervention. But ‘Ink’ also reminds us that Fleet Street’s upper echelon was complacent and needed a wake-up call. I just wish it hadn’t been at the expense of literacy. If Mr Graham had chosen to preach, he might have pointed out that the removal of educated reporting would help pave the way for the sorry shower of politicians we have now and the lowered aspirations of voters.

I must confess to a memory here. As an 18 year-old courier I would deliver to Fleet Street newspapers, behind which, in the great sheds on Tudor Street, stood vast storey-high rolls of newsprint (delivered up the river) and watched in awe as the presses went to work. I can still smell burning metal and hot paper, and hear the roar of machinery. As I’d leave they would call out ‘Take a free paper, son!’ but I would refuse the tabloids and call back, snootily, ‘I only read the Guardian!’

In my early bullpen years we still had a typographer sitting with us on a sort of umpire’s high chair, watching everyone. Once they went, spelling and grammar was left to the art directors, who famously can’t spell, which is why typos filled papers.

I miss those days because there was a sense of the word being physically (and literally) hammered out into stories. When making news comes at a cost, the word becomes valuable and succinctness and accuracy are all. To see how far we have fallen, remove all of the opinion articles, features and guesswork from a newspaper and see how many hard news pieces are left. Yes, that far.

Fleet Street is now a dead area full of coffee bars.

14 comments on “The Death Of Fleet Street”

  1. Rob C says:

    When I first started bunking off school and coming up to London from Windsor I spent a lot of time around Fleet St & St Pails.

    There was a cafe there where the staff were the remains of a WW2 tank crew, included a guy who had lost an arm, and who constantly told everyone who’d listen whose fault it was (it changed with every telling).
    It was here I first encountered Gilbert & George too 🙂

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    I started my first job on a group of local papers in the North East. Hot metal and cold-blooded unions.
    When the presses started running the whole building shook. If a mistake was spotted at the very last minute the Editor would rush down to the caseroom and view the ‘stone’ (the frame that held the metal type together) with the caseroom manager who would spot the offending line and hit it with a hammer, squashing the text so it couldn’t be read on the final print.
    Personally I thought that Eddie Shah and the Today paper were the final nail in Fleet Street and the industry’s coffin. I’m convinced that Thatcher & co were somewhere behind him – he was from outside the industry altogether and left fairly quickly once the unions were broken.
    By the way, I was a SLADE Father of the Chapel if that means anything to you!

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Get it right Admin. You’ve got a typo here yourself. As well you know it’s “Guarniad” not “Guardian”.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    Yet another example of a very worthy baby being thrown out with some very dirty bath water. We seem to be very good at it.

  5. Mark says:

    Brian,

    I think you have too much time on your hands?

    Regards

    Mark

  6. admin says:

    As proof of where we are, I looked at today’s Time Out (for whom I used to work) – it’s peppered with infantile spelling mistakes – and the Evening Standard’s picture editor can’t even crop photos to show faces!

  7. Bill says:

    I knew a guy who, as a kid, worked for the Brooklyn Eagle,which succumbed in 1955 after having been published daily for 114 years; Walt Whitman had been its editor for two years. Anyway, this guy told me all the typographers, to a man, were utterly illiterate; nonetheless, each could perfectly compose type, and knew damn well when to catch a typo, the occurrence of which hardly ever happened. When administration decided to pay by check, rather than by cash, they nearly had a riot on their hands. None of these fellows understood how to read a check! But they knew how to compose type.

    America, once, had been lousy with newspapers, great newspapers. The demise began nearly seventy years ago.

  8. Steveb says:

    I think the current Times has a really strong roster of journalists.
    The spelling mistakes are ubiquitous today. Not to mention ‘of’ for ‘have’ etc etc.

  9. admin says:

    I don’t think the problem is with the journalists, Steve, but with the paper’s relentless focus on upscale social mobility – a lead article this week was ‘Should you wipe down your yoga mat?’

  10. Roger says:

    If one is really upscale socially mobile, surely one’s servants wipe down one’s yoga mat.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    A Bill Sawyer, whom I follow on Facebook, wrote a similar piece about working for a newspaper in New York and all of his followers, including me, chimed in with their newspaper experiences. I wondered if everyone had worked for a newspaper at some point in their lives and he replied that people who contributed to his Facebook entries were people who loved words and writing so the odds were good that newspapers would have figured in their pasts. It seems to be similar here. (Mine was one summer at a small town weekly.)
    We still buy the local daily which has been operating since the Vancouver Fire of 1885 even though it has been sold to Eastern interests and is not as reliable as it might be.
    Will people not buy the truth – do they all go for truthiness?

  12. Marty Knox says:

    I’ve lived through all the phases of newspapers. Hot type, cold type, pagination, analog, digital, internet. I delivered papers, the Milwaukee Sentinel in secret (girls weren’t allowed to have newspaper routes) partnership with my younger brother in the ’50s in Milwaukee WI. My grandfather was a monotype operator all his life for the Milwaukee Sentinel and LA Times. My dad was president of the Typographical Union and started as a monotype operator when he got out of the Navy WW2, then he switched to linotype and cold type. My earliest memory is waking up at 4 am to see my dad sipping coffee and smelling the newspaper fresh off the press. I have believed that I was finally a grownup when I could do the crossword puzzle in ink like my father. What a thrill to read the Sunday comics on Friday night. I perused enormous tomes of type fonts with wonderful sounding names like Baskerville. Even now I’m a news junkie. I miss the big thick daily papers. I worked for the Cox newspapers in Arizona for many years until I finished my degree and began teaching. Yes, the whole building shakes when the presses start. The blank rolls of newsprint were trucked on a small railroad train up to the presses. The ink was delivered by semi-truck and transferred into a two-story storage container. I can still make a pressman’s hat from a folded newspaper, a treat for my pupils. I read the newsprint edition of Joplin Globe and Lamar Democrat for local news.I read the Washington Post and NY Times on my kindle for national news.. BBC on iPhone for the rest of the world. The Kansas City Star, Springfield News-Leader, and Saint Louis Post-Dispatch on Sundays on my iPhone for state news. On my PC I read the Arizona Republic and the White Mountain Gazette.for Arizona news.I’ve only seen the presses stop once in my career-when a Polish Pope was elected. Like my father, I sip my coffee, read the morning paper, smell the ink, and work the crossword puzzle with my favorite pen. The truth is at the core of all the words but you have to be willing to shovel thru the debris to find it.

  13. Marty Knox says:

    Sound like a wonderful play. If it ever makes it to Sanit Louis MO or Phoenix AZ I would love to see it. Maybe someday I’ll get to visit England, it’s on my Bucket List, at the top.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Marty, that is a wonderful piece. I will read it again often.

Comments are closed.