The Death Of Fleet Street
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.
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.