To the National Theatre with the Textiliste, the Lawyer and the Beautician to see Great Britain, a new play by Richard Bean. The basic premise is the corrupt triangle of press politicians and police ; it’s about power and by extension it’s misuse in pursuit of profit. All the players are familiar. The voracious news editor (excellent Billie Piper – she avoided perfection because of her grating voice) an amalgam of Rebekah Brooks, Piers Morgan, Kelvin MacKevnzie and Andy Coulson; the powerful yet formless cum hapless Chief Constable (take any of the last few incumbents); the ambitious and morally vacuous Tory leader; the strident and equally morally empty Labour MP;and the duplicitous and amnesiatic proprietor. I could go on.
If there was a failing it was that they were mostly caricatures, played for laughs rather than properly drawn characters. Few had any redeeming features. It was only in the pathos of their personal collapses that any sympathy was engendered and by the end even a suicide hardly won over the audience.
The laughs, like the bruising staccato journalism of the tabloids and their short attention spanning-readership demographic, came thick and fast. Especially good were the headlines – personally I loved the way the Mail-equivalent always managed to bring immigrants into its front page (immigrant cat ate my salmon) and the Asian Gay Commissioner Sully who was played for farce but so well done it didn’t jar at all. The scene when he allowed himself to be tazered for a publicity shoot was a gem as were the YouTube mock ups from his ludicrous public statements.
The play, like the tabloids, wanted to be hard biting as well as fulfilling a perceived public lust for the prurient. This play is in one way a reverse homage to the death of the News of the Screws and therefore it had points to make about the tabloids and investigative journalism and our attitudes to it. The hypocrisy that accepts a public interest defence when a public official is corruptly paid to leak MPs expenses – a criminal offence – but which pours scorn on, and prosecutes phone hacking when it involves celebrities. As Paige Britain says at the end, with reference to the shock of a father who is hounded to his death for killing his twins when he’s innocent, the two girls having had their phones hacked after they had died (clear reference to Milly Dowler), had the real killer been found as a result of the hack or the girls saved then no one would have complained and she would have been a hero.
She was speaking to us the audience when making this point. Are we so shallow? Because this is an ends justifying means kind of argument. The same one Blair uses for attacking Saddam – so what, so his argument goes, that there were no WMDs, we toppled a despotic mass murderer so that’s all good then. Misleading the British public and Parliament were unfortunate by products of the need to take him down.
Personally motivation as well as ends are important. The expenses was a scandal and ripe for exposure and that’s what the Telegraph journalists wanted. This was a focused evisceration of the corrupt. This contrasts with the phone hacking which was indiscriminately used, the headlines and and increasing circulation the principle motivation.
However even I can see a murky grey area here; the Telegraph were not indifferent to the impact on its sales. If they had been they wouldn’t have spread the disclosure over weeks in order to maximise sales.
It is a fair question to wonder if the satire makes a valid point about our hypocrisy. After all isn’t that what underlies the very issue The Levensom Inquiry is addressing? If we want a free press to shine a light on the murky corners of power where corruption lurks, who decides what is fair game and what a gross infringement of someone’s privacy. That sicko, Kelvin MacKenzie regularly made my blood boil with his insistence on the paper’s right to doorstep anyone and everyone but especially if they had ever been in their paper because of the nature of their job. You are a singer or a sportsperson. You sell tickets to the public. Therefore we, the press, on behalf of that self same public (self appointed of course) have the right to know everything there is to know about you and anyone who might be associated with you.
Yet, in a way, if those who would hide their evil doings and corruption behind super injunctions and libel writs and cunning use of Human rights laws can only be brought to book by the brave journalists who ignore their rights to privacy and who at times break the law then I think that is a price we must pay. Somewhere some redress is needed for the innocent but in the final analysis this cannot be at the expense of a free press.
I fear I will have to continue to have to put up with the Morgans, the Brookes and the MacKenzies of this world so that investigative journalism can flourish. And while I’d like a proper press regulator I fear any government who can have any say over the press. In the long run, I just don’t trust people with power.
That was the play’s final point. Excess in any human endeavour is almost a given, but better some indigestion than the grim reality of starvation.