One Man’s Journey Into Newspapers

In the house I grew up in there were always two newspapers: they sat on the arm of the sofa, waiting to be picked up and whistled over and argued with, and for us they captured the world of other people. They were the Huddersfield Daily Examiner and the Sunday People, papers my mum and dad still read. We weren’t a broadsheet type of family. I suppose we were a little proud of that fact, just in the way that northern families tend to be proud of who they are (and who they aren’t). When I was about 13 I had a paper round, and that gave me a more tangible reason for hating posh papers: they were much heavier, adding something vengeful to my Sunday morning hike.

When I came to university here in Glasgow, I fell in love with newspapers. This is a country built on many proud industries, some of which were in deep decline when first I walked across the city, passing the frozen cranes of the shipyards and the old, closed factories. But the newspaper industry was lively. The Herald building sat in art deco splendour down in Albion Street; the Daily Record rose like a red-top colossus over the M8; and the Sunday Times plant sprang up in Kinning Park. I grew to love what the best kind of journalism could do for a nation, in its own eyes, and for a nation in the eyes of the world: the possibility of truth being sought and valued, of power being held to account, became a central plank of what animated my sense of what life could be. For me, it was also a building block of art. I loved the idea that, while I walked and talked and learned who I was, while I grew and even while I slept, great journalists were busy establishing the first draft of history. I believed then, as I do now, that journalism – in all its forms, both entertaining and enlightening, but especially investigative and analytical journalism – is a fundamental element of any good and thriving democracy.

So that’s the context for dismay. That’s the context for alarm. The crisis in journalism has crept over us now like a mysterious Old Testament fog: we used to have rules and commandments – We Shall Not Lie, We Shall Not Sell Out, We Shall Not Simplify, We Shall Not Corrupt – but the pressure on newspaper profitability appeared to make the industry sick. The commercial panic, the willingness to do anything and print anything and hack anything in the attempt to succeed, led – we now see – to illegality on a grand and now famous scale. The papers always had bias: we bought them for their bias, and we liked it when they reflected a worldview we could share. Although we read tabloids in our house it wasn’t because they were valueless: they were campaigning papers, and they made us better, actually. Even what seemed like excessive tabloid moments – ‘Gotcha!’ when a battleship is sunk and 200 Argentinian youths lose their lives; or ‘Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights’, which smacked, even to a Yorkshireman’s ears, of an ominous new public relations tone suddenly arriving in British public life. But today those headlines seem almost warm, almost playful, a bit Whizzer and Chips, next to the venom we have recently seen pour onto the pages of some of the British press.

Hywel Simons, left, and John Bett in Enquirer (photo by Manuel Harlan)The papers held people to account. They held ministers to account and policemen as well as criminals and commercial companies. They caught thieves, they cornered criminals, long before they were considered thieves and criminals themselves. And, since then, we’ve seen a situation grow where those papers, and many others, were no longer speaking truth to power. They were owned by people, the Rupert Murdochs of the world, who were arguably more powerful than the governments that gave them their licenses. There was a power shift. It was easier to hold governments accountable than it was to hold the press accountable. I knew, like everybody else, that the industry could crack under such commercial and ethical pressure. And then it did crack, and none of us can take any pleasure in it. I knew there was something wrong the very moment I heard someone who works for Alastair Campbell say that Rupert Murdoch was like the 23rd member of the Blair Cabinet. They were all struggling to work out how to please him. Murdoch, of course, is only one name and one source of concern. To many he has been a source of much more good. But, whether one points to him or the Daily Mail or the complacency of the Guardian or the timidity of the BBC, it was clear: the higher aspirations of British journalism were under attack from within, and we are all left to wonder, at our leisure, what it will mean for our society. But I take it back to the industry itself – to the newspaper as a habit of civilisation, to the art of journalism itself. To the papers I grew up with. What were those newspapers and what happened to them? What has been lost and what can be saved?

Vicky Featherstone, my friend and Artistic Director at the National Theatre of Scotland, has always spoken to me about the glory and the vulnerability of the press. We began to ask what seemed to us a horrible and overwhelming question: “Are we seeing the dying days of the newspaper industry?” It isn’t our job to provide answers to every question we might ask, but it is perhaps our job to ask them, to ask them at the right time and to follow through on that questioning by putting curiosity into action. That is the kind of director we set out to be, each of us, and that is the kind of company Vicky wished to head up when she agreed to run the National Theatre of Scotland. Ironically, we had learned from great journalists how to keep asking what we, in our own judgment, felt to be the needful question.

We were drawn right away to work with the London Review of Books, a paper that upholds the very best journalistic traditions and habits. I don’t know if the LRB gets the credit it deserves, but for over 30 years now it has filled its pages with original and penetrating and funny writing by the very best writers, and it remains fiercely independent. At a time when the world is said to be dumbing down, the LRB has quadrupled its circulation and has become an international institution. Faced with all the depressing talk about British journalism, we instantly looked to that publication for inspiration and assistance and they gave it willingly.

We quickly agreed on how to do it. Make journalists themselves speak as opposed to us creating a fictional newspaper story. It didn’t feel like there were that many outlets for those opinions to be expressed, as the last thing some newspapers want to write about is the fact that the newspaper industry is in crisis. But that was changing. We wanted different kinds of people from the inside working closely with us. We were excited by the idea of commissioning journalists to go and interview other journalists and to create a record of those conversations. We asked Paul Flynn, Deborah Orr and Ruth Wishart to each interview 15 people from within the newspaper industry, from tabloid journalists to broadsheet editors and everyone in between, including journalists who work in digital media. They started interviewing in the middle of February 2012 and by the time we started rehearsals, we had over forty hours of recordings. Vicky Featherstone, our co-editor Andrew O’Hagan and I listened to all the interviews. We read all the transcripts and began to hear something quite extraordinary. We had these voices, these supposedly outspoken people, suddenly saying something very personal and saying it for the first time. We were knocked out by it: we studied these tapes and these transcripts and saw a changing industry speaking to itself in clear voices. We each believed it was crucial material and we got down to work.

We opened the site-specific production in the empty floor of an office block overlooking the Clyde in Glasgow in April 2012, and in October a new version of Enquirer premiered in London under the auspices of the Barbican, playing across a labyrinth of rooms that used to be a toy factory in Clerkenwell. The audience are led through the space as interviews, conversations and opinions from the 45 journalists are channelled verbatim by our six actors. The structure is based on a day in the life of a newspaper, so there are conferences, water-cooler gossip and edited versions of three Maureen Beattie in Enquirer (photo by Manuel Harlan)enlightening interviews with Jack Irvine, Roger Alton and Ros Wynne-Jones. As you would expect from interviews with wordsmiths there are some fantastic sound-bites: “Writing for The Sun is like nicking a megaphone from a sociopath”, “One of the most engaging and strongest parts of Rupert Murdoch’s character is his loyalty” and “There’s no magic on the fucking internet – we think they’re boring upstarts and they clearly think we’re egotistical dinosaurs”, to name but a few. But there are also moments of profound insight such as Owen Jones describing his writing as a form of insurgency for his political beliefs.

The man who is tired of London journalism is tired of life, Samuel Johnson almost said. I come from Yorkshire, so the phrase would once have stuck in my throat, but recent tribulations in the British newspaper industry leave me with a protective feeling about old Fleet Street. It represents a brilliant tradition of fearless enquiry and most of the reporters I have known in my life have never hacked a phone or used a telephoto lens or hired a private detective or raked through anybody’s bin. Instead, they were champions of the public interest, defenders of critical good faith, and — in one or two cases — people who changed the law and the language. So, before we drown in some festival of tears about the exploits of a few terrible hacks, corrupt editors, and cynical proprietors, let us hold onto that greater tradition. As a nation, we are fond of throwing the baby out with the bath water. But let me say that journalism is one of the parents of democracy and it needs looking after so that it can look after us.

Production photography by Manuel Harlan.