In conference: Hywel Simons and Billy Riddoch
Below: Gabriel Quigley in Enquirer. Pictures: Manuel Harlan
Published: 12 October, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
THERE’S a new newspaper in town. The Enquirer opened for business in St John Street on Friday. Staffed with amoral executives and idealistic reporters it is, like many newspapers, under threat from hip young iPad-slingers with their blogs and free content.
The Enquirer is, in fact, a promenade play developed by the National Theatre of Scotland and the London Review of Books, and staged in disused offices in association with the Barbican. It is based on 43 interviews with leading British media figures.
Those 60 hours of interview, carried out by Deborah Orr, Paul Flynn and Ruth Wishart, have been condensed by author and journalist Andrew O’Hagan, along with co-directors Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany, into a two-hour performance that cuts to the heart of the problems facing Britain’s national newspapers.
All the dialogue is verbatim as we’re taken through a day in the life of a newspaper, starting with morning conference – or backstabbing as it’s known at The Guardian – when the issues and egos of the day are dealt with, through to the paper being “put to bed”, or sent to the printers.
But the issue of the day being discussed is the malaise within the British press.
Some of the original interviews are re-created – such was their startling admissions, according to O’Hagan.
Jack Irvine, former editor of the Scottish Sun, is given his own segment and casually admits to having a separate black book of accounts – which the actual accountants weren’t allowed to see – for his payments to sources. It’s an incredible admission in view of the post-Leveson inquiry climate.
We also see a re-creation of Roger Alton, former editor of The Observer and Independent, now executive editor at The Times, being put through the grinder by his former colleague Deborah Orr.
That the two can then go off and have lunch together is testimony to the journalist’s mindset, says O’Hagan, who describes newspaper offices as the “most hostile environment since school”.
“All the journalists knew the conversations were going to be used,” he told the Tribune. “Like any interview, once the tape recorder goes on there is an understanding that it is going to be used verbatim. I think what we were surprised at was how off-guard they were. Jack Irvine was the most surprising of all. His stuff was dynamite, and we had to let that breathe. The information he gave was very risky.”
It is similar with a moving interview given by Ros Wynne-Jones, who as a staff reporter at the Mirror was traumatised by a massacre she witnessed in East Timor. After finally getting a signal by standing on top of a vehicle so she could phone the office and file her copy, she was told that Prince Edward had announced his engagement to Sophie, so the paper would be page 1-30 with that.
O’Hagan adds that the nature of journalists – which comes out in the play – is that they don’t like authority and rules. While these are necessary traits for the essential job of holding authority to account, it can also mean that journalists are their own worst enemy in taking the rule bending too far.
“It’s a weird world,” he says. “It was interesting to step into it. It’s a mixture of meritocracy and ambition. Everyone is fighting for their point of view, for their story.
“Journalism is quick response. It’s the first draft of history and there’s a feeling that it doesn’t have to be completely right. It isn’t intended to be for all time. Things are moving and changing. The historians will clear everything up. I don’t see why theatre shouldn’t be quick response either.
“The theatre should also be able to do that. It’s not a canonical text. The theatre is in this case like a live newspaper, full of hum. I like the hurly-burly of it.”
Another joy of interviewing journalists is that the lines they come out with make for perfect drama. “We couldn’t write some of those lines,” he says. “Such as ‘Being a columnist on The Sun is like giving a megaphone to a sociopath’. There were lots of zingers like that. They flew out and were very very good lines for a play.”
Enquirer is also about the decline of the newspaper industry, a decline accelerated by the internet, bloggers and citizen journalists who believe anyone can write, to the disgust of seasoned hacks who point out that with the internet the only criteria of success are the number of page impressions.
“We were lucky in that we interviewed some of the younger journalists, which added ballast to the mainly older voices,” O’Hagan says. “Every office in the country has a 21-year-old telling everybody off about tweeting.
“We were surprised by the number of journalists who agreed to be interviewed. I’d have turned me down. I have to take my hat off to them. They took their own medicine. None even got to see the transcripts or knew how it would be shown in the play.
“Roger Alton I take my hat off to. He’s been a committed journalist for a long time. It was a brave thing to do. Journalists are able to have a good relationship with each other even when they agree about nothing.”
Enquirer is at the Mother at the Trampery, 188-192 St John Street, Clerkenwell, until October 21. After which it will tour and return to Clerkenwell next year.