Hack Watch: The play uncovering the crisis facing the newspaper industry

The cast of Enquirer. Picture: Drew Farrell
The cast of Enquirer. Picture: Drew Farrell
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A new play – in the style of Black Watch – uses 60 hours of interviews with editors, journalists and owners to give a fascinating insight into the crisis facing the newspaper industry

A COPY of the Sun lies face down on the table in the rehearsal room. Andrew O’Hagan flicks it over to reveal a front page proclaiming in giant type: “Rihanna’s Fling With Demi’s Ex”. It could be any tabloid newspaper on any given day, but in the present context, it reads like an emblem of an industry in crisis, desperately chasing sales by pumping out inane celebrity gossip.

Vicky Featherstone and Andrew O'Hagan at rehearsals. Picture: Wattie Cheung

Vicky Featherstone and Andrew O'Hagan at rehearsals. Picture: Wattie Cheung

I’m here with National Theatre of Scotland chief executive Vicky Featherstone and O’Hagan, a journalist turned novelist and essayist, to talk about the press. We are on the set of Enquirer, a theatrical investigation into the crisis facing the newspaper industry. Hastily added to the NTS programme at the behest of Featherstone and co-director John Tiffany, it’s a project O’Hagan describes as “too important not to happen”.

The NTS has pulled out all the stops to bring Enquirer into being in a matter of months. For the first time in the company’s history, Featherstone and Tiffany are co-directing. O’Hagan, who created the stage adaptation of his own book The Missing for the NTS last autumn, has joined the project as a co-editor. A partnership with the London Review of Books secured last-minute funding, and a crack team of actors has been assembled, including Billy Boyd, Maureen Beattie and John Bett.

Explaining the reason for the sense of urgency, Featherstone says: “John and I felt really strongly that this should happen now. If we commission a playwright, it’s going to happen in a year and a half’s time, but it felt like it was the question for now. We’re attempting a really serious piece of theatre about a profession and an industry which connects with every single person in the country on a daily basis and which does not have the space to reflect on their own situation in their own media.”

Last year’s phone-hacking scandal, the shotgun closure of the News of the World and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry has brought a murky web of newspaper practices sharply into focus. But Featherstone and Tiffany believe this is just one aspect of a much larger crisis. Allegations of phone-hacking and corruption take place against a backdrop of falling circulations and cutbacks across the industry, impacting on the ability of the press to do its job. As early as 2009, veteran media commentator Roy Greenslade said: “We are not facing a momentous crisis in journalism. We are already in a crisis that is putting the central public service aspect of our role in jeopardy.”

As readers increasingly turn to digital versions of papers for their news – or jettison “serious” news altogether in favour of celebrity gossip magazines and websites – the future of the press is being called into question.

Featherstone says: “I feel that the role that John and I have is not about describing what the future is going to look like without [the press] but about making us understand the importance of the speaking of truth, which is what the press can do. We need to feel viscerally the importance of that now, in order that we don’t end up looking back and saying, ‘Oh my God, that was really important and now it’s gone.’”

Theatre, she says, can provide a space for this discussion to take place. “From the conversations I’ve had with journalist friends, there is the feeling that in the papers, they can write about everyone else’s issues but not really their own. For me, theatre is always the place to be able to respond to big questions like that. So we decided that we would try and create a piece of theatre looking at those questions.”

Enquirer is rapid-response theatre, based on extensive research. Three journalist collaborators, Ruth Wishart, Deborah Orr and Paul Flynn, covering the bases of tabloid and broadsheet, Scottish and national press, “hard” news and showbiz, have assembled more than 60 hours of interviews with editors, journalists and proprietors. “Because we didn’t want to be gung-ho theatre makers and tell you about your own crisis,” says Featherstone. “It’s actually about journalists talking, creating the space for that to happen.”

Quite how you turn that material into a piece of theatre is what is currently up for discussion in the vacant top floor of an office block in Pacific Quay, Glasgow’s “digital media quarter”. There is a palpable sense of a show being made almost as we speak. The conversation is interrupted by the sound of drills and other machinery turning the space into a venue for site-specific theatre. Desks, filing cabinets and paper shredders wait to be moved into place. The team sit around a table chewing over potential storylines that can respond to the complexity of the issues.

“It is the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” says Featherstone. “It would be hard if John or I were directing it on our own, but even together we think it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done. It’s really terrifying, and really challenging, but it feels really, really important. I’ve got no idea how it will turn out, but it’s worth asking the questions.”

They are creating a show with, in Featherstone’s words, “no fiction in it”. She shrinks from the term “verbatim theatre”, which can focus on the text at the expense of theatricality. The aim is for a production more in the style of Black Watch, directed by Tiffany, or her own production of 365, about young people leaving the care system, which uses the full toolbox of theatre to dramatise “real” material. The top-floor office space with 360-degree views of the Glasgow skyline has its own part to play in the unfolding story.

The text, coming directly from those who use words for a living, is said to be rich and “juicy”.

“There is a lot of humour,” says Featherstone. “We are talking to very witty, very clever people who are used to turning a phrase brilliantly, and they have risen to the challenge. There’s very little posturing, very little diatribe against power and corruption, it’s witty, it’s fluid and it’s dynamic.” It also portrays a group of people grappling with a changing situation where nothing is fixed, nothing is guaranteed. As O’Hagan puts it: “It’s completely alive.”

But that also makes it highly complex: for every strongly held view, there is another voice which holds the opposite view equally strongly. “Some people are alarmed at the idea of the abuse of power in an industry they thought was about respectability and morality,” O’Hagan says. “Other people aren’t. Some people think that the practice of what you might call illegal activity in the trade is rife, other people think it’s non-existent. But theatre can gets its head around these deep contradictions. This isn’t a newspaper column, it doesn’t need to take a position, it just needs to involve itself.”

What both journalists and theatre-makers share is a deep concern for a profession under threat. Rapid change is endemic in the communications industry – we’ve gone from hot-metal typesetting to Twitter in the lifespan of a single generation. But now the public sense of entitlement to free online content, coupled with the credit crunch, are threatening the business model under which journalism has operated for a century. The industry and those in it operate under increasing pressure on time and resources.

O’Hagan says: “When I speak to journalists of my generation and younger, and talk to them about the work of the Sunday Times Insight team in the 1970s, having eight journalists working full-time for eight months on something like the thalidomide story, you do the maths, and discover that represents an incredible economic commitment by a news organisation to one story. Would that happen now? Could it happen now? And when it doesn’t happen now, what does that mean for the families who suffered through the misuse of that particular drug, for the pharmaceutical companies, and for society at large? If you were a 21-year-old journalist starting now on a regional newspaper and that was your sense of (the profession’s) glory, how do you go about your career?”

And yet, he says, the picture is not unremittingly bleak. “On a personal level, I’ve heard so much about a crisis in journalism, and heard people speak so dolefully about its prospects, that there’s a sort of ‘closing time in the gardens of the West’ feel in my head. But then that too is contradicted by so much of what other people might say. Young people are still deeply idealistic about the profession, they will go about their careers, and they might be brilliantly inventive.”

“It’s not an elegy,” says Featherstone. “What we’re able to do in this kind of space is immerse the audience in the voices of the piece, and to let them come to conclusions themselves. We don’t need to conclude this. It’s about the audience bearing witness to these voices. Because they need to.”

• Enquirer is at the Hub, Pacific Quay, Glasgow, from 26 April until 12 May nationaltheatrescotland.com