Brash headlines. Hyper-opinionated columnists. Celebrity mania. Unabashed appeals to those who feel excluded.
Sound familiar? These themes perfectly reflect the media climate of our time, but they also define the portrait of a young Rupert Murdoch in James Graham’s Ink, which is at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, after a successful run at the Almeida Theatre.
Directed by Rupert Goold and starring Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle, Ink chronicles the 1969 takeover of the moribund Sun newspaper by Rupert Murdoch, then a rising Australian media mogul. Together with Larry Lamb, whom he hired as the editor, Murdoch proceeded to reinvent the mass-market tabloid and to change the media and politics here in a way that still resounds today.
How much could Murdoch, who is a close friend of Donald Trump, and who controls the Fox News Channel, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, have foreseen the consequences of those early decisions? What motivated him? What does it mean for Ink to be seen in Britain now? Graham, the author of several recently successful plays (This House, Privacy), and Carvel, best-known for playing the villainous Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, sat down a few days before the West End premiere to discuss these questions and more.
What made you want to write a play about the rise of the tabloids? Was it prompted by the polemics around Brexit?
James Graham: I began writing it at the beginning of 2016, but even before Brexit and Trump’s election, I was interested in the way our news discourse was changing online and through social media. The more aggressive populist language of journalism there made me think about the aggressive populist tone that started with The Sun.
I was fascinated by these two characters: Rupert Murdoch, who feels very present in our cultural life, and Larry Lamb, expunged from history despite his influence in changing the voice of popular discourse. But I also had a wider desire to understand the tabloid appeal, and its wider effect on our political life. And then, it’s just a damn good story.
What you can’t deny is what was in the air: the national mood, the temperature of the country, and particularly the language – the tone of conversation in the media, social media, at the pub.
The presentation of the young Murdoch is very evenhanded. Did you discover aspects of his character that went against expectations?
Bertie Carvel: I don’t know what I had in mind before I came to the table. It was important to me not to decide who this guy was before it began. One of the things that emerged is that Murdoch was a visionary, a story perhaps suppressed by those who think he was an uncouth outsider who just wanted to wreck the shop.
JG: The narrative that has been perpetuated is that we are somewhat sympathetic to Murdoch. I don’t think it’s that. It’s about understanding human motivation. I don’t think people wake up and think, “How can we make the world worse?”
What does it mean for this play to be staged in London now, after the phone hacking scandals and the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, often blamed on tabloid hunger for stories?
BC: I think the play shows a bunch of themes and arguments that have huge resonance, and not just in Britain. Murdoch talks about giving people more choice, more freedom, and that sounds good, specially in opposition to a patrician we-know-what’s-good-for-you. But when you track it through, you see where it may be problematic. Which is where we are now.
JG: I would love to think this could be played in 50 years’ time and have different resonances. It’s the universals of the human experiences that make it last; that’s the stuff I had to go away and work harder on when I was writing.
To what extent do we live in Rupert Murdoch’s world now? Do you think he knew where media culture was headed?
BC: The question is: was it ever thus? Did tabloids shift people’s political allegiances or did they follow them? The idea that Rupert Murdoch can decide who your prime minister is – well, I think that even the people who wrote the famous 1992 headline, “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”, didn’t think that was true. But you can’t deny the impact of that journalism and those characters in terms of how we talk about ourselves and view ourselves today.
During the rehearsal period we had the general election, which no one had expected, and then a result that no one had expected. Afterward, we had to ask, has the influence of the tabloids diminished because they tried hard, but didn’t succeed, in crushing Jeremy Corbyn? I think that by isolating a moment in history when the power of the tabloids was so great, and their influence so huge, audiences may have that conversation about whether that power is still the same.
There are often parallels drawn between Murdoch and Trump, who are famously friendly. James, did you think about that while writing?
JG: I thought about Trump a lot during the latter stages of rehearsal. And also about British figures like Nigel Farage and Arron Banks. I am fascinated by populism and the contradiction, possibly even the hypocrisy, of the fact that it’s often men of great privilege and wealth who are the epitome of the establishment, who present themselves as anti-establishment and representative of working-class anger.
But I do think that what drove Rupert Murdoch was more than commercial interests. Like Trump, even though he was an insider, he felt like an outsider, that people humiliated him, mocked him. The anger that boiled within fueled the desire for revenge. But the Murdoch in my play is also driven by the desire to provide a voice to others who feel outside the system, because he had an understanding of what that feels like. I’m not sure that’s true for Trump.
© New York Times
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