LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 acquisition of the Sun marked the start of his assault on the cloistered world of British newspapers. “Ink”, James Graham’s play set in the year after the tycoon invaded Fleet Street, deftly traces the origins of the hyper-aggressive press culture that would eventually lead to a phone-hacking scandal and the demise of the News of World tabloid. Though Murdoch’s populist media revolution continues, it’s his own empire that is now at risk of disruption.
“Ink” is worth seeing for the theatrical spectacle alone. Graham and director Rupert Goold recreate a smoke-filled 1960s newsroom, with whisky bottles flanking stacks of page layouts and relentlessly whirring typewriters. One scene follows a single page on its journey from editorial floor to press, passing dozens of unionised print workers: copy boy, typesetter, stonehand – all trades since lost to digitisation.
Murdoch, played by Bertie Carvel, is more nuanced than the swashbuckling capitalist and arch-propagandist of the public imagination. While he boasts about bringing long-overdue business acumen to Fleet Street, it is Sun editor Larry Lamb who persuades him to sanction the darker aspects of the pair’s editorial upheaval. Their “who needs friends when you have readers” refrain rings hollow when the wife of Murdoch’s deputy, Alick McKay, is kidnapped and killed. It’s a case of mistaken identity: McKay had borrowed Murdoch’s Rolls-Royce; the assailants mistook his wife Muriel for Murdoch’s spouse.
The play holds broader lessons for media-watchers. Murdoch charges Lamb with closing the circulation deficit with the Daily Mirror, which was outselling the Sun by 3 million-odd copies per day. The strategy is to supercharge the Mirror’s “paper for the people” ethos but drop its “preachy” tone.
When the Mirror runs a haughty interview with Prime Minister Ted Heath, the Sun prints a double-page feature asking what a famous band leader of the same name thinks. Giant headlines, prize draws and TV listings replace foreign affairs. The “give the people what they want” attitude prioritises sleaze, gossip, sex, celebrity and violence, culminating in the introduction of topless models on page three of the tabloid one year into the Murdoch era.
It worked. By 1974 the Sun’s average daily circulation was 3.4 million – more than double its level four years earlier, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. By the end of the decade the tabloid was shifting close to 4 million copies and was firmly ahead of the Mirror as Britain’s most-read daily.
Graham refrains from simplistic moralising about the Murdoch-Lamb editorial philosophy, characterised by the proprietor as “the numbers are what matters”. In one monologue Mirror Chairman Hugh Cudlipp objects to the pair offering sugary snacks while the rest of Fleet Street peddles a more balanced diet of nutritious vegetables.
Yet Murdoch was filling an under-supplied market niche. It’s Lamb who spearheads the paper’s aggressive reporting of the Muriel McKay affair, arguably antagonising her kidnappers and contributing to her death. The story proved hugely popular, highlighting a critical insight of Graham’s play: a nation tends to get the media it deserves, not the one that elites think it needs.
The revolution planted the seeds of Murdoch’s recent troubles. “Ink” makes clear the link between the pugnacious newsroom culture the tycoon promoted and the 2011 phone-hacking scandal at his News of the World. Former editor Andy Coulson went to prison while the public outcry scuppered Murdoch’s first attempt to take full control of UK broadcaster Sky. A more recent offer, this time by Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox, now faces a six-month investigation by UK regulators into issues including a record of “corporate governance failures”.
Meanwhile, tabloids have faded. The Sun and Mirror together now sell about half as many copies as the Sun alone at its peak in the early 1980s. The shift to online readership has left a hole in their revenues. The Sun’s two-year experiment with a website paywall left it behind rival websites like the Daily Mail’s MailOnline; readers simply didn’t care enough to subscribe.
Brexit showed that right-wing tabloids have some fight left in them. “See EU later”, the Sun declared the day after the referendum, having advocated Britain’s departure. More likely, the referendum will go down as the tabloids’ last gasp as a political force. The general election saw Prime Minister Theresa May lose her parliamentary majority, despite the Sun urging readers to chuck Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the “Cor-bin”. Most political campaign budgets now go to Facebook, and politicians spend as much time curating their Twitter timelines as wooing newspaper editors.
Meanwhile, digital upstarts like Breitbart attract younger audiences through social media. A pre-election study by Enders Analysis found that highly opinionated left-wing sites like the Canary and Evolve Politics reached bigger Facebook audiences than most national news brands. The ultimate irony of “Ink” is that Murdoch is now part of the media establishment he once sought to overthrow.
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