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Padraig Reidy: When truth is stranger than fiction
17 Jul 2014
BY PADRAIG REIDY

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Three years ago this week, David Cameron announced that a public inquiry into phone hacking would be set up, under the guidance of Lord Justice Leveson.

It may be difficult to imagine now, given how acrimonious the fallout has been, but this was generally seen as a positive step. Something had gone very wrong, it seemed, in public life. Hacking was merely the embodiment of a secretive threeway between politicians, the Metropolitan Police and News International. A judge-led inquiry would clear the air, we hoped. No one, not even the people behind Hacked Off, (which, after all, was not set up to lobby for a new state-backed regulator, or for enhanced privacy, but merely for an inquiry) could have foreseen the impasse we are now at, with a ludicrous Royal Charter for press regulation, punitive press laws on the statute books, two proposed regulators (the industry’s IPSO and the pro-Royal Charter IMPRESS), and at least one paper, the Financial Times, deciding to opt out of the argument entirely – while the police and politicians have walked away from the inquiry unscathed.

Richard Bean’s new play Great Britain, currently showing at the National Theatre, could be seen as the first artistic response to the phone-hacking scandal and the fallout from it.

It was reportedly developed and auditioned under wraps as the hacking trial was under way at the Old Bailey, and opened shortly after Andy Coulson was found guilty and Rebekah Brooks acquitted.

But there is more to this than just phone hacking. As the title suggests, Great Britain sets out to be a state-of-the-nation address, examining the interconnections and relations between the press, police and politicians. It is the Leveson Inquiry on stage (as if the Leveson Inquiry were not theatrical enough). And as with the Leveson Inquiry, it is the press who come out worst. The police are incompetent, the politicians are pathetic, but the journalists are venal.

The plot centres on Paige Britain (geddit??!!??) a young news editor on a tabloid called the Free Press (geddit??!!??), who discovers how to hack phones and hence supplies her paper with a series of scoops.

Britain, played by Billie Piper, at first seems sort of composite of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Except she’s not, because a Brooks character is introduced into the plot and kept entirely ignorant of Britain’s voicemail shenanigans (Brooks was, after all, found innocent of conspiracy to hack phones).

Robert Glenister plays Free Press editor Wilson Tikkel, who may be Andy Coulson or may be Kelvin Mackenzie. Tikkel is the classic tabloid geezer of the popular imagination, and by classic I mean archaic. He swears and cajoles and judges stories at morning conference on whether they give him a “hard-on” or not (though this does lead to one of the play’s funnier lines — “no one ever got a hard on from assonance”). Though Private Eye likes to remind readers of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s frequent “Vagina Monologues,” the stereotype still feels worn.

Then there is a driven Irish proprietor who made his money from advertising the, er, adult industry and has his eye on the broadcast market.

The play is riddled with these portmanteau characters and scenarios. A thick Lancashire cricketer is framed as an adulterer after Free Press reporters misinterpret a message left on his phone suggesting he had slept with a person who was not his partner, which turned out to be thanks for support at a funeral. This scenario was in fact what happened to Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association. There is also a rough assemblage of several child murder stories and anti-paedophile campaigns.

This might not seem important – after all, it’s not one of those David Hare verbatim plays, but it becomes troubling when stories and scenarios are thrown together to create a broad mush of bad stuff. The satire feels too broad, too generalised. Just as Leveson expanded from being a “hacking inquiry” to an investigation of every single aspect of the press, so Great Britain chucks everything in together. And as with Leveson, the whole press is punished for the crimes of a few.

Meanwhile, in its attempt to parody the cynicism of the tabloid world, Great Britain becomes quite nasty itself. There’s a thin line between mocking un-PC attitudes and actually laughing along with them, and Great Britain gallumphs across it carelessly. A gay half-Welsh, half-Chinese police officer is called Bryn Wong. Hilarious apparently. The security guard at the newspaper is Lithuanian. Got to be a gag in that. A black police officer is called Sergeant Ojo; the audience sniggers, and then properly guffaws when his superior calls him a “daft African twat”. The Irish character is, inevitably, a former IRA terrorist.

And then there’s the misogyny: major female characters are inevitably scheming, using their, er, feminine charms to get what they want. In one particularly nasty joke, Piper explains the origin of the term “Brazilian” for pubic hair pruning, before going on to wink that if she named her newly-trimmed area after where she went to get the trimming done, her underwear-area would be known as the Isle of Dogs.

That’s the level Great Britain operates at. Unsubtle and unpretty. At the start of the second act, Piper emerges dressed in Margaret Thatcher blue, complete with handbag, and delivers a clunky lecture on how things really work in the corridors of power. At the end, we get another lecture, “provocatively” pointing out the apparent complicity of the audience in the Free Press’s crimes, and in doing so equating the expenses expose with phone hacking (both being founded in illegality) and effectively showing utter contempt for the idea of public interest.

But the archaicness of it all is simply a reflection of the way the entire true story, from initial phone-hacking allegations to the government’s Royal Charter on press regulation, proceeded.

A criminal problem became a political issue; actions at one newspaper became the fault of the whole press; and ultimately, the issue became about the wars that started in the mid 80s, when Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch took on the miners and the printers, events long predating the hacking scandal that first broke in the mid-2000s.

The arguments are from the 80s, the jokes are from the 80s. There is barely a nod to the press and the web of today, apart from the aping of the autotuned “Leveson The Musical” video everyone loved in 2012.

In spite of the relative recency of the Leveson Inquiry and the hacking trial, Great Britain largely fails to address the present and the future. It contributes little apart from cheap laughs to the ongoing discussions on how our media should run itself, or be run by others. But this playwright Bean is not operating in a vacuum. Perhaps we’ll get the play about the press we need when we get the debate about the press we need. Much of that debate so far, much like Great Britain, has been rushed, crude, and played to stereotype.

This article was posted on July 17, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

Padraig Reidy

2 responses to “Padraig Reidy: When truth is stranger than fiction”

  1. Padraig Reidy says:

    Hi Evan
    Thanks for your comment.

    Re the Leveson inquiry not setting about to be just about hacking, well, you are right to say its terms of reference are broader, but the calls at the time were for an inquiry about hacking, most prominently made by a certain organisation whose website is still named http://www.hackinginquiry.org. You will recall the old mobile phone logo etc.

    On the similarity to the Irish system etc, honestly, we’ve had this discussion a thousand times, and we interpret the situation differently, but I will say a couple of things. 1) The Irish system contains an Ombudsman role, the current Royal Charter does not. 2) You are right to point out that Associated, News UK et al have signed up, but that was after years of negotiation, not the imposed system imagined under the Royal Charter. 3) The Irish system offers a partial defence of being a member of the Council. It does not raise the spectre of punitive costs for those outside the system.

    The rest, well, we’ve been going over and over for years now, and I’m not sure there’s a lot to be gained from going over it again. But I do wish you would not present difference of opinion as ignorance or mendacity on the part of your opponents. George Orwell once wrote that “The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent.” I know you profess neither of those creeds.

    Thanks.
    p

    PS: it’s “Reidy”

  2. Evan Harris says:

    Padraig Ready makes some good points about the production, and I share much of his analysis of the show – we spoke about it on the evening he attended as I was also there.

    My only gripe with the review bit his review, is that I feel it is not unreasonable for a satire on the tabloid press to involve sexist and racial stereotypes. I don’t think that the writer’s or director’s view of women, gay men, Black men and Asians is in line with the script.

    But just because this is a review of a play on the website of Index on Censorship does not mean it can take liberties with facts. I hope my comments below will bring more people to see an insightful review, spoiled only by its historical revisionism.

    So here a quick fact-check on the bits that are not about the play.

    1. First line. The Leveson Inquiry (Part 1 anyway) was not into phone hacking. It was into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the press, and its relationship with the police and politicians. The reason it was not into phone hacking is because there were, and still are, police investigations into that. Part 2 – after the trials are complete – will examine exactly what happened and why the police screwed up the first time. The terms of reference (http:/www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/about/terms-of-reference/) do not even mention phone hacking (or a posh term for it).

    2. Second paragraph. The “people behind Hacked Off” very much did foresee an impasse in that we expected parts of the press to resist any change to the failed, fake regulation of the PCC. there are no punitive press laws on the statute books – there are laws that give court costs immunity and immunity form exemplary damages exposure (which has always been there) to newspapers which join an effective independent self-regulator, and provides court costs immunity for alleged victims of newspapers which do not. The system is very similar to the Irish system (http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2013/mar/21/press-regulation-ireland) which has been signed up to by all the UK papers with Irish editions, including the Daily Mail. So “punitive press laws” is humbug.

    3. The Inquiry is not over but I do not think politicians and the police emerged unscathed (para 2) even so far, nor do they deserve to. Two senior Met Police chiefs resigned (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_investigations,_resignations,_suspensions,_and_dismissals_in_conjunction_with_the_news_media_phone_hacking_scandal) , several others were criticised, and several police have so far been jailed as a result of the criminal investigation. This narrative from the big news companies of press victimhood is pervasive but – as with MPs over their expenses – utterly unpersuasive.

    4. Brooks was acquitted (ie found not guilty), as Padraig says in paragraph 4. And she is entitled to her “not guilty” verdicts. She was not “found innocent” as Padraig says in paragraph 7. That is not how the criminal justice system works.

    5. Leveson did not “expand from being a “hacking inquiry” into an investigation of every single aspect of the press. Its terms of reference (http:/www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/about/terms-of-reference/) were set from the outset and did not change. They were supposed to cover why the press for years covered up large scale criminal conspiracies in their own industries while demanding ever tougher regulation in every other walk of life. It was supposed to cover what we need to do to protect plurality of ownership of the media to protect our democracy (work Index supports http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2014/05/eu-project-media-freedom-pluralism/). To suggest it had mission creep is a bit conspiracy theory. If anything, time constraints and the need to avoid prejudice prevented it so far from digging deeper.

    6. “And as with Leveson, the whole press is punished for the crimes of a few” (Para 10) this is absurd victimhood once again. Leveson rejected any form of state regulation. He rejected statutory regulation as his preferred solution. he did not recommend a statutory right of reply. He basically accepted the Guardian’s submission (para 43 here http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Closing-Submission-from-Guardian-News-and-Media-Ltd.pdf) for a self-regulatory system with statutory underpinning and statutory incentives. The rewards for all journalists (exemplary damages immunity, court costs immunity, a whistle-blowers help-line, conscience clauses in contracts, better controls over plurality, ending the grip of the editors and bosses over the Code and regulator) are enormous.

    7. In para 14, the Royal Charter was not the “Government’s” but Parliament’s, as it had all-party support and evolved from something other than Government processes. And a Charter rather than a statute was requested by the press, accepted by them and represented a concession.

    8. in para 15, Padraig says of hacking “a criminal problem became a political issue; actions at one newspaper became the fault of the whole press”. When a vast criminal conspiracy is covered up because of corrupt links between the perpetrators and the police and the political establishment, that becomes a “political issue”. The actions were not just at one newspaper (the news of the World) or even one newspaper Group (the Sun and the Times were exposed over illegal payments and the Nightjack case http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/node/48957) but across many titles (the Sunday Mirror has been established as having phone hacking taking place) and in respect of illegal blagging, many news groups (http://ico.org.uk/~/media/documents/library/Corporate/Research_and_reports/WHAT_PRICE_PRIVACY_NOW.pdf).

    The review showed a great appreciation of the short-comings of the play, but a poor grasp of some basic facts.