For any student of the British press the endless barrage of red-top headlines that fills the stage at the National Theatre is often as funny, or sometimes even funnier, than the script lines of Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire on tabloid journalism and the phone-hacking trial.
Constantly updated front pages from The Free Press and its imaginary competitors hark back to the heyday of the manufactured story-line and the glory days of classic Sun scoops such as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.
Rebekah Brooks (acquitted) and Andy Coulson (convicted) are two unspoken names that are both front of stage in the mind of the audience but so too should be those of the ex-editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, and the former publicist Max Clifford, whose string of “exclusives” once dominated Fleet Street.
The MacKenzie-Clifford production line of kiss-and-tell stories, and the gob-smacking headlines that went with them, helped to generate an insatiable appetite for celebrity scandal that required ever-more intrusive forms of journalism and heralded the descent into the hacking of messages left on mobile phones.
A brash inventiveness among headline writers and the ingenuity and cunning of journalists who write exclusives sourced only on the words of “An onlooker said...” are characteristics that have become the hallmark of the British tabloid press.
Bean quarries a rich mine of red-top excesses to flesh out his script as The Free Press news editor (Billie Piper) struggles to meet the demands of her editor (Robert Glenister) and she finds herself becoming ever more dependent on stories sourced on phone-hacking.
Another constant presence amid the near-the-knuckle cut and thrust of The Free Press newsroom are two massive television screens permanently tuned to the rolling news channels.
Television’s dominance of instant news reporting is a reminder of the daily challenge for the red tops: their journalists have to dig far deeper than broadcasters if they are going to have any chance of offering their readers the kind of behind-the-scenes information that is rarely available in the often matter-of-fact coverage of radio and television.
Bean’s satire captures the conflict between the foot-in-the-door world of tabloid reporters, only too happy to put the boot in and the restraint of television correspondents regulated by codes of conduct on editorial standards and the requirement for impartiality.
Great Britain provides a telling snapshot of life across the Westminster waterfront, from the collusion between party leaders and press proprietors to Police commissioners as anxious as politicians to ingratiate themselves with sympathetic journalists.
My criticism of the Leveson Inquiry was that it failed to explore the history and extent of the culture of paid-for journalism but after all that was disclosed in the Brooks-Coulson trial, Bean was able to give a no holds barred portrayal of the trade in illicit information and its corrupting influence on the democratic process.
Great Britain opened at the National Theatre on 30 June 2014.
Illustration London Evening Standard 1.7.2014