Now Rupert Murdoch is an undisputed master of the universe, someone whose favor can help bestow the presidency on reality TV hucksters, whose papers can convince Britain to exit Europe, someone who marries models a fraction of his age and has by one count six homes and his own personal yacht and airplane.
But in the late 1960s he was an outsider shut out of the clubby caste system of British newspapers on Fleet Street. So Murdoch did what he always done: barrelled his way through, upending genteel journalistic traditions in the process.
This is the story of Ink, a new play in London written by James Graham, a 35-year-old acclaimed British playwright.
In the play, Murdoch, portrayed for the first time on stage or screen by English actor Bertie Carvel, owns merely the Sunday News of the World, meaning that his printing presses sit idle the other six days of the week. (At that moment owned by IPC and published as a broadsheet, The Sun could be had for a song.) Murdoch thinks he can turn a paper with the lowest—and falling—circulation—in Britain into one that actually speaks to the values and interests of the British working class.
“It used to be fearless, provocative, fun—where’s the fun gone from the Street, it’s boring, fuck it,” Murdoch tells Larry Lamb, the editor he has selected for the project. “It used to speak to the working classes, in the industrial heartlands, the run-down suburbs. And you, I think you know how to make a paper to reach those forgotten people, don’t you?”
But it’s personal too: Murdoch tried to “buy his way in,” as he puts it, but he is ignored by his fellow newspaper barons in the leather chairs at the London Press Club, who mock “The Aussie Sheep Farmer” behind his back.
Murdoch and Lamb aim to take the paper from worst to first in the circulation wars. More than corners will have to be cut. Stories will have to be sensationalized. Headlines will have to scream.
The goal is to give the people what they want, and what they want is less news from foreign capitals, and more sports, TV, sex, coupons, games and promotions like “Knickers Week.” And ultimately, barely disguised pornography as Lamb unveils The Sun’s now famous “Page Three” spreads of topless models.
“Do you know what I hear when I hear ‘codes,’ and ‘traditions,’ I hear the rules as written by those who benefit from them, to stop others from treading on their turf,” Murdoch says.
This Murdoch isn’t press baron so much as punk rock, the kind of guy who says “Fuck the Street. They’re old, we’re new. They’re wrong, we’re right. Let’s burn it all down, and start again.”
“I was seduced by this cavalier attitude he had of not sticking to the rules and breaking with tradition and breaking up the old boys club, and not caring what people think of you,” said Graham an interview from London, where after a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre, Ink will move to the West End in September.
“He wanted to destroy things that he thought were holding back progress, whether that be trade unions or the monopolies that a few families held over Fleet Street.”
Graham’s own political leanings are far more in line with most of the London theater going scene and those who write for them, but there is more than a little admiration in his portrayal of Murdoch, especially when he was not the powerbroker we know today but a young man filled “with the kinds of doubts and anxieties we all have.”
“I know this can be uncomfortable for audiences,” Graham said. “Murdoch was like the campus activism of the 60’s for this world. Newspaper reporting had become pompous and high-minded and a plaything for the people who owned them. Murdoch thought they should be provocative and that they should challenge power.”
Although now firmly ensconced in the London theater scene, Graham grew up working class in an industrial town in England’s north that has since seen its industry wither away. Downmarket tabloids like The Sun were the households newspaper of record.
“I grew up in a family that didn’t have access to power and the arts and theater and culture. Coming from my background I understand the anxieties and concerns of people who feel ignored,” he said. “I know the feeling of not feeling like you are a part of the club.”
As Graham originally conceived the play, Murdoch was more of a peripheral figure, even though Murdoch’s presence was casting a long shadow over British life. There was Brexit, the phone-hacking scandal, the rise of Trump.
“There was just something in the air. We were all having this conversation about journalism, about what is going right with it and what is going wrong, and fake news and all the rest of it,” he said. “It felt exciting to have an origin story, a Batman Begins for the type of news we live with today.”
The play is a love letter to an era of journalism that is now long gone, especially on Fleet Street, where Murdoch himself led the exodus to cheaper printing presses outside of town.
The play practically drowns in printers ink, booze and cigarette smoke, and the romance of late nights in a newsroom chasing down leads and crashing an issue. And the play makes plain that what happened in the 1960s in London was a harbinger of what was to come to the media all over the world, with journalistic standards replaced by crushing profit motives and leaner and leaner reporting staffs asked to do more and more.
“The news business then, for generations seen as a noble pursuit,” a television interviewer asks Murdoch in Ink’s second act, is now “no different from that of hawking soap, or shaving cream on a market stall, it’s solely about shifting volume.“
“The positive merits are that people bought it,” Murdoch replies. “The numbers are what matter.”
It’s not an attitude that Graham entirely dismisses. Why after all, must reading the news be an exercise in self-improvement all the time? In the interview, he compared it to the theater, where “people go see political plays because they think they should and they sink down into their chair for a long and terrible night.”
Ink on the other hand practically crackles with the energy of a printing press. “I still think going to the theater should be fun and entertaining.”
Graham shied away from making the play originally about Murdoch in part because he was nervous about writing a play about someone still alive, particularly someone as powerful and combative as Murdoch.
The play though has garnered rave reviews in the British press—even the Murdoch owned London Times called it “a broncobuster of a play”—and some old hands of the tabloid wars have been spotted in the audience from time to time.
Although not Murdoch, not yet at least.
“But if he sees it,” Graham says. “I am sure I am going to hear about it from him.”
Ink is at the Almeida Theatre, London, until August 5, and will move to the Duke of York’s Theatre from September 9.