Wednesday 17 October 2012

What journalism fails to do?

Enquirer, Barbican off-site, London

‘In my experience the newspapers are a combination of what people never meant, combined with what people never said. Verbatim [theatre] does what journalism fails to do. The world is changing, complicated things are happening. Journalism is failing us because it is not adequately representing these things.’

Loathe as I am to start with David Hare, his words from 2005 sum up Enquirer’s ambitions pretty well. With journalism frequently declaring itself in crisis, what better way to examine it than turning its own techniques in on itself?

Unlike journalism, theatre doesn’t need singularity. It can accept several sides of an argument and allow them to rub against one another without taking an editorial line. It can stand back and let us make up our own minds. So can journalism, but it’s much more interested in making a case. As Andrew O’Hagan, Enquirer’s co-editor, writes in his programme note: ‘In the right hands, the theatre is much better at managing uncertainty, mobilising darkness and light…’

O’Hagan again: ‘A theatre is not a blank page for editorial; it is not a soapbox or a tannoy system: it is a conscience that wakes with what is happening in the space, and wakes further still in response to what people are making of it.’ Enquirer’s script is a compilation of 43 interviews with journalists, all conducted by journalists. It’s open about that process at the start and, on several occasions, shows us both questioner and subject. Elsewhere it presents the interviews as individual vox-pops – monologues, in the theatrical vernacular – or else stitches them together to make a group discussion, several of which take place around the editorial board table, allowing the vague overarching structure of a working day.

Basically, Enquirer shows us journalists talking shop. They do so with authority and, quite often, with verve and wit. It’s never less than engaging and entertaining. Topics are wide-ranging – Leveson and its surrounding ethical questions crop up repeatedly, but there’s plenty about the culture beyond, from social media to showbiz journalism, the Wapping dispute to circulation figures. It can look back nostalgically at the same time as looking forward optimistically, without forgetting that some things never change. You get a real sense of the buzz and bitterness of the newsroom, though more from what’s said than shown.

John Tiffany and Vicky Featherstone’s handsome production never really justifies its proclaimed site-specificity. Yes, it takes place in an office space, but that is refurbished and repurposed as a gallery space. Handsome though Lisa Bertellotti and Chloe Lamford’s designs and Lizzie Powell’s lighting are, Enquirer gains nothing from its form but proximity. It loses fluency and sacrifices its integrity.

Because there is a major, major problem here. Enquirer involves six actors, speaking the words of 43 journalists, right? Yet, the piece only identifies five of its sources: Owen Jones, Roger Alton, Ros Wynne-Jones, Jack Irvine and Deborah Orr – one of the interviewers. (I may have missed one or two because I didn’t take notes – it’s a promenade production – but the principle stands.) The rest are name-checked in the programme and include some major names and 11 anonymous participants.

Enquirer conflates 43 individuals into six figures, which broadly form six characters: old Murdoch Empire hack (Billy Riddoch), astute nostalgic reporter (Hywel Simons), good-intentioned newshound (Maureen Beattie), foppish cultural correspondant/editor figure (John Bett), naïve but net-savvy youngster (James Anthony Pearson) and frazzled female journalist (Gabriel Quigley).

As I see it, this fatally undermines Enquirer as verbatim theatre. Either it’s only showing us a tiny selection of its interviewees, in which case it’s withholding a fuller picture, or else – far more likely and far worse – it lumps 43 interviews together into a single pool of words and opinions, then divvies them up to suit its own purposes. Why? For neatness’ sake? For drama’s sake?

For goodness’ sake. Enquirer’s content is absolutely detached from context. At the most simple level, we’ve not way of knowing who said what. With all due respect, media specialist Roy Greenslade’s opinions on the subject carry a very different weight to those of the Radio Times soap opera critic. Beyond that, though, we’ve no idea whether one interviewee’s words have been split between different actors or whether a single actor is, at any given time, speaking the words of a single source or a conflation of several. We can’t even see the quotation marks, let alone the questions that prompted the statement

Verbatim theatre always loses some context – the editor’s hand is always invisible – but Enquirer goes far beyond that. Imagine a news report that anonymised and amalgamated its quotations likewise. It’s unthinkable. Protecting your sources is one thing. Melding cherry-picked statements into a singular voice is another entirely. It is inexcusably poor practice and a gross over-simplification that, given Enquirer’s stated aims, amounts to outright hypocrisy. For all its satisfaction, this is verbatim theatre that fails to do what journalism does.

Till 21 October 2012


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