In these post-truth times, these days of shamelessness, when Donald Trump’s surrogates coin terms like “alternative facts” and slogans like ‘truth isn’t truth’, it strikes me as curious that no one has thought to restage Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda.
This occurred to me recently while reading the New Yorker’s review of The Lifespan of a Fact, a new play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, which opened on Broadway earlier this month. The play is based (loosely, which seems fitting) on 2012 book of the same name, which detailed the long-running e-mail confrontation (seven years in reality, five days, and in person, in the play) between the writer John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, an intern at the magazine The Believer, who had been assigned to fact-check D’Agata’s piece about a teenager who committed suicide by leaping from a Las Vegas hotel ten years earlier. There were, it goes without saying, more than a few discrepancies in D’Agata’s account. ‘Okay, he says that on the day Levi died, “lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city”, but that doesn’t check out,’ Jim (played by Daniel Radcliffe in the Broadway production) tells his editor (who is also invented). ‘The day before Levi died, the Las Vegas Sun wrote about a possible upcoming ban on touching strippers in fully nude establishments, but there’s nothing about a possible ban on lap dancing altogether in topless or even so-called go-go bars, where nipple nudity is essentially banned, but of course establishments get around that using pasties…’
Reading this line, and Alexandra Schwartz’s review more generally, I was reminded of the exchange that opens Pravda’s second act. A young reporter, fresh from covering a sit-in of women at Loch Fergus, watches as his story is systematically rewritten by his copy editor:
Women. What sort of women? (He writes.) Middle-aged women. Peace. Camp. Peace on this paper is always in inverted commas. You’ll find that in the style book. Peace camp. Camp? Camp implies facilities, showers, toilets, camps are things you take the family to in Brittany. Call it a peace—inverted commas—squat. Better. ‘Middle-aged women who squatted illegally…’ Better. Do police really ‘Mount an attack’? Surely they’re defending us? Society? Themselves? So it’s ‘Police defending themselves’. (He makes a great mark across the paper.) ‘Destroyed’? No. Cleared the site. In twenty-five minutes… that’s ‘Quickly and efficiently’ […] What is this, South America, Larry? (He scores a line through the paper.) This piece is too long.
These two bit-players, Larry and Doug Fantom, work for the South African media tycoon Lambert Le Roux, who has recently bought up the better part of Fleet Street, from its lowliest tabloid to its grandest masthead, with an instability that knows no bounds. (“There is nothing unnatural about making money,” Le Roux insists in his opening monologue.) Of course, Le Roux (portrayed when the play opened in 1985, on the eve of the Wapping dispute, by Anthony Hopkins) is a stand-in for Rupert Murdoch, whose own conquest of Fleet Street, and especially of The Times, was still fresh in theatre-goers’ memories. In this respect, the play has dated: there’s stuff about Apartheid, about West Germany, about newspapers’ great and unimpeachable reach that no longer seem strictly relevant. (The Victory, Brenton and Hare’s stand-in for The Times, doesn’t even have a website! Phone-hacking remains buck a twinkle in its eye.) But coursing beneath its political satire, evergreen questions about the role of the press, the nature of language (especially “journalese”), and the role of big money in the political debate, remain, and have arguably become even more pressing in the years since the play was first staged.
As detailed in the pages of The Monthly recently, Murdoch hasn’t exactly been a slouch in the years since those fateful takeovers, either. One can easily imagine Larry and Fantom having much the same conversation in the studios of Fox News, especially last week, when the powers that be took the Jamal Khashoggi affair and transformed it into the tale of a journalist who probably got what was coming to him. ‘What sort of journalist? A jihadi journalist who was probably a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This story is too soft on Muslims.’
I have a bit of a dog in this fight. In 2002, I played Le Roux in a Year 12 Drama production that was best described as quixotic in its ambition. Thirteen adolescents, all under the age of eighteen, were roped in to play more than thirty speaking roles, engaging with content that, at the time, we probably weren’t properly equipped to understand. (Murdoch was already plugging for war at the time—something our drama teacher understood all too well—but mostly we were attracted to the sheer amount of cursing the play contained. When word got around about all the swearing, the third and final night sold out immediately.) For nearly three hours, we gallivanted around the stage, portraying the small but gallant coterie of well-meaning editors, titulary heirs, and British MPs who hoped to bring Le Roux to heel.
At the risk of spoiling the play for you, the coterie in question fails. In a fateful meeting on the Yorkshire Moors—’I am out killing birds. Shall I get you a gun?’—Le Roux convinces the group’s leader, Andrew May, a chipper public school type who believes in the value of good journalism, that he’s licked. Le Roux has been aware of May’s machinations against him from the beginning and has as a result remained one step ahead. Following a nasty little monologue that may now be said to have foreshadowed the erosion of journalism over the past 25 years—’Good newspapers are no good. All that writing. Why go to the trouble of producing good ones when bad ones are so much easier? And they sell better too.’—Le Roux convinces May to take over the editorship of The Tide, the play’s Sun-like gutter tabloid. (The scene recalls The Empire Strikes Back, but with Luke Skywalker saying fuck it and going over to the dark side.) The play ends with Le Roux and May standing together in the basement of The Tide, where the paper is printed, and with Le Roux welcoming the audience to ‘the foundry of lies’.
That last bit is a little on the nose, I’ll admit, though not nearly as much as some of Hare’s later political plays, especially his verbatim work, such as the 2004 ‘history play’ Stuff Happens, which detailed the lead-up to the Iraq War. It is also deeply pessimistic. Though that pessimism today seems well-founded, it’s also a little out of step with the times. One of the great ironies of Trump’s turn in the White House has been the rise in political engagement, activism, and, indeed, hope among his various opponents. Much of the latter is currently invested in the outcome of next week’s US mid-term elections. Is it really the time for a piece that abandons all such hope, and insists that its audience do the same?
I would argue that it is. Even if the fabled ‘blue wave’ comes—or, to put things in an Australian context, if the Liberals are turfed out at the next election—Murdoch will remain in power at Fox, Sky, and News Corp, putting words like peace in inverted commas, as befits the style guide, and waging war by other means. What’s more, the foundry of lies now extends far beyond the foundry itself: it is to be found in Montenegrin villages and Russian office buildings. It is to be found in the studios of Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh, on countless lunatic sites on the internet. There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the past two years about who and what Trump’s rhetoric has enabled. Who and what enabled Trump has been touched upon with far less self-reflection. (It is not in the nature of the media to examine its operations too much.) But Pravda, first staged in the year I was born, reminds us that this has been a long time coming. Named for the infamous Soviet propaganda outlet, the play today reads less like a history lesson and more like a prophecy of propaganda to come, not to mention a deeply disturbing reminder about what happens when such prophecies are allowed to pass.
It also serves as a reminder that journalists are at heart self-serving creatures. When we last see May, his posh demeanour has all but fallen away, and he is screaming like a banshee at the printers: ‘Work, you bastards! Work!’ The Lifespan of a Fact, according to the New York Times’ Jesse Green, ‘ends with a shrug. They’re both right! And both wrong.’ (From what I’ve read about the article, which was eventually published as ‘What Happens There’, D’Agato was, in fact, more wrong.) In some ways, like far too many of the plays and films that took the 2008 financial crisis as their topic, from low-end fare like the Jim Carrey vehicle Fun with Dick and Jane to more serious offerings like Margin Call, The Lifespan of a Fact, which I obviously haven’t seen, sounds like yet another an example of entertainment isolating and criticising ‘bad apples’ as opposed to body-slamming whole systems. (The Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job opened with a hilarious and depressing montage highlighting precisely this fallacy.) Pravda doesn’t have time for that. It rather argues that everyone is for sale—not only your Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glasses, let alone your Sean Hannitys and Peta Credlins—and that the values we ascribe to journalism come particularly cheap. Chris Uhlmann is as responsible for the transformation of Australian politics into a bloody-minded zero-sum game as the Herald Sun or 2GB, The New York Times and CNN as responsible for Trump as Fox or Alex Jones. Not that the ‘good guys’ will ever admit it.
‘Pravda!’ Larry says to Fantom as he leaves the editorial desk, his story mangled to within an inch of its life.
‘You what?’ Fantom replies.