by Steve Thompson

A Review by James Naughtie
The Times, Saturday, June 5, 2004
All human life is here
Journalists are not heroic, but quite passable as villains with a conscience

It would be terrible if journalists were too celebrated on the stage. Nothing could be worse than an attempt at heroism. Tedious, though it is to have to endure the flagellatory self-abasement of some of the trade, who enjoy wallowing in the self-pity that's really pomposity in disguise, it is always better to be kept in your place than to be put on an artificial pedestal that's bound to crumble away. We're stuck with the caricature of the morally duplicitous hack because, in truth, it's safer and more comfortable than some shining suit of armour which never quite fits.

Steve Thompson's Damages, currently showing at the Bush Theatre in West London, is therefore reassuring, because it resists the terrible temptations of moral rectitude. There is a bit of a hero in the play, a be-tweeded revise sub with a bow tie who cares about grammar and about the flaky characters who bring him their copy and page layouts from the newsroom.

Though he lurches towards caricature he stops short, just in time. His decency is recognisable and a relief alongside the rampant unpleasantness of his two colleagues, one consumed by the need to be the chippy hard man -- "I'm a successful journalist. I don't like anyone at all" -- and the other a weak and vain second-rater who's risen too high and who can't begin to make a true assessment of his worth.

Their interlocking moral dilemmas in their office -- there is a picture, a pair of tits, a mysterious buttock, a concealed clue for the clever lawyer to spot and a paper to get to bed before 8 p.m. without attracting the attention of m'learned friends -- are surprisingly engrossing because they're a reminder of how badly journalism usually comes out of plays and film scripts.

It's not that newspaper offices are painted in a dark light -- they should be -- but that the pace and the balance between bravado and subtlety is seldom caught as it really is. Bill Nighy in last year's State of Play came as close to a good editor as any in recent times, but when have we seen the footsoldiers paper as they are?

Television dramas always show the pack as if they're children playing the part. Years ago, the television version of Chris Mullin's novel, A Very British Coup (to my mind, a weak dramatisation of an execrable book saved only by the great Ray McAnlly) had the Greek chorus of reporters portrayed as a mob without a mind. They might as well have had press cards in their hats, and they ruined every scene. A mob they may sometimes be, but there is a mind there. House of Cards and its successors had no better success in getting the feel of a newspaper office and even David Hare's play of the Kinnock era stumbled on the difficulty of representing what it is that makes people ply the trade.

And the awful truth is that in film only the camp versions work. Walter Matthau as Walter Burns in Billy Wilder's version of The Front Page is the archetypal monster, slavering over the execution picture that will fill most of his front page ("But keep Commander Bird and the penguins -- that's human interest"). They have to be over the top. Even Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men worked only because of Alan J. Pakula's understanding of the dark political world around them, and they were the exception. A film with a journalist hero is always a good reason for disappearing under the bedclothes.

The trap is the sentimentality of the fourth estate. From outside it is too easily represented as less self-centered than it is. Bas, Thompson's night editor who's risen without trace, has a moment of sanctimonious reflection about his paper. "Sleaze and cheese have finally had their day," he says. But he'll be back tomorrow and not much will have changed. And the only false note in Thompson's script, the only moment when my toes curled, was when he had to give his little speech about values and honesty in Fleet Street: we knew it was meant to reveal his naivety, but it still shivered with awkwardness. It's curious that any kind of sententiousness in a journalistic setting is unnerving, and not only for journalists, because in Britain especially we've got a healthy scepticism for the sermonising that is part and parcel, for example, of American journalism.

The New York Times was admirable in admitting that it had been misled in its reporting before the Iraq war, printing a mea culpa editorial that was in its highest traditions. But no British editor would think of doing it in the same way: there is too much of the pulpit about it. That is healthy. Moralising by journalists, even when they're right, is unattractive. Columnists should wring out tier consciences from time to time, of course, and we all enjoy the sight of some thundering prophet having to junk his gospel when it turns to dust, but newspapers as institutions are so incapable of pursuing a consistent line that they should never pretend that they are anything other than collections of shifting opinions, partial instant history and -- we hope -- revelation and mischief. They aren't academic journals; they're newspapers.

Thompson's journalists are no heroes, thank the Lord, but they have enough sense of the moral ambiguities they feed on to be interesting. What is privacy? What is fame? If a mother sacrifices herself to the Fleet Street wolves to protect a child is she a heroine or a fool? Damages is clever enough not to dare to offer an answer.

There has been a great deal of talk about journalistic ethics this year, thanks in large part to Lord Hutton. Without wishing to suggest that Andrew Gilligan might not make a heroic figure for drama (I'd be the last to try to cast him -- it's always been a mug's game), Damages gets nearer to the point than even some of the most thoughtful analyses of that whole affair. It told us much more about government than about journalism. So it usually goes. You'll learn more from listening to the practitioners talk than from watching what they do. Thompson's ear is mostly well-tuned. Some of it is embarrassing enough to be true.

It's always been the case that listening to journalists is often better than reading them. The great American wordsmith H.L. Mencken was a dreadful man in many ways, prey to political notions hat were often bonkers, and often quite nasty with it. But he spoke like an angel.

Alistair Cooke once called Mencken's description of a ghastly, predatory woman entering a room and casting a chill on the company. "She was the kind of woman," he said, "who made you want to burn every bed in the world." He can be remembered with affection for that, and for a hundred others, but for very little that he believed in.

The talk of the trade is the thing. It's about language -- the grip of a metaphor, the sting of an unlikely adjective, the snap of a headline -- that stays in your mind. Journalists tell you more about the great questions of their trade when they are talking about themselves.

If you want a proper philosophical exploration of what public comment should be about, of what journalism is for, write a play about politics and have the hacks off stage. And if you want to know why they do it, and what is the weakness that keeps them at it, let them talk among themselves. They reveal everything, and they don't even notice.