Much like Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch is a billionaire in the public eye who constantly courts controversy. His ownership of several British newspapers, as well as the Fox news channel in the States gives him more sway than many politicians, earning him a reputation as a ‘kingmaker’. But beyond his business dealings, what do we really know about the man? Directed by Rupert Goold, Ink – which is written by James Graham, who also wrote the 1970s political drama This House – tackles Murdoch’s involvement with the inception of The Sun (as we know it today) and his legacy. If he was responsible for the souring of industrial relations with the printing unions and the diaspora of Fleet Street, the person directly accountable for The Sun‘s 1969 ‘mission statement’ was Albert ‘Larry’ Lamb (Robert Coyle).
At its core, Ink is about status, belonging (or not) and taking on the the status quo – a point succinctly put across at the beginning of the play. Murdoch (Bertie Cavel) has a clandestine meeting with Lamb – a former denizen of Fleet Street working in Manchester. Seeing Lamb as a fellow outsider who never got his chance to shine, Murdoch tests him (and vice versa) in terms of ‘what they are truly prepared to being to the table’ – a theme that crops up throughout the play.
It would be convenient to paint these figures and the nascent Sun editorial team in black-and-white terms, but if this play proves anything, it’s that the motives of all were evolving, just as the newspaper itself did. For Lamb, there are many Shakespearean overtures to his situation. Chosen from afar to take on a position of power, what was once bequeathed is now an end in itself as winning readers by any means necessary covers a multitude of sins.
As an iconoclast, Murdoch’s appetite for tearing down the power that resided with press barons and the unions is as welcome as the Suez Canal crisis. Carvel channels Murdoch’s palpable relish for discord – in some ways his primary goal rather than the increase of the ailing newspaper’s circulation. Coyle, conversely, taps into Lamb’s self-awareness that his humanity, his soul is slowly being chipped away, but compelled to pursue his present path regardless.
Between the specific politics of the times, the shake-up of Fleet Street and the tell-tale signs of the future, there’s much to find in Ink that’s rich, entertaining and food for thought. So much so that, if you could believe it, I had completely forgotten about the thing that The Sun is most famous for – its history with ‘page 3’. When it is eventually brought up in the play and Stephanie Rahn (Pearl Chanda) is asked whether she would do the shoot, the moment has real weight and gravitas – and an unsaid realisation that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle…
Seeing the genesis of The Sun played out in full, it’s possible to see how Murdoch learnt from this experience and applied the lessons to his future business empire. By the same token, if this – his first venture into Fleet Street – had failed miserably, his ownership of The Times, Sunday Times, the Fox network and the demolition of the printing unions probably would never have happened…
© Michael Davis 2017
Ink runs at Almeida Theatre until 5th August 2017.