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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Trials and tribulations of Arnold Wesker as he probed the tangled world of newspaper journalism

Playwright Arnold Wesker approached the offices of the Sunday Times in 1971 with a burning curiosity. That might have turned to trepidation if he had known what was coming.

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Wesker was there to gain some insight into what journalists do, and how they do it, as background for a play he intended to write.

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He had the blessing of Editor Harry Evans and was told he could “come in any time, sit in, see anything”. He watched and listened and took copious notes and at the end of his months-long stay, he decided to write a book about it.

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But both the book and the play were met with ferocious resistance and damaged the dramatist’s career so much that he thought it might be over.

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He was met with awe (a real-life playwright!), suspicion and the challenge of Alpha males in their natural habitat.

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But before he even got there, he was given an object lesson.

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Wesker recalled in his book, Journey into Journalism, how The Times Diary had heard of his mission and a reporter called him to “ask the odd gossipy question”.

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He writes: “I tell him I want to avoid creating a cliché setting. Some days later they write up the story and invent a quote: ‘He (Wesker) calls his stint living in the atmosphere of printer’s ink – that’s a cliché he might avoid…’

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“I wince at the lie but am reminded why I want to write the play.”

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Wesker hoped to explore Press ethics and intended his play, set in a Sunday newspaper, as a metaphor for a society that relished cutting people down to size. It was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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Instructions had been left – he doesn’t specify by whom – that when he arrived, he should be taken to Fleet Street and introduced to El Vino. The bar, he notes, is full of men without women, because women were still not permitted to buy drinks there.

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A man with a large red nose was holding court and when he saw Wesker, said: “I want to speak with that man.” Wesker recognises him as a theatre reviewer – “lovely man, careless critic”.

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Wesker gets drunk, eats spaghetti and, in the Wig and Pen club (it was a long day) makes a witty remark that draws the response: “There, I’ve been with you all day and I’ve been wondering – what makes this man talented? He’s not very witty, a bit reticent – but wham!

“You come out with an observation like that and I realise – that’s his genius.”

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Wesker was fascinated by his first editorial conference and confesses he can’t hear what the assembled hacks are saying because “I’m so absorbed by the way they’re saying it.”

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Harry Evans calls the sports editor to flag up a Financial Times story about Aston Villa offering shares in the club. “Might make a good story for ‘Inside Track’, Evans suggests. “Who’s selling them, how many, why and who’s buying? OK?”

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He puts down the receiver and, says Wesker, “sparkles” at a colleague: “You going to listen to us and put the papers down and stop reading?”

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“Yes, when you’ve stopped phoning.”

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When conference finally begins, it is the usual mixture of tap-dancing and studied performance to impress or upstage.

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“Where are we on Soyuz?” (Soyuz was the Russian space craft of that era.)

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“No further than any other paper.”

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“Do we know why the monkey died last time?”

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“Boredom, I think.”

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Wesker reflects on whether these men ever consider the contradiction in their aims: To maintain a delicate balance between the demands to decorate the [news] package and the responsibility to present it accurately.

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“Poor Arnold,” someone says, “this must be frustrating for you, not being able to say anything and listening to us pass judgements and decide our opinions in five minutes on major issues.

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“But we’ve worked together a long time now; what you’re hearing is the result of hours spent talking on these issues at other times.”

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As he walks around the building – I assume in Gray’s Inn Road – he meets journalists who are “fast thinking, knowledgeable, have firsts from Oxbridge or scars from searing experiences around the world”.

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They all exude, he says, that quality of being “good and honourable men”. Everyone, Wesker notes, laughs loudly at his own jokes.

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“Have you ever noticed,” someone asks over lunch, “how we all flatter each other?”

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“No,” says Wesker, “but I’ve noticed how you all wait for each other’s flattery.”

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He enjoys the conversations, laughter and jokes and how they sell their stories while determined not to seem as if they take anything seriously.

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But when they see an early draft of his book, the mood switches. The Insight team, with whom he has spent some time, objects that “I’ve got facts wrong in a way which cruelly misrepresents their function”.

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A managing editor is upset by the overall image and “imagines I’d only ever intended to write this diary and therefore claimed their attention under false pretences”.

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He adds: “I find it hard to be quite sure what your moral stance was in your negotiations with the editor. You seem to have been a bit sinuous.”

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Another journalist says he has misrepresented the Sunday Times, been inaccurate in reporting editorial conferences and also feels Wesker has been devious.

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“You make everyone out to be ruthless, ambitious, clever and cynical about the stuff they are dealing with,” he complains.

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Wesker writes letters in his own defence – one ran to eight and a half pages of foolscap. He re-reads his draft. Yes, he admits, he has made mistakes. But he feels the journalists are too touchy on the subject of cynicism and he is mad as hell at suggestions of deviousness.

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Someone at the Sunday Times tips off Private Eye, which calls Wesker Hampstead’s leading playwright, “when in fact I’m Highgate’s”.

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He made his name writing for the Royal Court Theatre and is best known for the Wesker Trilogy: Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem, all of which drew heavily on his East End Jewish background.

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When Wesker goes in to see the newsroom at work on a Saturday, he meets a sub-editor whose real job is official spokesman for the Treasury. “My wife gets the cheque from the Treasury and I come here to earn my beer money.”

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Another is a Renaissance scholar who writes on obscure poetry by obscure Italian monks; someone else is an executive on a BBC overseas news programme; and a fourth lectures on journalism at a polytechnic.

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He is given a summary of the sub’s role: “Reporters send in good information badly written; the sub is used to give the story a perspective the reporter has lost.

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“Problem is: the subs, who’re so used to badly written stories, often rewrite the good ones also … inky-fingered maniacs.”

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Wesker, who became Sir Arnold and died in 2016, aged 83, wrote two prefaces for Journey into Journalism –  one in 1972 and a second in 1977 when the book was published. He had vowed to publish only when everyone had been pacified and agreed he could go ahead.

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It was Harry Evans, in a TV interview with Melvyn Bragg, who finally cleared the way. “Harry Evans implied there were no longer any reasons why it shouldn’t be published,” Wesker wrote in the 1977 preface. “He turned to the camera and said, ‘You can go ahead and publish, Arnold!’”

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Wesker did so, quoting Nick Tomalin of the Sunday Times: “You got it as right as any of us ever get anything right.”

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As for the play, well, The Journalists was hailed as a landmark, one of the greatest plays of the Seventies. But while the director of the RSC’s London season, David Jones, was on holiday, the cast of Left-wing actors revolted, signing a letter denouncing the play.

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“There were political objections,” said Wesker in an interview years later, “because the play contained portraits of three rather intelligent Tory Cabinet Ministers.”

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The play was cancelled; Wesker sued for £25,000 but settled for much less. He called the affair “a nail in the coffin of my career”.

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The Journalists eventually premiered in the United States and to this day has never been performed professionally in Britain.

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‍ QUOTES

“There’s no role for this country to perform, so where do the best minds go? Not politics or the civil service – journalism instead. They can’t legislate or exercise power so – they comment! Journalism is an act of creating self-awareness in society.”

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“Journalists write for other journalists, the people they have lunch with rather than the reader. Except for political journalists – they write for politicians. Who knows what the reader wants? One of the reasons newspapers are always running opinion polls is that they don’t know what the reader thinks.”

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“The journalist claims and exercises the moral right to expose other individuals whose moral righteousness they suspect.”

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“The journalist is a kind of actor, he makes his decisions only under pressure, when ‘the world’ is waiting for the story; hence his reluctance to talk about a story, because if it’s aired, it evaporates.”

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“A journalist is a man who possesses himself of a fantasy and lures the truth towards it.”

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“That’s what a journalist sees as his function: naming the guilty men – his yardstick is one of unswerving idealism.”

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“People sitting around in offices, that’s all a newspaper is, sitting around waiting for ideas to come, wondering what the hell to do next.”

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“They play this great game at work and then they shuffle home on the commuter train to suburbia. They need this fantasy world to compensate for their lives.”

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“Journalism is the task of blaming other people while diverting blame from yourself. That’s why good journalists tend to be paranoid.”

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“The Sunday Times? It’s not a newspaper, more an adventure playground for journalists.”


RICHARD DISMORE


2 April 2024