March 17: The new erosion of journalistic standards as click-bait and fake news take hold — and theatre is not immune

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We’ve witnessed the slow erosion of what are (laughingly) referred to as press standards over the years, with scandals like the phone hacking scandal in which Rupert Murdoch’s empire reigned supreme, along with Piers Morgan’s tenure as editor of the Daily Mirror (ended only when with the equally disgraceful publication of fake pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners).

But readers giddily consumed all this nonsense, and the press felt — for commercial reasons if nothing else — that the ends justified the means. After all, it it drove sales of their papers, all was fair game.

We’ve now moved on a rung: now it’s all about eyeballs and generating web traffic. And Monday’s revelation — in The Guardian — that the Daily Telegraph is contemplating a new remuneration scheme for its journalists that will be based on the popularity of the stories they write is surely another nail in the coffins of journalistic integrity.

Their journalists will be forced to find the stories — and/or write them — with an eye on sensationalism or fury, as nothing gets readers titillated or engaged faster than things that are salacious and/or generate anger.

The Telegraph already happens to be blessed with having Dominic Cavendish [pictured above], one of the best theatre critics in the UK writing for it (confirmed recently by his nomination in the critic of the year category by the now postponed UK Press Awards), but I dread to think what this would mean for him if he was forced to write to an order that was based on web traffic his reviews generated, in order for him to put food on his table. Would there be any point reviewing any more fringe shows at the Bush or Kiln, unless someone from Love Island was in it?

Or covering a regional opening unless there was a giant star like Dominic West returning home to his native Sheffield to appear in a show at the Crucible? Or covering the RSC at all, unless it secures the services of David Tennant [pictured above as Hamlet in 2008] or Benedict Cumberbatch?

The West End’s obsession with celebrity casting would become a fact of life if a show hopes to get reviewed at all. So it would all be former Girls Aloud and Pussycat Dolls singers headlining musicals (and yes, this has ALREADY happened), alongside YouTube personalities (and yes, again, it has already happened — Joe Sugg took over in Waitress in 2019, pictured above).

As newspapers drag themselves (even further) down into cultural oblivion, similar forces are facing the previously protected broadcasting industry, where there is still at least a pretence of objectivity thanks to regulation.

But last week an event played out that may have more lasting consequences — and, as so often in these circumstances, it involves Piers Morgan, whose narcissistic need for constant attention means he doesn’t just report the stories but makes them, too.

As the New York Times reported,

“When Piers Morgan stormed off the set of Good Morning Britain last week as a Black colleague chided him for ‘trashing’ Meghan Markle, it felt like a familiar American scene: a tone-deaf old-timer getting swept aside by an anti-racist younger generation, as the culture of media changes…. British media has traditionally presented a dynamic opposite to that of the United States. Here, we have radio screamers and spittle-flecked television hosts, while broadsheet newspapers seek to balance both sides of a story. In Britain, the newspapers are often wildly partisan and the television is customarily staid. But Mr. Morgan’s theatrics last week seemed to signal a shift, and to mark the extent to which the forces driving the culture wars are money and commercial opportunity.”

As Morgan himself gleefully tells the New York Times, “I’ve got the whole world talking about me in varying degrees of either praise or shame.”

And the story also quotes the BBC’s media correspondent Amol Rajan saying: “This is the moment that is going to transform British TV, and take it in a direction that is more Americanized”.

The New York Times wonders aloud,

“Of course, sober-minded British commentators wonder why anyone would want to import any element of our hyper-polarized American life. The answer, of course, is that it sells. And at a confusing and unstable moment in American media, there’s something clarifying about watching Britain’s television drama play out around its monarchy.

The whole thing, at times, has the schematic quality of theatre, sometimes verging into parody, as various actors play their parts and state their values with admirable clarity. But the players also speak openly about the opportunities the new cultural conflict presents, as their country’s political split over Brexit settles into a lasting divide.”

And Morgan is opportunistically capitalising on it to his own ends. He tells the New York Times, “The American culture war has come here in a big way”, and he intends to be on the frontline of that war. Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil is readying the launch of a new 24-hour cable news channel GB News while Rupert Murdoch is planning on expanding his own forays into the UK broadcast market (his British arm News UK has already launched the digital radio station Times Radio, and is now looking at starting a new digital television service as well).

So we could soon have the equivalent of Murdoch’s Fox News over here, and with it, the era of fake news will have finally arrived here in force.

And in this hyper-partisan world, who needs facts before you make an accusation? After all, if an entirely unverified claim of election fraud from the then-President of the United Stats — disproved by the courts and the facts — could lead to the storming of the Capitol by supporters of that President, we’re in danger of entering a new realm of disinformation where mere belief becomes fact.

Last weekend, I experienced two different versions of this in the tiny world of theatre. On Sunday, it came to my attention — via Twitter, naturally — that posters were being posted at venues across the West End that said: “I Heard You’re Working with….”, then named seven directors (and one casting director), before advising: “BE CAREFUL. This is not a complete list. #MeToo”

This list, presented entirely without verification, is of course potentially libellous. Right now, it has the ability to cast a veil of suspicion around the named people. You could, of course, say that if there’s no smoke, they won’t find any fire; and that may well prove to be the case. But meanwhile the damage has already been done.

And again, on my own personal twitter feed an account — since deleted — someone raised entirely unfounded accusations against the actor who uncovered Seyi Omooba’s historic homophobic Facebook posts, asking out loud, “What was his motive? Activism? Maybe?” She continued to enquire aloud if he was paid to search through her posts. And she asked, “Who will the activists destroy next…. WHO is compiling the list And why? That’s the story. The story is not ‘we crushed an indoctrinated actress.”

After I replied asking whether she had evidence to support this comment — and if so, to share it — her account was deleted.

If there’s no evidence, this is just a conspiracy theory. And of course, the likes of Fox News and its commentators love to amplify them. The arrival of a channel like this in Britain is cause for serious alarm.

Twitter is plenty bad enough, but we know (I hope) to take what it says with a pinch of salt. There’s one theatrical tweeter — fond of posting in upper case capitals of his ‘EXCLUSIVES’ — who I’m convinced lives in a state of perpetual wish-fulfilment, posting things he wants to see happen, rather than necessarily will, as I see these stories nowhere else. Of course, given that even a stopped clock is correct twice a day, his stories occasionally turn out to be true.

But this is the wild west of theatre “journalism”. The trouble is that some impressionable people may actually believe it. As they may believe those signs posted around the West End on face value.

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