The Play, ‘Ink,’ Reveals How Murdoch Got Ink

The rave rated play “Ink,”  by James Graham that premiered this week at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre — directed by Jason Loewith and co-produced with Olney Theatre Center after a long run in London and in New York — tells the dramatic story of Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch’s rapid takeover of the print news industry in London, beginning in 1969. Murdoch bought and completely overhauled the scruffy London paper, The Sun, making it in one year into the most read newspaper in that cosmopolitan city, full of venerable newspapers and literati.

As everyone knows, Murdoch and his sons went on to become powerhouse media moguls eventually buying the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post among many others and creating the Fox News Broadcasting company.

Today, Murdoch and his sons have become perhaps the most controversial western journalists on earth.

The play employs brilliant staging to tell a story based on talky decisions. All the action takes place mainly in a dark news room with walls of screens depicting news pages and a balcony for company announcements, a large editor’s desk and a portable press as accessory sets. A large chart is on the back wall showing the paper’s steady growth in subscribers and readers, newspaper buyers and revenue over that year.

At a pre-performance panel in Bethesda on Sept. 2, Washington, D.C., journalists and drama critics seemed to agree on just one thing — that was headlined in a New York Times magazine cover story last April about Murdoch: “Rupert Murdoch built an empire by giving his audience exactly what it wanted.”

What that audience wanted is at the heart of the controversy about the Murdochs. “What it [the New York audience] wanted was election lies and insurrections,” the New York Times screamed on its magazine cover. “That has now put that empire and the country in peril.”

The play shows a different side. “We’re in the business to sell newspapers,” Murdoch famously trumpets throughout that first year. “We’ll print what people will buy. That’s the only business we care about.”

When he bought the paper and put Sun editor Larry Lamb in charge, neither Murdoch nor Lamb seemed to know what the content focus would be. In the first three months, we watch Lamb put together a motley crew of former Sun and other scribes and editors. We also see him and Murdoch tearing up multiple renditions of mocked up first pages. None were interesting, catchy, unique for a new hot off-the-press paper.

Finally, Lamb sits his motley news teams down and demanded, “What are YOU interested in?  What do you do on the weekends?” he asks one of his employees. “Uh, I go fishing with my dad out in the country,” the burly man replies meekly.

“Fishing! In the country! Do you like it?” Lamb demands. There is a pause, “No, I hate it. I do it for me dad.”

“Then what would you rather be doing, Lamb asks.  What excites you? The man stood up with excitement on his face. “Boxing,” he said. “I love to watch boxing, Urban boxing, Rough city boxing.”

“Then, we’ll cover boxing” said Lamb excitedly. “No one is doing that. What else do you like?”

And so it went. Within a year, in a class-conscious extremely media-rich city where everything is marketed, analyzed, studied and decided according to its impact on distinct identity group targets, Murdoch and Lamb discovered an audience that had never been addressed.

It went on to shock him as well — the big “it,” being the “Page Three Girl.” She was a Londoner, a model who, after weighing the disadvantages of being a media shock in London, agreed to be photographed on page three nude from the waist up. Several staff said they would quit if this low point in “news” journalism was allowed, and even a dramatic scene showed Murdoch furious at Lamb for maybe going too far. Then, Lamb gets a phone call. Without saying a word, he hangs up, gallantly takes the Page Three Girl’s hand, leads her to the numbers chart on the back wall, and places her hand at the top of the chart way above the previous record. The staging said it all.

The Sept. 2 pre-performance panel did the opposite. They talked. A lot. About the challenges of journalism when there is little space for news after consumer and commercial interests. Moderated by Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks, the panelists were Jummy Olabanji, an NBC News co-anchor, Michael Steele, former Republican party chairman and Fox News analyst and now a political analyst at MSNBC and David Smith, D.C. Bureau Chief for the “left wing” Guardian newspaper of London. By their applause and giggles, it was obvious that most of the Bethesda audience agreed with the some of the panelists who admitted it was hard to hide their (anti-Trump) POVs.

“But how much are journalists to blame for the dropping trust in especially national news?” Marks asked. “How much are consumers to blame for the content?”

The play won’t change anyone’s mind. But it may open minds a bit to the fact that even in America, there are huge audiences with different interests outside the mainstream that are being missed.

Actors Andrew Rein who played Murdoch and Cody Nickell as Lamb maintained an authentic and dynamic tension between their two characters that exhibited both exuberance, surprise and growing hubris as the year went on with their experiment amid soaring financial success. The entire “Ink” cast very much displayed the context of the times as well as their individual daring and chance-taking. Also, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center provided the audience with a multipage printed program full of highly relevant historical information about the complicated market of London newspapers.

“Ink” runs through Sept. 24 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda —

The cast of “Ink” at Round House Theatre, co-produced with Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Margot Schulman.


Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in “Ink” at Round House Theatre, co-produced with Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Margot Schulman.



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