Guest post by Dr Sarah Lonsdale.
Journalists have always fascinated writers, filmmakers, poets and dramatists. On the big screen, small screen, in novels and plays, thousands and thousands of cultural outputs concern that often morally compromised, usually slightly shabby and very occasionally heroic maker of news. Even Shakespeare featured one, the loveable rogue Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale, who sold dodgy ballads about scarlet women and criminals, ‘very true, and but a month old’ to gullible rustics. Charlie Chaplin’s fist Hollywood movie, Making a Living (1914 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0004288/) shows him as an out-of-work salesman who takes a job as a reporter. Cruelty and hilarity ensue. Just now we’ve had Press on BBC One, about fictional rival papers, the Post and the Herald; over on Sky Atlantic, HBO’s gothic Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams as self-harming reporter Camille Preaker has her investigating murders far too close to home for comfort. Last year The Post (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6294822/) became the latest in a long line of Hollywood hack hagiographies that began with All the Presidents Men in 1976.
It’s not surprising, then, that one of Film on Four’s first creations, written by the then up and coming novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement, On Chesil Beach etc), puts journalists under the microscope in The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086122/). Both writer and channel had to prove their intellectual credentials, and what better way than cast a critical eye over the journalist: that lowest form of cultural producer, who gives truth a bad name and makes life difficult for more highbrow purveyors of words.
It was a good time to be criticising journalism: Rupert Murdoch, then a relatively new kid in town, had just persuaded Margaret Thatcher to let him buy the Times and the Sunday Times without an investigation into media ownership. For many this was the moment that British journalism began its headlong fall from grace, a fall that would find its inevitable conclusion in the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry. Other writers were also anxiously penning dramas and screenplays about the press: David Puttnam was working on a film of his own about the sleazy connections between media ownership and power in Defence of the Realm (1985 http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/452414/index.html) and lefty playwrights David Hare and Howard Brenton were writing their classic Fleet Street drama Pravda (1985) for the National.
Unusually for a film about journalism, the lead character in The Ploughman’s Lunch is BBC radio news producer James Penfield (Jonathan Pryce). With tabloid hack Jeremy Hancock (Tim Curry) and television producer Susie Barrington (Charlie Dore), the three present a distinctly venal, ambitious and amoral multimedia trio for whom holding power to account and giving a voice to the voiceless is the last thing on their minds. The film is set during the Falklands War and we are months away from Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 ‘khaki’ landslide, a pivotal moment in modern British politics, one which would allow Thatcher to do away with the post-war consensus on the role of the state, and introduce Thatcherite monetarist policies that would change the country forever.
At such a key moment, it would be good to have public spirited Fourth Estate journalists keeping an eye on those in power but our three representatives of the media are more interested in following their own selfish plans: James in writing a revisionist history of the Suez Crisis, Susie in climbing the corporate ladder by betraying her more feminist ‘sisters’ at her television station and both James and Jeremy in getting into bed with Susie. But this is no bed-hopping farce. It’s a serious look at how our understanding of the world is mediated by journalists and cod historians, neither of whom are interested in the truth. Like the advertising industry, which, the film tells us, created the fictitious ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’ to revive the dying lunchtime pub trade, ‘news’ is an invention, it’s what the mostly male, mostly white, mostly Oxbridge-educated elite tells us it is. Thirty-five years on, disappointingly, the dial has barely moved.
Coming just a few years after the gloriously upbeat All the President’s Men, The Ploughman’s Lunch presents us with a very different world. Although like Woodward and Bernstein our thoroughly English journalists are fascinated by power, it’s more like moths to a lamp kind of fascination than the forensic dismantling of politicians’ crooked schemes. What interests the journalists of Ploughman’s Lunch is not risking all in dark car parks to unseat a President but being in the orbit of the powerful, and mimicking them: champagne-fuelled literary parties, country house weekends, squash games, the Conservative Party Conference. This is particularly important for James Penfield who comes from lowly working class origins, and who is so embarrassed by his parents that he tells Susie they’re dead. Director Richard Eyre leaves us in no doubt about James’ priorities during the extraordinary scene at the Conservative Party Conference where in one unbroken pan, the camera takes us from the golden-haired Prime Minster on the podium across the grey heads of adoring Conservative faithful to the journalist James Penfield lurking in the shadows. He’s not watching the Prime Minister but his erstwhile friends who can hardly keep their hands off each other.
The scene brings to mind a poem by First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Editorial Impressions’ (1917), written during another time of national crisis and a loss of faith in the press. In the poem the journalist visiting a wounded soldier in the trenches is more interested in watching the planes in the sky above him than the young man ‘fatally wounded in the back/By some wiped out impossible attack.’ Ignoring the destruction of the nation’s youth before his very eyes, he instead tries out a few purple-tinged similes to express the ‘glorious time he’s had while visiting the trenches’.
When James is presented with a story about real, ordinary people – the Women’s Peace Camp outside a Norfolk air base – he is contemptuous. “I’m news, not features,” he tells them, his lips curling with disgust, and relegating, as the media has always done, the lives of women to some lower rank of interest. This treatment of women by the media is a subtle, but persistent theme. At the beginning of the film, the Radio Four announcer, after reading the news, tells listeners Woman’s Hour is next. In other words, women are not part of the public sphere of news and politics but of some other, minority interest. In order to get where he wants to go, James, clever and competent, and knowing he must play follow-my-leader, treats all women who come across his path, even his dying mother, with contempt.
It is, as the New York Times called it, an ‘immensely intelligent’ film and well worth a second and third viewing to capture all the nuances, particularly now when we are in another crisis of power, and of trust in the media to tell us the truth.
Sarah Lonsdale is author of The Journalist in British Fiction and Film: Guarding the Guardians from 1900 to the Present (Bloomsbury https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-journalist-in-british-fiction-and-film-9781474220545/)