I guess I can say (though I wouldn’t press the point) that I knew Rupert Murdoch back when. In the mid-1970s, very early in my journalism career, I was working for a small company that published four monthly magazines for young professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers and MBAs. Midway through my time there, the company was sold, and one day the staff gathered to meet the new owner: a soft-spoken Australian media mogul named Rupert Murdoch. He was known in Britain, but was just beginning to acquire media properties in the U.S. — he owned a newspaper in San Antonio, and would soon acquire the Star tabloid and the New York Post — and his purchase of little MBA Communications was probably the least consequential of his career. Even he has probably forgotten it.
But I recognized that Rupert Murdoch on stage in Ink, James Graham’s sharp new play from London about Murdoch’s 1969 takeover of the Sun, a failing broadsheet that he promptly transformed into a sensation-mongering tabloid that would become the biggest-selling newspaper in the U.K.. Bertie Carvel (Miss Trunchbull in the musical Matilda) plays Murdoch, not as journalism’s Prince of Darkness — creator of Fox News and enabler of Donald Trump — but simply as a shrewd, driven media entrepreneur with a gut instinct for what ordinary folks want to read. Carvel is relatively low-key, even likable in the role: crafty but conflicted about the forces he has unleashed. He isn’t even the play’s main character: that would be Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller), the journeyman Fleet Street editor whom Murdoch hires to retool the paper, make all the tough decisions, and take all the heat.
I am a tough audience for movies and plays about journalism; they almost always strike me as sentimentalized and phony. It’s not just the naive oversimplification of the reporter’s craft in films like Spotlight and The Post; it’s the romanticizing of these workaday journalists into heroic paragons of moral virtue. The journalists in Ink are not moral crusaders, but happy bottom-feeders, and Graham’s play presents, almost better than any I’ve seen, the ethical conflicts inherent in giving the public what it wants. When, in the climactic scenes, Lamb has to convince one of the paper’s models to shed her clothes for what will be the first of the Sun’s topless “Page 3 Girls,” you hate yourself for cheering him on.
All this is directed with pulsating theatricality by Rupert Goold, on a semi-abstract set dominated by a mountain of desks, file drawers and other newspaper-office detritus — a kind of found-object sculpture that could have been featured at Hudson Yards, if only somebody had thought of it. Except for Carvel and Miller — both terrific — the cast is mostly American, but they seem to have fully inculcated the self-effacing, ensemble-driven British style. No scene stealers here, looking to impress the Tony voters; just one fine-tuned machine, working together to roll the presses.