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News of the World Shock Horror

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I was catching up with a four-hour matinee of Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre while the rest of the world absorbed the shock news of the sudden closure of the News of the World in the middle of the phone hacking scandal.

Salacious muck-raking has always been accepted as a bona fide facet of "investigative" journalism, and no one seems to have minded much about the dishonest, undercover methods employed by the News of the World reporters in recent years as long as the "victims" were justifiably exposed, for instance as bribe-taking sports players or corrupt, two-timing, expenses-fiddling politicians.

The ends, in short, justified the means. So slack is any sense of moral propriety in these matters among editors and the public figures who fear them, that the newspaper industry, or some parts of it, have been swamped by these procedures for many years. It used to be just door-stepping, then it was undercover reporting, now it's phone hacking. And nobody believes that it's only the News of the World involved.

When I was an undergraduate I played a sleazy news reporter, Stanley Williams, in John Osborne's Under Plain Cover, one of his "Plays for England" that is rarely - in fact, never - produced these days.

Stanley exposes the incestuous married relationship of a young couple living together in Leicester who play dressing up games in kinky costumes delivered "under plain cover" by a postman whom Stanley successfully nobbles in order to get his exclusive story.

God knows what I was doing playing this reporter, but the adjudicator of the college theatre competition, the brilliant actor (now lawyer) David Marks, who shared a Magdalen College staircase for two terms with Andrew Lloyd Webber, complimented me in particular on the way I brought Osborne's final stage direction to pulsating life: "Stanley collapses, drunk and miserable. Dead possibly."

It's a funny, brutal play that angrily attacks the notion that an ordinary person's misfortune, or indeed sexuality, is anyone's business beyond that of the people directly involved. Of course, if it turned out that Prince William and Kate Middleton were blood siblings, that would be a different matter altogether.

It's therefore deeply ironic that Rupert Murdoch's Sunday newspaper should in the end bow to public opinion over its apparent interference in the mobile phone history of a murder victim, having survived (by scape-goating one or two individuals) the emergence of a culture of phone-hacking with regard to celebrities such as Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller.

That culture is now thoroughly discredited, and the mass market readership which salivated for years over the misfortune of others will have to be newly satisfied by journalists dealing in good old-fashioned gossip and the rumour factory.

When he took over the Sun, Rupert Murdoch told the paper's then theatre critic, the late David Nathan, a marvellous man and a Fleet Street veteran of the old school, that he would not be making house room for any "pommy bastard theatre critics" on the new "soaraway" Sun, and Nathan duly decamped to the Jewish Chronicle.

The News of the World's theatre coverage was as skimpy as a Page Three girl's bikini top, but in recent years the redoubtable Bill Hagerty, followed by his wife, Liz Vercoe, managed to insert some punchy paragraphs on West End openings.

Bill and Liz were together at this week's opening of Road Show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, so the paper's very last theatre gig was covering an "art house" premiere of an "elitist" musical by the great literary magus of American musical theatre; not the kind of thing Murdoch would be keen to advertise, one imagines.

Liz took over the News of the World column a couple of years ago, following in Bill's footsteps rather like Ruth Leon did in Sheridan Morley's, except with her own byline. Her last printed review - the theatre has been frequently spiked in recent weeks - was of Shrek at Drury Lane.

And her last written piece awaiting publication - let's hope it's this Sunday, in the final edition - is a rave review of Lend Me a Tenor, a show that is faltering badly, and undeservedly, at the box office. Liz opens the unpublished review with the battle cry: "Want to feel hap-hap-happy? Then skip, skip, skip along Shaftesbury Avenue..."

Struggling theatre producers desperately need this sort of cheery huzzah for their posters and front-of-house displays. The News of the World will be sorely missed in Theatreland, if not all that much anywhere else. Let's hope Liz finds a new berth soon. Perhaps on the proposed Sunday version of the Sun?


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