The last few years haven’t been kind to journalists. The decline in print journalism has led to the decimation to the 20th century model of news creation whilst their standing in the public’s eyes has fallen to levels usually reserved for MPs and lawyers as phone-hacking revelations continue to destroy the industry’s slender claims to ethical credibility.
However they continue to soldier on, harbouring a dewy-eyed nostalgia for behaviour of the sort that would not be acceptable in other line of employment. Against it all journalists continue to cling to the iconic image of the noble, incorruptible news reporter – immortalised many times on screen and in print – and try to square it with the reality of a culture of bullying and humiliation that – to outsiders – seems endemic to the profession.
These tensions are evident in Mark Jagasia’s scabrous satire Clarion. Jagasia, who worked for the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, has written a play fuelled with an intimate knowledge of its subject that is brutally scathing about the news industry, gut-wrenchingly funny in parts, but that can also be seen as a love letter to a dying friend.
Technology has left the medium wobbling on its last legs. It is likely there will be people watching this play that have never paid for a newspaper. Even the idea of a front page splash is fading as people see news as a series of equally sized tiles on mobile phones. The profession survives but it is a shadow of what it was, and it is hard not to feel that Clarion carries with it the faint note of a eulogy.
For as much as this is a comedy, it is impossible to ignore the artful nods towards Greek tragedy. It broadly adheres to the unities of time, action and place – taking place across a single day in a newsroom that is coming under increasing siege – and we see characters undone by their own hubris, whilst the modern day god of Mammon sows destruction among the just and unjust alike. Jagasia even skilfully incorporates a Tiresias-like seer in the form of a prescient horoscope writer.
That these allusions work and don’t come off as pretentious is due to Jagasia’s skill as playwright. It is a very impressive debut and, by taking time to reveal its true depth, leaves a final impression of a play that displays a far greater degree of complexity than Richard Bean’s Great Britain.
Where Great Britain was a very broad satire, and incredibly funny at times, it never scratched the surface of the issues it portrayed. It preferred caricatures to characters and one never got the sense that in reality these cartoons are actual human beings. Clarion may appear to cleave to similar stereotypes but, by limiting the cast to six core roles, Jagasia has time to add extra elements that give humanity to his creations.