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Mark Shenton: Real-life lessons for journalism on stage and off

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For the first time in ages, I’m no longer turning to the arts pages first. Although I usually make sense of life through the theatre, there’s so much ‘real’ life to deal with right now that I’m turning to traditional news channels to try to understand it.

When Donald Trump shocked the world by becoming the US president, one of the first things I realised was the importance of investing in – and paying for – journalism that would forensically hold him to account. I now pay for subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post, both of which are conscientiously doing just that.

There is a different lesson from the political upheaval on this side of the Atlantic. Following Theresa May’s failure to secure a firm mandate, it appears that the media’s role to shape that election may not have been as decisive as we, and it, previously thought.

As the Guardian commentator Gary Younge wrote last weekend: “While it was possible to see how most voters had formed their first impressions of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May from the image presented by the media, what became clear to me while I was covering the campaign was that the impact of Fleet Street was not decisive. Thanks to the proliferation of online media sources, the decline in newspaper readership and weakening loyalties to established brands, the press does not have the same electoral clout it once did. (According to YouGov, more than half of Sun readers didn’t vote.)”

While it may not be as crucial in deciding elections, the importance of the press was demonstrated in a different way this week. That importance was clear in the coverage of the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington, one of the richest boroughs in the country, which still chose to save £4,750 for cheaper, flammable cladding for the building when the council was sitting on a reserve of more than £270 million.

The fourth estate kept us informed of the factors contributing to the terrible events, told the victims’ stories and looks to hold those responsible to account. It was a timely reminder of the importance of journalism.

How does all of this relate to theatre journalism and The Stage? Well, the theatre industry has suffered its own share of problems on our watch and it is up to us to present searching questions, such as those asked following the partial collapse of the Apollo Theatre ceiling in 2013 in the West End.

At the time, I asked how the restoration charges added to ticket prices – which most theatres were already collecting – were being spent. Four years later, we are still none the wiser. Theatre owners collect this charge on a compulsory basis from theatregoers, but do not have to demonstrate any proof of where it is going. This has to change.

Sitting in the cramped, overheated and uncomfortable dress circle of London’s Harold Pinter Theatre last week for the opening of Hamlet, the restoration fund has clearly not been spent on basic comforts.

Prevention is always better than cure. Two audience members fell down the stairs at the St James Theatre (now under new ownership and called the Other Palace) in London last year, with one ending up in the hospital. I have seen people regularly taking a tumble down the precarious steps myself. The management has put tiny signs at the top of each ill-lit staircase to urge people to take care, but is that really enough?

In a world where traditional political commentators and news outlets misread the general mood, and their views have been ignored, the theatre world needs to take note. Narratives for first-night success are no longer just going to be set by old-school critics judging from on high.

The conversation now begins long before the critics even arrive. I hope that the critics are still an important part of that conversation, adding insight and oversight to the landscape, but it no longer begins – and certainly does not end – with them.

To remain relevant, we need to continue adding informed insight to theatre-loving readers. We need to hold the industry to account and shine a light on issues that are often ignored. Then we can champion it on behalf of theatregoers, theatremakers and those who need support on our stages and behind them.

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