Play tackles issues of press freedom in imagined reign of King Charles III

Emma Lux | Prior Restraints | News | March 30, 2017

Allison Jean White as Kate, Christopher McLinden as Prince William and Robert Joy as King Charles in the American Conservatory Theater production of King Charles III, directed by David Muse. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Mike Bartlett is a UK-based playwright and screenwriter. His play, King Charles III, had a limited engagement last year on Broadway, and recently finished a run at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. The play imagines what may happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies, and Prince Charles becomes king. In the speculative drama, which is written in blank verse, the newly crowned King Charles faces internal conflict when the Parliament asks him to sign a bill that restricts the freedom of the press. The Reporters Committee spoke with Bartlett about his play, why he chose to write about press freedom, and what he hopes American audiences take away from King Charles III.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to focus on the issue of press freedom as the subject matter for your play?

When I was writing the play, press freedom was very much a topic of discussion here because of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry which was making recommendations on whether there should be a royal charter to place for the first time some sort of legislation on freedom of the press in this country. (Editor’s note: The Leveson inquiry was an official public inquiry into the practices of the British news media, overseen by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, following the News International phone hacking scandal in 2011 and 2012.) And it was something which a lot of people here felt in two minds about. For the play to work, it needed to be an issue which the audience wouldn’t necessarily know quite what they thought was the right thing.

There is also an irony in that Charles has sort of suffered from press intrusion. So in the play, it’s important that he’s standing up against this bill in a selfless way; he’s acting for the country and not just himself. In fact if he was acting for himself, he probably would be quite happy to have press freedoms curtailed.

Do you think that British audiences and American audiences react differently to the idea of restricting press freedom?

Well, I think the defense of freedom of the press is more enshrined in law and the Constitution in America. In our country, it’s enshrined in tradition and not much else. It’s such a fundamental part of the American system, that people in power are held to account by the press. I think any attempt to put something into law that restricts that would struggle.

Has the play been changed at all for American audiences? Did you have to add any references to the fact that the UK Constitution is more based on tradition, or did people pick that up?

People were worried about that, and I made loads of changes. And then as soon as we put it in front of an audience, it became clear that I didn’t need to make those changes, the audience completely understood.

There’s one line I put in, where somebody asks, “Can the King really do that?” I think that was the only thing that American audiences weren’t aware of: if that really is true that the king has to sign every bill into law, and that he could actually choose not to. And that is true, and I think audiences really had to believe that in order to believe the conceit to the play.

But no, there weren’t many changes. Britain has a fascination with the US, and particularly around matters royal, the US has a fascination with Britain. So, it’s a nice exchange there.

Did you ever envision attacks on press freedom as are present today in the U.S. and around the world when you wrote the play?

I’m writing a TV show about the press at the moment, so I’m thinking a lot about it. I think that historically, attacks on press freedom have happened when you’ve got leaders who are perhaps controversial and particularly leaders who want to leap frog difficult questions, and they do that by shutting down the press. You see that with people who become dictators, or people who are dictators. They often oppose newspapers and put the journalists in jail. And I think stopping a journalist coming into a press room is the first step on that path, isn’t it really?

But I think what’s new and interesting is that, previously, when you stopped the journalists entirely, you used to have to create your own journalism, your own paper, or your own TV channel. Otherwise you just maintained a sort of silence. Whereas now, you can communicate with the country directly, you don’t need a sanctioned platform to do that.

And I think that creates a real challenge for journalists because, for the first time, they’re not just a necessity in order to disseminate information; information can be disseminated without them. Journalists are now acting more as interrogators, and I think that’s a harder position for them to defend. But it’s even more important that they do defend it, and even more important that they’re there.

So I think that’s the challenge: journalists are not there to simply communicate information, they’re there actually to challenge and interrogate. And that’s going to be harder for politicians to accept. If they don’t need the press, why should they let them in? And yet it’s so important and vital that they do.

You just mentioned your TV show, which is about journalism. Could you tell us more about that?

It’s a six-part series for PBS’ “Masterpiece.” And it’s about two papers: one tabloid that is a bit more right wing, and one that is a more liberal, crusading paper. And you see the same stories being covered by both papers, and you see characters on both sides, a bit of cross pollination. And really what the series has become about is what the future of the journalism industry looks like. As I’ve been writing it, every journalist I’ve spoken to has said, “We don’t know where the industry is going.” When I first started the project, reading a paper was a really normal thing to do. Now, over here, reading a paper is like a heritage activity, as opposed to getting the news online.

So the series is also about what it’s like for the journalists who either came into the industry with a sense of purpose, or possibly a bit of romanticism about the industry — about how every day a newspaper goes out, and we cover the stories and expose hypocrisy. And how this is a moment of crisis for that industry, where no one knows where the money is coming from. To some extent people like Trump are sort of stepping over the press and talking to people directly. So it’s a fascinating thing to write about. You’re writing about an industry that doesn’t know where it’s going and doesn’t know how it’s going to survive.

What has the British reaction been to current challenges on press freedom in America?

The BBC was one of the organizations that wasn’t invited to the press gaggle in the White House a couple of weeks ago. I think that we are actually covering Trump and what he’s doing in nearly as much detail as you are over there. I think it fascinates us and is so important to us. What’s that quote? ‘He’s all news all the time.’

The BBC is brilliantly known for asking difficult questions of politicians. And I think it’s having a tough time, as are some of the organizations in America, about dealing with some of the Trump people, and getting answers out of them, without those people just shouting the words ‘fake news’ at them. And it’s going to be interesting whether politicians over there, and over here, learn lessons from Trump about how you don’t need to be accountable, and you don’t need to answer questions, and you can just undermine the public’s belief in journalism as a tactic to make a smoke screen so you can get away with doing whatever you want to do. It’s going to be interesting if that travels.

Why did you choose Shakespearean style and blank verse? What are some of the challenges of writing about a modern issue such as press freedom in that style?

When I’m writing a play, the form and the content tend to arrive at the same time. So for this play, I wanted to write about Charles becoming king, and I realized that he would be a bit like a Shakespearean tragic hero. As soon as I thought that, I realized the form of the play had to be like a Shakespeare play. And if it’s like a Shakespeare play, then it’s in blank verse. And then the challenge of that is that I had absolutely no idea how to write anything like blank verse. So I had to learn how to do that, and that took quite a long time. But I think that the reason that Shakespeare does it, and the reason it sort of works, is that you want to find a mode of speech that suits regal figures. And by moving from prose to poetry, you can depict different rungs of society.

A purely satirical or ironic depiction of the royal family would have them, you know, eating chips and watching TV and being like the rest of us. But that’s not really what the play’s interested in. The play’s interested in the more serious side of what that role is and how Charles will approach it when he becomes king, so actually the poetry of it helps audiences to see through an ironic portrayal to hopefully something more sincere, and more interesting.

What do you hope the takeaway is from your play? For example, if Trump were watching your play, what would you want him to learn about press freedom?

What I hope the play speaks about is the idea that constitutions that work have really strong checks and balances on each other. In Britain, it’s between the government, the monarchy, the judiciary, and the press. And these institutions are all there for a purpose. To hold each other to account, and stop any one person from becoming too powerful. So, if Trump were watching the play, what I hope would be a takeaway is that it’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than one person, it’s bigger than the president. Great countries are built through play of different interests and holding each other to account. And yes, you want progressive change. But it’s better that change comes through democracy and people working together, rather than being forced through by someone with some radical ideas.

I suppose as far as the press is concerned, I said earlier that I think the industry is in crisis. And yeah, I think it is, but I don’t think that means it’s dying. It just means it’s changing. And I think people will find ways of monetizing it so that there is money going into journalism. But I think that needs to be found. There is a world of opportunity, that we can access news on our phones, and access interesting content. We just need to resolve the question of authority, how people can have confidence in what they’re reading. And questions like, is Facebook a news organization or not. Because it certainly looks like one, but they’re sort of saying that they’re not. So I think once all those things are resolved, then journalism can have a real resurgence. Actually you see even, in opposition to Trump, it feels like journalists have really found their voices and their purpose again.