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NO 133: A Man Who Runs a Media/Drama Course (To Help Train Journalists to Masquerade as Arab Sheikhs, Among Other Things)

Louis Bastable now runs an acting course for journalists, but he used to be editor of the Independent. Or so he says. Almost anyone who is big in the media these days used to be the editor of the Independent, he says. I say I don’t remember him being editor of the Independent. He says that in those days editors used to come and go pretty fast. I say I don’t remember them coming and going that fast....

“Look!” he says. “I may not have been editor of the Independent in the sense that I actually edited the paper, but I certainly played the part of the editor.”

You mean you went around telling people you were the editor?

“Look,” says Louis Bastable,” journalism is very largely about role playing. When a journalist interviews a grieving relative, he plays the role of a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. When he phones an expert, he pretends to be a fellow expert, or at least a seeker after knowledge. When he interviews a celebrity, he has to invent a role for himself or herself. You’ve noticed that some interviewers now play a larger part in the interview than the subject of the interview?”

I certainly have ....

“This is the way journalism is. A journalist has to play many parts. But the weird thing is that he is never trained to play those parts. What gets taught by journalism courses is all the technical stuff – how to operate laptops, how TV studios work, how to sit at the end of a phone and never leave the office, that sort of thing. But who teaches a journalist how to act? Nobody. Except me.”

Louis Bastable’s Media Drama Course aims to give a journalist the courage and skill to play a part. To entrap people. To set up a sting. To go through an airport carrying a facsimile gun (“We Expose Heathrow Security!”) or get a job at Buckingham Palace (“We expose Palace Security!”).

“It is not the easiest thing in the world to get a job in the Palace,” says Bastable. “You’ve got to be obsequious, efficient well-behaved and subdued, none of which comes easy to a journalist. Takes some training, I can tell you. As a matter of fact, we’ve had one reporter in the Palace for fifteen months now, and she has never been once suspected.”

Is she waiting for a big story to break?

“Alas, no,” sighs Bastable. “She’s gone native. She likes working there so much she won’t come out again. Win some, lose some.”

And what about the Arab sheikh and Sven-Goran?

“That was a little beauty, wasn’t it?” beams Bastable. “Sven, normally so cautious with the press, opens up to someone dressed in Arab costume as if he was on a first date. Which he was, I suppose. Most sports people have a severe distrust of the press and media, and you can’t blame them. So we have to find other ways of getting to people like Alex Ferguson.”

Like how?

“This is strictly between you and me,” says Bastable," but we have had a young journalist on the playing staff of Manchester United for three years now. He isn’t quite in the first team yet, but he’s playing so well that he may well be promoted soon. Of course, it will all be over when he publishes his book, 'Our Man in United'. Clever title, eh ?”

At which point he concludes the interview and leaves. But while I am packing up, a secretary comes in and says that Mr Bastable will see me now. I tell her that I have already seen Mr Bastable. She says, No, that wasn’t Mr Bastable, that was one of the senior students doing a project, i.e. playing the part of Mr Bastable. And sure enough, an older man comes in and greets me as Mr Bastable, and gives me an interview. But what he says is not nearly as interesting as what the fake Mr Bastable has told me, so I am bringing you that instead


Independent March 16th 2004