As a career newsman who's lived a life driven by deadlines, you can forgive Simon Cunliffe for taking more than 20 years to write his first play.
His inspiration came as the media sands started shifting, with social media exploding and microblogging sites such as Twitter emerging. So too did the debate about citizen reporting and striking a balance between celebrity news and traditional news gathering, such as covering the local council.
Cunliffe's first play The Truth Game deals with these issues of watchdog reporting versus sex, drugs and cute animal pictures, but the 58-year-old insists he doesn't have the solution. "If I knew the answers, I don't think I ever would have written the play.
''In some ways, the play is an exploration of my own personal angst about it."
The Truth Game draws on his lengthy career, which began in London, back when newsrooms were filled with the tapping of typewriters.
Cunliffe was writing film reviews and dreaming of being a writer, but when he and wife Mary O'Dwyer had their first child Michael, in 1986, he realised he had to get serious, so he got into "journalism proper". He began sub-editing at London Australasian Magazine before working at the Sunday Mirror and The Independent.
In 1993, he returned to New Zealand with his wife and three kids, later becoming deputy editor at the Otago Daily Times. He now writes a weekly column for the Sunday Star-Times.
When he started, there was no time for treading on eggshells, and every letter printed on the page was made from pouring molten lead into a cast.
Nowadays, he can submit - or sub-edit - a story with a stroke of a computer key. The changes in the media inspired Cunliffe to write the play, exploring what they mean, while delving into the question: who will guard the guardians?
Cunliffe is a self-confessed stickler for the "old-fashioned" concept of the fourth estate but he thinks it's useful to discuss whether the media should still have that role. "Some people would say that the press in its various guises has forfeited the right to have that role [of the fourth estate]. And others would argue that it's no longer necessary because of the advent of digital media and the internet."
Cunliffe was also inspired by the characters and natural drama of newsrooms.
"Ghosts from the past sort of slide in and slide out," he says. The young upstart who bounces around the newsroom with internet updates contrasts with Rafe, the kind of "old duffer" who is being quickly ushered from newsrooms around the world, and who speaks in riddles that belie his wisdom. "I wanted to write an affectionate valediction of that sort of fast-passing world."
After collecting and metaphorically filing quotes and ideas for 20 years, Cunliffe began writing the play in 2006.
Some of his material came from an irreverent gossip file he sneakily printed from The Independent's intranet - "It was full of wonderful witticisms, and people slagging each other off, and people slagging the bosses off, and what the latest office affair was."
Last year, the play had its first season in Dunedin and was well received.
But he was told by many people: "You must be very pessimistic."
Actually, says Cunliffe, print media will be around for a long time yet. "Certainly the values associated with it will be, even if eventually they take different forms."
With an all-new director and cast, Cunliffe is looking forward to seeing a new take on his work.
Cunliffe is now a Fairfax sub-editor, back full circle to his first media job in London. He loves playwriting, but intends to continue balancing writing plays and columns with his day job.
The Truth Game is on at Circa from October 13 to November 10.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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