The Journalist's Jeopardy
The skies are ash-grey and a gale howls like a demented soul over the sunless wastes of the Essex marshes. This is a bad place, infused with an ancient evil. Bad; but not deserted, for in the very centre of the swamp, where the couch-grass bows before the insistent demands of the east wind, stands a fortress, cheaply built of cinder blocks and aluminium siding, ringed with razor-wire, and guarded by outlying watchtowers of concrete and steel. Men stand on the platforms of these towers; alert men, well-armed, well-trained, ready. They watch the perimeter of the site. They watch the road which leads from the Fortress to the city which lies, vivid with mercurial light, to the west.
Especially; they watch each other.
The Fortress is a place of work and not the military encampment it appears to be. Within its walls, in endless rows of cubicles, sit the workers, each at his own desk, each with his own computer screen and keyboard. Their work is hard, dangerous and unrelenting. Discipline for defaulters is swift and fierce. Rewards are rare, and dangerously sweet when they arrive.
These men are... journalists.
SCENE: A dungeon, four flights of iron stairs below the ground floor of the Fortress. The walls are white and scrupulously clean, except where it has proved impossible to remove the stains from the grouting between the tiles. There is a green linoleum floor on which stands a deal table with two chairs on either side of it, illuminated by a single unshaded light bulb depending from the centre of the ceiling. The air is redolent of sweat and disinfectant.
In one of the chairs sits an EDITOR. He is a man whom nobody would ever dare to take at face value, for how could such a shambolic figure have achieved his level of power and seniority without the possession of a driving will, a remorseless intelligence, a ruthless disregard of humanity? In his eyes there is something wrong, something strained; something that cries in constant pain - a memory of the City of Dis, perhaps. He is holding a newspaper in his left hand and his mouth is working strangely. His teeth grind audibly.
A JOURNALIST - hunched, white-faced, manacled and in chains - is led into the dungeon by a uniformed guard. The guard takes out a key and temporarily unlocks the JOURNALIST's handcuffs before tying him to the chair opposite the EDITOR. He leaves the room and locks the door behind him. The JOURNALIST and the EDITOR are alone in the dungeon. The light casts the two men's hard-edged shadows on the walls behind them. The EDITOR leans forward and addresses his subordinate.
EDITOR: Good morning.
JOURNALIST: Good m-m-morning, sir.
ED: "Sir", eh? You call me "sir", do you? So you know who I am?
J: Y-y-yes, sir. Everybody knows you here.
ED: Even in the Second Section? That is where you work, isn't it?
J: Yes, sir.
ED: Smile when you say that. It is...
J: ...A privilege to work here. I know that, s-s-sir.
ED: (smiling dangerously) Good. I'm glad you know that. It's not a privilege you would care to lose, is it?
J: N-n-no, sir.
ED: "No, sir". Very good. That would be a bad thing to happen, would it not? So what's this, feeb? (The EDITOR opens the newspaper and thrusts it into the JOURNALIST's face) What's this, you stupid iguana?
J: (Growing, if it were possible, even paler of face) It's the G.... the G... the G...; the Worst Newspaper In The World, sir. It's N-n-not Allowed Here, sir.
ED: I am Allowed anything I want. Am I not?
J: Y-yes, sir. Of course, sir. (The EDITOR is still smiling. The JOURNALIST rather wishes he wasn't)
ED: Good. We understand each other. Now; read the column on the left. At the bottom. The Diary. You can read, can't you?
The JOURNALIST focuses his bloodshot eyes on the newspaper. He reads; and as he scans the lines his colour changes from livid white to sickly green. He knows that this is the end of his career; maybe of his very life.
ED: Ah. I see you understand. Would it surprise you to learn that this piece of meretricious trash has been read Upstairs?
ED: Don't repeat me. Close your mouth when you finish speaking. Yes, Upstairs. I have just returned from Upstairs, where I had a most unpleasant interview with the Boss.
J: The Boss?
ED: I told you not to repeat me. The Boss want to know what I am going to do about this. He wants to know how I am going to deal with you. (Retrieves the newspaper) So, koala, what do you think I should do to you? What are you going to do?
J: To make amends, sir?
ED: (with a distasteful display of yellowing teeth) Yes. To make amends.
J: I could... I could... I could doorstep him. Yes, that'd do it. I'll doorstep him.
J: This Blunderbuss, Wonderbra, Underskinned, whatever the loser's name is. I'll doorstep him. Get a few dodgy shots. That'll sort it. That'll show him!
ED: And have him go to the PCC for harassment?
J: Doesn't the Boss own the PCC?
ED: Not yet.
J: Oh, all right. OK - this is the Internet, no? I bet he's some kind of lurker. Suppose he's single, more than forty, got no mates and lives at home with his Nan? We'll shout paedo. That Bridget - she's only a kid, right? He's hanging out with kids. Grooming 'em. Drooling over the keyboard. Good story there, Boss! (The JOURNALIST is visibly perking up)
J: That website. Y'know (Points to article in the World's Worst).
ED: I see. But, you don't get to do it.
J: Oh, iguana.
ED: The Boss wants this story killed. So there's to be no hanging around street corners for you, sonny. Instead... (The EDITOR leans forward again. The JOURNALIST blenches) I've got something special for you.
ED: (Through clenched teeth) I told you not to repeat me.
ED: Tell me something. What stands at the end of every office in this place, by the wall?
J: A coffee machine?
ED: Good. And next to it?
J: A water cooler?
ED: Correct. And next to that?
The JOURNALIST writhes in terror. He can hardly speak.
J: No... no... no... Not that!
ED: (Raising his arm) Tell me what is next to the water cooler!
J: (Abandoning all hope) The... photocopier, sir.
ED: That is right. The photocopier. You will be assigned to photocopying duties for the next seven days. If - and only if - I am convinced that you have learned the error of your ways I may - if I am in a good mood - allow you to report on the weekly meetings of the Women's Institute in the village of Cerne Abbas. In Dorset. Where they're used to the sight of big pricks like you. Now - what do you have to say?
J: (Utterly defeated) Thank you, sir. Thank you very much, sir. You're very kind and considerate, sir.
ED: (Standing up to leave) So I am. Good morning. And goodbye!