The News-Benders: a troubling view of news media as propaganda outlets carrying out an agenda

Rudolph Cartier, “The News-Benders” (1968)

Entertaining yet troubling and provocative, “The News-Benders” was one of nearly 300 episodes of a BBC television series “Thirty-Minute Theatre” that screened from 1965 to 1973 with the original aim of introducing short live drama to an audience unfamiliar with live theatre. Sadly the vast majority of these episodes have been destroyed as the tapes that they were recorded on were often recycled for other BBC television recordings. “The News-Benders”, one of the few that have survived to the present, is a character-driven play by Desmond Lowden that features just three actors – Donald Pleasance, Nigel Davenport and Sarah Brackett – in a minimal interior setting reflecting the budgetary pressures that all television studios in Britain, even one funded by a government-owned media corporation, had to face back in the 1960s.

Story editor Robert Larkin (Davenport) is head-hunted by J. G. (Pleasance), the front man for global media corporation CWNS, to work for him. Larkin quickly discovers that J. G. has information on him to blackmail him with: his extra-marital affair that his wife Rachel and children are unaware of. Larkin demands to know how J. G. has managed to obtain such sensitive information and is shocked when J. G. tells him that a transmitter was implanted into his body during an appendectomy some years before. The transmitter has recorded everything that Robert told his amour Sheila during intimate moments together. After shocking Robert with information that could be used against him should he refuse to work for CWNS, J. G. then tells him what he will be doing for CWNS: he will be helping to “plan the news” – in other words, he will be writing propaganda that will shape public opinion, influence government decision-making and directing consequent actions and results. All this propaganda will help to advance the aims and objectives of the unknown cabal behind CWNS, whom even J. G. does not know much about, with the ultimate goal of governing the entire world through a global technocracy made up of humans and computers alike.

The very minimal setting reinforces the importance of character and dialogue in this live play in creating and building tension to the horrifying climax in which Larkin discovers he is trapped with no choice other than to do as he is told and to work for CWNS. If he decides otherwise, J. G. warns him that the transmitter inside his body contains a deadly toxin that can be released via remote control. The nature of CWNS itself is revealed as a machine-like corporation in which computers as much as humans – maybe even more so – record information and use it to create and shape new narratives to direct people and keep them ignorant, separated from one another and weak via propaganda.

The acting by Davenport and especially Pleasance is excellent – Pleasance’s character is at once sinister, charming and even funny as he tells Larkin about how CWNS is using LSD to control counter-culture hippie rebels at the same time it is using other tools to control mainstream culture defenders opposing the hippies – and their ability to look and act completely naturally under a 30-minute time constraint is spot-on precise. Through their skilful and well-directed efforts, the play becomes engrossing and gripping.

One hopes that the other surviving episodes of “Thirty-Minute Theatre” are just as complex and thought-provoking, with equally good acting, as this one.