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We Live in Dramatic Times

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We Live in Dramatic Times

The Financial Times has gone into drama to tell its stories. We speak to the journalists behind the initiative

By Jeremy Durrant, Chief UK Media Strategist, Instinctif Partners

Imagine the scene. It’s next year’s Baftas and the world of drama is on full red carpet display. Stars shift nervously in their seats, rehearsing acceptance speeches in desperate hope of getting their sweaty palms on one of those iconic mask trophies.

“And the award for best British short film goes to…the Financial Times.”

A collective gasp. The FT? Films? Drama? Who knew? Well it’s true. The doubty old Pink’un has gone into film making and added performance to its long history of reporting facts in order to tell a story. And why not? Film and theatre (not to mention literature and art) has a rich history for telling true stories in ways far more compelling than reportage ever can – Erin Brockovich, The Lehman Trilogy to name but two leading examples.

But when a stalwart news brand such as the FT seeks a future in drama it presents profound questions for the real life companies and people that might find themselves the subject of the organisatation’s more creative bent. Is your average CEO or PLC Board ready to be portrayed in a drama production backed by the authority of one of the world’s most respected news organisations?

For the uninitiated this is all part of the FT’s Standpoint section where the publisher is using drama and the arts to cover issues such as personal data and privacy, climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland. Standpoint’s mission is clear – its webpage declares that it wants to collaborate with leading artists to explore the stories of our time.

A standout work from the FT is the 18 minute film We know what you did during lockdown a gripping, pithy two-hander starring Lydia West and Arthur Darvill. It’s a dramatic and convincing exploration of how covid-19 has exposed the tension between the need for data to combat pandemics and the threat to an individual’s right to privacy and justice. PR people at Amazon, the NHS, Google and Apple will no doubt have watched with particular interest. If they’ve missed it, I recommend breaking out the popcorn and settling down. Afterall, they’re in it.

Veronica Kan-Dapaah, is an Executive Editor at the FT as well as being its Global Head of Video. She believes people shouldn’t be surprised that news organisations are seeking different ways to present global issues.

“The arts-led content we are producing in many ways is a continuation of what newspapers have always done by observing news via comment or analysis,” she says. “The rich history of satirical cartoons is another good analogous way of looking at it. We certainly don’t think using drama for example to tell a news-based story is at odds or conflicting with anything else we would do on a particular subject. Far from it, in many ways the truth can be easier to access via the arts or other representations.”

The business world is familiar with the FT’s well-defined newspaper structure of international politics at the front end, and companies and markets coverage second. This combination is continued online. “However, video content on the website and the Standpoint film strand within that allows us to look at unusual angles and examine stories through a different lens,” says Kan-Dapaah. “It’s an important outlet which we believe adds value to the overall offering and may be the way someone accesses the FT for the first time and that’s got to be a good thing.”

The Standpoint section is masterminded by Juliet Riddell, the FT’s Head of New Formats, who was a  Commissioning Editor at The Guardian where she was responsible for a satirical short featuring actor Patrick Stewart playing the Prime Minister. It focused on the benefits of the European Convention of Human Rights and has been viewed more than 1.2million times on You Tube winning a prestigious LOVIE award, the online Oscars.

“An important challenge for drama and the arts to grapple with has always been about reflecting what is happening in broader society,” says Riddell. “Using creative arts such as film can really allow you to explore a deeper understanding of the news in a way that’s not possible in more traditional content created by media organisations. It’s a lens which allows you to see things more clearly. I haven’t invented it, but it is something I am extremely passionate about.”

Alongside a raft of creative content sits We know what you did during lockdown written by British playwright and screenwriter James Graham. According to Riddell, the film is a great example of how media and the arts come together as part of the collaborative process. “James Graham already had an interest in privacy via his own work, but this was very much a two-way engagement. James came into the FT offices and spent the day with our journalists listening to their views and experiences writing on the subject. We brainstormed together to discover what was the gap in the story that just hadn’t landed yet. We wanted to get across the tension between the potential for data to be a public benefit and the threat to justice and privacy.

“For several years, we have all known about big data and social media channels collecting our information. We instinctively know it may be bad, but we are not sure what it means. So, although ultimately fictional, this piece is based on truths we all feel.”

So how should the corporate world react to the FT extending its news brand into creative performance? Damian Reece, Senior Counsel at Instinctif Partners and the Telegraph Media Group’s first Head of Business, says: “Standpoint is a great example of innovation in the media and a fascinating new strand to the already complex challenges of corporate reputation. It provides a new range to the activities of news publishers. You can’t watch something like We know what you did during lockdown without thinking hard about the topic, but also being entertained. Companies will no doubt expect productions to be responsible, but they have to confront the reality that drama allows publishers to tap into a far more emotional response to an issue from their audience and allows for much broader interpretation of facts than traditional comment or sketch writing ever can.”

For Riddell it’s all about serving the FT’s audience with new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. “What people like about our films and what makes them different is they feel like they come from the FT in terms of containing real facts and statistics, but you are just accessing or hearing them differently,” she says. “Some people may have been surprised that these have come from us, but we want to be seen as a brand that does take risks in how it communicates.”

Next up for Standpoint is a piece of music composed in conjunction with the Royal Albert Hall which will look at the subject of immigration supported by data and statistics. But there will also be more films and Riddell would like to see them considered at awards for original dramatic content.

“I would love for that to happen and for our film-making and story-telling to be recognised and judged in that way.”

Baftas here we come.

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