Steve Coogan is best known as icon of British television Alan Partridge, but has also taken dramatic roles in films like Philomena and What Maisie Knew, as well as continuing to write and produce. Outside of this, he’s been a vocal critic of journalistic malpractice, famously playing a key role in the Hacked Off campaign against the now-defunct tabloid News of the World.
In his new film Greed, Coogan is on top form as a retail mogul partly inspired by disgraced Topshop tycoon Philip Green. We caught up with the industry vet to talk social media, his battles with the press and why Jeremy Corbyn lost the election.
Recently, you said the only defensible thing about Phillip Green is that he doesn’t try and present himself as a touchy-feely version of capitalism – what do you mean by that?
“One thing that drives me up the wall is when you buy a product and on the back the blurb describing the product is written in wonky writing, like it’s done by some hippies in a farmhouse in the middle of Wales when actually it’s been designed by a corporate entity. They try and personalise it and put their metaphorical arm around your shoulder and encourage you to buy their product. I find that more sinister in some ways – it’s the whole notion of the Mark Zuckerberg face of capitalism, where you think, ‘well, he can’t be an evil capitalist because he’s wearing running shoes, jeans and a t-shirt! How can he be a bad person? Evil people wear suits don’t they?’ Well, not anymore.”
Do you ever worry about things you’ve said being taken out of context?
“It’s true that if you stick your head above the parapet and you have a profile then you do have to watch what you say. That’s why I don’t do social media, because I know I’d probably come unstuck and say something in the heat of the moment that I’d be trying to untie having got myself into knots. So the safest way to express your opinions and your attitudes, rather than doing interviews like this, is to let your work speak for itself – and that’s what I try to do.”
You’ve been critical of the press in the past – what do you think the state of the media is right now?
“My observation, unfortunately, is that because of the crowded, noisy, social media-driven nature of the world now, clickbait and anything that stimulates conversation – well not really ‘conversation’ more like attritional exchanges – are what newspapers try to do. Even the more serious ones have to stimulate sales in some way, and so they encourage contentious statements, things that are inflammatory because they generate traffic, and it’s not a good way to conduct conversation because it becomes unpleasant and that thing about being able to disagree without being disagreeable is something that vanishes very quickly these days.”
Opinion sections, and having to have an opinion on everything can lead to the most extreme voices getting the most coverage, right?
“Unfortunately, because newspaper circulation is declining, [newspaper] resources aren’t as extensive, so real, proper investigative journalism is diminishing and lots of writers expressing opinions is increasing. I feel like we need fewer opinions and more information. It’s finding out the facts, the old-style journalist going on a quest, digging into some sort of greater truth [which] happens less and less. The most interesting journalism is happening in documentaries these days. [Syrian documentary] For Sama is what great journalism should be.”
You were publicly pro-Corbyn at the last election, what did you make of his defeat?
“I think there was a confused message on Brexit. I think the press didn’t help – they demonised him. I don’t think he was particularly charismatic, I don’t think he wanted the job in the first place. I think if you asked people who didn’t want to vote for Corbyn which of his policies they didn’t like they wouldn’t have been able to tell you, so to me it was actually a personality thing.
“Extinction Rebellion is sort of an organic pressure group that grew out of an accumulated feeling; people communicating with each other on a local level. I think Labour can learn a lot from that, rather than theorising about how to help working people, they need to actually listen to working people.”
What are you working on at the moment?
“I’m writing about five or six different things at the moment – a couple of comedies and a few dramas which are all at different stages of development. I’m shooting a movie this summer about the woman who found the body of Richard III in a car park in Leicester, and I’m writing something with Sarah Solemani [star of BAFTA-winning sitcom Him & Her] about the post-Me Too landscape. So there’s always a few different things going on and it’s sort of planned and sort of not, because in this business things can suddenly come alive very quickly and things can sort of wither and procrastinate. You just have to sort of spin plates…”
‘Greed’ is in UK cinemas now