How realistic is new BBC1 newspaper drama Press?

Former newspaper journalist Ben Dowell takes a look at Mike Bartlett’s new state-of-the-nation drama about the Fourth Estate starring Ben Chaplin and Charlotte Riley

Ben Chaplin and Laura Jane Matthewson, Press (BBC, EH)

Blimey, Mike Bartlett is brave. The creator of the smash hit drama Doctor Foster has put jealous GPs aside for a minute and bitten off a real hunk of potential trouble with his new drama about British journalism.

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BBC1’s Press focuses on two newspapers, The Post and the Herald, taken by most to be highly fictionalised iterations of the real-life Guardian (The Herald) and The Sun (The Post). By doing so, he’s no doubt aware of the many journalists who will write about it and be the first to sharpen their knives and pounce hungrily on anything that they feel is awry or perhaps even unfair.

But the first thing to say, as someone who has worked in varying ways and over many years in the newsrooms of daily tabloids and broadsheets and their Sunday equivalents, is that Bartlett doesn’t get things clangingly wrong. The tone is certainly right, even if some of the details are not. He has clearly done his research and even though some of Press feels at times written by a man who has been told things second hand by people who know what they are talking about, he has managed to channel the feel and vibe well.

Where it may be slightly amiss is in certain details. Firstly, The Herald has very dowdy offices – in contrast to the sharp-suited Post lot with their swanky premises. Yes, newspapers are cash-strapped these days but anyone who has been to the Guardian’s offices knows that they are modern and well equipped, a far cry from the broken photocopiers and tired desks of The Herald. The visual contrast works well on screen, though – an immediate signifier of the varying fortunes within the fictional world we’re entering.

Press’s opening episode has the papers chasing three big stories. Ben Chaplin’s fantastically smooth, well-spoken and slightly self-deceiving Post editor Duncan Allen (Ben Chaplin) is after the terrible story of footballer Sean Kingsley who has killed himself. Kingsley was gay, not out of the closet and had been blackmailed. And junior Post reporter Ed Washburn (Paapa Essiedu) is sent on a “death knock” (the first of his career) to the poor parents who are unaware of their dead son’s secret life.

Some journalists do make unannounced calls to the homes of grieving families. But they tend to be known more often as “doorsteps” not “death knocks” from my experience. And the unfriendly, unhelpful photographer poor Ed Washburn has to work with? Well, let’s say I’ve met one or two but the vast majority of snappers (sometimes called Monkeys in the business) are pretty cheery.

Another story concerns the paper’s treatment of Work and Pensions secretary Carla Mason (Lorna Brown). A crusading, progressive minister, topless pictures have emerged from her past (at a party 30 years back) and she’s obviously worried.

Duncan wants to strike a deal and get her to pose with a pretty young model – while Herald editor Amina Chaudury (Priyanga Burford) is understandably more circumspect and doesn’t have Page 3 girls wandering round her office. The story is covered – but discreetly in The Herald which only links to the topless pictures on its website.

Whether any paper would be able to print these pictures in an age of tighter press regulation is a moot point. There doesn’t seem to be a hugely convincing public interest defence. It also seems bizarre that Carla Mason is giving the paper’s coverage of the story, that is clearly viral on the internet, so much attention. The politician’s concern about whether The Post puts it on the front page makes for interesting cat-and-mouse drama with Duncan Allen. But the fact is that newspapers are not the force they once were and carrying this image in print doesn’t have the life-or-death importance it once did.

But full marks to Bartlett for the even-handed depiction of The Herald – sniffy about the story, it still runs the link. And politician Carla does look down on the model she refused to pose with – but we later hear they both went to the same university. It’s often said by tabloid journalists that snotty broadsheets have it both ways – they cover salacious stories and take the moral high ground – and Bartlett is covering this idea off well.

But I am not sure the Herald’s promise to include Carla’s story in a feature on page 4 is exactly right. Papers don’t really place features on page 4 of their news sections these days and I’d be surprised if a headline “Misogyny or public interest?” would be printed by any newspaper ever.  Even a paper like The Herald whom Duncan sneers has no “instinct for news”.

The third story concerns a young woman killed in a hit and run accident. Our main protagonist from The Herald, crusading deputy news editor Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley), thinks she may have been killed by a police car. The police are denying any involvement but Holly wants to expose the truth, which emerges eventually (no spoilers but the twist, while hugely unlikely to happen in real life, sets things up nicely for the second episode).

One late scene does clank rather spectacularly – a meeting with David Suchet’s George Emmerson, the Post proprietor, who sidles past in his chauffeur-driven limo and hauls Duncan in for a slightly creepy chat. Emerson is clearly inspired by a well-known newspaper mogul, but the Bond villain-style sweep past, and on-the-nose remarks he makes about having deep pockets, felt a little like exposition to me. The fact that he cares about journalism was a good spot by Bartlett – the proprietor who clearly inspired this character does care about newspapers and journalists, whatever his detractors say. I just don’t think any proprietor would talk or act like this.

The owner in question reportedly talks to his editors a lot – but a night-time swoop? It made good telly but it wouldn’t happen in a million years. Also, his editor had just unearthed some pretty good scoops – his front-page story had huge repercussions and they had the inside track on the suicide of a gay footballer. Would the proprietor really pooh-pooh a day’s work like that in the way Suchet’s character does?

Still, I enjoyed Press, and thought Ben Chaplin was particularly good – combining just the right amount of cockiness, conceit and cleverness, I could imagine meeting someone like him. He’s risen high, but heading for a fall, I’d say.

But I was most interested in why this drama is being made now.

The Leveson Inquiry is done and, while the fall-out from phone-hacking rumbles on, I think Press probably overstates the importance of newspapers today. In an age of Facebook and Google, a proper drama about fake news and the real news power brokers in Silicon Valley would feel more relevant.

Having said that, I enjoyed it. Like any good newspaper it grabbed your attention and didn’t let go.

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This article was originally published on 6 September 2018