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“WHAT’S the matter?”
“I think I’ve got that irritable bowel syndrome.”
This priceless exchange takes place between two fictional journalists. The scene is a fruitless night-watch on a swingers’ club, in the 1990 Screen One drama News Hounds, which follows a cynical but relentless gaggle of tabloid hacks as they scrape out the gutters of humanity.
I recalled News Hounds with envy on Thursday night as I endured Press, the new BBC drama from Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett.
Starring Charlotte Riley and Ben Chaplin, Press follows the pursuits and dilemmas of two struggling newspapers — the liberal Herald, seemingly based on the Guardian, and the Post, a caricature tabloid apparently modelled on the Sun.
It had barely hit the box when social media became awash with real-life journalists bemoaning its inaccuracies.
“Sorry, subs in suits?” Ian Marland, a Scottish freelancer, pondered. Broadcast journalist David Wyllie, meanwhile, bemoaned a “really disturbing lack of angry Scots.”
The Press Association’s Jack Hardy took a screenshot of a Herald journalist’s copy, noting that “subeditors are going to be working overtime.”
All reasonable observations. I was more struck by gender and ethnic diversity at levels I’ve never witnessed in any newsroom — though I guess this is TV drama showing up the failures of journalism.
More to the point, Chaplin’s Post editor Duncan is neither the “double-cunting” Paul Dacre or the assured but mystery-clouded figure most often encountered on Fleet Street.
News Hounds captured this type brilliantly in its editor Gavin Fletcher, played by Paul Kember. Fletcher is clearly open to external influence and prepared to cut a deal, yet news room and audience alike are only partially enlightened as to why. The most questionable judgment calls — after all, in journalism as much as anywhere else — are often made out of a sense of expectation rather than the explicit instruction found in the clunky dialogue of Press.
News Hounds also somehow struck perfectly at the humour, mundanity, and awkwardness of the small talk and editorial negotiations one finds in the news room.
The Fields of Blood, the BBC adaptation of Glasgow crime writer Denise Mina’s trilogy, was similarly well-pitched in examining the fallout of political interference in news planning.
The most realistic moment in Press was a water cooler malfunction and not the conversation which took place while it occurred. And in what world would a minister appear in two major newsrooms to personally discuss a hit-job story with editors without a single government press officer?
Journalists are notoriously obsessed with “the profession,” and these details may well be immaterial to most viewers, but Bartlett has pitched the series as “vital” in “the era of fake news” and says it aims to discuss the “importance of getting as close as we can to the truth.
Like the characters in his series, many journalists are overworked, underpaid individuals who enter the profession with ideals and are then somewhat baffled by what is asked of them.
But to get to the bottom of why so many still take pride in a vocation of conflict and compromise, you’ll need a fine tuning that you won’t find in Press.
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