Putting journalists on the box…

JOURNALISTS can be a touchy lot when their trade is put on television. Mike Bartlett’s new drama Press (BBC1, Thursday) drew plenty of comment on Twitter, some enthusiastic, some scathing.

Ninety minutes after it had ended, more than 3,600 tweets about the drama had been sent, according to the Press Gazette website.

Bartlett wrote Doctor Foster, and perhaps that series got under the collars of doctors called Foster. For reasons lost to time and too many television dramas, I gave up on that one.

TV dramas often get journalists wrong. The male reporters are caricatured gnarled hacks without a moral atom beneath their shabby raincoats; and the women are immoral tarts in tight dresses who’ll sleep with anyone for a story.

Often the job isn’t portrayed right at all; and those mock front pages are habitually awful, looking as if they’ve been designed by someone who squinted at a newspaper once on a dull day.

Skimming off the top of my head and Google – that modern adjunct to the brain – here is a list of some that hit the target.

The BBC drama the Field of Blood, based on the crime novels by Denise Mina, had the authentic smell of Glasgow ink.

Stephen Spielberg’s historical political thriller The Post began slowly but built to a racy climax. It retold the story of how The Washington Post fought to publish the Pentagon Papers, classified documents about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The footage of the presses finally rolling is truly stirring – or it was to this ageing journalist. The rumble of the press and the flashing sheets of taut inked paper is an uplifting sight, even if what is printed on those sheets might not always match that excitement.

And no short list is complete without All The President’s Men, the 1976 political thriller about the Watergate Scandal; great story, great film.

Still, dramas about newspapers are aimed not at journalists but at ordinary people. Seen through that lens, Press wasn’t all that bad. The premise is slightly forced: journalism as seen through the interaction of two rival newspapers. The Post is a brash tabloid amalgam of the Sun and the Daily Mirror, while The Herald is The Guardian more or less.

Ben Chaplin has great fun as tabloid editor Duncan Allen, while most of the upmarket action is given to deputy news editor Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley, out of Peaky Blinders). Holly is hardworking, unsmiling and kind of dull – but she does carry an important bit of plot that I won’t mention.

The upmarket editor, Amina Chaudury (Priyanga Burford), wasn’t much of a role in the first episode, and seemed curiously without swagger or charm – leaving all the best lines to the tabloid devil, as it were.

The first episode was titled Death Knock, which is what journalists call having to turn up uninvited on the doorstep to interview relatives of someone who has just died. Press captured that awful task well, showing the pressure it puts on the reporter, and touching on the morality of getting a story. And Bartlett also addresses one of those newspaper mysteries: why are grieving people even prepared to talk to journalists at all?

At one point, Holly Evans was shown writing a story about a police car knocking over and killing a young woman. Her intro was pored over by journalists with nothing better to do. And, yes, that was one dull story in need of a sharp rewrite.

Other Twitter bombs addressed the morality of the death knock reporter – with some worrying that Press will given viewers an even dimmer view of newspapers.

Press gets three stars out of five from this journo, but there was enough there for me to want to return. It’s not up to Bodyguard, the Sunday thriller from Jed Mercurio, but it’s better than Wanderlust, the relationships/sex drama – good acting in that, but those dramatic pauses went on for so long, I thought the TV box had frozen.

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