In the one corner is The Post, a trashy tabloid apparently devoid of ethics and morals, with an editor who subscribes to the saying “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” – and certainly don’t let it ever get in the way of circulation, readership and – ultimately – making money.
Across the road, The Herald holds somewhat loftier ideals, with a deputy news editor who’s committed to digging up the deeper, often overlooked stories, and pursuing justice. This paper is losing money hand over fist, and at one point, the humiliating reality of a wraparound advertisement is on the table. To make it even worse, this particular advertiser allegedly uses child labour in India – the story was uncovered by a Herald reporter but then rejected by the editor because the allegations couldn’t be proven and would likely lead to litigation.
These are the sad realities of print media today, along with sales that decline on a daily basis as digital information pushes it into redundancy. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that, despite good ratings, this series was cancelled after one season.
Having worked in newsrooms, I can tell you that almost everything portrayed in Press is authentic, from the jargon to the circumstances.
Such as when the junior reporter at The Post, Ed Washburn (Paapa Essiedu), is first sent on his first “death knock”: to interview the parents of a footballer who committed suicide. Later, he’s tasked with surreptitiously recording a children’s TV presenter for a potentially scandalous story. Something almost identical happened to me in my time as a newspaper journalist. You do what the news editor tells you to do, and you put your personal feelings away.
As much as the profession can be sleazy (“Sell the papers! Whatever it takes!”), there are those who seek to expose the underbelly of society, and champion the downtrodden. These conflicting positions are starkly and, at times, heavy-handedly conveyed.
“I went in keen to explore whether journalists were passionate truth-tellers, working hard out of a real vocation, or cynical hacks just keen to get clicks or higher circulation.” – Writer Mike Bartlett
Sam Wollaston of The Guardian, who reviewed Press, found some of the situations in the series to be outdated. “I wonder about the vintage of the people to whom he [writer Mike Bartlett] spoke, though. Perhaps it was mostly retired hacks, because – although Press is set in the present and deals with a lot of issues affecting the industry today – the general mood of it, the colour, feels more like newspaper journalism 20 years ago.
“I am thinking about the heavy drinking after work. [An editor adds: that still happens, Sam – it is just that you are not invited.] I am thinking about the institutional misogyny and the macho rivalry of two papers operating out of buildings so close that they share the same coffee van. I am looking at the size of those newsrooms, staff levels and expense accounts.”
(Things might well be different in the UK, but this sounds remarkably similar to my time at Independent Media in Cape Town, when different titles shared a newsroom while constantly competing with each other.)
The writer Mike Bartlett says: “I discovered many surprising things about journalists and put them in the show, so you’ll have to watch to find out. I went in keen to explore whether journalists were passionate truth-tellers, working hard out of a real vocation, or cynical hacks just keen to get clicks or higher circulation. Of course the truth is there’s both, and everything in between. That’s why it’s such a good space for a drama.”
The Atlantic says: “The Herald, where Holly is the deputy news editor, is a fictional take on The Guardian, a left-of-center, straight news outlet that’s perennially cash-strapped and bleeding readers.”
Press stars Charlotte Riley (from Peaky Blinders, who plays Holly) and Ben Chaplin (Mad Dogs, The Children Act) alongside Priyanga Burford (King Charles III) and David Suchet (Poirot).
Once you’ve binge-watched all six episodes of Press, go and watch the superb HBO drama The Newsroom on Showmax. It’s about television news, not print, but it’s one of the best series of the last decade.