Politics on the small screen: SW1 meets Fleet Street in Press
Writer Mike Bartlett gives the inside track on his new BBC drama, which is based in two newspaper offices.
In the first episode of Mike Bartlett’s brand new BBC drama ‘Press’ there’s one storyline bound to send some chills down the necks of party-loving politicians. On the desk of a headline-hungry tabloid editor land some old photographs of a young woman snorting illicit-looking substances. What makes them interesting is that the same young woman is now a Cabinet Minister and, unfortunately for her, necessarily for the narrative, a big champion of a war on drugs.
Press is the tale of two neighbouring but rival newspapers, one tabloid, one broadsheet, and their competing staff. For the editor of the fictional Post, Duncan Allen (played by a wonderfully oily Ben Chaplin), it’s another day at the coalface. For Bartlett, the pen behind ‘Doctor Foster’ who conducted his research in the newsrooms of the Guardian and Mirror as well as in conversation with many other journalists, the politician’s hypocrisy is key.
"It’s part of the world now that photos you took 20 years ago, that you’re hoping will have been lost in a drawer or destroyed, could suddenly re-emerge," he tells Total Politics. "The crucial part of the story is that Duncan feels she’s made statements on drug use, that’s why it’s legitimate, it’s not just scandalising her to pull her down – which is something he might do – but as soon as he finds that, he has a real reason to do it.
"That question of legitimacy and hypocrisy does play all the way through."
How likely is such a dynamite stash of snaps to arrive on the editor’s desk? According to David Yelland, who edited The Sun for five years until 2003, "there’s no doubt it could potentially happen, but it’s rarer than people think".
Yelland gives us his own less dramatic, but more personally revealing, version. He says: "There were a number of times when you’d be given a package by the news desk, and by the time I saw it, it was fully-fledged and they’d been working on it for months. That happened to me four or five times, and on one or two occasions, I said ‘Yes’ to publication, but mostly I said ‘No’, because I learned that on my head be it, if it went wrong.
"Giving a tabloid editorship to a young kid is like giving an Uzi to a small child. You’ve been trained to fire it but you have no idea where the bullets are going. I did fire the gun at the beginning but after that I put it down. The rest of the team doesn’t have it on their conscience – there’s a big difference between building a bomb and pressing the button. To be a successful tabloid editor, you have to be prepared to press the button and I couldn’t."
What about Duncan Allen’s’ seemingly capricious influence over a government minister? Away from the cliff face of a huge scoop, it seems a lot of power for one unelected person to wield, but Yelland says the reality, particularly on the Murdoch titles, is far from a position of editorial autonomy. "I was not piloting that plane on my own," he remembers. ‘" had a number of co-pilots and also an automatic pilot that would take over. Decisions weren’t taken by committee, but certainly in consultation. For all the faults, Murdoch’s papers benefit from his lifetime of experience, including mistakes."
With ‘Press’, Mike Bartlett is intent on bringing us a drama in a fictional world. "It’s not a documentary to teach you about journalistic ethics," he stresses. "It’s about spending time with these people and seeing them face dilemmas."
One almost apocryphal example in the first episode finds tabloid cub reporter Ed Washburn (played by Paapa Essiedu) facing his first ‘death knock’ – when a journalist has to call at the house of a bereaved family in the hope he’ll secure an exclusive interview. For Yelland, this feels "more like something that would be a rite of passage on local papers, not national press. It sounds a bit like artistic licence, almost a cliché, but then this is drama for a mass audience".
Another aspect of ‘Press’ that might leave real-life journalists scratching their heads is the tireless rivalry between the two camps, particularly the contempt with which the tabloid reporters are regarded by their broadsheet counterparts. Although Bartlett is adamant this dimension is upheld by his real-life conversations, Yelland says it doesn’t really hold up, particularly at Editor level.
"The difference between tabloid and broadsheet has narrowed right down, it’s changed enormously, and lots of people chop and change. When I was coming up on the business side, there were massive rivalries, I used to attack the FT all the time, but when you become an editor, you see all the other editors in private a lot, and you become part of a club, so the barriers completely break down.
"The real rivalry is between the different teams on the paper." He laughs. "The people that were really out to get me were my own team, not the opposition. The News of the World next door and most of my senior team didn’t want me there, and that’s quite common."
Yelland fears any drama based in the world of journalism as it currently stands must necessarily be accused of ‘kicking a man when he’s down’, and Bartlett confirms that many of the real-life reporters he spoke to were full of fear and pessimism for the future. However, he hopes that ‘Press’ will go some way to demonstrating that the need for high-class journalism has never been greater. ‘We need facts more than ever. How we get that, who pays for it, who we trust, how they earn that trust, are big question marks for the industry and also for us.’
Bartlett believes that the trade itself, in many ways, has been given a new dawn by the very forces challenging it. "It’s interesting how the news industry, in America particularly, has almost been revitalised, to take on this agenda that is blatantly undermining facts. They realise how important it is, because it’s the first sign of a fascist dictatorship. You can feel the signs of that here as well, when politics is corrupting and collapsing – where do you turn, and the answer is news."
Yelland agrees it’s a time of unprecedented change for the press. "It’s no longer all-powerful, it’s no longer commercially powerful and it’s had to pull its horns in due to things like privacy legislation, but on things like Brexit, you could argue it’s more powerful than it’s ever been."
For him, though, the days of wondering whether to press the button on a politician’s career are definitely behind him, and he embraces the slightly slower of pace in the ‘real world’, where he runs his own communications agency.
"It took a while to realise that not all decisions get made immediately," he says. "In the real world, they’re taken much more slowly, and quite right too. And I learned that my first judgement can be wrong. My first instinct now I’ll save for email, or I’ll sleep on it, but in newspapers you don’t get that opportunity. There is no other walk of life where you have to make so many decisions in a short time that seem important. Whether they actually are important is another matter."
‘Press’ began on BBC One on Thursday 6 September.