It goes without saying that Press, BBC One’s new drama about newspapers, gets journalism wrong in all the ways that Spotlight and The Post got it right. But it also goes without saying that, as the series is written by Mike “Doctor Foster” Bartlett, the whole thing is utterly gripping and hugely fun anyway.
The six-part drama introduces us to The Herald and The Post, two rival newspapers that stand on opposite sides of the same town square (the first of many convenient but effective contrivances). One’s a well-meaning broadsheet, the other a tittle-tattle tabloid, and their contrasting attitudes towards what counts as news is the main source of tension. That’s driven by Ben Chaplin, who’s on brilliantly foul form as The Post’s sleazy, witty editor, Duncan, and Charlotte Riley, who’s wonderful as the wounded Holly, The Herald’s Deputy News Editor whose interest in a hit-and-run steers a little closer to home than she’ll admit.
In an age of clickbait, fake news and celebrity gossip, there’s never been a better time for a drama salaciously poring over the workings of the media – particularly when it comes to their responsibility to the public to hold power to account for lies and misinformation. And that’s increasingly the focus of Press, as Bartlett leads us from one type of scandal to another of a very different sort.
And so we begin with a bullying story, with a shocking fallout for the subject plastered all over The Post’s front page. That’s enough to anger Holly, who wants above all else to bring Duncan down a peg or two. But with her own paper struggling to even get an issue on the stands, she has to get creative and ruthless to do it. Then, while everyone is distracted by a timely story involving sexual abuse conducted by a business tycoon, a government secret surfaces the nature of which means that nobody is sure whether it would be a good idea to report the truth or not.
But while that climactic debate is a pertinent one, Press’ real success doesn’t lie in its hard-hitting examination of the media but in its heightened soap operatics. Bartlett is good at spinning a yarn but he’s even better at character dynamics, which he pushes and pulls with barely credible plot twists but never loses credibility because of how juicy the bloodsport gets. And so we get wrapped up in the moral dilemma of Oxford grad Edward, trying to make a journalistic name for himself, in the sensationalist headlines (“Enemy of the People!”) that are used as personal attacks, and even the attempts by Duncan to see his teenage son, despite opposition from his ex-wife and her new partner. These moments of grand drama hit their peak when David Suchet appears as Duncan’s boss, Emmerson, putting pressure on The Post to do the “right” thing, or every time that Riley and Chaplin go toe-to-toe, whether it’s in editorial meetings or clandestine church confrontations. There’s a grudging mutual respect, a less grudging mutual dislike and an undoubted sense of identification between both, and that cracking chemistry means that throughout this six-hour affair, you’ll be grabbing your copy of the next issue as soon as the credits roll. Is it a serious, realistic and thoughtful commentary on society today? No. Is it entertaining TV? Hell yes.
Press is available on BBC iPlayer until 11th April 2019.