Hacking, clickbait, sackings, scandals… there’s little doubt that journalism, particularly in the UK, has taken a battering in recent years, making it rich terrain for a TV drama.
While films such as Spotlight, All the President’s Men & Absence of Malice highlight the virtues of journalism, BBC’s Press exposes a cold, black heart beneath the increasing rapidity of the 24 / 7 news cycle.
The action takes place in inner London where the left-leaning broadsheet The Herald sits on a street corner opposite the sensationalist tabloid The Post. In between them both is a coffee van where key characters intersect and invariably pass judgement on their opposition.
At The Herald Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley) is Deputy News Editor who, on her birthday, is uncovering a hit and run story about someone close to her. But Holly is so committed to her work and social justice that it sometimes comes at the expense of her social life.
James Edwards (Al Weaver) is one of only three remaining investigative journalists at The Herald. Under pressure to deliver, he is frustrated by a coy MI5 insider giving him a news tip about a secret programme known as “Residents.” His editor Amina (Priyanga Burford) has been warned off the story citing the Official Secrets Act.
Meanwhile Duncan Allen (Ben Chaplin) is the ruthless editor of The Post, shamelessly admitting the paper’s agenda is to “entertain.” Amid page 3 girls, celebrity scandals and the ‘world’s largest treehouse’, he believes, “Life is hard, people want a giggle.” Duncan drives his staff to scoops and selling papers, and frequently their souls.
Amongst his staff is Ed Washburn (Paapa Essiedu) a journalism graduate who is facing his first “death knock,” a term used for getting an interview from a family in bereavement. In this case it surrounds a young closeted sports star, and Ed will be forced to stoop to all kinds of lows to compel grieving parents to speak.
Another key storyline surrounds a politician at the centre of uncovered photos revealing a blemished past, which Duncan uses as leverage. And the two worlds collide when Holly is forced to negotiate with Duncan for CCTV footage of the hit & run she is investigating.
Brendan Cowell also plays The Herald’s Deputy Editor Peter Langly (keeping his Aussie accent) and David Suchet is media magnate George Emmerson, who owns The Post but says he is committed to real journalism (ring any bells?).
The script by Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster, Trauma, The Town) navigates through a dry, British epicentre where communicating the news is delivered by those with their own secrets or through making deals with the devil.
Charlotte Riley may be the moral compass but it is Ben Chaplin who has all the fun as an editor with no ethics. The question that will need exploring over the 6 episodes is the grey shades between this black and white copy. Will our “hero” sell out and does the villain find redemption or merely face his downfall? Nevertheless, this is a promising start if you are looking for a drama with a conscience.
Press airs 8:30pm Tuesday on BBC First.