Aidan Smith: BBC drama Press gets a lot right about newspapers

Shane Zaza, Laura Jane Matthewson and Ben Chaplin in Press. Picture: BBC
Shane Zaza, Laura Jane Matthewson and Ben Chaplin in Press. Picture: BBC
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I’ve seen the forthcoming BBC drama about newspaper – Press – and it’s got me reminiscing about my career in journalism, writes Aidan Smith.

Someone has just walked over my grave, dressed as a polar bear. A new telly drama about newspapers features a young reporter who’s so desperate to get ahead that he’ll walk around all day in a sweltering synthetic fur onesie. He starts out promoting his paper’s big-hearted stricken-animal adoption campaign and is then despatched to a fancy-dress party at a nightclub attended by C-list celebs and must boil under the lights until one of them blurts something indiscreet. But let me tell you, dear reader: he gets off lightly.

The rookie journo in Press, which starts on BBC1 on Thursday, should have tried going naked, something your correspondent had to do twice earlier in his career. The first occasion was in Pencaitland, the perjink East Lothian village being the unlikely setting for a nudist colony. To gain entry, not unreasonably, I had to remove my clothes. I reassured the naturists that my article would be a responsible study of their often misunderstood hobby, even though the grizzled sub-editor back at the office already had the headline “CRINKLEY BOTTOM” in place while he waited for my copy (Noel Edmonds was big at the time).

Later, I was handed the results of one of those fatuous lifestyle surveys and told to make them into a story. In return for a million pounds, according to the poll, such-and-such a percentage of the population would cheerfully go to work in the scud. I had to find a star of stage and screen to validate the survey and pose for a photograph with a strategically placed briefcase. The deadline clock was ticking. Sports presenter Jim White agreed to do it, only to welch on the deal. That’s when I found myself stripping off again, in the paper’s photo-studio, but because I was a mere hack, some glamour was needed. A model who’d just finished an Easter-themed shoot in a pretty yellow dress was asked if she’d help out. “Nae bother,” she said, whipping off the frock to reveal nothing underneath. She earned an extra 30 quid and not for the first time I emitted the silent scream: “But I came into this profession to write!”

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So I can sympathise with the bear-guy. He’s going to live or die by his byline count, just like me when I was a Klingon, a Butlin’s redcoat, a circus clown for the money-shot of a custard pie in the face and, to mark the release of the Trainspotting movie, a geek in an anorak and bottle-bottom glasses, the paper’s cruel depiction of real loco-loggers. I was klinging on to my job and still am now.

Press arrives at a poignant moment for journalism in Scotland and beyond. We’ve just lost one of our papers, the Sunday Herald closing this week with a final issue which bordered on the vainglorious, but why the hell not? We’ve also lost Bill Allsopp, the Napier University lecturer who taught generations of apprentice newshounds, having died at the age of 85. Like many I was grateful to Allsopp for his yarns from the Daily Express coalface and his wisdom. For an important exam I thought a pretentious, 150-word intro would be what was wanted. Thankfully my mentor spotted the purple prose before it reached the external adjudicators and suggested a re-write. Meanwhile, ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has just published his memoirs which can’t ignore the social media tsunami and don’t. “The ability of billions of people to publish has created a vast amount of unreliable and false news,” he writes. “[But], however you measure it, there is widespread scepticism, confusion and mistrust about mainstream media.”

Press – written by Britain’s pre-eminent TV dramatist in Mike (Doctor Foster) Bartlett, so we should be honoured – plunges right in. What else does he get right? There are messy office cars and, away from the newsroom, messy domestic lives with wives who’ll lash out at errant husbands married to their work – or sometimes no wives at all and nothing in the fridge when the shift is finished, and at least one journo is forced to sleep in his motor.

There’s a broadsheet and a tabloid and while not in bed together they’re next door, which is a nod to the old Fleet Street. The morning after another night of not quite getting the final editions right, they try on each other’s clothes. The red-top editor attempts to poach the broadsheet’s nerd crusader who once labelled him a “misogynistic, well-oiled bully” in print while the posh title contemplates having to stoop to an advertising wraparound.

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Maybe you suspected my stint as a nudes-hound was on a tabloid and that atrocious pun will confirm it. I can’t forget my first-day greeting at the paper – after informing the female crime reporter which middle-class Edinburgh enclave was my home, she quipped: “So you’ll be a poof, then?” – but I was glad to have tried and failed there. And what has always been my favourite film about journalism? Not All the President’s Men starring Robert Redford as the most handsome and high-minded seeker of truth there’s ever been, but Ace in the Hole with Kirk Douglas as the yellow press’s lowest-of-the-low who keeps a cave-collapse victim underground to keep his name on front pages.

Back in 2010, someone calculated there had been 1,000 movies featuring journalists. TV has a way to go to catch up and Press, from what I’ve seen, isn’t quite in the same league as season five of The Wire, the sharpest depiction of the press on the small screen. But it is saying the right things at a vital time, such as: “[Saying] ‘it’s already on the internet’ is no defence. So are beheadings and hardcore pornography. You’re supposed to be better than the internet. That’s the point of you ...”