“Erm, where are the sub-editors?” The particular tediousness of hacks complaining about journalism in TV dramas

Yeah, that reporter WOULD take weeks to break that story. So what?! This is telly, you goon.

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A young reporter bursts into the editor’s office and screams at him/her. The reporter is instantly fired. That wouldn’t make a great drama. Neither would showing what most reporting actually involves — furious Googling, furious emailing, polite phone calls coupled with the occasional impolite email/phone call, furious typing before slowly and deliberately banging your head on the desk, filing a Google Doc, arguing with an editor that you may or may not have met in person at some point. Scene!

I will admit I have once been involved in an incident where a shady businessman tried to blackmail a colleague out of reporting on him — the bag of money was returned to him after my friend and I spent an afternoon sat outside a pub nervously eyeing the hold-all and drinking regardless. I have also had editors who swore lie navvies and had what could be described as ‘difficult’ relationships with alcohol and prescription medication. It’s also true that certain pneumatic young columnists have been exploited by decrepit editorial superiors. And yet…

The expectation among journalists that TV depictions of our trade should be ‘realistic’ is narcissistic humbuggery. Police procedurals and medical dramas, which make up far more TV time than the occasional foray into a newsroom, are notoriously loose with the facts and there’s a good reason for that — they’d be fucking boring if they weren’t. Much of the time policing for detectives involves doing paperwork and eating biscuits, and A&E doctors in normal times spend a striking amount of time dealing with people who have shoved objects up their arses.

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I became a journalist in part because I loved Press Gang, and despite having gone off The West Wing as it has become political people’s equivalent of Harry Potter, I still love Timothy Busfield’s performance as the rumpled but indefatigable Danny Concannon, a Whitehouse reporter whose credentials would be revoked by the Trump administration in the time it takes to mutter, “Fake news!” More recently, I enjoyed the pulpy ridiculousness of Mike Bartlett’s 2018 confection Press, which pitted the flawed idealists of The Herald (a poorly disguised Guardian analogue) versus the generic tabloid evil of The Post.

The catalyst for this episode of the newsletter was watching Roadkill, David Hare’s new series for BBC One, which pits Hugh Laurie’s shifty Conservative cabinet minister — is there any other kind? — against a ferocious reporter who will take her hunch to the limit and damn the consequences! Her editor was an animated cue ball with anger problems and she flew about the place in a way that would see her sat with HR fairly rapidly in most modern newsrooms. But it’s enormous fun and exactly what a Sunday night thriller should be.

If you want a realistic look at journalism, try Page One: Inside the New York Times, Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime, Everything Is Copy about Nora Ephron, and this really blunt little documentary that you can watch on YouTube which focuses on the reality of working at a small newspaper:

If you watch a film or TV show with people pretending to be journalists, getting angry that they don’t spend all the time on Twitter or that there’s no sign of the sub-editors or any hint of a News Editor, you might as well be one of those guys who complains that the economics of Sauron’s orc army just doesn’t work. Entertainment is entertainment, and it’s still more realistic than calling Dan Wootton a journalist.

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