Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett had spent years “quite a long time ago” pitching a show set in a newsroom – â€œa workplace drama a bit like the West Wingâ€� – but no-one was interested in journalists or the media.
â€œThen Leveson happened, [phone] hacking, and suddenly it became clear that actually the public was very interested in where their news comes from,â€� he said ahead of the launch of his new BBC One drama Press this week.
Bartlett said the show, which follows the lives of journalists at two fictional rival newspapers, came together after the BBC’s former head of drama asked him if he had ever thought about doing a show about newspapers – indeed he had.
He said the challenges currently facing the media industry became part of the story as he was writing it.
“It became clear that the industry was going through this huge change in terms of how news is distributed, how itâ€™s funded and whether people are going to [still] have their jobs and what the news industry is,” he said.
“So suddenly that became something to be explored in the show as well as all the different stories that we have in every episode.â€�
Press will run as a mini-series of sixÂ hour-long episodes on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC One.
For research, the cast and crew sat in on daily news conferences at the Guardian and the Daily Mirror, as well as visiting a few other UK newsrooms.
While Barlett insists it is “all fictional” – in his parallel world not even the BBC exists – his Herald newspaper, which was â€œfounded in Yorkshireâ€�, is a close copy of the Guardian, which started life as the Manchester Guardian.
The Herald’s rival in the show, The Post, is a quintessential red-top tabloid that seemingly merges qualities from both the Sun and the Mirror. Bartlett said both titles were an â€œamalgamâ€� of stories they had heard and researched.
Charlotte Riley (pictured top right), who plays Herald deputy editor Holly Evans â€“ one of the showâ€™s main characters â€“ said she also spoke with former Independent on Sunday editor Lisa Markwell to research her role.
â€œShe was really forthcoming with the personal effect [the job had] on her life and the difficult things that sheâ€™d been through and how she was still in the thick of it going through that,â€� said Riley.
â€œI was quite shocked at how tough the job is and how it really affects the whole of the journalistsâ€™ lives â€“ they really do take their work home.â€�
She added: â€œBut it was quite funny the shoe being on the other foot, in terms of us as actors going into a newspaper and asking journalists questions, who became quite sheepish I have to say.â€�
She said the Guardian and Mirror were â€œquite different environmentsâ€� but there was a â€œdefinite openness and welcoming us in that we were taking an interest in the industryâ€� from journalists at both newspapers.
The fictional offices of the Herald and the Post are a literal stoneâ€™s throw from each other, across a street in real-life Clerkenwell, London. In reality todayâ€™s national newsrooms lie scattered throughout the capital, from Kings Cross to Canary Wharf, after moving from Fleet Street.
Despite their close proximity, the newspapers represent â€œtwo contrasting worldsâ€�, according to director Tom Vaughan, which meant pushing them in opposite directions stylistically.
â€œOne is bigger and shinier than the other,â€� he said in reference to the Postâ€™s sleek and conspicuously tidy offices. â€œObviously we went to every newspaper we could possibly get intoâ€¦ and stole bits from everything and tried to come up with these two contrasting worlds,â€� he said.
That included printing an enormous black and white picture of the old newsroomÂ in Post editor Duncan Allen’s (Ben Chaplin) office â€“ apparently influenced by a black and white photo in the Mirrorâ€™s editors office.
Bartlett said that while the characters come first and were the â€œheartâ€� of the drama, it was also about â€œunderstanding that the [news industry] has been the same for a long time and now cannot be the same, that has to change â€“ and thatâ€™s going to have bad consequences and really good consequencesâ€�.
He added: â€œI think everyone is going to need news, because we need facts now more than ever and therefore we need journalists finding those facts more than ever.
â€œHow we get there, who pays for it and how we receive it, how they do it and crucially who we trust â€“ where we choose to get our facts from and how they earn that trust – are big question marks as far as I understand it for the industry at the moment, but also for us.
â€œI think itâ€™s really interesting and fascinating working on a show where I would ask journalists whatâ€™s going to happen in two yearsâ€™ time in terms of an issue and they would all go: â€˜I have no ideaâ€™.
“They could guess, but events are happening very quickly â€“ so thatâ€™s thrilling to be doing a show in that world.â€�
He said the climate in newsrooms as a result of these unknowns was one of â€œfear” and was “quite often pessimistic, in terms of the industryâ€�.
But, he added: â€œIf there was a pessimism about the industry it didnâ€™t stop them doing their jobs, it didnâ€™t stop them caring about it and wanting to do more and better and achieve more.
â€œThey all had different viewpoints, coming from different places, but there was a drive underneath this thing that itâ€™s important.â€�
Priyanga Burford (pictured, top left), who plays Herald editor Amina Chaudury, said she knew very little about the job of journalism and what it entails â€“ sending junior reporters out to court rooms, for example â€“ and the hours it entails.
She said that in preparing for the show she was struck that â€œin a lot of ways journalists are performativeâ€� and that some aspects of their lives reminded her of actors’ lives â€œbecause of the deadline, the pressure, working up to a certain point, there being a huge adrenaline rush and then the thing is gone and you have to start again and reproduce itâ€�.
She added: â€œThe pressure, the passion, the conflict between the drive to be true to your principles, what does that mean? How do you uphold them? And then the drive to sell newspapers â€“ that clash, which I think comes across really well in the series, that was really interesting to explore and very real…”
As an Asian woman playing a newspaper editor, Burleyâ€™s character shines a light on the lack of diversity in newsrooms in the real world, with only twoÂ female editors of national dailies and none of a BAME background.
Bartlett said the decision wasn’t the result of any BBC demands, but his own.
“If you put a show on BBC One you want it to represent the country,” he said. “The one aspect of it thatâ€™s quite aspirational in a way.” But he said he did see diversity in the newsrooms he visited in researching the show.
Riley, who is married to actor Tom Hardy, said that on a personal levelÂ her role in Press had changed how she felt about journalists.
â€œUnfortunately for journalists now Iâ€™m completely intrigued by them and what they do and how they do it,â€� she said.
Riley said she had also come to understand that “not every story that a journalist pursues is something theyâ€™ve chosen to pursue â€“ theyâ€™ve been asked to turn up to meet you, or to watch something, or pursue something.
â€œSometimes itâ€™s self-generated, their interest, and sometimes they have half-an-hour to do as much research as they can before they go and meet the person – things like that I didnâ€™t realiseâ€¦â€�.
She added: â€œItâ€™s quite fascinating how little, as the public, we understand about how journalism works and the graft that goes into it and the juxtaposition between the push and pull of principle over making money.â€�
While Bartlett said the show â€œanalyses the importance of truth,â€� because it takes a year or two to make it wonâ€™t be topical in terms of covering US President Donald Trumpâ€™s recent attacks on the media as â€œenemies of the peopleâ€� or the issue of so-called â€œfake newsâ€�.
But, he said: â€œThat question of truth and fake news is sitting underneath it and the importance of the truth.â€�
Alluding to the politics of Trump in the US, Bartlett went on: â€œWhen politics is corrupting and collapsing where do you turn? You turn to journalists and news.
â€œI remember in the early 2000s when there wasnâ€™t really an opposition, when Blair was in power and you had a Conservative Party that was just failing, I remember thinking then the real opposition are the journalists â€“ they are the ones asking all the questions at the moment, and it feels like thatâ€™s of vital importance right now more than any other time.â€�
According to Riley, Bartlettâ€™s writing was at times a little too prescient â€“ a story about a bomb on at Parsons Green Tube Station was removed after it happened in real life, she said.
Asked by Press Gazette how he intended to set his drama apart from recent on-screen and on-stage dramas about the press â€“ such as West End play Ink and Hollywood films Spotlight and The Post â€“ Barlett said: â€œI was always interested in writing about journalists right now.
“I think a lot of the depictions of journalists recently, in The Post or in James Grahamâ€™s brilliant play Ink, are in the past.
â€œAnd the reason Iâ€™m interested in the now is because things are changing and because it doesnâ€™t look like it used to.
“And also I found thereâ€™s a really interesting play between a nostalgia and a looking back and that driving why people would get into the industry in the first place â€“ all those tropes about â€˜get off stone at this timeâ€™ and… Fleet Street – versus thatâ€™s all been cleared away very quickly to a whole new world. I think writing on that point is really interesting for me.
â€œIn the design for Duncanâ€™s office, one wall is just a massive black and white photo of the newsroom as it used to be and I love that because itâ€™s a visual depiction of those two worlds meeting.â€�
Press airs Thursday at 9pm on BBC One.
Source: Digital Journalism