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Deeply flawed but courageous… Why we still need the press to speak truth to power

Deeply flawed but courageous… Why we still need the press to speak truth to power

Andy Walton reflects on why ‘Press’, the BBC’s recent drama series, reminds us why we still need news networks to speak truth to power.

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In the rush to apportion blame for the divisive, distrusting and deeply cynical times in which we live, one culprit has remained public enemy number one for our disquiet – the media.

Social media, 24–hour news networks and outright fake news have all been in the firing line. Yet the traditional bogeyman has born its fair share of the blame too – the press is seen as malign, cynical and even downright evil. Some of this comes from the totemic scandal of the past decade – the obscene thought of a dead girl’s phone being hacked is almost too horrible to comprehend, still. All moral propriety seemed to have gone out of the window in the search for another salacious story.

Into this deeply distrustful environment came Press – the BBC’s recent drama series based on the intertwining stories of journalists at two fictitious newspapers in London – the Herald and the Post.

Met with hoots of derision from some in the journalistic trade when it was announced and far too quickly dismissed after the first installment aired, Press went on to accrue a fair amount of praise for the issues it raised in its six–episode run. Obviously indebted to previous attempts to capture the journalistic enterprise (its better angels represented by Aaron Sorkin’s hopeful The Newsroom, while its demons surely sharing DNA with Evelyn Waugh’s darkly satirical Scoop) Press succeeded because it offered some answers to why our print media is where it is. Maybe even why our society is where it is.

To a certain extent employing dramatic licence, it was a caricature of the newsroom culture of tabloid and broadsheet newsrooms. Yet what struck home was the ethical dilemmas faced daily by journalists attempting the high minded ideals of holding truth to power alongside holding down a job in an industry which is imploding financially.

In the show we witness the rapid descent of young reporter Edward into amoral behaviour in the desperate bid to become a front page reporter. We see tabloid editor Duncan Allen pulling off many of the tricks we suspect those in his position have attempted – including threatening the Prime Minister. Allen is one of the most reprehensible characters on TV in recent years. He is deliciously, malevolently portrayed by Ben Chaplin.

In some ways it’s an unrealistic world. Rather than newspaper stories being available the night before via social media, the cast is woken early in the morning when the papers land on doorsteps. But on all the salient points, Press struck me as realistic – not inerrant, maybe, but inspired.

The series takes place in a post–#MeToo world in workplaces where the power men hold over women is all too evident. The ethical questions it mines go beyond that, though. From exposing corruption in government to child labour in the clothing industry, Press tackles the issues that dog our uncertain times.

The question it asks, repeatedly, is ‘does the press speak truth to power?’ That’s the noble and lofty claim made by the press. Yet too often in the series as in real life we’re presented with an industry that seems to side with the powerful against the lower echelons of society.

There are notable exceptions. The deeply flawed but courageous main character Holly Evans (the excellent Charlotte Riley) is shown fighting to expose the truth even at great personal cost. “You don’t have to keep trying make the world better Holly, just live in it, report it” Duncan tells her at one point. In her actions if not her words, she begs to differ.

In a pivotal scene the two protagonists meet in a church – supposed to be St Bride’s, Fleet Street – the fabled journalist’s church. The imagery is obvious – we’ve forgotten God and don’t believe in objective truth any more. Except maybe god is watching us through our devices in the form of an all seeing state–technological complex. And truth? Well truth still seems important to some journalists.

In fact a Christian actor portrays the closest thing to God in the series – David Suchet is the press baron, wielding patronage and controlling the national conversation. His editor, Duncan, undergoes a Shakespearean story arc – seemingly falling from grace before a triumph (at the expense of truth, virtue and even his own family).

Press is well set up for its second season, and I’ll be watching. It’s asking many of the right questions as to how we got here. In the meantime, as well as reinforcing me in my mission to be a good journalist, it’s reminded me we need to pray for this all–too–maligned industry. The first chance to do that is on the day of prayer for the media, this Sunday 4th November. That’s a good place to start, but as Press proves, this is a vital industry for the health of our society. That’s worthy of prayer every day.

 Image by Max Pixel under a Creative Commons license 

Andy Walton

Andy Walton

Andy Walton is a writer, broadcaster and media consultant. He is the author of the Theos report ‘Is there a ‘Religious Right’ emerging in Britain? @waltonandy 

Posted 30 October 2018

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