This review contains spoilers.
“Why don’t they just come out?” asks tabloid editor Duncan Allen in new BBC One drama Press. He’s in the morning editorial meeting, bemoaning the suicide of a talented young footballer blackmailed over his sexuality.
A successful, persuasive and by no means stupid man, Allen already knows the answer to his question. They don’t “just come out”, mate, because your venal rag would breathlessly splash the most personal and sensitive details of their private lives on the front page while sanctimoniously waving the banner of public interest, and then carelessly discard their wrung-dry corpse in favour of your next victim.
It’s easy to tell that I already hate Allen—played here with supreme flair by Ben Chaplin—which means that Mike Bartlett’s new drama Press is working. It’s especially working because I don’t just hate Allen, I’m also begrudgingly impressed and entertained by him. His expert handling of Carla Mason (Lorna Brown), an MP facing an historical sex-and-coke outing, is horrific in its competence. It’s always fun to watch clever people on TV being good at their job, and especially so when their job—like that of a hitman, or international jewel thief—is fascinatingly corrupt.
Allen isn’t so good at his job that The Post isn’t making a loss for its sleekly moneyed proprietor George Emmerson (David Suchet), who sidles up in a luxurious black car like the gangster he probably is. Newspapers are going up in flames, a metaphor Press’ opening credits takes literally. The Post needs proper journalism, chides Emmerson, not PR puff and gossip. Get the real thing, he tells Allen, poach someone if you have to.
Conveniently, this wily fox is situated right next to a chicken coop and inside it is just the hen. Holly Evans, clever and principled but cynical and exhausted, a deputy news editor at “crusading, liberal leftie” The Herald. Evans has an eye for detail and a way with words (years ago she described Allen in print as “a misogynist, overbearing, well-oiled bully,” muck that stuck, which he recites back to her, revealing a chink in his confident armour). Played by Charlotte Riley, she’s psychologically about as robust as the print industry, which is to say, flagging.
The reason for that, beyond being overworked and underappreciated, is a very recent bereavement. Her flatmate died three days ago in, it turns out, the hit-and-run Holly has been sniffing around for a conspiracy story. It’s a jarring development revealed as the end-of-episode-one twist that shows Holly to be more vulnerable than her wry no-nonsense demeanour makes her appear.
There are more plot and characters seeds sown in episode one. Investigative reporter James (Al Weaver) meets an MI5 whistleblower who stops before the whistle even reaches his lips. Duncan Allen is estranged from his wife and son. The Herald editor Amina Chaudury (Priyanga Burford) is dating post-divorce. There’s a Leveson-informed hearing calling for press regulation…
The episode’s most successful story though, belongs to Paapa Essidu as Ed Washburn, a cub reporter for The Post. Ed navigating between the twin pulls of conscience and ambition in the reporting of the aforementioned footballer’s death stages something real and vital and being debated in A Level Media Studies classes around the country. What is the job of a newspaper? What counts as news? At what point does public interest cross over into salacious gossip and exploitation?
Ed’s not a bad person—that much is clear from his decent behaviour to a drunk, solicitous Holly—but in the moral battle of ambition vs. conscience, we saw what won. Pressured by his bosses, he abused the trust of people in pain, and to sell some papers and get a pat on the back, made their suffering worse.
Like the title of The Jam song that plays as Allen sits alone in his darkened flat: that’s entertainment.
Press continues next Thursday at 9pm on BBC One.