Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett had spent years “quite a long time ago” pitching a show set in a newsroom – “a workplace drama a bit like the West Wing” – but no-one was interested in journalists or the media.
“Then Leveson happened, [phone] hacking, and suddenly it became clear that actually the public was very interested in where their news comes from,” 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 it’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.”
Press will run as a mini-series of six 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 “founded in Yorkshire”, 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 “amalgam” of stories they had heard and researched.
Charlotte Riley (pictured top right), who plays Herald deputy editor Holly Evans – one of the show’s main characters – said she also spoke with former Independent on Sunday editor Lisa Markwell to research her role.
“She was really forthcoming with the personal effect [the job had] on her life and the difficult things that she’d been through and how she was still in the thick of it going through that,” said Riley.
“I was quite shocked at how tough the job is and how it really affects the whole of the journalists’ lives – they really do take their work home.”
She added: “But 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.”
She said the Guardian and Mirror were “quite different environments” but there was a “definite openness and welcoming us in that we were taking an interest in the industry” from journalists at both newspapers.
The fictional offices of the Herald and the Post are a literal stone’s throw from each other, across a street in real-life Clerkenwell, London. In reality today’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 “two contrasting worlds”, according to director Tom Vaughan, which meant pushing them in opposite directions stylistically.
“One is bigger and shinier than the other,” he said in reference to the Post’s sleek and conspicuously tidy offices. “Obviously we went to every newspaper we could possibly get into… and stole bits from everything and tried to come up with these two contrasting worlds,” he said.
That included printing an enormous black and white picture of the old newsroom in Post editor Duncan Allen’s (Ben Chaplin) office – apparently influenced by a black and white photo in the Mirror’s editors office.
Bartlett said that while the characters come first and were the “heart” of the drama, it was also about “understanding that the [news industry] has been the same for a long time and now cannot be the same, that has to change – and that’s going to have bad consequences and really good consequences”.
He added: “I 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.
“How we get there, who pays for it and how we receive it, how they do it and crucially who we trust – 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.
“I think it’s really interesting and fascinating working on a show where I would ask journalists what’s going to happen in two years’ time in terms of an issue and they would all go: ‘I have no idea’.
“They could guess, but events are happening very quickly – so that’s thrilling to be doing a show in that world.”
He said the climate in newsrooms as a result of these unknowns was one of “fear” and was “quite often pessimistic, in terms of the industry”.
But, he added: “If there was a pessimism about the industry it didn’t stop them doing their jobs, it didn’t stop them caring about it and wanting to do more and better and achieve more.
“They all had different viewpoints, coming from different places, but there was a drive underneath this thing that it’s important.”
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 – sending junior reporters out to court rooms, for example – and the hours it entails.
She said that in preparing for the show she was struck that “in a lot of ways journalists are performative” and that some aspects of their lives reminded her of actors’ lives “because 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 it”.
She added: “The 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 – 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, Burford’s character shines a light on the lack of diversity in newsrooms in the real world, with only two 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 that’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 level her role in Press had changed how she felt about journalists.
“Unfortunately for journalists now I’m completely intrigued by them and what they do and how they do it,” she said.
Riley said she had also come to understand that “not every story that a journalist pursues is something they’ve chosen to pursue – they’ve been asked to turn up to meet you, or to watch something, or pursue something.
“Sometimes it’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 didn’t realise…”.
She added: “It’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.”
While Bartlett said the show “analyses the importance of truth,” because it takes a year or two to make it won’t be topical in terms of covering US President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the media as “enemies of the people” or the issue of so-called “fake news”.
But, he said: “That question of truth and fake news is sitting underneath it and the importance of the truth.”
Alluding to the politics of Trump in the US, Bartlett went on: “When politics is corrupting and collapsing where do you turn? You turn to journalists and news.
“I remember in the early 2000s when there wasn’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 – they are the ones asking all the questions at the moment, and it feels like that’s of vital importance right now more than any other time.”
According to Riley, Bartlett’s writing was at times a little too prescient – 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 – such as West End play Ink and Hollywood films Spotlight and The Post – Barlett said: “I 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 Graham’s brilliant play Ink, are in the past.
“And the reason I’m interested in the now is because things are changing and because it doesn’t look like it used to.
“And also I found there’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 – all those tropes about ‘get off stone at this time’ and… Fleet Street – versus that’s all been cleared away very quickly to a whole new world. I think writing on that point is really interesting for me.
“In the design for Duncan’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 it’s a visual depiction of those two worlds meeting.”
Press airs Thursday at 9pm on BBC One.