The PBS Drama That Untangles British Journalism

Press is a fascinating, periodically clunky series about newspapers at war.

Ben Chaplin plays Duncan Allen, a tabloid editor untroubled by integrity, in PBS's Press. (PBS)

It’s reasonably obvious from just the first minute of Press what kind of Serious British Drama this is going to be. It has the theatrical credentials of the writer Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster, King Charles III), whose plays and TV dramas tend to be wry, timely autopsies of British institutions. It has oppositional central characters: the satanically charismatic tabloid editor Duncan Allen (played by Ben Chaplin) and the pious, self-sacrificing lefty reporter Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley), whose attachment to burgundy turtlenecks is her most unpredictable quality. There are characters clearly based on real people, like a trollish, gleefully offensive columnist named Wendy Bolt, and a prominent female politician caught up in a drugs scandal. There are face-offs with the prime minister. There are more charged debates about the rot in the fabric of modern Britain and the role of the individual in society than in the third act of a David Hare play.

And yet Press—which is airing weekly on PBS after debuting on the BBC last year—can be enthralling. Partly, this is a work finding its target audience of someone personally invested in the future of media. If you’re not at least casually curious about the ideological and ethical fault lines of the scurrilous British news industry, needless to say, this might not be the show for you. Moreover, Bartlett, who is just 39, seems to have done his research in a newsroom from 1999, where journalists obsess over print layouts and shoe-leather reporting but never mindlessly scroll Twitter or go into fugue states gazing at Chartbeat. Still, with his two central characters, Bartlett sets up a conflict that demands an answer—what is journalism for?—while also letting his audience voyeuristically experience the thrill of the chase.

Press takes place in a version of London where two newspapers vie for scoops, eyeballs, and impact, one more successfully than the other. The red-top tabloid The Post, which Duncan edits, is a thinly veiled version of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s brash, ethically untroubled daily paper that often claims to have so much power over its millions of readers that it can influence elections and referenda alike. The Herald, where Holly is the deputy news editor, is a fictional take on The Guardian, a left-of-center, straight news outlet that’s perennially cash-strapped and bleeding readers. The Herald’s employees see themselves as performing a public duty. The Post’s think that the highest function of news is entertaining readers. “The Post is sexist, sensationalist, and doesn’t check its facts,” Holly tells Duncan primly in one of their earliest encounters. “I know,” he replies, unctuously. “It’s a lot more fun.”

The old adage about fictional female reporters decrees that there can only be two types: the kind who get drunk a lot and sleep with people they shouldn’t, and the kind who dress exclusively in shapeless knitwear and khakis. Holly, by some miracle of imagination, manages to be both. By day, she scours hospitals for sources and hectors a young acolyte (played by Game of Thrones’s Ellie Kendrick) about the importance of old-school reporting; by night she drinks compulsively, grieves a lost friend, and takes home a youthful intern from the Post, Ed (Paapa Essiedu). Riley plays Holly with equal parts dourness and magnetism, qualities that should be physically impossible to combine. You love to watch her, even when all she’s doing is squinting grimly at a laptop screen or frowning at people in meetings.

With Holly, and with The Herald, Press gets to pay homage to some of the best American journalism movies. (A Post reporter, after stealing a huge scoop from Herald writers, crows that he feels like he’s in a scene from Spotlight.) There’s a high-minded story line about a foreign correspondent who’s been fudging his reporting that mulls the kind of trust readers put in their media institutions. Holly reports out a colossal scandal about a high-profile billionaire who’s been abusing his power over very young women. Herald writers research stories about clothing companies relying on child labor and a shadowy MI5 operation known only by a code name. Even a small story Holly uncovers about budget cuts at a local hospital turns into a riveting showdown between a journalist and an exhausted executive, both intent on claiming the moral high ground.

It’s the scenes set at The Post, though, that best unpack the phenomenon of a certain kind of British journalism, where sex and scandal are paramount, ideally both at the same time. In the first episode, the rookie reporter Ed goes on his first “death knock,” doorstepping the family of a Premier League soccer star who’s just died by suicide. Ed, who failed to win a spot on the Herald’s trainee scheme, is clearly appalled by what he’s tasked with doing—informing grieving parents about their son’s sexuality one day, secretly taping a children’s TV presenter’s rants at a party the next. Day by day though, as his scoops repeatedly lead the paper, Ed’s integrity gets beaten down by the power of the front page.

Meanwhile, nothing is subtle about Duncan, a metaphorical devil hopping from shoulder to shoulder of Britain’s most powerful people. Chaplin, a consistently underrated actor, is extraordinary in the role, cutting Duncan’s burn-it-all-down energy with a strange kind of pragmatism. “There isn’t a solution to the world, and more often than not there isn’t progress,” he tells Holly in one scene, where they’re arguing over what journalism should do. “That’s why we’re making money and you’re not.” Duncan sits calmly through confrontations with the prime minister and hires sex workers for company. The only person who seems to wield any power over him is George Emmerson (David Suchet), the owner of The Post, a kind of reverse-Murdoch who’s dismayed by his paper’s trashy leanings.

As a primer on the nefarious influence of British tabloid journalism—a story that’s ever more timely and relevant—Press is entertaining. As a drama with A Point, it can veer toward cliché, with its sneering plutocrats and obvious sympathy for the Herald’s lofty ideals. But there’s something deeply satisfying in seeing how differently the sausage gets made, whether it’s 24-hour scandals about TV personalities or sober exposés about hospital budget cuts. For all Duncan’s seamier instincts, Bartlett presents the editor as someone willing to burn anyone anytime, no matter how powerful or connected—a quality that can occasionally make the Post invaluable. Whether Holly, by comparison, is admirably principled or woefully naive is left up to the viewer to decide.