Fictional newsrooms have always been more glamorous than the reality

Sorkin's The Newsroom isn't alone in sexing up the day-to-day grind of journalism on screen.

The Newsroom has faced a mixed reception, but it’s the latest in a long line of dramas to use journalism as a stage for drama. Here are some other attempts to render the business of newsgathering into entertaining stories, with variable results...

One of the problems about The Newsroom is its immediate comparison to a host of other attempts to show "the lives behind the anchors". Network (1976) and Broadcast News (1987) are two of the most obvious examples, and without them there probably wouldn’t have been Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, an improvised adventure set at San Diego’s KVWN channel. The strict “I love lamp” adherence to autocue, the catty male vs female anchor, the jazz flute... It had it all. Was it a fair reflection of a newsroom, as a bunch of socially inept misfits with monstrous egos all attempting to fight one another? Maybe closer than you might think.

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman".

A lot of that groundwork had been covered by Channel 4’s hit-and-miss Drop the Dead Donkey, a show that aimed to provide topical comedy and sitcom in one hit. Something had to give, and it was the satire that didn’t quite come off, though the hastily-filmed last-minute jokes must have provided something of the thrill of a real newsroom on deadline. It did provide some wonderfully cynical moments, though, with

The newsroom from "Drop the Dead Donkey".

In terms of print journalism, All the President’s Men is the obvious place to go, but the more fictional offices of the Daily Planet are worth a closer look, from the first (and only good) Superman films. The seething chemistry between Margot Kidder’s crabby reporter Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve’s folksy alien hack was really something special. Watch this scene and you’ll enjoy not only the interplay between Reeve, Kidder and Jackie Cooper but also the rather quaint newspaper atmosphere:

“It’s got everything, it’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got the ethnic angle” says Lois, pitching her story idea to editor Perry White. “You’re pushing a bunch of rinkydink tabloid garbage,” sighs White. An editor with principles! A rare breed indeed.

My favourite depiction of Fleet Street – and it really was Fleet Street – is in 1961’s The Day The Earth Caught Fire. It’s a story that probably seems entirely implausible today, given that the conceit rests on the Daily Express (yes, the Daily Express) honestly reporting a genuine catastrophe (rather than, say, catastrophising a slightly drizzly afternoon, as is the case in 2012).

The presses roll in "The Day The Earth Caught Fire".

It jars slightly in another way: the journalists are heroes, not the sneaky phonehacking lowlife we know they all are (all of them, without exception) nowadays. It’s the honest hacks who are the ones trying to get the truth out while the powers that be attempt to conceal it. Filmed in the Express offices, it captures an era that won’t ever return: the crossword compositor perched in front of his grid of letters, a giant sign demanding “IMPACT!” hanging from the ceiling, and the presses actually rolling within a hundred miles of the people writing the news. Those were the days.

But those of us who are of a certain age see only one thing when they think of a TV newsroom – Press Gang. The simmering sexual frisson between Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher! The fact they somehow managed to produce an entire newspaper – The Junior Gazette – every week despite having no feasible form of revenue! The way they were barely out of school but managed to scoop all other news outlets! The weird flashbacks and dream sequences!

Julia Sawalha in "Press Gang".

But my god, it was glamorous. If you didn’t have a yen to be a hack after watching five minutes of that, you never would. It was certainly what made me want to become a journalist, back in the day. One day, I told myself, I would work in a place like that, where young people wore CASUAL CLOTHING and REPORTED on PROPER NEWS and all that.

Of course, reality wasn’t quite the same. My first newsroom was a tin shack in the middle of a horrible industrial estate, with water gushing in through the ceiling and over the electrical cables. One false move and you’d be zapped across the banks of slumbering corduroy-covered subs and impaled on a giant metal spike (which hadn’t yet been outlawed by the elfnsafety killjoys). Did we have two-hour lunches though? Yes, we did. At least in those days there was a healthily tolerant attitude towards drinking in the workplace, which has sadly never quite been replicated on screen.

The stories weren’t quite as fun, mind. There wasn’t much challenging authority and sticking it to the man with a last-minute deadline: it was all tedious nibs about craft fairs, school fetes and overgrown front gardens (leading to the memorable front-page headline "OAPs TRAPPED BY 3FT LAWN").

No wonder we’re a little more drawn to the less realistic, more glamorous, more exciting side of newsgathering when it comes to dramas. Give me the fake newsroom world with its huge egos and lingering sexual tension rather than the reality of tedious copied-and-pasted press releases any day...

 

The Newsroom's anchor, played by Jeff Daniels. Image: HBO.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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