Desperate: James Nesbitt as Tony in episode two of The Missing. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Vanishing interest: The Missing is ambitious but ultimately cheesy

The plot reared up and hissed like a snake. Improbabilities. Coincidences. Unlikely connections. A frenzied cheesiness suddenly infected the story­telling.

The Missing
BBC1

One episode in and I’m in two minds about The Missing (Tuesdays, 9pm), in which the BBC rolls its tanks on to Broadchurch territory. For the first 20 minutes, my attention was held completely. I loved the look of the thing – it’s set mostly in unpretty northern France, an area that does plangent quite brilliantly all by itself, with no need for special lighting or other effects – and the acting was pleasingly understated.

I was keen, too, on how the action takes place eight years after the abduction of a small English boy, Oliver Hughes (the event was dealt with in a minimalist flashback). Ah, I thought. So this isn’t a thriller, after all; this is going to explore the after-effects of trauma on those who lived through it. The boy’s parents, Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily Hughes (Frances O’Connor), were not immediately sympathetic and this got me excited. Ambivalence is the quality that British television most often lacks – and it was impossible not to think of the McCanns, whose refusal to play the roles that were allotted to them by the wider culture has added so horribly to their burden over the years.

Then it all went wrong. The plot reared up and hissed like a snake. Improbabilities. Coincidences. Unlikely connections. A frenzied cheesiness suddenly infected the story­telling. Tony and Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the now retired cop who originally investigated Oliver’s disappearance, discovered a woman who wrote down all the details – names, addresses, items donated – of those who gave clothes to her second-hand shop. And there it was, on her ledger: a clue. (Tony was on the trail of his son’s scarf, an initialled yellow affair that he had somehow spotted around the neck of a tourist during a Bastille Day celebration.) Eh? My experience of charity shops is that most people stop inside them only long enough to shout: “No, I can’t bloody well fill in a Gift Aid form, I’m parked on a yellow line!” But what do I know?

The Missing comes with its very own reporter-parasite, Malick Suri (Arsher Ali) – and he, too, is a stranger to me, for all that I’ve been in newspapers for more than 20 years. As well resourced as a Google executive, he was perfectly happy to drop everything and follow Tony back out to France eight years on. (In real life, he’d have put in one phone call and then got straight back to Russell Brand’s Twitter feed.)

The jury, then, is out: I’m in the weird position of being both gripped and disbelieving. I love watching Karyo and his compatriot, Saïd Taghmaoui, who plays another cop; how fantastic to find such charismatic French actors in a bit of British telly. I’m interested, as well, in the character of Mark Walsh (Jason Flemyng), who is to be Emily’s new husband. Walsh was the police family liaison officer sent from Britain to support the Hughes and you long to know more about how he and Emily ended up together and what rules this breached on his side.

I am aware that this is an eight-part series; presumably, its writers – brothers Harry and Jack Williams – must have stuff in reserve. Perhaps I must simply be patient and do my best to ignore the feeling that it’s rather unlikely for a person seemingly to think nothing at all of how a childish doodle somehow appeared on their cellar wall – their cellar wall! – while they were away on holiday.

In any case, I can’t help but take heart from The Missing. It wasn’t so long ago that eight-part series were regarded as unimaginably indulgent by commissioning editors; everything was in six, or a paltry three. We gathered that they’d almost given up on us, the viewers, as people who might be able to concentrate, let alone lose ourselves in a narrative.

But Broadchurch, which built and kept a huge audience over two months, has changed all this. However clunky its plotting, the singularities of The Missing – its unlikely setting, its French stars, its withholding structure – surely bode well for the future. Ambition is, thank God, increasingly a prerequisite of new drama. Who, I wonder, will have the pluck to commission the first 12-part series of the 21st century? I’ve no idea. But I hope it happens and soon. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder