Maybe “killed” is too strong a word. The 2003 BBC miniseries, with its raft of stars who are by now adored on all shores of the Atlantic (Bill Nighy, James McAvoy, Kelly MacDonald) — even if it’s mostly for playing a Doctor Who supervillain (poor John Simm) — may not have committed the murder, but it certainly inscribed the epitaph, because frankly, “journalism movies” will never get much better, nor take the same form, in its wake.
Cal McCaffrey (Simm) has just spent six episodes leading his team of reporters through the labyrinth to nail down the story — a complex stitch of relationships based on greed, power, sex, murder, and all the other venal sins that fuel journalism. Battered to his core, McCaffrey makes his way down into the belly of his newspaper office — to the press room, where tomorrow’s broadsheets flump out fresh-printed and newborn to be scattered across the doorsteps of London. That’s the completion of McCaffrey’s own story, when the story goes out the door in tangible, material form.
That image, of papers rolling off the press, was beginning to feel quaint in 2003, at least in the U.S. Maybe Britain, with its long dysfunctional relationship with its newspapers (as played out in the News of the World scandal), holds a different regard for the print product, so that image meant something different (eternal?) for viewers when the series originally went to air. Or maybe not. Maybe series writer/creator Paul Abbott and director David Yates (later to helm the Harry Potter films) meant the flow of print off the press to be seen as ironic, a last gasp, a dagger flung from newspapering’s deathbed.
There is not one mention in Abbott/Yates’ “State of Play” about the Internet, blogs, aggregators — some of these terms were still years from popular use. There’s an incriminating e-mail, but it’s printed out, and nobody’s even bothering to Google anybody when they want to find dirt. Instead, they’re cajoling, flirting, working short cons, archive-diving, buying off sources, even, yes, bugging hotel rooms and wearing wires. (Three of the things that separate British journalism from the American version: the casual, even reckless *coughNewsCorpcough* attitude toward covert surveillance; the arcane libel laws that handcuff legitimate and bloodsucking investigators alike; and the government’s leverage to restrain publication through the D-Notice, officially renamed the DA-Notice twenty years ago.) We’re led to believe the journalistic ecosystem is still quite healthy, with no predators large enough or parasites insinuative enough to cull the herd.
Compare that to the Hollywood big-screen adaptation of 2009, in which the central journalist’s main conflict is with an on-staff blogger, and more egregiously, we’re asked to believe that Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck are former college roommates.
Note the difference in dynamic: Crowe has no team, he has a partner/acolyte. McCaffrey is lead reporter on his story, but he’s one of many, each exercising a particular set of skills and strengths. The drama of a press run starting up — or being stopped — is undermined in the blog-oriented world by the fact that most news reported by American papers now appears online first, even if it’s accompanied by a traditional print edition later. An iconic visual pivot point in the journalism narrative, which in films since the 1930s has always landed like a gut punch, is now an afterthought.
“State of Play” has its antecedents in real life, and it cleverly inverts elements of the Profumo affair — the single biggest newspaper story in Britain’s history, the one by which all other political scandals are measured. Instead of sleeping with the Cabinet minister and perhaps passing intel to the Soviet Navy, the woman at the center of the scandal is sleeping with the MP and definitely passing intel to the oil conglomerate that stands to benefit from inside knowledge. Instead of Jamaican drug dealers whose missteps break the story open, we have a West Indian bystander accused of drug dealing, turned into a patsy to further sinister interests. And so on. McCaffrey and his team must apply pressure at various levels of London society — cops, socialites, working class families, administrative secretaries — to force the whole story to congeal. And their central Profumo figure (David Morrissey) is as frail and conflicted as any of them … no easy figurehead to topple.
All of it is a reminder that journalism is, at its core, about people. The human story is made of humans’ stories, whether it’s reported by newsprint or blog or bloody Morse code, and the truth is never found at the top. “State of Play” is about muckrakers — people as dirty as the epithet implies — without whom the topsoil would never be turned. Newspapers, in their ideal form, were the medium in which they best fulfilled that function. Time, technology, and economics have outrun both the truth and the fiction.
(My favorite character in all of this? Insectile newspaper lawyer Adam Greene, played by Christopher Simpson. So still and calculating as to be dangerous, he’s exactly the attorney you want on retainer if your article proves explosive enough to topple Westminster. And Simpson is a damn fine actor.)