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August 5, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:12am

Review: The Newsreader offers a rare journalistic hero and 1980s nostalgia

By Charlotte Tobitt

Journalists have traditionally not been portrayed particularly accurately, or even kindly, in UK TV and film.

Reporters from the Walford Gazette who pop up in Eastenders are typically ghoulish and ruthless.

US portrayals of reporters tend to be more rounded, as with The Morning Show on Apple TV+, which delved behind the scenes of a Good Morning America style show. Although it focused on the #MeToo stories emerging from staff, it gave plenty of time to the thrill of the story and the competition between networks. Dashing the main characters from New York to cover the horrific Mandalay Bay Las Vegas shooting in 2017 and the Californian wildfires in 2019 were a personal highlight.

Now, however, a new broadcast journalism drama is on the scene – and it comes with a dose of 1980s nostalgia to boot.

Already a hit in Australia where it was the most-watched ABC drama in 2021, The Newsreader has arrived on BBC iPlayer in the UK and is possibly the best portrayal of a newsroom seen on TV for a while.

Sure, it does the usual TV thing of focusing on a few main characters dealing with the daily 6pm bulletin while neglecting to note that many other people are in the background beavering away too. It is clearly a bigger team than the show might have viewers believe.

But for viewers like myself who were not around in the 1980s, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the stresses of reporting pre-internet.

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Our protagonist is “young Dale” as he is patronisingly called by more senior members of the team. He’s a producer and wannabe reporter on the news programme (played by Sam Reid) who proves his kind heart in the first episode and inadvertently ends up becoming closer than he would have expected to his older colleague, the newsreader Helen Norville (Anna Torv).

As their relationship develops, we follow some of the biggest 1986 Australian and international news stories via the News at Six team – including the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Halley’s Comet, Aids, and Chernobyl.

When one journalist runs all the way from a hospital where they had been conducting interviews back to the office clutching a tape of footage because their car got blocked in by a rival news team, I was sweating with them.

When a bomb goes off in downtown Melbourne and the staff in the newsroom had no way of knowing how close their crew were to the scene, or how good the footage was, I just felt grateful that nowadays we could send a quick Whatsapp message and everyone would be able to breathe a bit easier (although yes, the adrenaline of breaking news would still be racing).

And the moment a live interview between a sympathetic journalist and an man living with Aids is derailed by a second, much less open-minded journalist was just awful to watch but, I’m sure, all too common at the time – and sadly it still touched a nerve around the coverage of certain topics even today.

Even more than the newsroom action though, my main concern was Dale’s happiness. It’s rare for an ambitious character (he dearly wants to be a newsreader himself but his first attempt is cringe-inducingly bad) to be so basically good-hearted. No, he’s not perfect, but he is the perfect vessel through which to experience the cut-throat world of broadcast news.

Other typical but (mostly) nuanced newsroom characters include: underappreciated and hard-working assistant Noelene (Michelle Lim Davidson), the older newsreader Geoff who is outstaying his welcome but clings onto memories of his glory days as a correspondent (Robert Taylor), largely well-intentioned sports editor Rob (Stephen Peacocke) and let’s-get-this-done news editor Dennis (Chum Ehelepola).

More unusually the mental struggles of newsreader Helen are treated with sensitivity and show the impact such a stressful working environment (and, no doubt, being a woman in that environment) had long before mental health was ever openly discussed as such. Indeed the sexism Helen faces is one of the things viewers will definitely not be nostalgic for – ditto the heartrending theme of the stigma of being gay that gradually emerges.

Journalists have been scarred many times over by how we have been characterised to the TV-watching public. It’s usually the worst when journalist characters pop up in non-news focused shows: admittedly the BBC’s own most recent offering Press in 2018 was quite fun and gave us an enjoyable if clunky story of rivalry between proxies of The Guardian and The Sun. But back in the world of broadcast, HBO’s The Newsroom from Aaron Sorkin gave an “achingly cringe, idealised view of TV news” as Press Gazette has put it.

Thankfully, achingly cringe or idealised The Newsroom is not. Instead, it is easy to get quickly invested in the success of Dale in particular but also Helen and the whole team. And of course the inter-personal off-camera dramas are good fun too.

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