Unrealistic portrayals of news gathering in fiction aren’t news. In fact so commonplace are they that it would be more noteworthy to see a depiction that rang true.
The journalist character – invariably an unscrupulous one – has been a staple of film and TV since their earliest days. Yet each wrong iteration still makes us hacks bristle. I recall my social media being one long howl of outrage at the height of the popularity of Broadchurch, which set the press just one ethical notch up from the killer.
But unrealistic journalists on screen are a given. What I’m keen to discuss today is the unrealistic lifestyles of journalists on screen. Because this week saw the return of Ricky Gervais’s hit comedy-drama After Life, one of the best examples of this trope.
Gervais plays Tony, a widower struggling to come to terms with his loss. He also works as a feature writer on the fictional Tambury Gazette, an occupation that sees him interviewing a series of local eccentrics without apparently ever realising that the single most extraordinary character in the town is his colleague, surely the last staff photographer on a small circulation local paper left in Britain.
Tony rarely seems to file any copy yet his editor seems more concerned about his mental well-being than his weekly’s blank features pages. And, after each indolent and unproductive day, Tony returns to his gorgeous three-storey semi where he lives alone with his dog.
The house used in filming is actually in Hampstead, just off the Heath, and would in real life cost comfortably north of £3 million. The rest of the Tambury locations are spread between the commuter-belt towns of Hemel Hempstead, Rickmansworth and Beaconsfield but even if it were here I think Tony’s extremely des res would cost close to £1 million which he would be funding with his salary of….£25,000 or so.
‘Pretty much just me doing it all’
A veteran journalist friend lives within this triangle in west Hertfordshire and east Buckinghamshire and relates how one local paper was lately so impoverished that its offices closed and the tiny remaining editorial team would meet in the local Costa on Monday mornings for a chat in lieu of a conference. But those meetings were a relative golden age as said title now longer exists, having been swallowed up by its bigger nearby sister title.
I spoke to a reporter covering this patch and she actually laughed when I asked if they have designated feature writers. “It’s pretty much just me doing it all,” she said. “We haven’t had a feature writer or photographer for years.”
Gervais of course is not alone in unrealistic journalist lifestyle portrayals. In 2018’s BBC drama Press, Ben Chaplin played the editor of a thinly-disguised Sun whose domestic scenes involved panoramic views over central London at night. In fact every Sun editor I’ve known – and there’ve been a few – has lived in quite boring houses in the suburbs.
The same year gave us Girlfriends in which Miranda Richardson played the features editor of a wedding magazine which, rather than seeing her struggling to afford a mortgage on a one-bed flat, apparently afforded her a mansion, sports car and glamorous lifestyle until – in the show’s only moment of realism – she was shafted by her editor.
And then there were the Bridget Jones films, our heroine’s haplessness as a junior reporter on local TV news not cramping her style as she lived in a flat on Borough Market worth at least £1m. And if anything the syndrome is even worse across the Atlantic: see Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw living in a $3m apartment on 300 words a week.
My personal favourite was 2006’s Christmas rom com The Holiday in which Kate Winslet played a junior obituary writer on The Daily Telegraph while living alone in a picture-postcard cottage in the Surrey hills.
Joking aside, there is a serious point here. Such depictions are arguably lulling the public into ignoring the critical state of the industry, local news outlets in particular.
Seamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, said: “Sadly, it’s all make-believe. Editorial budgets have been cut to the bone and very few, if any, regional newspapers have features writers for designated titles. Even rarer still are staff photographers.
“As for a non-productive newsroom journalist, that’s an oxymoron. There’s no time for the casual chats. The constant pressure of never-ending deadlines has eliminated the concept of downtime. As for the mansion at the edge of town that’s more likely to be owned by the proprietor.”
Former NUJ president Tim Dawson said: “Ricky Gervais comes as close to accurately representing the typical life of a local journalist as does Tintin. Scores of small-town newspapers have just one reporter. Filling pages is, for most, a relentless grind. Rare too, are newsroom staff of Gervais’ age.”
In fairness in this new series Gervais does address the question of that house – attributing it to the dead wife’s career rather than Tony’s. But if he really wants to strike a blow for realism in Season 4 perhaps he should consider having Tony being made redundant.
*After Life 3 is streaming on Netflix
John Sturgis is a veteran newsdesk staffer on The Evening Standard and The Sun, now freelancing across Fleet Street.
Picture: Netflix/PA Wire