The stakes couldn’t be higher. Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) is on the phone to New York. The Americans want to go now. Nick Davies (David Thewlis) is videoconferencing with Der Spiegel. They aren’t nearly ready; “it’s like herding cats”. Then the Americans jump the gun: the New York Times site goes live. In the sofa-strewn and moodily lit Guardian editor’s office, the air turns blue. On the point of launching the Wikileaks revelations live into the world, setting in train an information revolution and transforming his newspaper’s global profile, Rusbridger turns to Ian Katz (Dan Stevens), and snaps: “Go.”
And so Katz hits the return key on his laptop.
Reporters and editors get great treatment in fiction: Hoffman, Redford and Robards in All The President’s Men; John Simm (or Russell Crowe) in State of Play; Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief; Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. The problem with being a production journalist is not so much that we get a bad press; it’s more that we’re completely invisible in every newspaper office that ever appears on screen. The production function – which involves the single largest group of employees in any newsroom* – is edited out completely. So it’s worth pointing out for the record – and without wishing to ruin the dramatic flow of future screenplays – that it’s not quite as simple as that.
If you’ve just subbed a major story for a newspaper website, you are likely to have up on your screen the following: the main text (one window); the print furniture (four to five windows); the web furniture (four to five windows); the photograph and caption information from the online photo library (two windows) the HTML editing window to insert hard codes into the article that have gone awry in the outputting process; a Jabber message from the Search Engine Optimisation executive suggesting a tweak to your headline; and a half-composed email of your own to three different desks and the US bureau informing all concerned that the story is going up.
And that’s just to get the article live. On the adjacent desk will be the network front sub – the person responsible for chopping, changing and updating the ever-rolling home page on the newspaper’s website. Open on her screen will be the home page itself (in one or more of its three regional editions), the home page omnibus editing screen, the single-column mini-editor for the particular zone of the page she is working on, and a stream of emails pouring heedlessly in from all parts of the building pleading for space on the front for recipes, football videos and liveblogs about the quarterly inflation figures.
It’s not quite as bewildering as it sounds. But the simple act of launching one article on the web involves at least six or seven clicks, and a bit of hurried recasting from at least one if not both of you. And it’s rare, to say the least, for an editor or deputy to stoop to doing something like that. Generally a news executive’s primary function when an important story goes live on the website is to peer over the shoulders of successive members of the back bench inquiring “Is it up yet?”
And it’s always fun to watch fictional reporters being allowed to write their own headlines. In the original BBC version of State of Play, John Simm as Cal McCaffrey sits in front of his terminal, late at night, administering the coup de grace to the story that will end his old friend’s career and reputation. As a silent group of reporters watches – not a sub-editor in sight – he writes the first deck of his headline: ‘COLLINS CONFESSES TO’, and then, underneath, just a single word: ‘MURDER’.
The camera pans back to the colleagues gathered around him. At which point, if this had been the real world, one of them would have cocked their head to one side and observed: “That’s not much of a fill, is it?” But no: Della the junior reporter leans forward to click away the dialogue box that McCaffrey cannot bring himself to close. The camera turns to one of the paper’s senior executives. “That’s it,” he says finally. And the presses start rolling.
It was a great moment, and a great series. But part of me thinks it would only have been improved if someone from the SEO team had rushed up to say breathlessly: “You know, Google’s going to love it if we use his full name.”
* On the Tribune’s Saturday print shift, the news staffing typically breaks down as follows. SEO executives: one. Administrators: two. Graphics: two. Picture desk: three. Designers: three. Newsdesk, including senior editorial: five. Reporters (excluding out-of-office regional/foreign correspondents): Six. Sub-editors: fourteen.