In The Fifth Estate (in cinemas now), Benedict Cumberbatch puts on a white wig and an Australian drawl to play Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. The film dramatises his clashes, as an internet pioneer, with the more traditional working methods of newspaper journalists, who, of course, are highly trained and ethical professionals.
Or are they? In the golden age of Hollywood comedy, newspaper reporters usually plotted to scoop their rivals by getting someone very rich to fall in love with them. It’s a practice that seems most forgivable in two Frank Capra classics. The peerless It Happened One Night (1934) stars Claudette Colbert as a runaway heiress and Clark Gable as the silver-tongued reporter who elopes with her. In Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Gary Cooper is the innocent who inherits $20m, and Jean Arthur is the journalist on the case.
Two decades later, Gregory Peck was putting the same moves on Audrey Hepburn’s princess in the delightful Roman Holiday (1953), but the Fifties’ most powerful depictions of the press were many shades darker. In Billy Wilder’s cynical and all-too relevant Ace in the Hole (1951), Kirk Douglas exacerbates a small-town crisis to improve the stories he’s filing. Even better is the acrid Sweet Smell of Success (1957), featuring a godlike Burt Lancaster as an all-powerful columnist and Tony Curtis as the desperate PR man who’ll do anything to win his favour.
As for the workings of newspaper offices themselves, they’re represented most accurately in Ron Howard’s smart comedy drama, The Paper (1994), starring a live-wire Michael Keaton. If someone can explain why Keaton isn’t in more films, it’ll be front-page news.