In his latest film, 'Divorcing Jack', David Thewlis plays a drunken reporter. Rob Younge asks if this notion of journalists is outdated now that they've moved into shiny new offices

When the film Divorcing Jack goes on general release next week, it will confirm in many minds the standard image of journalists: David Thewlis plays Dan Starkey, a misanthropic columnist on the Belfast Evening News. He's a womaniser, full of one-liners and alcohol. The film is full of jibes like, "Is there anything funnier than a journalist wrestling with his conscience?"

But deep down, Starkey is an honest Bob. Whilst sycophantic hacks clap the prime ministerial candidate Michael Brinn (Robert Lindsay), Starkey denounces him as an "oilslick with platitudes" and ferrets for the truth. His job description is, in his own words, "shit-stirring". A pretty harsh portrayal, but is it an image most journalists would recognise?

The reality, laments Frank Johnson, editor of the Spectator, is very different. "Everyone's sober. Now newspapers are run much more like merchant banks or corporations." Jon Slattery, acting editor of the UK Press Gazette, confirms,"there has been a sea change. The moves to Wapping and Canary Wharf have had a huge effect. Journalists today are much less close to pubs and clubs, they're less concentrated in one place so the image of lunchtime as booze opportunity has gone out the window. Most papers are fairly tightly staffed, and there's less money washing around. People looked at the economics of Fleet Street a decade ago, realised it was crazy, and tried to rationalise it."

None of which has diminished the mythologies that surround journalism. Ever since Evelyn Waugh published Scoop, his novel about hacks reporting the war in Abyssinia, there has been a mingling of fact and fiction about the newspaper industry. Journalists have been seen as purveyors of truth, toiling away at oily typewriters (All The President's Men), as calculating and ambitious cynics (The Front Page), or as mean muck-rakers, truffling through private lives (in Eastenders this week Polly Becker of the Walford Gazette has been busy stiching up Gita and Sanjay).

Swanning around clubs and pubs, enjoying punch-ups and put-downs; it's an image of journalism that many who remember the "golden age" of Fleet Street are fond of recalling. In his autobiography, Bill Deedes (the model, allegedly, for Waugh's protagonist in Scoop, William Boot) remembers how he first landed a job on a newspaper; it was, he says, "a deplorable example of privilege, nepotism, elitism". The managing editor of the Morning Post "craved a gun on my uncle's shoot", and so employed the young Deedes to curry favour. Once on the first rung of the ladder, Deedes enjoyed all the trappings of Fleet Street, like "leaving a night club just before dawn one summer's morning", and then playing 18 holes of golf in "white tie, wing collar, tails and patent-leather shoes".

Frank Johnson used to work on the Daily Telegraph when it was still based at Fleet Street. "Pubs were where scores were settled. I was a parliamentary sketch writer, and I remember one day in the Kings and Keys (sadly, now an Irish theme pub) the leader writer lurched towards me, to say 'F**k off, get back to the Sun where you f**king belong.' In the next editorial meeting he just commented to me on an interesting development in some corner of the world. Olympian, distinguished writers became raving lunatics after lunch. You never knew when you were about to be turned on. There were marvellous resentments and wonderful honesty.

"We used to adjourn to the pub, order immense amounts of alcohol, and when the stuff was written there would be a frantic search for the phone. Of course there was usually only one phone in the pub." John Graham, another veteran of Fleet Street, recalls: "You had to be somewhere that the paper knew they could find you. If you were needed, someone would just pass the word to Danny behind the bar. It was part of an information exchange."

"But alcohol is a necessary fuel for journalism," slurs Francis Wheen, who works for Private Eye. "You're more likely to get a good story sat in a pub, chatting over a beer. Otherwise you miss out on the texture of life. The best stories involve rackety characters in pubs and bars; but now stories are thinly disguised PR puffs, about what Paula Yates is up to."

Private Eye is - more than any other - responsible for the image of modern journalism through its "Street of Shame" column. Wheen says, "I hope it's a fair portrait. But I do think it's true that journalism has changed, and that there used to be far more drinking and fighting in the old days. Now that hacks have been shipped out to godforsaken suburbs they're often sitting in air-conditioned offices, and staring at screens."

Tim Gopsill (editor of the NUJ's Journalist magazine) points to the changing job description of journalism, where - in Gopsill's words - "journalists have a heavier responsibility for production". More than truth-seeking scribblers, journalists have become technicians and designers. Time is so precious that lunch-time is for the gym, rather than the pub, and Evian is the tipple of choice.

John has recently moved from the Yorkshire Post to a national broadsheet. "Beneath the glamour, the brushes with the interesting and famous at parties and lunches lie long hours. That's why journalists marry journalists, then usually end up divorcing them. It's sad, but journalists will spend much more time with their monitors and Macs than their kids."

Gopsill believes that these and other changes - lack of unionisation, declining news content in newspapers - have led to a lack of self-respect amongst journalists: "British journalists express themselves cynically ... they don't take themselves seriously. American journalists are grand, they see it as part of their duty to hold the executive to account."

Mike Bromley, a lecturer in Journalism Studies at Cardiff University, agrees: "British journalists are not as high-minded as their American counterparts." He says that applicants to Cardiff's journalism course "usually come out with the fourth estate stuff, about people needing to be informed and so on. But journalism isn't just about the White House, it's about lifestyles, whether you should buy a new washing machine, and so on."

The result is that those working on hard news are now in the minority; people like the Thewlis character, chasing a politician, investigating the peace process, are rare. "The glass wall", says Bromley, "between business and editorial is going. There's a trend to smaller and less experienced staff, with more imput from marketing and advertising."

The other significant change is the increase of women in the workplace; 36 per cent of the NUJ's members are female. Mary Ann Sieghart is an assistant editor on the Times, and a committee member of Women in Journalism. "Papers are tighter ships and it's harder to be a passenger. Having women around helps, especially if they're confident and don't feel the need to drink at every opportunity. But that just reflects the mores of the times: people smoke less, drink less, swear a bit less."

But one female, Oxford graduate working at Associated Newspapers as a junior reporter says the changes shouldn't be overemphasised. "There is an awful lot of banter, and if you're a woman there's an obvious starting point. Working in High Street Kensington [where Associated Newspapers are based] means there's still a lot of getting drunk and behaving badly. We even have a smoking office."

As far as expenses go, "there are still stories of photographers putting down 'old rope' and getting paid for it. Expenses are seen as compensation, making up for long hours, for interruptions to your private life. No one here would want their expenses investigated too closely."

But the days are gone when journalists could be freeloaders, reimbursing themselves for endless expenses. "At party conferences", Johnson recalls, "I used to hang around the Mirror and Express executives at meal times, hoping they would invite me along. You knew you would get lobster and champagne."

Wheen agrees: "In the old days, the Mirror and the Express, now fantastically stingy, used to spend huge amounts of money on wild goose chases. You could come in from the pub and say, 'I've had a tip-off that Lord Lucan is in South Africa', get a freebie out there, and on your return just confess, 'I'm afraid I couldn't find the old boy.'" In the Eighties, TV companies had bizarre expenses rituals like a "notional taxi" (whereby if it was a situation where you could legitimately take a cab, but didn't, you could claim for it).

And there are still, says Wheen, "reprobates and dissolute behaviour"; like Adam Helliker allegedly being punched by Nigel Dempster when he announced he was leaving the Mail to go to the Sunday Telegraph. When hacks recently tracked police suspect Kenneth Noye to the Costa del Sol they were, according to Wheen, "all blotto on sangria". So maybe journalism is still a lot less puritan than we pretend, the offices still the steamy "intellectual brothels" Leo Tolstoy observed a century ago.

'Divorcing Jack' goes on general release on October 2