Inside Story: The media - as seen on TV

For more than four decades, television has, with varying degrees of success, dramatised the working environment of the journalist. Bill Hagerty picks out the hits and misses

The celebrity wanna-make-a-mag show, Deadline, had barely departed the nation's TV screens – thankfully, most journalists would say of a reality series that did for the magazine industry what Piers Morgan's gaffes at the Mirror did for serious tabloid journalism – before ambitious reporter Judy Nash set out to discover how and why the wife of a US senator Vanished into the Five airwaves. This US series is the latest in a long and not especially distinguished line of flirtations between the small screen and the second oldest profession and presents reporting as a hard-nosed, sometimes unprincipled occupation. As if.

Most viewers would struggle to recall Glasgow Kiss (BBC1, 2000), despite an excellent performance from Iain Glen as a widowed sports reporter falling for the bean-counter (Sharon Small) sent from London to make his paper profitable. Buried even deeper in the swamplands of mediocrity is Foxy Lady (ITV, 1982, 1984), a comedy in which Diane Keen plays a feisty woman with no journalistic experience sent to edit and save the ailing weekly Ramsden Reminder. The name of the paper says it all.

There have also been plenty of single and two-part dramas, some good, some bad, and most painting an ugly portrait of a trade the average sitting room couch critic already considers – so surveys suggest – almost as disreputable as politics.

A cut above the facile in this category was the two-part Fields of Gold (BBC1, 2002), a controversial conspiracy thriller about a journalistic investigation into GM crops, but then it was written by The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, and colleague Ronan Bennett.

As for Deadline (ITV2, 2007), the alleged celebfest in which Janet Street-Porter, the paparazzi photographer Darryn Lyons and Daily Star hack Joe Mott supervised the making of a magazine by such household names as Iwan Thomas and Chris Tarrant's ex-missus, it could have been worse. Piers might have been available.

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review

Lou Grant

(1977-82)

Venerated by print journalists on both sides of the Atlantic, the tribulations of the Los Angeles Tribune won 13 Emmy and sundry other awards before CBS cancelled it after accusations that its left-wing star Edward Asner was using both the series and his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild as political soapboxes. The Grant character spun out of TV's The Mary Tyler Moore Show and back into newspapers as the incorruptible city editor all newsmen secretly yearn to be. The late Nancy Marchand – later to play Tony Soprano's wicked mother – is the paper's Kate Graham-like proprietor, Margaret Pynchon. Mrs Pynchon supports Grant and managing editor Charles Hume (Mason Adams) as reporters Joe Rossi (Robert Walden) and Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) are dispatched to cover such serious social issues as mental illness and prostitution as well as run-of-the-day accidents and earthquakes. The show also examines the trade itself, with plots about chequebook journalism, entrapment and plagiarism. Frank, fearless and fun – the Trib's the paper we'd all like to work for.

State of Play

(2003)

Recently fathoming Life On Mars as detective Sam Tyler in the hugely popular BBC series, John Simm here plays Cal McCaffrey, tenacious reporter of The Herald, in writer Paul Abbott's compelling six-part thriller. McCaffrey investigates the death of a young woman working as a researcher for a friend of his, MP Stephen Collins, and unearths a can of worms in which corrupt government ministers are wriggling. Quality casting includes David Morrissey as the MP and Bill Nighy, whose portrayal of quirky editor Cameron Foster earned him a Bafta. The film rights were subsequently sold to Universal, who have mooted Brad Pitt as McCaffrey, while Abbott has been working for some time on a second series. Simm's identifiable Mars image and Nighy's rise to star status may prove to be problems in recreating the Herald newsroom.

Ugly Betty

(2006 -)

Launched last year in its native US, the comedy series based at the New York fashion "bible" Mode magazine was adapted by Academy Award-nominated actress Salma Hayek (Frida) with Ben Silverman, who acquired the rights and scripts from the Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea in 2001. Featuring America Ferrera as Betty Suarez, secretary to wayward editor-in-chief Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), the plotlines switch between the complicated professional and private life of Betty and the cutthroat competition between members of the Meade family to control Mode. The show quickly became a hit and won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series earlier this year. Screened here by Channel 4, it contains elements of mystery, farce, satire, soap opera and camp comedy – just like the real magazine world, in fact.

Compact

(1962-65)

The BBC's second attempt at a soap opera after The Grove Family, Hazel Adair and Peter Ling's creation was set in the offices of a glossy magazine, scooping Ugly Betty (see right) by 44 years. Despite being battered by the critics, its mix of women's magazine bitchery, office romances and the middle-class mores of the staff captured a sizeable audience, boosted by the decision to screen it on Tuesdays and Thursdays, thus avoiding the already successful Coronation Street's Monday and Wednesday slots. The late Ronald Allen, who would become a fixture in Adair and Ling's Crossroads, played the editor of the eponymous mag, which the BBC, then still snooty about soaps, effectively shredded by wiping most of the taped episodes before they could be archived.

Drop the Dead Donkey

(1990-98)

Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton's award-winning parody of TV news – they originally wanted to call it Dead Belgians Don't Count – is set in the Globelink newsroom, where harassed editor George Dent (Jeff Rawle) tries to keep his team of oddballs in order while fending off the sensationalist busybodying of managing director Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan) – " Good morning, newsbusters, are we cooking with napalm today? You bet!" Globelink is owned by ruthless tycoon Sir Roysten Merchant – the joke is in the initials – who is omnipresent although actually seen only briefly at the end of the sixth and final series. Produced by Hat Trick for Channel 4 and filmed in front of a live audience the day before transmission to facilitate topicality, the show became required viewing for journalists in all areas of the industry while propelling to stardom Stephen Tomkinson (egomaniac reporter Damien Day) and Neil Pearson (reprobate sub-editor Dave Charnley). When the writers eventually dropped the donkey, Globelink was being sold and many of the staff faced unemployment.

Hot Metal

(1986, 1988)

No newspaper has yet reached the depths of the spoof Daily Crucible under the ownership of the megalomaniac Twiggy Rathbone and editorship of his lookalike, Russell Spam, for whom the journalistic gutter is a permanent address. Robert Hardy plays both parts, while Richard Kane, as reporter Greg Kettle, must have had many unscrupulous red-top hacks wincing in their shaving mirrors. Both topical and over-the-top, the two series were written by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick, creators of Whoops Apocalypse. That it failed to attract a big following may have been because the public thought it too true to tabloid life. Richard Wilson, managing editor Richard Lipton in the second series, would go on to find superstardom in Renwick's One Foot In The Grave.

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