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A scoopless Scoop: What Netflix gets wrong about the news business in its re-creation of Newsnight’s Prince Andrew coup

Hugh Linehan: The streamer’s new drama is just another lethargic entry into the often unlovely genre of hero-journalist movies

Scoop, the new Netflix drama, is not about an actual scoop. The film’s subject, Emily Maitlis’s 2019 interview with Prince Andrew, was certainly a coup for the BBC’s Newsnight programme. And Maitlis did a fine job of helping her subject to fillet himself. But no hitherto unknown facts were uncovered, unless you include the prince’s nonoperational sweat glands. The only scoop in Scoop is portrayed in the opening sequence, set several years before the Newsnight interview, when an enterprising photographer managed to grab a picture of the prince and Jeffrey Epstein meeting in Central Park, New York.

Does this matter? Yes, because the drama begins from a false premise and goes downhill from there. It purports to be a reliable account of the business of breaking news stories for a public-service broadcaster that finds itself under pressure in the 21st-century media environment. So far, so promising. But it’s really just another lethargic entry into the often unlovely genre of hero-journalist movies.

There are different variants of hero-journalist movies. Elsewhere in these pages, Donald Clarke and Alex Garland discuss the most kinetic and exciting of them, the war-correspondent movie, which has had its own problems down the years. We should all be grateful that there are few films about opinion columnists or critics, although I am looking forward to Quentin Tarantino’s directorial farewell on the latter subject with The Movie Critic. We can all agree that subeditors are criminally under-represented.

There are, however, a lot of films about investigate journalism. Blame Alan J Pakula, who set the ball rolling with All the President’s Men. Much of the template has remained in place nearly 50 years on. Late nights in deserted offices. Rolled-up shirtsleeves and loosened ties (or the female equivalent). Tips that turn into dead ends. Endless phone calls. Repeated disappointments. Final vindication. In older variants, the presses start to roll in the final scene. In more recent ones, less evocatively, someone clicks “Publish”.

The best films about investigative journalism emphasise the values of hard graft and dogged persistence, and steer away as much as possible from cheap cliffhangers. In the right hands, such as Tom McCarthy’s, in Spotlight, or Maria Schrader’s, in She Said, all that granular procedural detail accumulates its own dramatic tension. Even these films hover perilously close to some of the cliches of the form, but they are both solid, midmarket entertainments of the old school, rooted in the facts of their respective cases (child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the crimes of Harvey Weinstein).

It adds further insult that Scoop shares its title with the greatest satire ever written about journalism, Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel

But there are a lot of bad examples. One problem is the temptation to spice up the story with thrillerish bells and whistles. More dangerous still is the tendency towards self-regard – to which the profession is always prone. That has been worsened by the current woes of the news business, which lend themselves to sermonising about how much worse off we would all be without high-quality professional journalism. That this is true is beside the point. Newsnight is rightly regarded as a UK institution and over the years has done some pretty good investigative journalism. But please don’t sermonise about it.

It adds further insult that Scoop shares its title with the greatest satire ever written about journalism, Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, described correctly by Christopher Hitchens as “a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps”.

On film, Waugh’s natural successors are not the earnest seekers for truth of All the President’s Men. They’re Burt Lancaster’s sleazy columnist in Alexander Mackendrick’s The Sweet Smell of Success or Kirk Douglas’s amoral reporter in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. And, obviously, Orson Welles’s morally riddled press baron in Citizen Kane.

Each of these films, in its own way, is as much about the messy, morally equivocal world of media as it is about journalism as a profession. And that’s a subject which the Prince Andrew scandal, with its subtexts of class deference and wilful institutional blindness to gross abuses, lends itself.

There is still hope. We are not done with Emily and Andrew. Michael Sheen and Ruth Wilson are due to play interviewee and interviewer in A Very Royal Scandal, for Prime Video. As the title suggests, this is the latest in the strand that gave us A Very English Scandal, with Hugh Grant as the disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, and A Very British Scandal, about the colourful 1963 divorce of the duchess of Argyle (played by Claire Foy). Both of these explored the entanglements of sexual hypocrisy, snobbery and media with the sort of acid wit nowhere, sadly, to be seen in Scoop.

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