Scoop: Netflix depiction of Prince Andrew interview is a welcome addition to the journalism film canon

April 10, 2024 - 5:53 PM
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Screengrab from the official trailer of Netflix's Scoop posted on their YouTube channel on March 18, 2024 (Netflix/YouTube)

The car crash interview with Prince Andrew was indeed a scoop for then BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. Its depiction in the new Netflix film Scoop is a reminder of the power of the one-to-one interview where, as in a courtroom drama, the subject has nowhere to hide from a well-informed investigator.

The 2019 interview led directly to Andrew’s withdrawal from royal duties. But the Netflix version focuses less on the consequences for the royals, and more on the scaffolding that supports a great news story.

Gillian Anderson gives us a small glimpse of Maitlis’ brilliance as an interviewer. Although, beyond the uncanny physical resemblance, Anderson plays her far too steely and lacking in any warmth, doing her no favors.

Advised, just before the cameras roll, to go for the jugular, Maitlis is instead shown carefully paying out rope, yard by yard, allowing the over-indulged and spoilt Andrew to hang himself with his famous references to sweating and pizza.

The behind-the-scenes story is told from the point of view of Newsnight’s interview booker, Sam McAlister. Played by Billie Piper, McAlister is the middlebrow outsider who struggles to be taken seriously. The film lays bare the clashing egos and tensions in any news team. It’s refreshing to see how many cogs and wheels it takes to make a great piece of journalism, not just the heroic reporter or news anchor.

Scoop is highly watchable, but without serious jeopardy for Maitlis or McAlister, it doesn’t quite measure up to the greats in the history of journalism on screen. There is no “gotcha” moment — just confirmation of what we already suspected about the character of the late queen’s favorite son.

A long history

There is a long and honorable tradition of filmmakers turning real-life journalistic scoops into feature-length movies. By sprinkling cinematic stardust over otherwise dull procedurals — hours of careful note-taking, sleepless nights of patient watching and listening — directors have transformed newspaper and television investigations into mythic David and Goliath dramas.

The foundational All the President’s Men (1976) recreates Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s diligent investigation into presidential complicity in the Watergate break-in. It inspired a generation of investigative journalists, and a “-gate” suffix is now appended to any modern scandal.

The most recent Hollywood iteration of the genre, She Said (2022) depicts New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who spent years investigating the predatory sexual behaviour of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The film introduced long-overdue female leads into a film about journalism, and gave Weinstein’s victims a voice.

These films reveal a perennial fascination by film directors, screenwriters and producers for a profession often mired in controversy, and frequently criticized for failing in its primary duty of holding power to account. Scoop is notable in this regard for highlighting the limitations of journalism as well as its strengths. Andrew, although now much-diminished, is still a prince. And we never got a confession as we did in the David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon, which inspired the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon, Scoop’s nearest comparator.

In both the UK and the US, journalists are among the least trusted of professionals. And yet, much time and money been spent on converting the “rough old trade” into celluloid.

One reliable database lists some 17,800 films, from 1890 to the present which feature journalists, or the news media. Even if we whittle these down to films where journalists and journalism are a primary or secondary focus of the plot, there are more than 2,000, most of them made in Hollywood.

Many of these, like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) and the more recent, creepy Nightcrawler (2014) starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a ruthless salesman in human misery, show journalism’s dark side. Heroes or scumbags, journalists are ciphers through which the consequences of human morality are explored on the big screen.

The business of journalism on screen

Like most journalism dramas since All the President’s Men, Scoop contains echoes of that first and greatest forebear. Much of the action takes place in the newsroom, an open-plan space humming with conversation, ringing phones and the (today much quieter) clacking of keyboards. The cast of committed public watchdogs analyses the latest revelation or piece of evidence with hushed urgency.

But the Newsnight newsroom is much depleted of staff compared to the well-resourced Washington Post of the 1970s, where no fewer than eight reporters contributed to writing up that first story about the break-in at the Watergate complex.

In Scoop, the opening scenes at the BBC are framed by announcements of 450 job cuts among the news staff. Since the interview, both McAlister and Maitlis have left the BBC, which does seem to be careless with its talent.

As the theatre director John Tiffany said, about his own dramatic contribution to the cultural image of journalism, the National Theatre of Scotland play Enquirer (2012): “As a nation, we are fond of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But journalism is one of the parents of democracy and it needs looking after so that it can look after us.”

Every so often we need to be reminded of this, and for that reason alone, Scoop is a welcome addition to the genre.The Conversation

Sarah Lonsdale, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, City, University of London. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.