TV review

The Papers


Four stars

Paul English

LET’S go for full disclosure. Although a regular contributor to The Herald’s pages, I’ve yet to set foot on the paper’s current editorial floor for a single day of a two-decade career. Of all the perks and pitfalls the solo flight of freelance journalism brings, one is a degree of objective perspective. In other words, I was as curious as you as to what goes on inside the office at the paper, and its stablemates.

My words and stories are delivered by email. There’s an army of us out here, not as small as it used to be, honing our bit from kitchen tables and hogging spaces in coffee shops. More of us outside than in, it would seem – at times the flies on the wall in this fly-on-the-wall seemed to outnumber the journalists.

The documentary began in 2018, around the closure of the Sunday Herald newspaper, and the bold inception of two new ones – the Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National. Filmmaker Sarah Howitt must have been one of the few people glad to be there during a period of turbulence.

Yet, while the viewer saw an ambitious new media venture, those who know the dark realities of modern newspapers could smell the gunpowder. Look there, just in the back of the shot. See the casualties of balanced budgets shuffling off down Renfield Street…?

The downturn in papers was acknowledged, and a senior editorial meeting left viewers and readers in no doubt about how today’s executive newspapermen – and in most papers it’s still men – see the digital versus print conundrum playing out.

Howitt did well to eke some subtle, telling character quirks out of those whose job is often to do the same themselves. There’s Richard, the Sunday National editor in Marlon Brando’s biker jacket. Kathleen, the political reporter without a smartphone, a mind yet to be addled by the compulsion to scroll. Kirsty, taking pictures in the rain for 20 years. Andy, assistant editor, always missing the bus.

We’ve yet to see the political difference between the papers laid bare, or the valiant battle mounted by the Evening Times, once the life and soul of Glasgow, against free newspapers and robust digital competition. Nor have we yet been privy to the harsh conversations about individual futures, which take place behind closed doors.

Yet despite the sense of inevitability, what The Papers revealed was a people resolute in their determination that their work mattered. And as one of their number, I offer a defiant cheer from the coffee shop.

This is the second such documentary from BBC Scotland following 2017’s The Paper Thistle, about The Scotsman. Editors of Scotland’s other leading dailies must now justifiably be wondering when they get their go on the telly in these days of dwindling newspaper sales.

My first job in papers was delivering The Herald to the posh houses in Kilmacolm as a 13 year old. My first proper byline was as a student in The Evening Times. As David Leask put it, there’s ink inside the veins, and one scene more than any other caught the breath.

It was the sight of print presses in full flight, winged rollercoasters of ink on page, the collective endeavour of those whose place is to report, reflect, provoke, illuminate, inform, chronicle and entertain.

Whatever else this documentary achieves, let’s hope it’s an appreciation of the value, importance and future of what we do. You’re holding it your hands.