Friday, August 26, 2011

59 Minutes Short: Thoughts on The Hour

The timing of The Hour, the BBC's just-concluded prestige series about the early days of British televised news, was always a bit dodgy.  In the wake of the News of the World scandal, how do you tell a story in which journalists are the brave, principled, truth-seeking heroes?  Even if you distinguish between commercial news and publicly-owned organizations like the BBC (which The Hour, set in 1956, would have had trouble doing) and between print and TV journalism (a difference the show never made much of except to note that some of the restrictions on the latter don't apply to the former), the fact remains that to argue against government control of the news only weeks after it was revealed that the present-day UK government is either too scared, too complicit, or too bought to even attempt to prevent the press from committing gross violations of privacy, tormenting the families of murder victims, and, in one particularly memorable case, trying to railroad a suspect in a murder case, is a pretty tall order.  Not impossible, of course.  The Hour could have held up a picture of what journalism should be--perhaps what it once was--as a contrast to what it has become.  To a certain extent, that is what the show tries to do (within limits, of course--the show would have been in the can for weeks or even months before the News of the World scandal broke; on the other hand, that scandal didn't come out of nowhere, and the problems with the British press have been known for a while).  But the concept of journalism The Hour trades in turns out to have so little concern for truth or facts that rather than offer a solution to Britain's media woes, The Hour comes to seem like part of the problem.

Created and written by Abi Morgan, The Hour revolves around the production of the titular show, a first-of-its-kind current events program intended to shake up a TV landscape in which the news panders to the establishment by toeing the party line and focusing on puff pieces.  The key characters are producer Bel Rowley (the always-excellent Romola Garai, whose slow travel through time in her recent TV roles--from the Regency period (Emma) to the late Victorian era (The Crimson Petal and the White) to the mid-50s--gives rise to the hope that she might some day play a contemporary character), scrappy reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), and smarmy, well-connected anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West).  The conflict between Freddie and Hector--over class (Freddie has had to fight for everything he's achieved in life while Hector, who was born into privilege and married into more of it, has had it handed to him), over intelligence (Freddie's is furious and constantly questioning, while former sports presenter Hector is amiably clueless about current events), over what journalism is (Hector describes himself as "too polite" to ask the tough questions, while Freddie is dying for a shot at the anchor's chair), and over Bel, who just wants to put a successful show together, but is nevertheless drawn to both men--have led nearly every reviewer writing about the show to draw a comparison between it and the 1987 film Broadcast News.  To that strand, however, The Hour adds--and quickly prioritizes--a Cold War espionage story, as Freddie is approached by Ruth Elms, with whose aristocratic family he stayed during the war.  After dropping several dark hints about the recent murder of an academic, Ruth herself dies under suspicious circumstances, leaving Freddie to unravel a conspiracy that turns out to involve both Soviet spies and British intelligence, and to be strongly connected to the rapidly evolving Suez Crisis.

The Hour takes a long time weaving these two plotlines together, and until it does the disconnect between their tones is one of its many problems.  Others include the sidelining of Bel into a dreadful romantic quadrangle with Hector, Freddie, and Hector's wife, and the positioning of Freddie as a hero despite the fact that he is smug and self-centered, thinking nothing of sabotaging the show he's allegedly dreamed of working on his whole career because Hector is the one in front of the camera, or of ignoring his duties while he pursues the true cause of Ruth's death for personal reasons.  Most importantly, The Hour is characterized by a lamentable lack of respect for its viewers' intelligence.  Billed and marketed as the British Mad Men, The Hour is one of those rare occasions where the American show is more subtle and less prone to baldly stating its arguments.  Bel--a high-ranking professional woman in 1956--has to have it pointed out to her that having an affair with her married anchor might be detrimental to her career.  The forces of government interference are represented by the mustache-twirling apparatchnik McCain, who shows up every episode to act evil and oily--and make misogynistic comments to Bel, just in case we'd missed how evil and oily he is--in order to drive home the point that government interference in the news is bad. 

The tendency to baldly and inelegantly lay all its cards on the table comes to a head in The Hour's final episode, and especially in its last twenty minutes, which depict the show-within-a-show's final installment, after which it is yanked off the air for speaking unacceptable truths.  It's in this story that we also get a full sense of how hollow The Hour's idea of what constitutes good journalism is.  For several episodes, Bel has been trying to find a way to suggest on the air that there has been an illegal collusion between Britain, France and Israel to attack Egypt and regain British control of the Suez Canal.  The reason she can't do so is because of a law that prevents news programs from discussing any issue raised in parliament for 14 days after that discussion.  This is, obviously, a terrible law and one can't help but sympathize with the characters for trying to get around it.  Bel's solution is to suggest the theory of collusion in a satirical sketch, a decision the show depicts as clever and bold, especially as it's done against the orders of her boss, Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser).  The problem here is that there is actually a much more compelling reason for Bel to relegate the suggestion of collusion to a satirical sketch rather than a news segment, one that is as relevant today as it was in 1956--she hasn't got a shred of proof.  At no point do we see Bel doing any of the journalistic work that would actually demonstrate that Britain planned and involved itself in an illegal war (nor does she delegate that task to others; even Anna Chancellor's Lix Storm, the only Hour staffer who behaves in any way like a journalist, doesn't drum up concrete support for the collusion theory, even though this would have been thick on the ground).  Instead, the show relies on our present-day knowledge that collusion occurred--and on our outrage over the gag rule--to get around the fact that no one on Bel's team is actually doing their job as a journalist, and that they are all perfectly happy to present supposition as fact.

Things actually get worse when Freddie gets his moment on the air, tying up the Ruth Elms investigation by bringing her father to be interviewed on The Hour.  At this point, Freddie has discovered the following things: that the murdered academic, Peter Darrall, was an MI6 agent who used Ruth as part of a plot to assassinate Colonel Nasser and drive a stake in Egyptian nationalism before the Suez Crisis erupted; that that plot failed, in part, because Darrall was also a Soviet agent, which is why he was killed; that Ruth was murdered because of her knowledge of this plot.  Freddie can prove some of this, and Lord Elms can corroborate a lot of it.  But when Freddie finally gets Lord Elms on the air, all the man will do is make vague, insinuating statements, calling the government liars and murderers.  The show even seems aware that something is going awry, because Freddie keeps trying to steer Lord Elms towards a more specific discussion of his daughter, to no effect, until the program is pulled from the air and he and Bel are fired.  But after that point, both the characters and the tone of the show act as though there's been some great triumph here.  To repeat: Freddie is sitting on one of the biggest stories of any journalist's career, a story that he can, to a certain extent, prove.  But when given a platform, all he does is let a grief-stricken old man rant and rave for six minutes.  And this is supposed to be the face of brave, principled journalism.

In fairness, this is exactly what Clarence says to Freddie in what is only the longest of several "let's talk about what just happened and deliver the moral of the show" scenes that close out the season.  He chastises Freddie for putting sentiment ahead of his journalistic integrity, prioritizing the story of Ruth's murder (which, let's remember, Freddie hasn't actually broken) over the bigger issue of the British government having ordered the assassination of a foreign leader in order to preserve its financial interests abroad.  Why, Clarence asks, didn't Freddie run the assassination story?  Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Freddie has only been told that proof of the assassination plot exists and hasn't seen it himself--if Bel can insinuate collusion with no evidence, Freddie can certainly assert that there was an assassination plot with only flimsy evidence--this is actually a valid and important question.  Freddie's answer is that it would be irresponsible to destabilize the government in the middle of a war, and it's a good thing that Clarence's response to this is to throw a tantrum, because that provided me with the vicarious outlet that kept me from throwing something heavy against the wall.  How can you make a statement like this--surely one of the core questions of journalism--as if it were a matter of course and plainly obvious to any reasonable person, ten minutes before your season ends?  That question is what The Hour should have been about--where is the line between necessary dissent and treason?  Where does a journalist's higher loyalty lie--with the truth, or with the nation?  These are not simple questions.  They do not have simple answers.  And in the situation presented by The Hour, in which the nation is embroiled in an illegal war, Freddie's answer is by no means the obvious one.

If The Hour were not so determined to make Freddie into an uncomplicated hero, it might still have salvaged some meaning out of this exchange, and out of Clarence's entirely accurate criticism of him.  But it's at this point that Freddie realizes what has, quite frankly, been obvious since the middle of the season--that Clarence is also a Soviet agent, and that he fed Freddie the assassination story in an attempt to destabilize not just the government but the entire British political system.  So the one person who calls Freddie's journalistic practices into question, who criticizes his choices to prioritize the personal over the political, and to back down, at the last minute, from telling the awful truth, turns out to be a bad guy, someone who actually bears out McCain's argument that journalists who won't shut up when they're told to are disloyal, unpatriotic, and possibly enemies of the state.  When Freddie asks Clarence how he could have betrayed his country--and especially to an empire far more destructive than the British one--Clarence simply replies that before shows like The Hour came along, spying was the only way he could express dissent.  The smug, self-congratulatory moral of the show--also stated earlier by Lord Elms, who muses to Freddie that he might have saved Ruth from being led astray by Darrall if only he'd spoken to her about the issues of the day--is that in order to preserve democracy (and keep our young people from being led astray by Communists), we must have shows like The Hour.  But the concept of journalism embodied by The Hour--both the show and the show-within-the-show--is so hollow that this moral is made meaningless.

Free speech and the ability to express dissent are necessary for the preservation of a democracy.  But the news isn't just about freedom of speech, and its job isn't simply to express dissent.  It's to report the facts, ask questions and pursue the answers.  A willingness to dissent is a necessary condition for a functional press, but not a sufficient one.  The Hour doesn't see this.  Its idea of great journalism is driven entirely by emotion--by Freddie's anger over Ruth's death, or Bel's determination to say what she wants to, gag rule be damned--and wholly unconcerned with proof, with evidence, and with journalistic standards.  That's not journalism.  That's tabloid culture.  That, not to put too fine a point on it, is The News of the World--who cares if I can prove it, I'm going to say it anyway.  In the guise of showing us how Proper Journalists should behave--and while borrowing respectability from its period setting and its 20/20 hindsight--The Hour enshrines precisely the sort of behavior that is destroying journalism and endangering democracy.  I don't know which would be worse--that Abi Morgan and her team meant to say that good journalism is about the freedom to speak, not about having something substantial to say, or that they may genuinely not be able to tell the difference.


Anonymous said...

It's like you reached into my brain and pulled out all of my thoughts!

The insistence over the course of the series that Bel is a competent and clever journalist (not like those silly Mad Men bimbos, who are all secretaries and housewives, as various fans and journalists continue to imply) became even more insulting in the last episode.

Extra-marital affairs are harder for the mistress! Journalists have to provide some kind of evidence for their claims! That this seems to come as a surprise to Bel and Freddie is just insulting to the audience.

And meanwhile, Lix, apparently the only competent journalist, and Sissy, continually dismissed by Bel despite being a highly competent secretary (and, apparently, production assistant) were kept on the sidelines.

Alexander said...

Interesting. I had not previously heard of the show, but you make a convincing case for it as a period piece of our time--the confused naivete towards gender, insistence on simplistic answers to complex situations, muddled media values and a mode of personal heroism triumphing over all. From the references here, I take it you've watched some or all of Mad Men? Any chance of a post analyzing it at some point? I'd expect it to be fantastic...

Kit said...

I love it when you pan things. You always do it so comprehensively and incisively that I know exactly what's wrong with them and can make an informed decision about whether or not to suffer through them, which is really the point of good reviewing, in my mind. Know that it is always appreciated!

ibmiller said...

Did you catch the second season of the show to see if it developed into something better?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, I did, and I found the results weirdly mixed. On the whole, I thought the second season was more successful than the first, though this was largely due to the show backing away from any serious discussion of journalism and putting a lot of its eggs in the romance basket (there are no fewer than four major romances in the second season).

There are things about the second season that I liked - mainly the way that Hector's wife Marnie (played by Oona Chapling, perhaps best known in the thankless role of Rob's wife on Game of Thrones, and just excellent here) was developed into a savvy and surprisingly sympathetic character after being made out to be little more than a lady who lunches in season 1, and the regrowth of her and Hector's relationship. And there were things I really disliked - there's a scene in the second episode in which Freddie all-but bullies a black immigrant into debating a racist thug on TV despite the former's insistence that this will legitimize the latter's views, and the show thoroughly validates his behavior; also, throughout the season, the staff of The Hour see no problem in reporting on stories that have involved their own reporters, in one cast even having Hector interview a woman who has falsely accused him of attacking her on live TV.

So I don't think the show got any smarter about journalism, but it downplayed the journalism angle enough that I was able to enjoy the season - enough that I'm sorry the show was cancelled, if only because it was a good showcase for an excellent cast. Whishaw's a rising star now so will probably get more interesting roles, and West still has The Wire's cachet, but Garai and Chaplin have pretty classic women in show business problems, and Anna Chancellor, who has a problematic subplot in the second season that nevertheless gave her the chance to strut her stuff (opposite an equally excellent Peter Capaldi, another actor who will have no problem finding interesting work), is still at the mercy of casting directors.

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