Not entirely true, not entirely false, not yet historic: who benefits from Scoop and other “real” television reports? | Elle Hunt

When Prince Andrew appeared on Newsnight in November 2019, he dispelled any lingering doubts about the idea that truth is stranger than fiction.

If you can remember – and let’s be honest, who can forget? – the Duke of York made a series of surprising claims when called upon to speak about his close ties to Jeffrey Epstein, including maintaining a relationship with the convicted pedophile was “the right thing to do”. There was also the alibi which was based on a children’s party at Pizza Express in Woking and his lack of ability, at the time, to sweat.

If you were to broadcast all of this to a TV writers’ room, it would be rightly dismissed as disrespecting the viewers’ credulity, if not their intelligence. But reality tests the limits of our disbelief – and we seem to try to keep our grip on it by turning it into entertainment.

Scoop, a feature-length film about that Newsnight interview, starring Gillian Anderson as the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, Billie Piper as producer Sam McAlister and Rufus Sewell as the disgraced prince – is coming to Netflix this week after months of advertising. Production began in February 2023, just three and a half years after the interview aired; McAlister’s memoir – from which the film is adapted, adding another layer of perspective – was released in summer 2022. The director, Philip Martin, said Scoop explores “how we judge what is true” in “a world of speculation and varied memories.” But there is a risk that the “fictionalized dramatization,” produced within the framework of a clear memory of the history it depicts, will further confuse the narrative by cementing its own version of events.

A scripted retrospective seems premature. But this is consistent with a media landscape that is increasingly comfortable with turning fact into fiction. The first wave of coronavirus in early 2020 was dramatized two and a half years later in the Sky mini-series This England, with Kenneth Branagh playing Boris Johnson in a wayward wig. In the meantime, the ‘Wagatha Christie’ libel case became a Channel 4 courtroom drama just five months after the trial ended.

It’s easy to see why these true-to-life adaptations are so popular: they rely on a similar dynamic to reboots and franchises, presenting a new angle on a familiar story. For editors, repurposing recent events is less risky than trying to sell the public something entirely original. For actors, playing a controversial public figure offers prestige and a challenge: Anderson’s transformation into Maitlis generated the same anticipation as Margaret Thatcher’s in The Crown.

But when news and entertainment become so intertwined, do we risk losing sight of the real impact of these events? In 2019, Brexit: The Uncivil War – a dark comedy dramatizing the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings – was hailed by critics as “Brexit without the boring bits” ( to quote the Times). Five years later, we are still experiencing the impact of these “boring passages” which would have spoiled the show, as well as the serious consequences of Brexit on the economy.

In that time, these scripted treatments of the truth proliferated in a multimillion-dollar arms race between intellectual property platforms. Consider the volume of content produced about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal: an ABC News narrative podcast, an Emmy-nominated episode of 20/20, and a fictionalized series starring Amanda Seyfried. MGM acquired the rights to a film on the GameStop saga from January 2021 the following month; Netflix always came first with a docuseries.

The Duke of York in December 2021, as Virginia Giuffre’s legal team sought information from Prince Andrew’s lawyers after the Newsnight interview. Photograph: Neil Hall/PA

Audiences are drawn to these productions as a way to understand headlines, in a way that feels less like “work.” But the result is that the line between news and entertainment is increasingly permeable – made worse by the fact that entire industries treat fact and fiction as interchangeable and pressure audiences to do the same. Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes’ adaptation of the viral New York magazine article about socialite scammer Anna Sorokin, trumpeted the ambiguity, claiming to be both “completely true” but also “totally made up.” Now one of Sorokin’s brands, unhappy with his interpretation in the series and declaring it is a “dangerous distortion”, it is sue Netflix for defamation. Meanwhile, the real Sorokin is out of prison – and is a bona fide celebrity, capitalizing on her infamy by branching out into art, fashion and media.

This is proof of the potential of these semi-factual (or quasi-fictional) treatments to influence reality. ITV’s Mr Bates v Post Office was a triumphant example of their ability to put events back on the agenda and even right historical wrongs, but it is in the minority. More of these dramatized adaptations focus on people in power, often (directly or indirectly) with a sympathetic perspective.

In 2022, Judi Dench successfully campaigned for Netflix to clarify that The Crown was based solely on historical events, arguing that imagining conversations behind closed doors was “cruelly unfair” to the royal family. But undoubtedly the series, seen by millions, has done more to make the royals real in the eyes of the tax-paying public than their sporadic, carefully managed public appearances. Likewise, people with only a cursory interest in politics and no direct experience of Thatcher or Cummings might reasonably imagine Anderson and Cumberbatch.

Branagh defended this England saying it “could allow people to manage” the pandemic. In fact, the series was mostly about Johnson, making sympathetic leaps into the Prime Minister’s psyche. It attempted to show the consequences of the government’s failed response to Covid-19, with now-familiar scenes of struggling nurses and grieving families. But in the face of Branagh’s larger-than-life performance (“Shakespeare”, like he said), they couldn’t help but seem superficial – the B plot.

In an often chaotic and confusing world, we would of course seek to make sense of it by refracting it through a screen with a spicy storyline and an all-star cast. The truth, dramatized, might even be preferable: even a threat as invisible and amorphous as a pandemic cannot be controlled and structured with a beginning, middle and end. But by treating recent history as a narrative, we risk prematurely marking it as “seen.” Today more than ever, as we sit down in front of a prestigious television, it is useful to think: how is the image distorted?

  • Elle Hunt is a freelance journalist and writer

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