“Southcliffe” and the Portrayal of a Journalist


American culture will eventually have to make up its mind what it wants out of the information-providing professions. I would include “entertainment” in that group, since much of our understanding of culture comes through a combination of real and fictional storytelling. Our understanding becomes accessible in the “truth” of a particularly well-performed role, through a synthesis of real and not real.

The 2013 four-part series Southcliffe (Warp Films/Channel 4) included a central character of a journalist, David Whitehead, portrayed by Rory Kinnear. He’s a great actor to watch, between his moving presentation of The Creature in Penny Dreadful (2014-) (where his power and his vulnerability are performed at the same time), and his turn as Prime Minister Callow (subtle name, eh?) in the first episode of Black Mirror (2011). Callow, as it turned out, was a moment of fictional television getting a little too close to the truth, or perhaps a little too close to what people would like to be the truth but it really isn’t (now memed “Piggate”).

Southcliffe presents a journalist who is a great point for conversation. Reporter Whitehead is put on the mass shooting story because the location of the incident is the town where he grew up, and–as we learn–a place he hated and escaped from because of a personal childhood tragedy. So he covers the story because of the connection, but eventually becomes the story for related reasons.

I won’t spoil anything, except to say that the series made me think of how our expectations of journalists have changed, but not settled down. What difference does it make when a reporter covering, say, Orlando is LGBT? Or the reporter comes from a Muslim cultural background? Or what if the reporter’s dad was an anchor?

Perhaps the demands of “professionalism” would suggest one answer, but audiences seem to want something else. Perhaps viewers need to be clearer about what they want out of their non-fiction and fiction information sources. We watch Whitehead pursue the story about the mass shooting, feeling some disgust at his opportunism. But we are watching a series, knowing some of what it is about, in a way that makes us complicit in his actions. We live in a time where it is simply too easy to despise and discredit “the media” without ever feeling a responsibility to know and communicate what we want from it. And how we are going to sustain it.

I would be interested in what other media scholars make of this character in Southcliffe.