Men reporting badly! Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe find being hacks is no joke

The comedians chase local paper scoops in their new TV series Hold the Front Page. But many of their stories were destined for what reporters call the spike …

It is easy to make fun of local newspapers. At first glance, the stories can appear limited in scope or even ridiculous. But then Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe picked up their reporters’ notebooks for a TV challenge.

In an unlikely turn of events, perhaps suited to a bold headline and an exclamation mark, the two television comedians may have accidentally improved the wider reputation of journalists in the course of making a deliberately silly show. Their series, Hold the Front Page, which goes out weekly on Sky Max and Now TV, sees the two performers temporarily join the staff of a string of established local titles in an attempt to get their news articles printed.

“We met a lot of great people and great newspaper editors while making this show,” Kumar told the Observer, “but we also felt a lot of that sinking feeling when you realise nothing has been set up for you and you have to go out there and find something to write up.”

Searching for fresh stories on the promenade at Blackpool, in the Sussex countryside or on the Yorkshire moors, the real-life friends quickly realised that nabbing “a scoop” and then writing to deadline are not simple tasks.

“The papers we worked on are at the centre of their communities and rightly take it very seriously. It seems good to show this at a time when social media has done a lot of damage to the idea of journalism,” said Widdicombe. “You are always nervous before a new show goes out on air, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a positive reaction. I think it is because people can see it has its heart in the right place.”

Widdicombe, best known as a presenter of Channel 4’s The Last Leg, already had a healthy respect for the reporter’s trade. He studied journalism and had an early job on a magazine devoted to the children’s TV show Dora the Explorer, before working freelance on the Guardian a decade ago.

“It is a proper trade, despite the widespread lack of trust now. And we got a sense in some of the newsrooms, like the Yorkshire Post, just how historic they are. There are reproduction front pages on the wall from Victorian times.

“Reporters today often have to make videos and take photographs too, and write for websites that are real local touchstones, as well as for the printed editions. Editors may have freelance writers helping out, but a lot of papers are working on a skeleton staff and so were genuinely pleased when we first arrived, offering an extra pair of hands.”

Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe in Edinburgh for Hold the Front Page.
Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe in Edinburgh for Hold the Front Page. Photograph: Anne Binckebank/Sky

Highlights of the show, however, are the duo’s many failures to hit the mark. Stand-out humiliations include Kumar’s vain attempt to confront a visiting Boris Johnson, then prime minister, with a searing political question, and Widdicombe’s doomed efforts to produce a football match report in real time on a deadline.

Kumar said: “In certain places, all the stuff we produced wasn’t good enough and so it didn’t go in. That’s how it should be. I don’t think I have laughed so much before on a show as I did reading Josh’s report. It didn’t even have the final score in it.

“We were mainly interested in Hold the Front Page being funny but – although I know Josh will roll his eyes at this – I also think there is a point behind it all. The funding model for a lot of news journalism has been so broken by the arrival of the internet, it’s important to show what reporters still do on the ground.

“We only ever want to make fun of people who deserve it and, as two comedians coming along, we deserved to be the butt of the joke, and were more than happy to be that. It was always about celebrating local journalism.”

Kumar added: “Anyone who had doubts about local journalists will remember the way the radio interviews with Liz Truss went during her short time as prime minister. There had been sniffy comments about her avoiding the scrutiny of the national networks, but these local interviewers were totally professional and well-briefed, and they all handed her backside to her. It makes total sense to me now.”

“For many of these journalists, the job is a real calling, despite all the conspiracy theories about ‘mainstream media’,” said Widdicombe. “So if me and Nish doing journalism really badly has shown a bit more about what the job really is, then that is my gift to the world.”


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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