Following a week in which the world’s gaze has focused on the deaths of ten staff at a small satirical magazine in France, an initiative by News UK to shine a light on some of its most celebrated journalists feels entirely of the moment.
Some 18 months in the making and with more in production, the Unquiet Film Series is a timely reminder of the real lives – and often real struggles – behind some of the stories that have helped shape The Times and The Sunday Times for 230 years.
One of the films, "the art of satire", focuses on Peter Brookes, the political cartoonist at The Times since 1992. He is described as "a most extraordinarily oddball, anarchic character" by Channel 4’s Jon Snow.
Brookes himself explains how he stares out of the window of his office in the Baby Shard to let his mind wander for creative inspiration. This has resulted in some of the most withering caricatures of Westminster’s elite, including David Cameron as a public-school bully and Ed Miliband as Wallace from Wallace & Gromit.
"Cartoonists are the permanent opposition," Brookes says, citing one of the all-time greats, Sir David Low – famed for his dismantling of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
The poignancy of the anarchic sensibilities expressed in the seven-minute film as Charlie Hebdo contemplates its future is not lost on Nick Stringer, the chief creative officer at News UK and one of the project’s key architects.
"The recent tragic events in Paris demonstrate the importance of pluralism in media," he says. "When President Hollande called Charlie Hebdo a symbol of liberty, it wasn’t an empty cliché – the marches in France underlined the amount of people ready to defend that freedom."
Another film in the campaign, "bringing the world to Britain", provides a captivating portrait of the Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb, who first visited the Middle East in 1988, when Russia had a heavy presence.
She recalls how, at just 21, she was smuggled into Afghanistan by the Mujahideen and fell in love with the country straight away. Lamb’s sense of mission shines through as she talks about the stories of the "real heroes" you would not otherwise hear, "the people trapped by war who still manage to educate and feed their children".
'The recent tragic events in Paris and the marches demonstrate the importance of pluralism in media'
Such glimpses into the lives of those behind the headlines are rare. In the news business, finding the time to look back and provide a narrative of how and where stories are created does not come naturally.
Stringer was no stranger to News UK when he joined in May 2012, having worked there 14 years earlier. He left to take on a marketing role at Channel 4 before becoming a strategic business lead at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
He admits to being struck by how different the company felt on his return. "It felt more disciplined," he says. "There was more process and rigour, it was a little less wild, with more planning and a more democratic sense of where ideas can come from."
Stringer credits News UK’s former chief marketing officer Katie Vanneck-Smith for the genesis of the Unquiet Film Series and for ensuring marketing had a seat at the top table in a company historically dominated by editorial and commercial.
Chris Duncan has since taken on the role. He has helped Stringer create his own dream team consisting of many old Channel 4 faces. Together with Dave Monk, the joint deputy executive creative director at Grey, and WPP Team News’ managing director Danny Josephs and chief strategy officer Chris Whitson, who sit next to him on News UK’s tenth floor, they have brought the series to life.
"We spent a lot of time in the archives last year," Stringer explains. "We had stakeholders from the editorial floor in Emma Tucker from The Times and Sarah Baxter on The Sunday Times."
The films are designed to act as brand campaigns. Although they are just as likely to resonate with advertisers and readers, the primary objective is to help News UK attract subscribers by providing a flavour of The Times and The Sunday Times outside of the paywalls erected in 2010.
Response to the work is said to have been far better than anyone could have hoped for. It is claimed that people who arrive on the News UK subscription page after having seen the Unquiet Film Series are twice as likely to become members. Those who have watched two or more films are found to be about ten times more likely to complete the subscription process.
Taken at Stringer’s word, there is little wonder that News UK is focusing much of 2015 on getting as many people to view these films as possible. An edited version of one of the films, "bearing witness", aired in Channel 4's CIA drama Homeland last year. The hard-hitting story about Times war correspondents Jack Hill and Anthony Loyd, who escaped a kidnapping in Syria, was well-received and drew attention to the series. But such paid media space is not a cheap option.
So far 11 films have been produced, including one reminding how the Times Roman font was created for The Times in 1932, another on how Billy Russell's war journalism in 1854 inspired Lord Tennyson's seminal The Charge of the Light Brigade poem. Still to come is a treatment of Andrew Norfolk’s exposé of the Rotherham child-sex scandal, which won him The Paul Foot Award in 2012.
The chief creative officer will also be exploring ways to further distribute the work at film festivals, at branded content awards and as in-flight entertainment this year.
It's fair to say Stringer is more than a little pleased with the series, and so he should be - the power and authenticity imbued in each help tell stories few would have heard before.