I recently went to see a new film release called ‘The Post’ starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, directed by Stephen Spielberg. Those are some big big names in film, which is what drew me in the first place. Rarely do prolific actors get behind a bad film. With a rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 88% and 7.4/10 on IMDb it seems to be a great success. And I won’t dispute that – it was a great film and one of my favourites that I’ve seen in a long time.
On a basic film viewing experience alone it was a joy to watch. A small family run Washington Post taking on the Nixon administration during the Cold War – a classic formula of the under-dog fighting against dauntingly heavy odds. The moral overtones throughout resonated in a real and unforced way – should they publish at all costs, the cost even of not being able to publish again? Is sacrificing a family run business for the right to publish the whole point of publishing? The film raises many such questions intentionally, but there are other issues raised more implicitly than the main theme: press freedom Vs national security. I will touch on this issue briefly; which do we value more? Complete freedom for the press to publish regardless of the potential implications for the security of the nation, or a lightly censored press to maintain a safe and competitive position in world politics for the nation in question? This question itself leads us naturally to debates over free speech. How free do we want our societies to be? In America there is a huge pride in the genuine freedom of speech protected under the 1st Amendment, this has allowed for great cultural diversity and political debate. However, it has also nurtured the potential for hate groups such as the KKK, Westborough Baptist Church and neo-Nazis to exist (if not flourish). Furthermore, the phenomena of Trump – would a man like him ever be in the position to run a country such as the UK, where you can be put in prison for expressing certain opinions. Should there be a point in society where we draw a line on freedom of speech and say ‘no, that’s too strongly opinionated’, or is that the same as saying ‘no, that’s too free’? Should we allow people a platform no matter how abhorrent their opinions may be? On the one hand, free speech should mean we allow anyone of any belief to speak their mind. Anyone of any belief, regardless of whether we agree or not. This means we have to listen (or at least hear) people in groups like the ones I have mentioned. This is extremely uncomfortable – but as soon as we deny their right to express opinion then we deny ourselves. We basically say that you can believe anything you want, so long as it’s the same belief we hold. Yet, on the other hand, if we allow certain doctrines and mantras to be upheld then we harbour the potential for extremists and terrorists. We expose ourselves to danger. The choice then is between complete freedom, or a controlled safety. This is extremely oversimplified, but it demonstrates the basic ‘sides’ of the coin.
‘The Post’ seems to tentatively engage in this debate. Should governments allow the media complete freedom to publish no matter the cost to their own integrity or security? Security or complete freedom? It’s almost impossible to answer, both cases could be argued I think. Surely we can’t allow the media to publish sensitive material such as military plans? (A point which ‘The Post’ acknowledges; Hanks dismisses as it is worlds apart from publishing material outlining the failure of military forces in Vietnam). We too must decide upon this distinction, and in doing so trust the media to do the same – we can and should hold the government accountable, but without putting people in harms way. I’m not proposing the media, should they gain such information, publish names of soldiers involved in top secret operations. This similarly doesn’t mean we can’t hold governments accountable through publishing. ‘The Post’ highlights this tension excellently: when does holding the government accountable become treasonous?
This idea of ‘trusting’ the media is an important one. If the government did allow the media to use their own discretion regarding information they should or shouldn’t release, would it work? Can we say that the media we are currently engaging with could operate with this responsibility? With the rise of fake news, decline in print linked with a move towards social media and online based news and previous scandals and betrayals (such as the News of the World phone hacking) – with all these factors taken into consideration, do our media deserve that amount of trust? Twitter Is a huge resource for people now when they want to learn about the news, similarly news alerts on news apps offer a quick and brief update. This new ‘instant’ reporting raises questions over the quality of journalism today. Are journalists out for a quick story, a shocking headline or a damning report – has that replaced serious and judicious reporting? If the answer is yes, how can we let the media hold the government accountable when we don’t really know whether they are being held to the same standards? With snapchat articles being a genuine source of news for some people it is no wonder why genuine newspapers are struggling, everything is so quick and bitesize. People form opinions based on snippets of a news piece without doing proper research. Our own new consumption methods are driving the media in a completely new direction – I’m not sure whether this is positive.
With questions such as these circulating because of a film such as ‘The Post’, yet another question must be asked (I’m sorry for all the rhetoricals): does the media inspire us to hold governments and institutions accountable? Is there something noble in going to write for newspapers? There is certainly a romantic attraction in becoming part of a vast and rich history of print in the UK. It presents an opportunity to progress an industry which started (in the UK) in 1473 with William Caxton’s translation and print of ‘The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye’, the first newspaper dating back to roughly 1620. There is a rich and ancient history surrounding the printing press and newspapers. And although completely different, newspapers and media reporting offer us an opportunity to engage in a process which has existed for nearly 400years in some shape or form. ‘The Post’ certainly picks up on this romantic version of reporting – having the opportunity (within the great history of print) to change the dynamic between print and government, inspiring viewers perhaps to try and become the next publishers of the Pentagon Papers, ensuring freedom of publication.
Yet, there is a sense that ‘The Post’ and reality are separate entities. How many times have you heard someone merit the media in the last 10years? We (myself very much included) heavily criticise the media for improper reporting and representation of certain characters. We are wary of the media. Is the media another institution just as oppressive and greedy as any other organisation we mistrust? They are lumped in with the lot of them. They all have hands in each other’s pockets, making money off us; the stupefied public. Obviously this is a deliberately over exaggerated view (or is it?) of the situation, but the media certainly don’t inspire us (or haven’t inspired me) to join the ranks and start reporting. I am part of my student newspaper, but I am doubtful whether my participation with any media body will go any further. Is ‘The Post’ wrong then to depict the media as something moral and inspiring? Because that doesn’t seem to be the case – maybe that in itself is the beauty of the film: it demonstrates how far we’ve come from the integrity which it documents.