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The Washington Post has acquired the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times is gagged, powerful men are against her – will Katharine Graham do it? Will she risk her newspaper’s future, her friendships and allegiances, her family’s legacy? Most important, will she find her voice? The climactic scene in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated The Post gets the full Meryl Streep treatment. So far in the movie we have seen Graham ignored, interrupted and silenced. She hesitates, fumbles, is uncomfortable in her clothes. The scene suggests that we are witness not only to the victory of a free press, but also the coming into being of a powerful woman.

Spielberg has said that he made The Post because of ‘the current climate of this administration, bombarding the press and labelling the truth as fake if it suited them’. I went to watch it looking for comfort and reassurance from a Hollywood movie in which the good woman wins. There is something unsettling, however, about being reassured in troubled times. You feel lied to. By showing us such a clear victory for the press, the film suggests that the struggle is over and dealt with: we can go home and forget, even feel nostalgic for the Nixon era. But there is something else about the film more pernicious than its romantic portrayal of a good woman fighting the good fight in a simpler time.

One of the production companies behind the movie is Twentieth Century Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group, which also owns Fox News, Donald Trump’s preferred network. Another is Reliance Entertainment. Its chairman is Anil Ambani, the billionaire son of the late business tycoon Dhirajlal ‘Dhirubhai’ Ambani. The family is among the most powerful in India, with close ties to politicians of all persuasions. And the history of its relations with the publishing industry may appear at odds with the message of The Post. A 1998 biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, The Polyester Prince by Hamish McDonald, didn’t go on sale in India. In 2014, Anil Ambani and his brother Mukesh demanded an ‘unconditional public apology’ from the writers of Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, accusing them of defamation. News websites across the country recently withdrew their negative coverage of a speech given by Mukesh’s son Anant.

Dhirubhai Ambani made his fortune in textiles, but his sons’ interests now range across a number of industries, from telecoms to natural resources. Reliance Entertainment and Reliance Power, which runs coal and gas projects, are subsidiaries of the same conglomerate. Some of the most urgent conflict in India is around the mining, acquisition and processing of natural resources. The extraction and processing of coal, bauxite and iron in Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Chattisgarh poses a threat both to the ecological diversity of the regions and the rights of local populations.

More recently the Ambanis have been investing in media companies. It is now the case in India that, as the journalist P. Sainath has pointed out, ‘the owners of the corporations that own and control media have been the biggest beneficiaries of … privatisation of public resources.’

The political intimidation and brute force that have accompanied the privatisation of natural resources in India have also found their way into journalism. According to the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index, India is ranked 136 out of 180 countries. A number of journalists have been killed.

Women often pay a greater price, suffering sexual harassment and virulent internet trolling in addition to death threats. After she published a story on a right-wing Hindu organisation’s involvement in child trafficking, Neha Dixit faced online harassment as well as a court case. The murder of Gauri Lankesh remains unsolved.

Right-wing intimidation is certainly different from the ways in which the Ambanis undermine a critical press. But they both contribute to what the Hoot, a non-profit media watchdog, last year called an ‘overall sense of shrinking liberty’.

The Post is meant to celebrate those who speak up, but its producers have contributed to a culture in which the freedom of the press is devalued, and journalists are unsafe. In this light, the hopeful scene in which Graham leaves the Supreme Court in triumph, to be greeted by a line of women, looks like a whitewash.

Comments

  1. Timothy Rogers says:

    Much as I tell myself that I should refrain from criticizing a piece of writing that targets some nefarious folks (and, I too, along with Akshi Singh, believe they are nefarious), there are some basic problems with this piece. They can be stated simply as: (1) There is no logical or substantive connection between one of the topics of the piece and its conclusion, which is an indictment without making it clear to the reader who is being indicted. This might also be called a “bait and switch” approach used by the writer. (2) Some characterizations of people and things that seem odd, or off-base.

    With respect to the second point made above, I note: “But there is something else about the film more pernicious than its romantic portrayal of a good woman fighting the good fight in a simpler time.” This implies that the romantic portrayal of Katherine Graham is pernicious. Well, it’s always good show business to have a romantic portrayal, which usually lionizes someone or other while demonizing his or her foes. It seems far from pernicious, and in this case may reflect some or all of the truth about her role in the decision to print the Pentagon Papers. By the way this follows on the heels of a sort of “mass psychology” conclusion that is a bit of a non sequitur: “By showing us such a clear victory for the press, the film suggests that the struggle is over and dealt with: we can go home and forget, even feel nostalgic for the Nixon era.” Why would anyone have this particular reaction to the film? It’s just an unmoored, throwaway line. Viewers might walk away thinking, “Hey, we can’t let Trump get away with this Nixonian crap.”

    It’s the first point that strikes me as more bizarre. Singh notes that the film had production money from sources that rightfully rankle many people – Murdoch and Fox and Reliance and Anil Ambani (who will be better known to Indian readers than others – I’ll take Singh’s word about him). But all of this leads to the rather unusual conclusion: “The Post is meant to celebrate those who speak up, but its producers have contributed to a culture in which the freedom of the press is devalued, and journalists are unsafe. In this light, the hopeful scene in which Graham leaves the Supreme Court in triumph, to be greeted by a line of women, looks like a whitewash.”

    What is being whitewashed? The inquisitive reader would like to know. Is the story of Graham and The Post some kind of whitewash? Or is the fact that some of the production money came from vile sources being whitewashed? If it’s the latter, it’s not actually a whitewash, because few film-goers will pay attention to production credits, and the few that do may have no knowledge of Reliance and, if American, will think that Fox is in it purely for the cash (i.e., even though the story-line does not appeal to the movers and shakers at Fox, they’ll go with it because a well-known event coupled with a prestigious director will lead to box-office success). Such viewers may disapprove of Fox’s cynicism, but why should that affect their evaluation of the film? Or does Singh think that Spielberg is whitewashing his producers? It’s not clear.

    Singh’s argument just doesn’t make any sense as critical commentary on the content of this film. (Being an old man who seldom goes to the movies, I have not seen the film. There may be other grounds for criticism – aesthetic, political, historical – but Singh hasn’t stated them.)

    Following close on the heels of Jackson Lears’ poorly thought-out and semi-hysterical piece, Singh’s botch here leads me to believe there is almost no editorial review and/or friendly advice and counsel at the LRB blog.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      To take your numbered points in reverse order, as you do:

      2. I haven’t seen the film either, but the characterisation of it as a feel-good movie likely to make liberal moviegoers feel good about themselves seems wholly unsurprising to me. Sure, it may be ‘good show business’, but is it a good protest? No inherent reason why it should be, of course, except Spielberg said that’s why he made it. Has it changed anyone’s mind about the Trump presidency?

      1. The producers benefit from the film both financially and by having their reputation burnished by association with it. Some of them may in fact pose obstacles to freedom of the press, but the movie gives them an opportunity to parade their apparent support for it. Why not call that whitewashing?

      • Timothy Rogers says:

        Thomas Jones’ points are fair enough, but I find the reasoning behind them a little shaky. How can a film made 47 years after an historical event be “a good protest”? Movie fans who like the picture may be cheering on “the good guys” (in this case the relevant people at the Post) and hoping that the liberal press (it still exists in some form or other) continues to assail Trump. But they’re not going to be rushing out of theaters into the streets to hoist banners and signs – that’s not even close to realistic. I can’t think of a film, book, or play about current events (or about an historical event that implies comparison with something going on at the present time) that’s “changed the course of history”; that kind of evaluation is just hyperbole. It seems like Jones thinks that Spielberg is, in fact, “whitewashing” the producers, but, regarding this, I’ll stick to my other point about film-goers being marginally (or not at all) interested in production credits – they’re just below their radar. Here’s a test: ask a friend who is a film buff of a certain age who thought that “Z” or “The Battle of Algiers” or any famous Italian anti-Fascist film of the early post-war era were good and significant films (I think they were). Then ask them who produced the film – I’ll bet you draw a blank in almost all cases. And then ask them how such films changed events that occurred in their wake – they’ll be hard put to specify that as well.


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