Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Post - Free Speach vs National Security


Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks
Release: 12 May 2017
IMDB Rating: 7.3
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 73% (Critics gave it 88%)

This is another one of those films that a short review on IMDB really can't do it justice, but then again IMDB really isn't the tool that one should be using to analyse movies - it isn't as if it is Goodreads (even though it does happen to be owned by the same company - Amazon). Still, I'm not really sure that there are all that many films that can be critically analysed, not in the same way that a book can. Then again, there was a time when I was able to see a lot of themes in some of the more mainstream films (such as Blade Runner), and there does exist a whole subject on film studies, which explores how the director uses the medium to tell the story.

However, this isn't want I will necessarily be doing, since I am more interested in the story behind the story, and the issues that the film raises as opposed to performing a critical analysis on its construction. Needless to say, I can certainly write a lot more about this film than simply rehashing the plot and then making a comment as to whether I like it or not (and this is something that I have been doing of late, but then again a lot of films just seem to rehash the same old stuff over and over again, and this is if they don't happen to be a remake, reboot, or a sequel).

Some have suggested that this film is Steven Spielberg's "All the President's Men", though the events of this film are set before the events of the other (though The Post ends at a point that sets us up for the events that are to come). What is surprising though was how fast Spielberg brought this film together (and I was surprised to discover that he was the brains behind this film, though I shouldn't be at all surprised that he is still lurking in the shadows of Hollywood, in the same way that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are), namely that it only took six months to make. However, in a lot of cases it is a film for the times, and there are filmmakers who are passionate about a topic and are able to get a film made pretty quickly (though I also wonder whether he is also angling for an Oscar, since I believe this is Oscar season).

The Pentagon Papers

The film opens in Vietnam (not surprisingly), and has Daniel Elsberg returning to Washington with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He is then called into the briefing and asked how he believes the war is going. The response is 'pretty much the same'. This is the catch because since they had increased the number of troops in Vietnam at the time, for the answer 'pretty much the same' to come it is quite damning. Upon returning to Washington, Elsberg grabs a copy of a study produced by McNamara, heads over to another location where they proceed to photocopy the entire document (which back in those days would have taken quite a lot of time - no such thing as a document feeder back then).

The papers are then released to the New York Times, which was basically the leading newspaper in the country. However, we also shift over to the Washington Post, a small, family owned newspaper that is attempting to grow its subscriber base. At the time it was not even playing second-fiddle to the New York Times, but rather was considered a local paper that published things such at the wedding of Richard Nixon's daughter. Mind you, Nixon didn't particularly like the paper, but then again I suspect that Nixon really didn't like any newspapers.


The New York Times decides to run with the Pentagon Papers, as they became known as, which caused an immediate stir, particularly in the halls of power. However, Nixon decided to step in and put a stop to it, and issued an injunction  in the courts, successfully ordering the New York Times to stop publishing the papers until it could be referred to the Supreme Court for the decision. Elsberg, who was a bit dismayed at the turn of events, approached the Washington Post to see if they would continue the publication of the papers.

Well, this is the crux of the film - do they or don't they publish, and if they do, does this mean that they are in contempt of court. This was a huge risk for a small paper to take, particularly one that is on the verge of listing on the stock market - if something serious happened in the first week of listing then the banks could pull out and it would be no end of trouble for the paper. Well, as we all know, they ended up publishing, were taken to court for breach of the injunction, and the court ruled in favour of the Washington Post. The matter then went to the Supreme Court, which also ruled in favour of the newspapers against the government.

Government Accountability

This is one of the roles that the press plays - they are supposed to hold the government accountable, particularly since we live in a democracy. If the government does something wrong, it needs to be exposed so that the next time the election cycle comes around, people can go to the ballot box fully informed. Yet governments, particularly the executive arm that is responsible for administering the laws, and making most of the important decisions, don't always like to be exposed to what they are doing, and this is where the conflict with the press arises.

However there can be a catch, since politicians and newspaper editors move in the same circles, they tend to form relationships. In the film the editor of the Post (Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks) openly acknowledges that he was good friends with Kennedy and Johnson, and the owner (Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep) is really good friends with Robert Macnamara (though at the time of the film he was no longer secretary of defense). As such this can lead to the problem were the newspaper goes soft on one party and particularly hard on the other. Then there was Nixon, who I gather was not all that enamored with the press himself, and I gather that the feeling was mutual.

I guess we see this problem today, especially in Australia where we have the highest concentration of media in the world, and as such it is pretty much controlled by one man, and he tends to prefer the ruling conservative party (though interestingly a story in one of his papers brought about the downfall of the Deputy Prime Minister, and more interestingly it was a sex scandal, something that rarely comes up in Australia because, well, people don't particularly care).

Okay, some of our cities (Sydney and Melbourne) have two competing newspapers, but everywhere else has only one, and they are basically Newscorp newspapers. While we do have media outlets that offer independent views, they are pretty much confined to the internet (such as Guardian Australia). Like Fox in the United States, we have Sky News which is basically full of our own right wing commentators, and it is horrifying that when the huge TV screens appeared in our railway stations as bill boards, they ended up touting Sky News over and over again. There was not one commentator that was presented that held an opinion that was not right wing (and not to mention Mr Andrew 'Most-read columnist in Australia' Bolt).


So, when we have a Liberal (conservative) government these media outlets simply sing their praises and condemns anybody who might disagree with them, yet when the Labor Party is in power, the media doesn't just hold them accountable, they outright condemn them, and this is clearly seen when the local Melbourne rag, the Herald Sun (or, as I like to call it, the Herald Scum), printed a front page article on how gangs of African youths are terrorising the Western Suburbs (which, by the way, is a load of rubbish), which set off a media firestorm regarding these non-existent gangs, and in turn demonising the Africans.

I guess the point that I'm making here is that the press should try to be impartial, and attempt to be party politically neutral, though in the end due to the world that we live in, I doubt this going to happen. I do notice that if newspapers even attempt to be moderate, then they are condemned as being left wing, and the Labour Party, in some circles, are still called communists (and having been to a meeting of the communist party, all I can say is that Labor is nowhere near that extreme).

National Security

This is the other side of the debate: National Security. In fact this has always been an issue during war, because we have the threat that an enemy is attempting to do our country, and in turn us, harm, and it is the government's job to protect us from such harm. However, the question is raised when we have a situation where our country is protected by a moat - as is the case with the United States (and in turn Australia). The thing is that at the time a war was being fought on foreign soil, and there was a huge debate as to whether it was worth fighting that war in the first place.

Yet let us consider the bigger picture: the Cold War. In many cases the wars fought during that period were basically proxy wars - the two superpowers never actually came into direct conflict, and pretty much all of the fighting involved one or both powers arming insurgents to fight on their behalf (and in a way we seem to be returning to that time). This was the situation that was happening in Vietnam, and the fact that there were Americans on the ground meant that if the wrong information was made public then their lives could be in danger.


This is the problem with having a free press - the enemy reads our newspapers and watches our television channels. This isn't the case in the totalitarian regimes where information is tightly controlled - 1984 style. The thing is that what the citizens of these regimes are being told is exactly the same thing that we are being told, and in a way this works twofold - it keeps the population ignorant, and keeps us in the dark. As such the regime manages to stay in power.

Then again information, and control of information, has always been a source of power and authority. Yet when we consider that one of the cornerstone of Democracy is that the press is free, and one of the freedoms is to hold the government accountable. However, when there is a war being fought, there is the balance between what could be considered national security, and that which can be used by our enemies to bring harm to us. Yet, this may have been the case if the plans for D-day were published in the London Times two months before the operation, but there is something different when it comes to Vietnam.

The thing is that Vietnam was a contentious war, but in a way it was probably a war that we were always going to have problems winning. The thing is that when the Japanese invaded South East Asia during World War II it sent a signal throughout the region that the European powers weren't actually as powerful as it was perceived, and this culminated in the fall of Singapore, at the time viewed and an impregnable fortress (though we shouldn't forget that the Japanese did fight a successful war against the Russians - the first time a non-European power defeated a European power). While the Japanese were eventually defeated, it set off a serious of revolutions in the region with the attempt to overthrow the colonial powers - the catch was that the revolutionaries tended to be communist, or at least left wing.

This is where Vietnam became contentious because while it was accepted that many of the countries in the region were agitating for self-governance, some of these countries were following the path of China which had become communist. Thus when the French withdrew from Indo-China, it was inevitable that the United States was going to take up the slack in an attempt to prevent communism from spreading through-out the region. The question that arises though is whether the domino theory was going to happen? Well, the former French Colonies all become communist (and began fighting amongst themselves), while Malaysia and the Philippines also face communist insurgencies when were quickly crushed. As for Thailand, well, that was Thailand.

Age of the Internet

This debate simmered for a while, and was suddenly brought back into light during the War on Terror. However, things were somewhat different because the rhetoric was 'either you are with us or with the terrorists'. This was not a question of releasing government secrets, but rather controlling the press to support a specific policy - in this case the War in Iraq - and not question the government in any way whatsoever. Mind you, the events of September 11 was quite a shock and in fact many in the West were not spared for the attacks of the radical Islamists.

Yet this wasn't a question of supporting terrorists, this was questioning the legitimacy of going to war. There are lots of debates as to the reasons behind why Iraq was invaded, whether it be to access the oil, or to get rid of a tyrant. However, this is not the issue, what the issue is was that debate in the media was suppressed. In fact protesters were chided by the government for 'giving comfort to Sadam'. In many cases it seemed that a decision had already been made, and it didn't matter what anybody said, they were going ahead. The fact that both sides of politics supported the position was also quite a concern. However, it came down to the fallacy that if one doesn't support the government's position, then one must be an enemy.

I suspect this is one of the points where the huge political divisions that we are seeing now came about. Okay, there has always been debates across the political divide, and there seems to be almost a sense of hatred towards people who do not support one's views these days. I guess that back at the turn of the century, with the conservative parties in power, and the opposition following their lead for fear of being considered an enemy, many people who opposed the government's position were somewhat concerned - this is probably one of the reasons that there has been a surge in the Green vote in Australia. Then again, look at what happened when France said that they were not going to support a war against Iraq.


However, to bring it back to the original part of this post, I should make mention of some of the leaks that have come about more recently, and that is with Bradly (Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden. While one might think that things have changed for the worse in regards to Manning and Snowden, but we shouldn't forget that Elsberg was also brought up on charges of espionage, though the case was thrown out of court due to a technicality (I believe the evidence was collected illegally). However, what we see with Manning and Snowdon (and in turn Assange, who is considered an enemy in that he published the documents) is that the things that drove Elsberg to release the Pentagon papers, also drove them to release the Afghan War Diaries and to release the truth behind the NSA surveillance program.

The problem here is that with regards to the Pentagon Papers is that the various media outlets were careful in what they released, whereas Wikileaks simply provides an outlet for documents to be dumped without any form of vetting in place. Yet this isn't the real issue (though should be some cause for concern) but rather that the debate that surrounded Elsberg and the Pentagon Papers is still alive and well today, and that governments, particularly when it comes to the prosecution of a war, don't want their dirty secrets released to the world, in part because of the threat that it might be used against them by enemy combatants, but probably more because more likely than not there will be revelations of criminal conduct.

Fake News

I probably should finish off with this idea of fake news, namely because it is a phrase that seems to be thrown around a lot these days. I guess the concern that is being raised is that certain people in power are attacking institutions when they say things that they don't particularly like - for instance when Donald Trump won the election one of the first things he claimed was that there were irregularities in the result. This was rather baffling because normally that is something that the loser in the election would claim (and this tends to be quite rare, particularly in Australia). However, we have somebody winning the election making a claim of irregularities. Some people suggested it was to fend off any claims from the opposition that they should have won, or it could simply have been a response to the fact that he didn't win the popular vote (which is irrelevant in any case because, well, he won).

However, there is still this issue with fake news. The suggestion is that in referring to unflattering reports as being fake he is attempting to warp reality to suit his own inflated ego. However this isn't new since the Post deals with a time when Nixon attempted to silence newspapers when they printed things that weren't all that flattering to him. I guess the thing is that the events portrayed here happened something like fifty years ago, which is something like two generations. People my age weren't even born around that time, so it seems as if we are coming back full circle.

The reality is that presidents of all stripes have attempted to manipulate the mainstream media, and have used various methods to do so. What we are seeing now is nothing new, and this bullying of the press, and claims of fake news, is just the cries of another person that is lashing out at things that are beyond his control. When the press worked in his favour, there was no problems whatsoever, however when things start going against him, then all the sudden there are cries of 'unfair'. The reality is that journalists, like judges, don't like being told what to do and what to write, and there are ways of building rapport, which isn't the way that the current president is going about it. In the end the forth estate is beast that while it may be tamed to an extent, in the end can never be domesticated, not at least in an advanced democracy like ours.
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The Post - Free Speach vs National Security by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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