Last weekend I took myself off to The Orpheum at Cremorne, surely the best cinema in Sydney, to watch The Post.
I enjoy a political thriller more than most and still enjoy re-runs of All the President’s Men, released in 1976. The Post, set in the early 1970s, is another political thriller of rare quality and, I reckon, importance.
The film’s action centres on the smoke-filled news rooms of The Washington Post during President Richard Nixon’s first term. The scenes in The Post’s news room reminded me a lot of news rooms in Australia, without the swearing.
Steven Spielberg has brilliantly conjured the pace, excitement and intensity of a newsroom at the time. It is a masterful rendering of an important inflexion point in the defence of something we’d be well advised not to take for granted – the unfettered freedom of the press to publish actual news, not the fake stuff served up on social media.
Katherine Graham had assumed executive leadership of The Post in the early 1960s and was roundly underestimated by the male Washington elite. She had the savvy to appoint Ben Bradlee as executive editor in 1968.
Three years into Bradlee’s appointment, a former US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg took it upon himself to leak The Pentagon Papers, which soon after came into possession of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The Pentagon Papers revealed that successive American administrations had covered up military intelligence that concluded the Vietnam War was likely unwinnable. By implication, successive US Presidents, including Nixon, had repeatedly lied to the American people.
In Australia, these kinds of secrets usually turn up at second-hand furniture sales.
Nixon tried to supress the publication of The Pentagon Papers through the courts, but Bradlee, with the support of proprietor Graham, proceeded to publish the papers in The Post, as did the equally determined leadership of The New York Times.
The film beautifully portrays Graham’s fearlessness under profound commercial and personal stress, as well as Bradlees’ passionate defence of the rights of newspapers to print the truth and damn the consequences.
On one level Bradlee is portrayed as a man who only had a job to lose, whereas Graham decided to put her entire business on the line. On another level he was portrayed as a journalist defending the American people, and not just the soldiers.
This all makes for high drama and a successful movie, but it is a film about something that really mattered in America then. And it matters in Australia now.
Just as The Post and The New York Times were united in the fight for the right to print the truth, Australian media organisations across the spectrum have united to oppose the Turnbull Government’s proposed espionage laws.
The proposed espionage and intelligence laws threaten journalism by making it a criminal offence to “deal with” certain information – a provision that can prevent publication of some material, even if it is established to be in the public interest.
The laws are a neat new way for an unscrupulous government to suppress publication of the truth, but also to rob news media of the means to uncover the truth. In its present form, it is a blunt instrument.
The tepid defence of the legislation by Attorney General Christian Porter and his assurances journalists will not be targeted is worrying, at best. If this is the case, why not grant journalists an exception.
Agitation by publishers and editors has led the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security to extend public consultation on the proposed bill to February 15, with a final report due on March 23. While the extension is welcome, the government must act to protect a free press.
The Post ends with a scene in that smoky newsroom with a no-nonsense reporter reading out the US Supreme Court conclusion that the founding fathers “guaranteed the freedom of the press for the governed, not the governors”.
Let us hope we can have a similar outcome with the final draft of the Australian espionage laws, now the Government has committed to giving ground under heavy fire. In its current form, it gives me the chills.