“Our liberty depends not he freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost” – Thomas Jefferson, 1786
Controlling the press and broadcast outlets was always the first stage in any coup: if you can put out your own propaganda, winning hearts and minds is much the easier, and pretty much ever dictator in modern times has found a way to distort the mouthpiece of a truly free press.
But in the so-called free world, where democracy is allegedly paramount, the freedom of the press has never been more under threat. Who are the dictators? None other than billionaires, it seems, the people who can use multi-million law suits to protect their privacy. Not just in America either, since British libel laws are the most absurd in the world: the complainant has no requirement to prove or justify anything, but the accused must provide evidence to justify every claim. The fact that you are printing the truth is not enough.
And guess what? Now Trump is POTUS, he has launched into a one man mission to denounce the press and its “fake news” while telling lies that are so blatant that a 5-year old could see through them. If the newspapers report the lies as lies, they are in turn denounced and excluded from his foreign adventures thanks to his blacklist and endless tweets. In short, Trump is using his office to suppress the media, but the question to be considered is whether this is Trump the person or Trump the character, his alter ego – and whether that makes the slightest difference. I’ll come back to this point.
Of course, billionaires own media too and are, paradoxically, just as likely to use libel laws to protect themselves. They use their outlets to sell their position, knowing that politicians cannot afford to ignore them. Much is written about Rupert Murdoch but you can look at many litigious newspaper barons of yore, including Conrad Black and Robert Maxwell, whose empires collapsed, one was failed and the other died under mysterious circumstances before he could be tried and imprisoned.
The thing about the free press is that the moment anybody tries to restricted which stories are printed, then it is no longer free. Everybody would back the right to protect innocent victims of stories that are in total or in part fictional or clearly scurrilous, but what is uncovered In Nobody Speak: The Trials Of The First Amendment is mind-boggling.
The focus of this detailed analysis of the nature of truth, delusion and puffery is the legal dispute between Hulk Hogan (aka Terry Bollea, who, unlike his alter ego is not possessed of a 10″ penis – and this was discussed in court, I kid you not!!) and Gawker, the gossip site that publishes stories that are passed up by other news outlets. Many of these stories relate to this very strange body of people, “celebrities,” many of whom have huge egos, employ publicists and who care more than anything about their reputations.
The motives for any action on either side come into question, and in this case the fascinating discussion of Hogan’s vast suit against Gawker in respect of a sex tape was purely to suppress a further tape where Hogan was making a series of racist slurs, on the grounds that the latter would, and did, destroy his reputation and career. While the tape was undoubtedly real and in practice Hogan/Bollea was awarded $140m, the case subsequently ended up in ongoing court action with a reduced settlement, that was not the big story here. Ultimately Gawker filed for bankruptcy, and that was not accidental: the film explains why.
It shows and follows evidence is shown that Hogan’s case was bankrolled by a Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire whose sole motive was to bring down Gawker and its directors. In other words, this is personal! Why? Because an intelligent and well-written article that was actually supportive of gay executives outed Thiel.
And why do executives hate publications like Gawker as much as they apparently hate governments, taxes and bureaucracy? Simple: they are telling the truth and because these power-hungry “libertarians” believe in their own omnipotence contrary to democracy. Thiel (a major supporter of Trump) and other billionaires would probably consider the first amendment expendable for the ultimate well-being of the people who matter – and there are many more like him, including the new generation of digital billionaires.
I’ve outlined in the sketchiest of terms part of the plot of this compelling and pacy documentary, but it goes way further than you would ever imagine possible. Like The Smartest Guys In The Room, you need to keep your wits about you since the breadcrumb trail, but it comes down to a wonderfully simple question: what are the ethical boundaries? The best quote comes from one reporter, discussing the mysterious investors who were buying out a Las Vegas and their motives for buying a newspaper:
“How can you do your job? How can you know what lines you’re crossing ethically, whose interests you’re serving inadvertently?”
It’s a terrifying thought that the richest men are anonymously buying into the media, and these people are courted in turns by politicians. The bullying and intimidation of the press continues, while government and courts defence of the first amendment seems barely to be holding back the floodgates. The journalists with integrity are pushed out or resign, while the newcomers are in no doubt they have to do the bidding of their masters.
The first of two ironies is that the journalists are the first line protectors of the first amendment (“more powerful than the truth”) and have by definition to be independent, fearless, protective of their sources and courageous on behalf of ordinary citizens everywhere. Without investigative journalism the truth about Watergate would never have been made public, yet it is the very people who pursue the truth are in the firing line from the mega-wealthy and even a president who has brought 3,500 law suits in defence of his opaque business transactions (including multiple bankruptcies) and accused, often mendaciously, of gross mendacity.
The second irony is that it’s not the regular media that matter nowadays. Whatever is written and printed by journalists, it is as nothing to the real democracy of billions of people with access to social media and possessed of devices capable of circulating the most incredibly powerful stories, pictures and videos to the world – though strangely this is barely mentioned here. Granted it cannot tell you what goes on in the corridors of power behind closed doors, but it is an adjunct to the truth uncovered by journalists.
This docufeature won the 2017 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, and was in fact described by the Independent thus:
“The scariest movie at Sundance was a documentary about Hulk Hogan.”
I wish the production team every success at next year’s Oscars, but more to the point I hope the power of free speech is never again eroded, even if that means tolerating some unpalatable opinions in the process.