Follow the Money
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.