As birthday presents go, I couldn’t have asked for a more timely and worthwhile one than a visit to my favourite London cinema the Clapham Picture House, ‘en famille’ to watch The Post.
At one level it was a trip down memory lane , to my rights of passage in journalism, reporting to newsroom bosses (always male) in rolled up sleeves, and feeling part of an enterprise that began immersed in typewriter clatter and reels of telex tape, messenger boys running to deliver urgent copy before proceeding to Linotype machines, and hot metal-presses, enduring dinosaurs of the industrial age.
No mobiles phones or google searches. When it came to chasing stories , it was finding your source preferable over several drinks, a pocket full of coins to feed the pay phone, then cut and paste.
I was 18 , just dreaming of becoming a foreign correspondent , when the military analyst’s Daniel Ellsberg’s leaked report (“United States – Vietnam Relations 1945- 1967”) was first published by the New York Times, followed by the Washington Post, showing that the American people had been lied to by successive governments, not being told the truth of an unwinnable war.
At my Jesuit boarding school , Stonyhurst College, our own anti-Vietnam protest, in solidarity with others that spread from Grovernor Square, via Paris to Chicago, took shape with a successful ‘school rag’ , raising a Vietcong flag on the roof of the main building.
Seven years later, having survived an interview which grilled me on my CV, showing I had worked for a Catholic newspaper and been active in human rights groups, I was starting out at the head offices of the Financial Times called Bracken House where the old printing machines churned out the Pink One in a massive basement over which the printing unions claimed dominion , and which subeditors had access through the side-door of an in-house pub on strict condition they didn’t touch the machines.
I watched the vividly depicted scenes of the metals presses in Spielberg’s The Post thinking of just how much the world of journalism had changed, not just in the way that newspapers are produced but how they go about reporting the world we live in.
After the film was over, one of my daughters remembered her childhood, and the day she suddenly found herself with my typewriter and so much copy paper that the following weeks were filled up with her and her sister knocking out thankyou messages , and drawing their favourite animals. It was the day I wrote my first article on a computer.
From then on my working environment would transform itself from a noisy engine room filled with human banter, to a cushioned, almost anaesthetised call center , a conveyor belt of linked up work stations and distant technologically driven printing works finally shed of all artisanship.
And yet as we know, Spielberg would have not have rushed out his latest film The Post if it had simply been an exercise in nostalgia. The clearest message the film projects is that good newspapers can and should stand up to the abuse of power, and that “the founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role…to serve the governed not the governors.”
The Post is a contemporary tale, released at a time when a US president called Donald Trump rages against fake news and the media being the enemies of the American people.
I saw the film a week when as the Washington Post put it the “the usually decorous “ FT , published a “tabloid style story” that women hired as hostesses had been groped and propositioned at a charity event.
Unless my memory fails me , in the years I worked for the FT’s investigative unit set up by the legendary Ben Bradleesque Alain Cass (an ex tabloid man),we never asked any female member of our team to dress up as a hostess, wire her up, or throw her into a den of male iniquity.
We broke diligently researched stories that exposed big bank fraud, shady arms deals, the rise and falls of crooked tycoons like Robert Maxwell , leaving sex, drugs and rock and roll to the Murdoch empire.
But then the FT claimed its story of sexual harassment at a fund raising dinner at the Dorchester was the most read in the newspaper’s history so it has evidently met the public interest test, in spades.
Fake news? Surely not. Those attending the dinner were described by the journalist involved as “a mix of British and foreign businessmen, the odd lord, politicians, oligarchs, property tycoons, film producers, financiers, and chief executives” which I guess is not a bad description of an important segment of the readership of the FT whose slogan is , as it has been for years, ‘Beyond Fear of Favour.’