Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – Film Review

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Available on Netflix.

With the UK’s media currently under scrutiny following the release of the BBC’s staff salaries, I was reminded yesterday to check out this Netflix documentary about America’s press under siege, and have been thinking about little else ever since.

It’s an unruly film that tries to logically link together three separate cases of the US media under attack – each time from billionaires, and for reasons of vested interest. The links could have been made more clear – it’s rather shabbily edited. But the conclusion drawn is obvious: the constitutional rights of the free press have never been under greater duress than at the present moment.

The first case Nobody Speak looks at is the least morally clear. It concerns the lawsuit brought against gossip website Gawker by the wrestler Hulk Hogan, after they leak a sex tape involving him doing the naughty with his best friend’s wife. As a freedom of speech issue it’s confusing, with the filmmakers inviting us to be confused. Should a ‘news’ website have the right to put out graphic, sensitive material into the public domain, and should it be protected under the First Amendment in doing so? Is a spurious organisation such as Gawker, who smack of this country’s Daily Mail, but with even less scruples, worth defending?

Nobody Speak bypasses these issues by choosing to follow the money behind the lawsuit. Its greatest concern is finding that Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook shareholder Peter Thiel, in an unprecedented move, is the one bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s case through the courts. Why? We can only speculate, because Thiel isn’t interviewed. But the film does reveal a number of articles that Gawker published about him, explicitly alleging his homosexuality and criticising his numerous business ventures. As such, it’s suggested that Thiel probably has a personal vendetta against them. So when Gawker are found guilty on all charges and fined $140 million, bankrupting them, we are invited to share the concern that a member of the 1% global elite has managed to fund the takedown of an entire news outlet. All on his own. Whatever our thoughts on the morality of said news outlet, the precedent set of capitalists using their influence to meddle in the media when it’s had the gall to affront them is still troubling. So sayeth the film, anyway, and I tend to agree.

The second case is a more straightforwardly abhorrent example of big money’s interference in the free press. It details the mysterious takeover of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by… an unknown buyer. The journalists working there instantly smell a rat, and like good old-fashioned heroes from All the President’s Men, they use all of their resourcefulness to uncover a conspiracy. It turns out that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is behind it all, purchasing the company through his son-in-law in order to block certain columnists from writing criticism of him in its pages. The journalists with integrity are forced to quit, leaving behind what? An empty shell of a news journal, blocked from honest reporting by corporate interests. The title Nobody Speak continues to speak for itself.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, we are confronted with the hideous power mogul to end all hideous power moguls: Donald Trump. If the footage of Trump’s bashing of the media at his rallies, and his miserable cronies Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway crowing ‘fake news’ at any opportunity, have somehow managed to escape your notice, well, here they are in all their vulgar glory. Trump is like any of the other billionaire bullies in this film, using his power to attempt to silence the freedom of the press when it threatens to expose his vested interests. He sees himself as above interrogation, as supreme possessor of the only ‘truth’. The man’s an almost unimaginably awful threat to the founding principles of western democracy, but the film impressively shows him as being only a symptom of the ugliest, vulgarest side of capitalism: where if you have money, you can damn well bully whoever you want, including those protected by the First Amendment.

So it’s no surprise that Trump’s planning to make it easier for people (rich people) to litigate against the media, his only real passion in life being to silence those who oppose him.

It’s a concerning time, for sure, and Nobody Speak is a compelling diagnosis of our time. Does it leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth? You bet. We need to have our noses rubbed in the scummy earth of consumer capitalism once in a while, and we should thank the global corporation of Netflix for so obliging us.

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