Monday, 29 January 2018


I saw the Steven Spielberg film ”The Post” last week. Washington Post publisher, Katherine Graham’s decision, against the advice of her lawyers, to publish an exposé of the Pentagon Papers and potentially be damned is the core story.  The Post acquires the Pentagon Papers  - 4000 pages of damning evidence - and the clock is ticking as they rush to press. The New York Times already had an injunction against them for publishing a similar story and Richard Nixon rated by all as a vindictive opponent was on the warpath.


The background to the decision she makes was complex. The Post is about to do an IPO to strengthen the paper’s balance sheet and the potential criminal charges the Nixon administration could bring against them could wreck this.

Worse still the 20 odd years of cover up of the impossibility of the US winning in Vietnam incriminates successive Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and now Nixon. Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee were particularly close to Jack Kennedy and Katherine is still a good friend of Robert McNamara who’d been Defence Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson. When personal friendships intervene objectivity is hard.

 But the nub of the dilemma is even more poignant. Katherine has just inherited ownership from her husband who’s committed suicide and she’s a woman. And women don’t count in this man’s world of money and power.

At the centre of the film then are two contemporary themes that really matter. The first is about the freedom of the press and the check on presidential powers. This is dealt with in the decision of the Supreme Court who ruled 6-3 in favour of the press. Here’s what they said:

'In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.'

The second is about the role of women in business. And about that decision. The tension in the film is because all the odds are on Katherine Graham saying “don’t publish”; there’s more to lose than gain at first sight. She’s surrounded by cocksure men who for the most part virtually  ignore her. Arthur Parsons played by Bradley Whitford  (Josh Lyman from West Wing in nasty glasses and a very un-Josh-like sneer) is the central opponent to publication. He nearly says “Stupid, stupid Woman” but doesn’t quite.

Katherine goes against her advisors because she’s more in love with truth than money and deep down is a newspaper person . This government cover up story is too important to submerge. As someone says in the film, 70% of the 58,000 fatal US casualties in Vietnam were to “save US face from the humiliation of defeat”.

In a week of the President’s Club scandal and the continuing exposés in Hollywood it took a woman to make the difficult decision. In this man’s world a man (Ben Bradlee apart) would probably  have caved in.

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