Nobody Speak: Gawker’s shutdown wasn’t a morality tale, it was a test of free speech

Nobody Speak shows the consequences of being a journalist, especially when you do not toe the line.

ByTR Vivek
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Nobody Speak: Gawker’s shutdown wasn’t a morality tale, it was a test of free speech
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A few years ago, a scale model of the BrahMos missile was installed in a corner of the Delhi Press Club’s lawns. It was a tribute to a saintly defence minister who had a phobia of signing purchase orders for the troops but was generous enough to donate a few bob to spruce up the dilapidated club.

I feared the missile would someday launch itself, fuelled by the cattiness and contempt (not to mention the rum fumes) of those who dined in its vicinity.

Indian journalists, by and large, have the remarkable ability of never finding words to praise fellow practitioners of the profession in public. In private, they run their colleagues down in a manner that is vivid and richly detailed in its derision. If only they used such narrative devices in their published output, Indian journalism would be significantly more readable and less anodyne.

The marketing of memoirs written by well-known journalists is often on the basis of ‘juicy’ bits about politicians, public figures and colleagues. If navel-gazing was an Olympic sport, Indian journalists would monopolise the podium.

The lack of professional admiration and respect, whose roots can be traced to political disagreements and plain old envy, has consequences in journalism.

Such an attitude makes it hard for journalists—the authors of the first draft of history—to research and record, in any serious measure, the contemporary history of news media and its various achievements and failures.

For youngsters who enter the profession, oral and recorded histories of journalistic courage and excellence serve not only as a reminder of the profession’s great moral purpose, as opposed to a crack at fast track-fame that draws many in, but also gives them a sense of being proud inheritors of a glorious tradition and a part of a valuable, even indispensable, social contract. My own respect and passion for journalism have been shaped by mentors who were often two decades older, always giving, ever sharing and seldom pompous.

The journalistic accounts of standing up to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency are valuable exceptions to the lack of historical perspective, but it’s so far back in our history that newcomers can hardly relate to them. Even in the English-language media space, the valour of tiny, independent Himmat or Freedom First is hardly the stuff of arousal anymore.

The lack of pride about the profession in large measure allows media proprietors and politicians to treat journalists as sometimes-useful pawns.

For the aforementioned reasons alone, Brian Knappenberger’s Netflixdocumentary Nobody Speak: Trial of the free press should be made an essential part of the curriculum at India’s journalism schools. If you are a working journalist, watch the film now. Take my data and Netflix subscription if you wish. For non-journalists too, who are by now accustomed to smearing journalists as presstitutes and libtards on social media without ever interacting with one personally, the documentary can be an eye-opener about the profession they love to hate, provided they can keep their blinkers off.

Despite some of its shortcomings, Nobody Speak is a gem of a film. Like the clichéd description of a football match, Nobody Speak is a film of two halves. The first half is entirely devoted to the landmark legal battle between digital media disruptor Gawker and the World Wrestling Federation’s most enduring superstar Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea).

Bollea had sued Gawker Media, the parent company of the website Gawker.com for publishing a video of the former pro-wrestler having sex with Heather Clem, his best friend and radio personality Bubba – The Love Sponge’s wife, in 2012. Gawker’s founder Nick Denton and its editor AJ Daulerio who published the story argued that the First Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteed their right to free speech and in turn their freedom to publish the sex tapes. There were, of course, questions about the morals and purpose behind the publication of such a tape.

It is hard to muster sympathy for Gawker which started as a blog that claimed to put information in the public domain that journalists had held back from for the sake of political correctness.

Gawker’s founder Nick Denton in many ways was part of the British-establishment elite. Like David Cameron and several other British prime ministers, he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford, otherwise considered the passport to power. He worked with the Financial Times, a Fleet Street publication that floated above the rest. Having been a part of the establishment consensus, Denton claimed he wanted to cultivate a culture of putting the ‘story’ first and publishing stories without fearing a loss of access, favour, or discretion.

What odious convention of political correctness was Denton shattering, in the interest of the public, by publishing Bollea’s sex tapes is not entirely clear to this rather old-fashioned Indian journalist. Despite a seemingly reasonable request from Bollea’s lawyers that no claims would be pressed if Gawker simply took off the video, the tapes were still published. The litigants had no problem if Gawker wrote about the contents of the clip in graphic detail like many had done before.

Through one of the many voices, Nobody Speak makes it clear that the Gawker case doesn’t allow itself to be resolved perfectly into a neat morality tale. Midway into the case enters Peter Thiel, an Ayn Rand-loving, Trump-supporting Silicon Valley billionaire and an early investor in Facebook who was outed by Gawker Media for being gay. Thiel, behind the scenes, bankrolled Bollea’s legal battle to the tune of $10 million to extract revenge. The Florida Court awarded Bollea an unprecedented and almost unexpected $140 million in damages. This instantly drove Gawker Media to bankruptcy. Gawker Media’s online assets (excluding Gawker.com, now defunct) such as Gizmodo, Jezebel, Kotaku and Deadspin were bought over by another US media conglomerate, Univision, in a distress auction. Raju Narisetti, the Indian business daily Mint’s founding editor is now the CEO of the company that runs Gawker brands.

Despite Gawker’s very obvious flaws, it wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last to test limits of free speech. Does that indicate that men with means and axes to grind media organisations should be able to shut them down?

In India, the ultra-rich businessmen have easier and more cost-effective options to snuff out the nuisance of bad news.

This includes one, the ability to slap Rs 500-1000 crore defamation cases on publications that carry stories against the tide, as perfected by one-half of a bifurcated, fabled conglomerate. The small and medium-sized independent publications that fail to keep up with the demands of protracted court battles shut up, while the big fish, whose advertising appetite is bigger, can be handled in other ways.

Two, become media owners so as to benefit from the unwritten Indian media code that we shall not write about our own. Moreover, why would journalists make their circle of employability smaller by critiquing existing or potential media owners?

In a media market such as India, you don’t need a Thiel to shut down unfavourable media. Vested interests could come together opportunistically to create new megaphones.

The second and the smaller part of Nobody Speak shows tears rolling from the eyes of a correspondent, who would routinely ridicule his journalist wife’s penchant for crying copiously while watching Aamir Khan’s films.

While somewhat disconnected from the Bollea v. Gawker case is the story of journalists at the Las Vegas Review-Journal (R-J), Nevada’s largest newspaper, investigating the secret purchase of their organisation by a local billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, against whom their paper has relentlessly battled, is the stuff that makes your hair stand up, whether you are a journalist or not.

When R-J’s journalists asked the dodgy frontman who announced the news of the paper’s sale to an entity whose antecedents weren’t clear, he insouciantly and injudiciously responded, “They want you to focus on your job.” When they specifically asked if it was Adelson, he refuted it. The R-J journalists were left wondering what lines they’d be expected to cross and whose interests they would be serving inadvertently.

That is the reddest rag that you can wave to a bunch of journalists who have professional pride. I remember a newsroom where the proprietor walked in to announce a list of ‘seven holy cows’ against whom he decreed nothing ought to be written. At the time, four cows were from the Congress and three from the BJP. From that day onwards, many of the journalists present did what they could to unsettle all those who favoured bovines. A gradual, calculated purge ensued. Anyone who failed to comply was replaced by those morally malleable.

The editorial staff of R-J, led by their editor Mike Hengel and deputy editor James Wright, on the contrary, published an investigative story on how Sheldon Adelson, the global casino billionaire who was irked by the paper’s coverage of him, had purchased the media house within a month. R-J’s editorial brass resigned soon after the publication of the front-page story.

One of the R-J journalists, Jennifer Robinson, who worked on the story that put her out of regular employment, says in Nobody Speak: “Journalism is a job. I could have found another job. But what I couldn’t have fixed would have been the moral stain of looking away from that moment.” Robinson is no less brave than journalists who venture into war zones to bring us stories. There are many journalists in India as brave as Robinson and her editors in taking on vested interests, but sadly they aren’t any Twitter titans or media stars. The moral stain of letting honest journalists down, and berating the politico-corporate-media nexus from our cosy confines, is on us.

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