I first saw All the President’s Men on late night television as a young teenager. Directed by Alan J Pakula and starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it explored the reporters’ uncovering, through dogged investigative journalism, of the Watergate scandal during the presidency of Richard Nixon, eventually leading to his downfall.
The first time I saw it, the film made a huge impression on me. Ok, I admit, that was partly due to the presence of Redford, who I had a bit of a crush on at the time, but it is also undoubtedly one of the reasons I became interested in journalism as a possible career. Watching it again, however, I was struck by just how much times have changed. Alright, it was made over forty years ago, but it was like looking through a long lens telescope at a far more innocent age. The shady dealings depicted in the film felt pretty mild compared to the shenanigans that are fairly regularly exposed these days, with few consequences for the perpetrators. Holding politicians, public figures and organisations to account is a vital part of a free press and of the democratic process. It feels as though we have drifted a long way from those principles.
Watergate took place at a time when print journalism was in its heyday. It was an era in which people sat down to read their morning newspaper, when political debate and analysis was given the time, space and depth it deserved.
Today, public debate on such issues often takes place on social media and the current occupant of the White House serves as a pertinent example of precisely how divisive and destructive that can be. This is a man who constantly undermines journalistic principles, whose self-serving cries of ‘fake news’ blur the lines between reality and fantasy, so that no-one knows what to believe or who to trust anymore. What does give some cause for hope, however, is that literature and arts festivals are increasingly providing a forum for those discussions to take place. The excellent Bradford Literature Festival is a case in point. This year’s edition finished last weekend after ten days of a brilliant programme that covered a wide range of artforms, social issues and political concerns, bringing people together to learn, probe, talk and, most importantly, listen to each other. And who knows? Perhaps a new generation of Woodward and Bernsteins are even now quietly and determinedly looking into the activities of the Trump presidency.
What a fascinating film that might make one day...