Back in the early 1970s, another American President sat in the White House, believing that he alone embodied the state, that his decisions were always legal and that only he could tell the people of his country which news sources they could believe in.
On June 30th 1971, however, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case, confirming the First Amendment rights of The Washington Post and The New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers and denying President Richard Nixon’s attempt to censor the free press.
The Pentagon Papers had revealed in extraordinary detail that the American public had been lied to for decades by every administration from Harry Truman onwards about the US military intervention in Vietnam.
It was a story that needed to be told, but if it hadn’t been for the bravery and tenacity of a few people, it would never have seen the light of day.
It was the principled whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg who had leaked the papers to the press, it was newspaper owners like Katherine Graham and editors like Ben Bradlee who risked everything to publish them, and it was indomitable reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who followed the tawdry trail from there to a bungled burglary at the Watergate building, and eventually all the way to the Oval Office.
In ruling for the newspapers, Justice Hugo Black wrote this:
The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.
We all know what happened next – a President full of hubris, who lied and broke the law repeatedly and thought he could always continue to do so, because he was the President, was finally brought to book and brought low.
Could it happen again now?
Would any news organisation be able to resist those enormous political, corporate and commercial pressures in quite the same way?
Could any journalist or news organisation be able to stand strong and try to shed light upon the truth?
Now owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post might no longer be trusted to be a standard bearer for press freedom, having called on President Barack Obama to reject a pardon application for a modern-day Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden.
Quite the turnaround.
All The President’s Men, featuring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, tells the story of a time when that newspaper and its journalists did stand up against a bullying and threatening political machine, and without fear or favour, told the truth to the country.
In a week in which we’ve been told that Number 10 has tried to control which journalists have access to Downing Street, remembering the vital role that the Fourth Estate plays in speaking truth to power has never been more important.
Maybe some other Ellsberg, Woodward or Bernstein is out there, even now.
Let’s hope so.