What is initially presented as an insight into the high-profile lawsuit filed against Gawker by Terry Bollea (aka Hulk Hogan) becomes a rallying cry for the preservation of independent journalism in Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. The film gives a voice to journalists and its message is clear: the First Amendment to the US Constitution is being compromised, now more than ever, by business leaders whose power renders them invulnerable and whose wealth can bring about the destruction of freedom of speech.
Private footage of Bollea’s intimate relations with the wife of his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge, as filmed by said friend, were posted on the American gossip blog in 2006. As Gawker founder Nick Denton admits on camera, the site was infamous for their ruthless portrayal of celebrities and their propensity to insult and offend in search of a scoop, something that Denton and other former Gawker journalists justify as getting to the truth that no other publication dared tell.
“There are questions of where lines are drawn for privacy in an age of immediate broadcast,” says media correspondent David Folkenflik of the Bollea vs Gawker case, and indeed this case brings to question the ethics of compromising a person’s privacy in the name of freedom of the press. The documentary only reveals its true focus, however, when it comes to light that Bollea’s case was being covertly funded by a billionaire whose wealth and wiles could, and would, take down Gawker entirely.
Knappenberger’s documentary is concerned with the future of journalism and presents this landmark case as the catalyst for a significant shift in the nature of the free press. As the film asserts, this is far more than just a sex tape scandal; it is one of the most important First Amendment cases in US legal history. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel pumped money into Bollea’s case and interview footage reveals that Thiel found Gawker to be a “sociopathic bully”. Soon the sex tapes, the all-American wrestler’s public image and Thiel’s personal gripes with Gawker fade into the background. All of that is not what’s really important here, Knappenberger is saying. What is significant is that, in backing a case against an independent publication, Thiel legitimised the destruction of a media outlet using vast sums of money.
The upshot of this is that Silicon Valley now poses a serious threat to the free press. Nobody Speak cements its pro-press position in the case studies that follow, examining the usurpation of independent publications by entrepreneurs and corporations. Using examples that are far less controversial on the part of the journalists than Gawker, the film stresses the disconcerting power of Silicon Valley over the fragmented media industry. It is not a fair fight, it argues.
Take the worrying example of the secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper by the affluent Adelson family. When John L Smith, writer for the Review-Journal, published his book ‘Sharks in the Desert’ on the corporate figures behind the city of sin, he referred to Sheldon Adelson in passing. His on-screen defence is that it would be impossible to write a book about the history of Las Vegas without alluding to Adelson’s role. What resulted was a threat from Adelson to sue him for libel unless Smith accepted hush money that would cover his critically ill daughter’s medical bills and, in return, admitted to defamation of character in court. As Smith and the documentary itself make clear, bullies do not pick on people their own size.
By the end of the film, such concerns land on Donald Trump’s doorstep. With the Hulk Hogan case having played out against a backdrop of distrust of the media, whipped up by Trump on his presidential campaign trail, Knappenberger addresses the hatred exhibited by the President towards the nation’s journalists. With powerful figures like Thiel and Trump wanting to open up libel laws, the very basis of democracy is under threat from the essentially untouchable commercial tycoons who have the financial means to take down any publication they wish.
Our right to a free press must be protected from the mercy of the one per cent – as John L Smith poignantly states in the film, “We need to be able to dig without getting caught in the rubble.”
Nobody Speak is released on Netflix on 23 June.
Published 19 Jun 2017
By Greg Evans
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