You can see Spotlight , the 2016 winner for the Oscar as Best Picture, with hope and despair.
Hope in that the film shows how painstaking, dogged and truthful journalism can uncover crimes and have a major impact, as did happen in the real-life story depicted in the film: The Boston Globe’s 2002 exposure of widespread child sex abuse by priests of the Roman Catholic Church in the Boston area had global repercussions, forcing even the Vatican to take some action.
But we will see Spotlight with despair too since that was 14 years ago and in the United States. Newspapers continue to die over there, and with that the tradition of investigative journalism. New forms of media organisations which pursue investigative journalism may have emerged (ProPublica is an example), but the truth is the tradition is fading in all forms of the media.
In India, we must doubly despair when we watch Spotlight because we have rarely seen that kind of careful investigation that is sustained over a long period and carried out with respect for accuracy and without taking short cuts. The last time we read of such investigations was perhaps during the 1980s: of the Bhagalpur blindings (early 1980s), the PAC’s killings in Meerut (mid 1980s) and then Bofors (late 1980s).
Now, we have instead “exposés” based on single-source leaks and without any follow-ups, reports that are often used to settle scores. And of course on TV we do not have investigative journalism. We only have trial by media, a practice that would horrify the reporters of the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe. (But they should not be because our trial-by-media TV houses are based on Fox TV of the US.)
Spotlight is a remarkable film on a number of counts.
Many films claim to be based on “true events”; where this film is different is that it is a true representation of true events. As many of the original protagonists of the story – Martin Baron, then Boston Globe editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson, head of the Spotlight investigation team of the paper, and reporters Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll – have said in interviews, the film is a faithful representation of the investigation that led to the reports of abuse and cover-up. You do not have to go by the testimonies of the real life characters to accept that the story has not been garnished for the screen. You can sense the authenticity: there are no unbelievable twists and turns, there are no theatrics, and there are no heroics.
All the events – bar one that does stand out – are apparently exactly as happened or adapted for the screen. The one scene which is theatrical is also the one that is pure fiction. The head of the Spotlight team Robby confronts a lawyer who knew all along what was happening and attempts to put the squeeze on him by saying, “We have two stories here. The one about your going along with the cover-up. And the other about the cover-up itself. Which one do you want us to run?” The lawyer gets his back, but that is not the point. That conversation never took place. And the conversation stands out in the film because it does not gel with a subsequent realisation that some years earlier Robby had only perfunctorily followed up on the information the same lawyer had shared with him.
This relates to another aspect of the film: a willingness to admit that the journalists – as Bostonians, as Catholics and as members of the community – may have let the crimes continue for years because they did not bother to pursue the story when they first heard about it.
Another achievement of Spotlight is that it is able to portray the dull and plodding work that makes up so much of hard core journalism in a manner that grips the viewer’s attention. From the opening scene of a cover-up of child abuse by a priest that is completed in a police station to the closing scene when reporters rush to answer phone calls from survivors who want to share their nightmares, the film does not let go.
(Of course, whether or not the film grips you depends on your perspective. At a late night screening of its first weekend in the western suburbs of Mumbai, the theatre was less than half full and a group of teenagers/20-somethings sitting in the row behind made no secret of their boredom with the film.)
Spotlight is to be lauded as well for its willingness to tell a story on paedophilia by members of a religious order, and do so openly but neither graphically nor in a sensational manner. Survivors recall their childhood horrors to the reporters and are prodded to speak about it in full. “We need to know more than that you were ‘molested’,” says one reporter very quietly and without the aggressive approach of thrusting a mike into the interviewee’s face.
You leave the theatre angry that children can be treated like they were, as shown in the film. You are also angry that “Servants of God” perpetrate such crimes and you are angrier because senior “Servants of God” actively engage in protecting the perpetrators. But you also leave the theatre with some hope, that not always do the criminals get away.
The Oscars are a strange beast. A small body of active as well as not-so-active members of the film community chooses what it thinks are the best pictures to have been released in the US during the year. This community may have chosen Spotlight as the best picture of 2016 because it wanted to assuage its conscience in some manner (something it has done earlier). But whether or not Spotlight was cinematically the best, it is a brave film that journalists in particular should watch and think about.
Tom McCarthy, the director of Spotlight, is reported to have said, “We made this film for all the journalists who have and continue to hold the powerful accountable.”
That is something to be grateful for. But around the world such stories in the press have become rare. The New York Times has reported that in 1990 there were 159 submissions for the Pulitzer Prize in public service. This was the category under which the Boston Globe got its prize in 2003. But in 2015, there were as few as 66 submissions in the same field. One hopes that Spotlight will give investigative journalism a new edge and lead to a revival.
As the film ends, we have a listing of the child abuse crimes perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church which have been unearthed across the world, first in the US and then elsewhere from Chile to India. Yes, if you look carefully you will see mention of “Ollur, India”, a reference to the arrest in 2014 of a Catholic priest for molesting a 10-year-old girl in Ollur town of Thrissur district of Kerala. As I complete this piece, news comes in of a conviction in another crime, of a pastor (?) of the Salvation Army in Thrissur District being given 40-years of rigorous imprisonment for assaulting a 14-year-old girl.
Such crimes are there all over, and across religious denominations and are perpetrated by strangers, friends and members of the immediate family. The victims who do not have voices need journalists like members of the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe to tell society what is happening and get the guilty punished.
Rammanohar Reddy is Editor of Economic & Political Weekly,