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Good Night and Good Luck – a rare journalist hero

Tell it and be damned

“If what I say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it.”

Good Night and Good Luck – Director George Clooney

Many films are good. Some films are important. Good Night and Good Luck is a rarity – a film that is both. Occasionally a film transcends its medium. Its aspiration demanding appraisal beyond the aesthetic.

Cinematically GNAGL is as good as any of its fellow Oscar nominees. And this is an unusually good year. David Putnam acknowledged this at the BAFTA awards and rightly singled out Clooney and GNAGL for special mention. From its first jazz infused grainy black and white frame this film has a quiet assurance and authority that is sustained throughout its whole 93 minutes. Clooney does full justice to his own excellent tight screenplay that distils infamous historical events into their moral and political essence. In a film almost devoid of action in the normal sense Clooney and his cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Stephen Mirrione create an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere that generates sustained dramatic tension and suspense. I can’t remember a single long shot or exterior but the pace and urgency of an early TV live Broadcast studio is created with style and conviction.

The only limitation on the use of the close-up is the calibre of your cast, for the implacable camera always detects emptiness behind the eyes and mercilessly exposes ‘acting’. Without the ideas, convictions, courage and real sense of the crucial democratic issues at stake and the risk entailed in tackling them, there would be no film here. Or certainly not one that would do justice to its material. And GNAGL does Ed Murrow, Fred Friendly and their team proud thanks to faultless performances from all the cast, from a hypnotic David Strathairn through to the smallest supporting part.

This film resonates with many fundamental contemporary issues of honour and integrity in public life. Not least it is about what men in power, media or politics, say and their accountability for it. In the more innocent days of the1950’s accountability could be established. The key philosophical issues were facts and truth and the accuracy with which they were discovered and expressed. Nothing better demonstrates the dramatic decline in present times of journalistic rigour and political integrity, than the radical shift in philosophical emphasis between then and now. For in our more ‘sophisticated’ media times truth has been replaced by semantics and facts by plausibility and deniability. Murrow and his colleagues could initiate the downfall of McCarthy only because he could be held to account for what he said and did. Murrow used respect for constitutional principle and rigorous argument to alert the American public to the threat to personal freedom and democratic rights McCarthy’s words and actions clearly demonstrated. For all his appalling ideas and shameful activities, McCarthy was clear and unrepentant about what he believed and was trying to do. There were no tortuous debates about what he really meant or could be argued to have meant if that served his purpose. Murrow only had to uncover the unequivocal facts of a sequence of events and offer principled dissent from them. He demonstrated McCarthy was lying and nailed him with it. Today there are seldom verifiable facts only obfuscated plausible possibilities and when adduced to hold a politician accountable for what he has done, responsibility evaporates in the legerdemain of not what he did but what he meant to do. Not what he said but what he could claim to have meant. And our mostly lawyer leaders know you can never definitively prove an intention. In The West Wing, Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett commenting about having hidden his multiple sclerosis from the electorate remarks “I was wrong. We both know that. Sometimes we don’t know what is right and wrong, but often we do. And in this case I knew. Nobody takes any responsibility any more. Everybody is responsible so nobody is to blame.” Fictional but true.

Murrow’s salutary 1958 address to his professional media colleagues opens and closes the movie. How much of this is Murrow and how much is Clooney I don’t know, but it poses another fundamental contemporary theme – the proper public role, values and responsibilities of people in the media towards the citizens they serve and inform. The warnings about the trivialising of Television, even the news, voiced by Murrow in the film have all come to pass. And even if this is Clooney’s hindsight, it is entirely in keeping with Murrow’s known beliefs and values. At one point Murrow disagrees with CBS proprietor Ben Paley that the essential truth of every disputed issue can be best served by balance and neutrality in its journalistic treatment. At a recent public meeting of the Governors of the BBC, during a question I asked on air to Sir Michael Grade on the BBC’s dispute with the Government over Iraq, I commented on the inappropriateness of an obsequious apology by the then Chairman for a story that was 95% right. Sir Michael replied that “95% is not good enough for the BBC – we must get it 100% right.” This states current BBC policy on such matters. Ed Murrow and I suspect most experienced BBC reporters, would argue that not only is this professional nonsense but it is a certain recipe for a lack of conviction and courage of the kind Murrow exemplified, and an invitation for political manipulation and interference. For Murrow, the threats to his independence of thought and comment, were the commercial pressures of sponsors and shareholders. For today’s BBC the threat is even more acute because controlled directly by the government – that of continued public funding. Murrow understood something fundamental that the BBC currently shows signs of forgetting – that his ultimate responsibility as a journalist was to the people not the shareholders or sponsors at CBS. GNAGL has some very pertinent lessons for today’s BBC as well as contemporary politicians.

There is a war going on at the moment for the soul of America. And surprisingly, Hollywood of all places appears to be one of the key battlegrounds. It is as if the strain of fundamentally decent liberalism in American society, Democratic and Republican, denied a majority in electoral support, is being expressed indirectly in other ways. For example there are apparently, bitter disputes about the honest non-judgemental treatment of love in its homosexual form in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain especially given its rural, even redneck, cowboy setting. Up to now I would have been delighted to see this fine, sensitive, beautifully realised film win a well deserved Oscar. But those millions of decent, tolerant Americans ashamed of their country’s behaviour in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and foreign affairs generally, need something more than a retreat into an issue of personal morality, however relevant.

The deepest lesson of all to be learned from GNAGL is that Bush’s Terrorism is McCarthy’s Communism. A generalised overwhelming threat extrapolated from individual events to create a climate of irreducible fear and distrust used to abrogate personal liberty and civil rights. The demonisation of people, ideas and beliefs in a self-defeating mixture of historical ignorance and contempt for thought. And the simplistic distortion of complexity expressing hatred for both. The quiescent, pusillanimous heirs to Ed Murrow in the contemporary American media should feel shamed by GNAGL just as much as the politicians towards whose actions, in the spirit of Murrow, they should have voiced loud and principled dissent. As Murrow says in the film:

“dissent is not disloyalty”

and prophetically: Murrow on TV which he sees simply as a tool that can be used to educate, inform, inspire, move and challenge but which is in danger (speaking in 1958) of becoming a means to distract, amuse, delude, insulate:

“If that is what it is used for then it is merely lights. And wires in a box.” Just so.

(February – 2005)

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