Frames per Second: Defending democracy

Poster of All the President’s Men (1976). Source: WikiCommons
Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), one of the protagonists of All the President’s Men (1976), is still in bed on Saturday, June 17, 1972, when he gets a call from the city editor of The Washington Post asking him to cover the arrest of five men who had broken Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington DC in the early hours of the morning. Woodward had been at the Post for only nine months, covering similar stories. Returning to the newsroom from the court, he learns that his colleague Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who had a reputation for working his byline into good stories, was also on it.

So begins a partnership that resulted in one of the greatest journalistic investigations of the 20th century, leading to the only resignation by a US President, of Richard Nixon, on August 8, 1974. The 1979 film, adapted from the eponymous bestseller by Woodward and Bernstein, set the gold standard for movies focussing on journalism. It recreated the mammoth newsroom of the Post spread over 150 square feet, with rows of brightly coloured desks set on an acre of sound-absorbing carpet. There is a constant background score of typewriter keys and TV news and ringing telephones. This was a world populated mostly by men, in ties and checked shirts, chain-smoking and hammering out stories.

The heart of the narrative, however, is not the journalistic project, but an effort at defending the corner stone of American democracy, by two rookie reporters supported by the Post’s maverick editor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance). In the Afterword to their book, Woodward and Bernstein write: “Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: The Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It was a story of illegal surveillance by the government of a democratic nation—something that seems very close to home now.

Last Friday, the Indian Express reported that messaging application WhatsApp had contacted dozens on academics, lawyers, activists and journalists in India were snooped on by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus. The NSO Group, which makes this spyware, has said it sells this software only to governments. The Financial Times, in a story headlined “Modi accused of hacking critics’ phones”, wrote that senior Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi also claimed that her phone had been a victim of this spyware. The article also quoted an expert who described this as “the biggest surveillance scandal in India”. Since the revelation about the spyware, WhatsApp downloads in India well by 80 per cent, Business Standard reported on November 5.

Watergate has often been described as the worst attempted surveillance, and an even worse cover-up. “Deep Throat”, the pseudonym for former Federal Bureau of Investigation Associate Director Mark Felt who provided information about Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, tells Woodward: “Follow the money!” (This dialogue, which has become a mantra for many journalists, is in the film, not the book.) As the reporters try to interview different White House staff, past and present, they find most rather reluctant speak on the subject.  But even reluctantly, many do talk to them, allowing them to figure out a money trail leading to the highest strata in the government.

The use of sophisticated software to invade cellphones of targets is a far cry from five men in the pay of the American president trying to bug the office of the Opposition party. In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed to the world how the US government had embarked upon an unprecedented project of mass surveillance, prying into the private lives of every single person. In the Preface to Permanent Record, he writes: “If most of what people wanted to do online was to be able to tell (people)… what they were up to… then all companies had to do was figure out was how to put themselves in the middle of those social exchanges and turn them into profit.” He describes this as the beginning of surveillance capitalism.
For private conglomerates to seek profit by mining the data of individuals in one thing. But, for governments to be hand in glove with such companies and to undermine the democratic process by surveillance is another thing altogether. In comparison to Nixon’s attempt at retaining power by undermining his opponents through surveillance, the current situation is nothing short of dystopia. Woodward, Bernstein and the Post were willing to stand up and be counted then. Who is willing to stand up and be counted now?

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