You never forget your first Billy Bragg concert. Especially if it was at Porter Hall.
This impressionable student was already a convert to the politically-savvy folk singer. And on that night, everything he sang seemed to ring true. Moreover, everything he said — whether mocking Joe Strummer’s sincerity, calling out international injustice or joking that The Smiths were targeting the pro-life market in the U.S. by renaming one of their albums Masturbation is Murder — rang true. Even the bit I didn’t fully understand at the time: something about an evil man seeking to control minds in Europe and on the verge of doing the same in America. The push for total control by this mysterious Rupert Murdoch character, our prophet in blue jeans explained, was at present being thwarted Stateside due to strict laws that prevented newspapers, radio stations and television stations in a given market from being in the hands of a lone owner. “Just wait,” Billy insisted. “He’ll get those laws changed.”
I’d say we should have listened. But we did listen. It’s just that we were — and are — seemingly powerless to stop the unending slide toward more and more power falling within fewer and fewer hands. We’ve seen it in high-tech; we’ve seen it in the airline industry; we’ve seen it in the folksy coffeeshop. Why should media be any different?
In his pointed documentary, Shadows of Liberty, Ottawa-bred IFCO and SAW Video alumnus Jean-Philippe Tremblay sets out to explain why. The information we receive, the director argues with the assistance of over three dozen experts and newsmaking notables ranging from Dan Rather to Julian Assange, is disseminated through an increasingly narrow lens — America’s “big five” corporations controlling all the media that matter. Here in Canada, one might be inclined to envy a nation with as many as five mega-corporations in control of media. In America, people are rightly concerned. True, many if not most of those most concerned, are or were employed by the media. But, Tremblay’s well-presented argument asserts, all Americans should be concerned — if only the media would allow them to be. “They keep you doped with religion and sex and TV,” John Lennon observed 43 years ago. Some things never change.
Or, if they change, it is for the worse. That, effectively, is Tremblay’s observation. Shadows of Liberty introduces us to reporters freely offering first-hand accounts of censorship in the name of sponsors, corporations and government. Hence, our first of a series of case studies relates, we have never been given the full extent of Nike’s reliance on sweatshops.
But, you might say, we do know of Nike’s dirty little secret. As indeed we know of the U.S. government’s role in the spread of crack cocaine, the story for which unjustly-disgraced investigative-journalist Gary Webb died. Yet, as a string of silenced observers lament, “We are going to see less and less of whistle-blowers” as media continue to exert a tighter stranglehold on what we do and do not know. Religion, sex and TV have been joined by the internet in a dizzying world of distractions. Entertainment passes as news. Reporters are “content generators.” Investigative journalism has been reduced to Dateline-style gotcha voyeurism. Those voices willing to challenge the mainstream have perhaps not been reduced in number, but their reach is minimal.
“The thing is that the information gets out, but what we’re saying in the film, is it’s the way it gets out,” Tremblay states of his concern. “Part of this is about coming out with the raw facts. Every time we tell a story the real challenge is to tell it to get to a higher truth. And I guess in documentary filmmaking, that’s what we’re trying to get to. This was a tough project to take on, but at the same time that’s what inspired me.”
Tremblay allows those voices to be heard. Though, he admits, his skewering of the American media has — despite earning acclaim overseas and here at home — yet to be shown in the United States. To challenge the media barons is, after all, not the path to a box-office bonanza. Shadows of Liberty seems destined to remain a film one must seek out. Those who do will be rewarded, if ultimately only mildly surprised. This is a film for the cynical of heart.
Therein, alas, may lie the uphill battle faced by Shadows of Liberty, a documentary in danger of being viewed only by the converted.
Tremblay hopes otherwise, and notes he has seen reason for optimism in the film’s response at festival screenings.
“I’ve been around the world with this film,” he says. “I’m hoping that anyone will want to see this film. The film is out there — but the powers at hand are controlling the distribution. It’s always a fight. But this fight’s not over. The main thing is let’s keep talking about it. Let’s keep making a better and better media. It’s probably the most important thing that’s keeping our democracies and societies together. In order for us to live our lives, in order for us to make correct decisions about ourselves and our families, we must have excellent information. We must challenge the norm and ensure that we have great information — about our government, and about our corporations.”
The norm, as reflected by a discouraging list of increasingly watered-down ownership regulations Stateside, is duly challenged by Tremblay’s informed and informative film. Ultimately, the personal reflections by journalists and analysts carry more force than the many dry facts and figures offered. (“Since 1996,” one onscreen figure notes, “168 newspapers have stopped print editions.” One could view that as a reflection of corporate cannibalism, or as the triumph of an online world that is the last bastion of free speech. Though that, too, is ripe for challenge by the corporate media world.) But the call to action is undeniable.
“Since the beginning of time, people have known the influence of the media,” Tremblay observes. “If you control the media you control the masses — you control the minds.”
In his film, Tremblay decries the media’s use of that control to keep us doped with sex and scandal. Yet, media moguls might counter, it is merely a case of giving the people what they want. Sex and scandal have been front and centre from Cleopatra to Berlusconi. Perhaps we’ve allowed the death of responsible journalism to happen — even encouraged it.
“If these same companies would publicize a political discourse or things about the environment the way they do the NFL or sports or sex scandals and this kind of cheesy entertainment, people would also follow politics and the environment,” Tremblay counters. “But they have such a monopoly on the media that they just keep pushing dumbed-down subjects, and in a way people don’t have a say. The masses are innocent consumers, if you will. It’s about power.”
It’s time, Tremblay concludes for us to remember that, ultimately, “it’s the people that have the power.” It is our responsibility to use it wisely, when others refuse to.
The world over, that power has recently inspired revolution. In America, as it turns out, the revolution is indeed being televised. And Rupert Murdoch is leading it.
Shadows of Liberty premieres locally at the ByTowne Cinema Friday, March 22, at 6:55 p.m. Director Jean-Philippe Tremblay will be in attendance.