That battered old courtesan of a press

Tim Robbins asks why the modern media serve no better function than shameless courtesans to the powe

Full disclosure: I am an actor and I have no right to express my opinion in any forum other than a make-up chair. I have in the past, it is true, foolishly raised questions about my country's rush to war and I have since been humbled by the wisdom and vision of the neoconservatives who have realised such vibrant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But still, because I am famous, and because it has been some time since I have embraced the adrenalin rush of self-importance, I have taken the invitation of another self-promoting dilettante to spew my observations at the reluctant and powerless reader. Here's the thing: I love journalism. It is in my opinion the most noble profession, other than being a firefighter or police officer or soldier or schoolteacher. Oh, or a doctor. Or a nurse. Or a paramedic. Oh, or a pilot who can land a plane in the Hudson River.

But while these professions save lives on a daily basis, the journalist is entrusted with an obligation just as essential: the responsibility of keeping a free society alive. By challenging authority, by demanding truth from those that would obfuscate, by exposing corruption in the halls of power, journalists act as the protectors of liberty, the guardians against autocracy. Some even take their responsibility to heroic levels by risking their life and livelihood in pursuit of truth and in defence of liberty.

We have seen recently how journalists' commitment to their profession can make the difference in a society that teeters between dictatorship and democracy. Telling the truth in a volatile time can empower the powerless and facilitate a fundamental shift in consciousness.

I want to believe that every journalist working these days holds these truths to be self-evident, but I'm not sure. Rare was the brave descendant of Woodward and Bernstein who challenged the pro-war narrative spun by the powerful after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Instead, electronic media spokesmodels led the way. They didn't aspire to the investigative scoops of I F Stone or George Seldes, or the brave integrity of Edward R Murrow, or any of the other 20th-century journalists who viewed their job as a vital component of the democratic process. They simply had to apply make-up and read their lines. Those in print journalism who wouldn't reprint Pentagon press releases as front-page news were labelled unpatriotic, agenda-laden radicals and summarily intimidated into submission - if not expunged from the system. Those still left with a job got the message: if you want to think for yourself, don't expect to be paid for it. Good luck with the mortgage payments, Mr or Ms Truth-Teller.

(An email to my son's generation: the free press is an essential check to the abuse of the power of the government. Or in a tweet: when the assholes lie, the press has to call their shit.)

At this point, I must remind you once again that I am only an actor, and my opinion could very well be unreasonably idealistic. I don't live in the real world - I live in a celebrity bubble - so in practical matters I defer to better minds that understand how the world works and what the true purpose of journalism is.

As I said, I love journalists. Oh, for that All the President's Men (in Black) II script to arrive on my desk! A great blockbuster that upholds the freedom of the press - with action sequences!

But alas, the 1970s are dead in Hollywood and these are not good times for those who labour with their fingers at keyboards. Journalists with jobs these days are a dwindling number, and it must be with some embarrassment and fear that these workers arrive at the office these days. I want to believe that the fire still burns inside them, that they possess an undaunted and irreversible power. But can they get their story through?
Considering that no one in the upper echelons of the press lost their job for getting the facts so monumentally wrong in the lead-up to wars that resulted in such a cost in lives and a depletion of the American treasury, we shouldn't be surprised at the poor quality of reporting on the rise of the "Tea Party", or the outbreak of revolutions in the Middle East, or the Julian Assange affair. (Here is where the actor gets unfortunately belligerent in remembrance of the 18th-century saloons that forged our democracy.)

Like an old battered courtesan with a romantic memory of her virtue, those left within the media elite with a shred of dignity must have had a moment of relief when Barack Obama was elected. Change was the order of the day. Gone were the days of embarrassing complicity with the government, of sitting on your conscience and looking the other way while your pimp lied to you and looted your treasure. Here was a moment to reclaim yourself, your virtue.

Rock star in the spotlight

But in the compromised trollop, craven nature triumphed over her illusory heart of gold. It has been pretty obvious for the past two years to anyone not in a coma that the Tea Party movement was a well-funded, right-wing political insurgency. Yet the mistress reported her pimp's story of a legitimate "grass-roots movement". The spokesmodels and print journalist neocons repeated the legitimacy of this movement ad nauseam for two years until the anaesthetised American public once again bought the product being sold them. They voted against their best interests - believing they were embracing Tom Paine whilst being raped by King George.

It's no wonder that these severely compromised gossips/publicists reacted so vehemently to WikiLeaks's Assange. Here was someone outside the cathouse with a rock star's spotlight on him, scooping them all, reminding them of what a journalist should be doing for a living, and in doing so shining a light on their subser­vience to their corporate paymasters.

(Conspiracy alert: It is ridiculous to assert that there is "control" over information in a "free" society. Those multinationals that have news divisions maintain them as a service to the democracy. They are "free" to report anything they like. Also, full disclosure II: anything positive I say about Assange has nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with my own craven, whorish nature. I've been told I look like him and as an actor I will do anything and say anything to star in that movie.)

That said: a man that presents truth among liars does not seem to fare well. Any admission by "journalists" that Assange might have relevant information necessary to a democracy's survival might suggest that they have been sleeping on the job, and that they serve no function other than courtesan to the powerful.

To add embarrassment to humiliation, those same courtesans had to watch while Assange's exercise in press freedom, which they had attempted to discredit, helped to lead to an explosion of protests in the Middle East calling for democratic reform. The embarrassed courtesans duly hemmed and hawed, spewing disinformation about Muslim Brotherhoods and terrorist connections to the voices calling out to the world from Cairo in Tahrir Square.

But as these kept ladies tried to misinform the world, the will of the Egyptian people won the day. Suddenly the Egyptian voice spoke more truth through Twitter than through our cathouses of information - and a paradigm shifted. While a fever of democracy spread, they stumbled over themselves trying to catch up, like an embarrassed and shamed collaborator trying to explain that it was his complicity to dictatorship which led to democracy.

Meanwhile, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, doing his best impression of his Bush-era predecessor John Ashcroft, spoke of the terrorist crimes of Assange. In an irony that could only be truly appreciated by the ghosts of the original National Lampoon editor Doug Kenney and writer Michael O'Donoghue, the courtesan reporters and spokesmodels delighted in portraying Assange as an erratic and unhinged individual.

(And here is where the actor goes too far and remembers his love of Bertolt Brecht and his punk-rock roots . . .) And so the wanton wench who has been sharing her bed with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney et al, who got knocked up with and gave birth to their bastard war, now stands in judgement of legitimate democratic movements and demonises one of the last truth-tellers as a rapist, without waiting for the due process of a trial.

Then, as is wont to happen in a society that worships distraction when thoughts of revolution abroad and press freedom at home start to disturb our sense of equilibrium, along comes an actor in meltdown and we are blissfully brought into the pornography again.

Our airwaves have been liberated by Charlie Sheen - say hallelujah! We blissfully stare at the car wreck of the unstable celebrity and are absolved of our responsibility to think about the world, or our involvement with it.

Here's an interesting angle: compare the hours of press coverage of Sheen ranting about his situation with the reportage of any of his father Martin's principled protests in the past 30 years. It's not even close, folks.

A reasoned, intelligent, religious activist and actor is virtually ignored, while his unhinged and chemically imbalanced son is given endless hours of press coverage and the rope with which to hang himself. We want our actors to be innocuous representations of our foolish, self-destructive inclinations, not our moral centres or reminders of our own humanity. For that, we look to our politicians and our pundits.

Doomsday ignoramus

And now, today, we are faced with a world crisis. As a nuclear power plant threatens to melt down in Japan and the world worries about radiation spreading through the atmosphere, we have not a thought for the words of the father Sheen or Bruce Springsteen, or Sting, or Jackson Browne, and all those "self-important celebrities" who called for attention to the dangers of nuclear power in the 1980s.

Oh yes, they were naive dupes of left-wing doomsday ignoramuses. They did not understand the complex science that guaranteed the safety of nuclear power plants; they were alarmists, extremists, fools. The public listened instead to the kings, the reasoning individuals and well-paid scientists who assured us that there was absolute safety and security in the man-made systems that protected us. These pragmatists understood the benefits of the nuclear industry and belittled the misinformed and ignorant musicians and artists of the world.

And as the crisis unfolded in Japan, these promoters and advertisers of the guilt-free nuclear dream sat in their studies in Georgetown undisturbed by the media. No one asked them to express any defence of their previous beliefs of safe nuclear energy, which they have spread like a virus since the 1960s.

As a moronic, narcissistic actor, I am reluctant to call on my knowledge of Shakespeare to blame the responsible king and spare the truth-telling fool. I realise that my opinions are seriously misguided, and anyway, isn't it the artists that have created the problem? Their free-natured approach to expressing the human condition has led to the destruction of our moral and economic stability, if not the tsunami itself. Artists who embrace activism serve a function in society that is just as embarrassing as those intrepid journalists who seek to illuminate the truth in these volatile times.

As long as we limit the voice and influence of these fools, our kings can rant naked in the storm and be considered reasoned, articulate leaders. And that's a rewrite that will please. It may not be a good play - but business can proceed as usual. Spare us the words of those who will not profit from ignorance or complicity. Give us Lear without guilt. Give us our uncomplicated drama, for the good of all of those who seek a simplified view of the world.

And for God's sake, let's keep our actors embarrassed and humiliated.

Tim Robbins is an Oscar-winning actor, a musician and artistic director of the Actors' Gang, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State