Spotlight may just be the finest film about journalism yet made

Out of America: It shows how paedophile priests were exposed by The Boston Globe and is better even than All the President’s Men

Rupert Cornwell
Saturday 19 December 2015 22:50

It’s called Spotlight, after the name of The Boston Globe’s in-house investigative reporting unit. It opens in Britain next month. And it may just be the finest film about journalism that’s yet been made.

Let’s start with the place: America’s most Catholic city: Boston, with its dark-panelled clubs, its Brahmin caste with family ties to the very founding of America, its liberal and decent flagship newspaper, its Irish and Italian tribes, and its fanatical embrace of the local sports teams, none more so than the Red Sox. Into this ordered, generations-old universe steps a complete outsider, the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron. He is a Floridian by birth, Jewish by faith and he hates baseball.

In his very first days on the job in 2001, a Globe column catches Baron’s eye; it’s about paedophile priests, a topic that has frequently cropped up, but which has never been properly investigated. Maybe the paper had never really tried, aware that some 55 per cent of its readers were Roman Catholics, and daunted by a sense that the church measured its existence not by human lifespans but by eternity.

Midway through the film comes a wonderful scene where the outsider meets the ultimate insider. Baron is paying a courtesy visit to Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, close to the Pope and the Curia in Rome and probably America’s mightiest Catholic churchman of his day. Ah, says Law, the city works best when our two great institutions work in tandem. Baron gently demurs. As he leaves, the cardinal summons an underling to give the editor a present. Baron unwraps it in his car as he leaves. It is the Catholic catechism.

Why is it that great newspaper movies seem to be a US monopoly? One reason, surely, is that the profession, with the broad licence and underpinning provided by the First Amendment, takes itself much more seriously than its British equivalent. When, for instance, did you ever hear an American reporter refer to himself as a hack?

British dramas involving the press tend to be thrillers, cynical takes on a corrupt and, on occasion, deadly political system – take House of Cards or State of Play. There are highly successful American versions of both. But the native US variety, with the exception of Citizen Kane, tends to hew to the facts. Until now, the picks for me have been Good Night, and Good Luck, about CBS correspondent Ed Murrow as he helps to bring down the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and, of course, All the President’s Men, about The Washington Post and the Watergate scandal, the film that launched a thousand college journalism courses for would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins.

For me, Spotlight beats even the Watergate drama as a film about the craft of journalism. The star wattage is less distracting. It has no matinee idol such as Robert Redford, nor a real-life editor, Ben Bradlee (if anything, more glamorous than Jason Robards, the actor who played him). There’s none of the claustrophobic paranoia that infuses All the President’s Men.

Here we see ordinary reporters doing their job, in an era when the internet hadn’t quite taken over our lives, when mobiles were still phones that folded away in the middle, rather than mini-computers. The fascination lies in the exactitude with which a newsroom and interviewing techniques are depicted (they were checked with the real reporters in the story), and the sheer hard work involved.

As with Watergate, you know how the Spotlight story ends, too, with a series of blockbuster pieces that ultimately exposed almost 250 priests who had sexually abused minors in the Boston archdiocese, and showed conclusively that Law had led the cover-up. He resigned in late 2002 and retired under the aegis of the Vatican: he is still Cardinal Priest of Santa Susanna, Rome’s American Catholic church.

In a way, the story resonates even more profoundly than All the President’s Men. Watergate had no victims, other than the utterly deserving Richard Nixon and his cronies, and the abstract casualty of Americans’ trust in their highest institution. The Democrats would have lost the 1972 election by a mile, without a single dirty trick.

Spotlight’s victims, by contrast, run into the hundreds and thousands, if you count the abuse scandals uncovered in other countries after the Globe had led the way. “Go after the system, not the man,” Baron exhorts his troops. The victims of the system were human beings, defenceless minors defiled by God’s representatives in whom they placed their trust and who were bought off by the church with derisory secret settlements. They were left psychologically scarred for life by experiences they dared not, could not, talk of.

As a journalistic procedural, the film couldn’t be more authentic. The investigation has barely started when it risks being blown away by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The more upmarket Globe constantly fears its tabloid rival the Boston Herald might spoil its scoop. But, to the end, it insists on checking and counter-checking every fact to get the story right. Nor is it unfettered hagiography. Spotlight leaves no doubt that the Globe should have gone after the scandal years earlier, missing (or choosing to ignore) the import of its own previous headlines on the subject.

And there is a wider message too. The uncovering of the abusive priests makes a compelling case for the virtues of old-fashioned investigative journalism. It is costly and it can take ages, but fulfils a vital role in keeping ’em honest. Blogs don’t do it, and television doesn’t do it. Print journalism may be on the ropes but long-format reporting is one of its remaining potential strengths.

In January 2013, Baron became editor of The Washington Post, soon to be beefed up with the financial muscle of a new owner, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The Post is running more long pieces than ever and is a better paper for it. And if Spotlight doesn’t bring in a decent Oscar haul, it’ll be a disgrace.

Spotlight is in UK cinemas from 29 January

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