Spotlight goes beyond the big screen and highlights the struggles of modern journalism

The Academy Award-nominated film about The Boston Globe's investigation into a Catholic Church abuse scandal is more than just entertainment

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On his first day as editor of The Boston Globe, in 2001, Marty Baron asked his executives why the newspaper had not investigated Father John Geoghan, a local priest accused of sexually abusing young parishioners.

There were several reasons, it transpired. Boston is the most Irish and Roman Catholic of any American city, and 53 per cent of the Globe’s readers were Catholics. The Church had used its enormous influence within the city’s establishment to suppress the fact that Geoghan was preying on, rather than praying with, the children in his pastoral care. Helped by unscrupulous lawyers, it had reached scores of confidential settlements with Geoghan’s victims and repeatedly moved him on to other parishes – six in all – in each of which he re-offended. He racked up more than 130 victims, one just four years old.

Baron was unimpressed. Unlike the Globe’s previous editors, he was an outsider. He came from Florida, not Boston, and was Jewish, not Catholic. He ordered Spotlight, the paper’s investigations team, to pursue the Geoghan case, and found that it was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Five months later, the Globe exposed the systematic cover-up by two cardinals and several bishops not just of Geoghan’s rampant paedophilia, but of the sexual abuse of minors by more than 70 local priests over three decades. 

As more and more victims came forward, Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to resign as Archbishop of Boston. Over the next 12 years, the archdiocese paid out $154 million to 1,230 victims of nearly 250 priests, and nearly went bankrupt as the city’s outraged Catholics withheld donations.

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The scandal spread far beyond Boston. Around the world, more than 200 dioceses found that their so-called “Men of God” had been exploiting their position to sexually abuse children. In America alone, the Church paid more than $3 billion in compensation, and 13 dioceses filed for bankruptcy. Bishops and archbishops were forced to resign. The Vatican was shamed for putting the protection of its priests and its reputation ahead of the wellbeing of children, and the Globe won a Pulitzer prize.

Fifteen years on, the story of that investigation has been turned into a riveting film, Spotlight, which stars Michael Keaton as the head of Spotlight, Walter Robinson, alongside the Oscar-nominated Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as journalists Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer. It is the most positive film about a profession that everyone loves to hate since 1976’s All the President’s Men – about the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal that toppled President Nixon (Friday Sky Crime/Thriller). It is a celebration of investigative journalism – a timely reminder, particularly in the wake of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, that honest, painstaking, foot-slogging reporting can be a tremendous force for good.

Spotlight is also, however, a film that fills older journalists like myself with nostalgia. It depicts a golden age when newspapers had the resources to search out stories, to find things out, to mount labour-intensive investigations that challenge authority and give voice to its victims. Few still do. 

The Globe’s investigation of Boston’s most powerful institution required an enormous commitment of time and money, not to mention guys.The four-strong Spotlight team worked flat out for five months, and four other journalists joined the project for a further year as the scandal mushroomed. The original quartet spent three and a half weeks scouring archdiocesan directories for priests who had suddenly gone on “sick leave” or been inexplicably removed from their parish. The paper spent £1 million challenging the confidentiality of Church documents in court.

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There was nothing glamorous about the work, recall Robinson, Rezendes and Pfeiffer. “It was gruelling. It was some of the most intense work I’ve every done,” Pfeiffer says. “I worked harder than I thought I was capable of working,” confirms Rezendes.

Raised Catholics themselves, the team spent hours persuading reluctant victims to speak, then listening to their harrowing stories. They were impeded by officialdom, warned off by supposed friends, and had doors slammed in their faces. They were opposed not just by the Church, but by Boston’s establishment. “Where is the editorial responsibility in publishing these documents?” a judge asks Rezendes in the film (in cinemas from Friday 29 January). “The Cardinal may not be perfect, but we can’t throw out all the good he’s done because of a few bad apples,” a Boston grandee suggests in a meeting with Robinson.

But the Globe’s investigation took place on the cusp of the internet era. Even as it was unfolding, readers and advertisers were starting to abandon newspapers, forcing them into a vicious downward spiral of cost-cutting, staff lay-offs and increasingly insipid journalism that merely hastened their decline.

Since 2002, the Globe’s average daily sales have dropped from 725,000 to 140,000, with 65,000 digital subscribers. To its credit, the paper has increased the size of its Spotlight team to six, because it believes its readers want good investigative reporting that holds the city’s leaders to account. But it has shut all its foreign and national bureaus except Washington, and is kept going by a benevolent proprietor, John W Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool football club, who is concerned only that the paper does not make a loss.

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Most other newspapers in the US, Britain and elsewhere have all but abandoned investigative journalism. They operate with increasingly skeletal staffs, and many no longer cover city halls, councils and courts, researching stories online rather than on foot, reacting to news rather than making it as Spotlight did. Many papers have closed altogether – more than 300 in the UK alone over the past decade.

Neither television nor radio has taken over their watchdog role. Bloggers and tweeters lack resources, and many subscribe to a “post first, verify later” ethos. A handful of philanthrop- ically funded organisations like ProPublica or the Centre for Investigative Journalism have emerged, but few last long.

The consequences are obvious, says Robinson, who recently returned to the Globe as editor-at- large after seven years of teaching. “The tempta- tions to misbehave or line your own pockets or take care of friends have increased pretty drama- tically over the last decade because the reporters who were usually looking over the shoulders of public officials are not there any more.”

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Pfeiffer, who calls the film “a love letter to journalism”, hopes it will “make people realise you have to buy your newspaper if you want this kind of work to happen. If it doesn’t we will see more abuses, more corruption, more powerful institutions out of control, more people victimised in a variety of ways with no one to expose what’s happening to them.”

Rezendes agrees, arguing that if people believe investigations like that of Boston’s paedophile priests matter “they need to support them with their wallets and subscribe to their newspapers”.

It would be nice to report that the Globe’s commitment to investigative reporting is reaping dividends, but at best it is slowing the paper’s decline. Revenues are falling six to eight per cent a year, says Robinson. “I would be surprised if we’re still publishing a print edition seven days a week five years from now. We may be down to two or three days a week in print, and the rest online.”

That would be bad news for everyone – except the corrupt, the crooked… and the paedophile priests.