Bad Press review – Native American journalists’ thrilling battle for free speech

<span>‘Something that we know is worth fighting for’ … Bad Press follows a campaign to restore press freedom.</span><span>Photograph: Joe Peeler/BBC/Oklafilm</span>
‘Something that we know is worth fighting for’ … Bad Press follows a campaign to restore press freedom.Photograph: Joe Peeler/BBC/Oklafilm

It can take decades to win a free press, but only a moment to lose it. Bad Press, a woolly but instructive documentary in the Storyville strand, begins by showing us one such moment. A group of casually dressed people are hunched round a long table in a room cluttered with filing cabinets and spare chairs. This is the legislative council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, sitting in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. After a brief debate, the motion in front of them is carried by seven votes to six. With that, the Nation’s government‑funded newspaper and radio station lose editorial independence.

This is 2018. Three years earlier, the Muscogee Nation had enshrined the freedom of its press in law. Native American tribes are not bound by the US constitution – which includes that protection – because they govern themselves independently. Almost none of them have chosen to legislate to protect a free press; the Muscogee was one of only five of the 574 federally recognised tribes to have done so.

Bad Press documents the fight to regain press freedom, led by Angel Ellis, a reporter for Mvskoke Media who knows what is at stake: she only recently returned to the job she lost in 2011 when she exposed an embezzlement scandal and was fired for “insubordination”. In the film, Muscogee people talk about family traditions of reading the paper front to back because it is the only source of local news. But a flip through back issues reveals the government-controlled version to be little more than a propaganda sheet, dispensing reassuringly positive stories. Ellis, a natural reporter with a gift for plain speaking, describes the articles the paper published before the 2015 press freedom law as “highly polished, beautiful, shining turds”.

So the battle lines are set for a film structured like a political thriller. Having repealed the press freedom law, the powers that be immediately force Mvskoke Media to take down its reports on the repeal. Ellis hits back by mounting a campaign to amend the Muscogee Nation’s constitution, which would go over the council’s heads and guarantee press freedom irrevocably. It’s fingers crossed as the idea is put to votes in various elections and committee meetings, each more important than the last.

The expectation is for a film such as Bad Press to provide a microcosmic illustration of universal issues, but there are limits on how much it can do that with regard to its nominal subject matter. Press freedom in the Muscogee Nation is about whether or not the government can directly dictate what is on the front page. Students of media in democracies where that argument has long been settled in favour of journalists know the line becomes blurry once corporate interests start owning or funding news outlets.

There is, however, a rush of familiarity as the programme follows the political shenanigans provoked by the battle for press freedom. One might expect that, when politics is conducted on a smaller scale and when the pride and prosperity of the tribe is supposedly at the front of everyone’s minds, there would be less room for self-interested lawmakers to get away with putting a thumb on the scales. Not so. A new law is proposed by the man behind the controversial repeal, the council’s speaker, Lucian Tiger III, that claims to give journalists back their autonomy but doesn’t solve the fundamental issue of government oversight – a classic political smokescreen.

When the election of a new chief rolls around and – thanks to Ellis – press freedom is a major campaign issue, everyone on the ballot claims to be in favour of it, leaving voters to discern which, if any, of the candidates are sincere. Then the vote is compromised by accusations of voting irregularities that are suspiciously timed, but must be dealt with on the assumption that they are in good faith. In the confusion, influencers and bloggers start turning against Mvskoke Media, but Ellis doesn’t have the tools to properly state her case.

The film gets a little lost in this murk. As the campaign for a constitutional amendment is swallowed up by the race to be chief, it becomes hard to keep track of the shadiness of individual politicians, or what the consequences of the electoral niceties will be. Reporting on messy events, Bad Press becomes messy itself. But if we end up frustratingly unsure about who we want as the new chief, we never waver in our support for Ellis, whose identity and purpose as a speaker of truth is on the line. In a story about the bewildering array of tricks available to those corrupted by power, she represents something that we know is worth fighting for.

• Bad Press aired on BBC Four and is available on BBC iPlayer