Here in Britain we like to think our journalism is free from control by those with power and money. Sadly that’s not always the case. I have spent years trying to release a film about Donald Trump and have witnessed the corrosive power his money has over freedom of expression – both in the UK and the US.
In 2016, when the Mail Online reported on a “92-year-old Scotswoman taking on Trump”, readers were appalled to learn Molly Forbes had to collect water from a nearby stream in a bucket because, she claims, Trump’s construction workers had cut off her supply. The article was accompanied by a disturbing picture of an exhausted Molly, taken from my new documentary You’ve Been Trumped Too, which was due to be released ahead of the US election. But shortly after its publication, the article vanished, along with another like it in the Sun.
Next, our film’s American cinema release was cancelled and a US TV network pulled the plug on screening it. This was after Trump International had issued a legal threat to anyone who showed the film or repeated Molly’s allegation about her water supply. The threats were enough to undermine our film’s release.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote of You’ve Been Trumped Too: “There could hardly be a more relevant or urgent film than this.” But to understand why the film was seen mainly by critics and not more widely by the general public, you have to understand that Trump and I have history.
Rewind to before he was US president: in 2010, after a phone call from Donald Trump Jr’s team, Aberdeenshire’s police arrested me and my colleague and threw us in jail. This was after we first learned Mr Trump’s workers had cut off the water supply of Molly, then aged 86, while building his luxury golf course. Footage of my arrest and the Forbes family’s desperate plight appeared in my earlier film You’ve Been Trumped, which was ultimately broadcast on BBC2 in 2012 despite Donald Trump and his lawyers’ attempts to block it on the grounds of “defamation”.
In 2016 and more than half a decade after her water was cut off, Molly was still without a reliable supply. Other residents who opposed Trump’s golf course found huge Mexico border-style walls surrounding their homes. After returning from the Republican convention in 2016, Molly’s son Michael found that the water was still not working properly and fixed it himself. Ahead of the US elections in November that year we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund You’ve Been Trumped Too, in order to inform voters about the person running for president.
While editing the film, we were simultaneously working to secure a form of liability insurance (called “errors and omissions” in the film industry), which all distributors and broadcasters require, and which gives protection from legal action from the rich and powerful. Normally this is a routine matter, costing about £2,000, and two sets of lawyers had given the film a clean bill of health. However, with Trump the focus of our film, the quotes we received were astronomical. There was no time to run another crowdfunding campaign. We had just sent the film off for review and I was heading to New York for the world premiere.
On learning of Trump’s legal threats and the absence of E&O, our US distributor (widely seen as a supporter of independent film) got cold feet and abruptly cancelled our US release. The company asked us to remove its logo from the start of our film. Even the leftwing American news network Now This scrapped plans for a primetime preview screening. We were left with one theatre in New York and a festival premiere at IDFA in Amsterdam. Although we streamed the film on Facebook for free it reached only a fraction of the available audience. Our US publicist said they could no longer work on the film.
The day before Trump’s election victory, Mail Online published a “correction” to their original story about Forbes (who Trump says reminds him of his mother) which said: “Trump International Golf Links has assured us the headline and related article are incorrect in various respects.” The Sun issued a similar statement, in which Trump International denied that the initial disruption was deliberate or that their contractors carried out further work in 2014 and 2015. Neither myself nor the Forbes family were approached for comment.
With further legal help we have now been able to secure E&O insurance at a standard price. And although Trump has in the past taken to Twitter to threaten me with legal action, it is time to stand firm. The British distributor Journeyman Pictures agrees. The company has a proven track record of distributing powerful and controversial factual content and will be releasing You’ve Been Trumped Too worldwide next month. It may be nearly half a decade late, but it is reassuring to know that freedom of speech in Britain has, in certain quarters, won the day.