Film and drama

The Fifth Estate confronts the Fourth Estate and Julian Assange

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The Fifth Estate a film about Wikileaks outraged Julian Assange, was panned by critics and declared by some as 2013’s biggest box office flop. NSW Wikileaks Party candidate Dr Alison Broinowski, however, says it wasn’t as bad as she expected — for a work of fiction.

The Fifth Estate isn't as bad as I expected, given that the four estates, the legislature, executive, judiciary and press, are so conflicted about independent use of the internet.

The script gives a reasonable summary of WikiLeaks' origins and early achievements, as well as of panicked reactions to it in the United States and Britain. It is neither as boring as some reviewers say, nor as condescendingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch as I’d anticipated.

What's bad about it that it's fiction posing as fact, presenting events that didn't occur and repressing events that did. It stops at 2010, and leaving unaware audiences with at least three overriding impressions — that people died as a result of WikiLeaks revelations (though not even the US government claims anyone did), that WikiLeaks is finished (it isn't), and that Julian Assange is 'a manipulative asshole' (I have never met him, but even if he is, the editors and politicians who attack him in the movie are no better).

Bill Condon’s movie and Josh Singer’s script remind people who didn't know much about what WikiLeaks has revealed. It’s not only what really went on in Iraq and Afghanistan, they also mention such other episodes as the Tibet protests in 2008, the latest Monju reactor accident in Japan, Scientology’s treatment of its members, the BNP scandal, the Icelandic banks, governmental corruption in Ivory Coast, Kosovo and Peru, and a stolen election in Kenya.

If The Fifth Estate was up to date it would include more recent results of WikiLeaks' work, such as revealing criminality and corruption in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, triggering the Arab Spring, influencing Iraq to refuse immunity to US troops (hastening their withdrawal), and causing Pakistan to stop endorsing drone strikes. This year, WikiLeaks’ Spyfiles 3 revealed mass surveillance by global intelligence contractors, as well as helping Edward Snowden get out of Hong Kong and into Russia. WikiLeaks has recently published documents on negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Because the movie is based on two books published in 2011 ‒ Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s, My Time With Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website; and David Leigh & Luke Harding’s, Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy ‒ it is already out of date. At least one of the authors has an animus against Julian Assange, who founded WikiLeaks before any of them had thought of it. The narrative about Daniel Domscheit-Berg, his girlfriend, his parents, and the extent of his involvement with WikiLeaks takes up too much of the film. Time is also wasted on an imagined episode about a U.S. State Department officer's concern for the safety of her contact in Syria and her eventual sacking for having written a cable that embarrassed Hillary Clinton. More importantly, the film gives the impression that Assange lied about the numbers of workers WikiLeaks had, repeatedly using rows of empty desks to suggest ‒ possibly for comic effect ‒ it consisted only of himself and Domscheit-Berg.

Yet more important real players don’t appear — for example, Sarah Harrison, Joseph Farrell, Kristinn Hrafnsson, Geoffrey Robertson and Jennifer Robinson. The film also leaves out the operations of the New York Times and Der Spiegel, both of which reneged on their agreements with Assange and, like the Guardian, were anxious to cooperate with him only until they had his documents. They then sat on most of them, and edited and selectively published others with more concern for appearing 'responsible' than for publishing all the news that was fit to print. The film is not brave enough to mention the credit card blockade orchestrated by the US government to close off donations to WikiLeaks. It leaves out the defamatory comments made about Assange by Julia Gillard and Robert McClelland. Nor does it mention Assange's plan, conceived with his father John Shipton, to run for the Senate.

Condon does allow Assange’s character in the film to explain some of WikiLeaks’ philosophy and why it's important. The final scene where he speaks from the Embassy of Ecuador paraphrases some of Assange’s statements, including calling the film inaccurate. But assertions are left standing that he was in a cult, dyes his hair white, is a hacker and a transparency zealot. Assange has argued that transparency should be proportionate to power: for example police should be able to investigate alleged criminals in secret, but not to investigate police actions in secret. He argues that the press should protect its sources, and so should WikiLeaks; the populace has a right to privacy and to be free from mass government surveillance.

The film leaves in the minds of audiences a serious charge against Assange over redaction of names in the documents he released. In fact, WikiLeaks held back 15,000 Afghanistan field reports in the interests of harm minimisation (the film says none). But Assange stated at the time – and this appears briefly in the film - that many more citizens' lives were endangered by military operations than the few collaborators who might have been exposed by the warlogs. He balances maximum disclosure against the demands of protecting human life. He argues that it is not the job of journalists to protect officials from embarrassment.

As he wrote in a Wikileaks briefing document:

'When powerful wrongdoers fear being found out, they are forced to behave more acceptably.’

The film could have been more relevant, accurate and forceful, if it had given as much time to the activities of WikiLeaks' supporters as to its opponents, and revealed the responses of governments that were outraged by the activities of the US and UK. It could have pointed to the hypocrisy of democratic governments talking up the internet as an instrument of freedom while seeking to punish people who use it to reveal their own activities, just as totalitarian regimes do. It could have highlighted their double standards in fretting about the endangered lives of their operatives while they continue to pursue Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, Assange, Edward Snowden, and a growing list of others. They do not prosecute the editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian ‒ let alone the Murdoch press ‒ for publishing whatever leaks they can. Governments steal citizens’ private data, as an American official admits in We Steal Secrets (Alex Gibney, 2013) yet they accuse WikiLeaks of stealing theirs, just as the title of that documentary does.

Disney and Dreamworks have lavished their talents and resources on a display of computer-animated techno-shock that may awe some, but will not enlighten many about the fifth estate.

The Fifth Estate, 128 minutes, directed by Bill Condon for Disney Dreamworks, 2013.

Dr Alison Broinowski was a WikiLeaks Party candidate for the Senate in 2013

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