Official Secrets: Tony Blair’s ‘naivety still stinks’ for whistleblower film director

Written by Caroline Frost on 18 October 2019 in Culture

“Katharine Gun was an ordinary person who did something extraordinary,” is how director Gavin Hood describes the real-life subject of his latest film. For those with short memories, Gun was the GCHQ-based Mandarin translator who leaked a classified memo from the CIA that urged spying on members of the UN Security Council to force through a resolution to go to war in Iraq. When the memo appeared on the front page of the Observer and she admitted to her actions, Gun found herself charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, and her lawyers set out to defend her actions. 

Now she is the subject of ‘Official Secrets’ starring Keira Knightley, with Matt Smith playing Observer journalist Martin Bright. Hood spent five days talking to Gun before taking on the film, and now he remembers how their conversation made him feel. 

“She forces me to ask myself, what would I do if I received in my job something on the studio I was working for, or if the company was Cambridge Analytica or Enron, would I have the courage to speak up?”

Hood sighs. “What brings us back to sanity? It doesn’t feel like it’s the politicians. It feels like it might be the whistleblower, it might be the ordinary person who says to the people in power, ‘I’m not going to stand for this. We have certain rules, ethics and morals, and when you step outside those, I’m going to spit on you.’
“We’re in an age of so much fake news, spin, antagonism and people seeking power, when do we take ownership of our own consciences again?” 

Hood, who previously made similarly state-level thrillers Eye in the Sky (drone warfare) and Rendition (how it sounds), initially attended a prestigious law school in his native South Africa. “I have a certain guilt that I’m not an international human rights lawyer. And my way of dealing with that is to make a film like this where I can offer up a story that is true for both the professional lawyer and the layperson. I’m a storyteller who’s gone via a law degree, only because my dad said, ‘We were actors, there’s no money in it.’” 

It’s clear his guilt over his own direction has fuelled his filmmaking, as well as his admiration for those people like Katharine Gun who put their values above their career ambitions. 

“Folks say she did all this and didn’t stop the war, so what’s the point? But what if one other person at GCHQ had also leaked that memo… do we give up? If we say it’s hopeless and we’re not going to bother, we’re relinquishing our power as citizens. 

“That letter stopped a vote at the UN, they were pushing for that vote for its legitimacy, and WMD would have become infinitely less important, but Katharine Gun put a big spoke in the wheel and so that’s all they were left with. 

“Now, if another Katharine Gun had also leaked the memo – and David Kelly tried as well – how many more did we need? What if more people had spoken out? What was the tipping point? We didn’t hit it, but maybe we only needed two or three more, and hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. It’s really horrifying.” 

Hood’s admiration for Gun is equal and opposite to his views on Tony Blair and George W Bush. “The rebranding of these two war criminals should stop, but it’s only because we have Trump. I have to imagine Blair truly believed there would be a better outcome, when he put his head on his pillow at night. The naivety of that stinks to high heaven if you’ve been in the military yourself, which he hadn’t. War messes us up, but if you don’t have a visceral understanding of the hell of war, which neither Blair nor Bush had, I don’t think they could possibly understand. It’s the only way I can believe they’re not awful people, they just had no touchstone.” 

For the director, the threat posed by Trump now is very different but no smaller in magnitude. 

“The one thing you can say about Blair and Bush is, they believed in their ultimate mission, that they were going to reshape the Middle East. What’s Trump going to do? Nothing but stay in power. At least you could shame, to some extent, Blair and certainly Colin Powell, you can’t shame Trump, he’s un-shame-able, so what do you do with that? Trump is frightening because, what is truth anymore? But I believe he’s going to get his comeuppance in a way Blair and Bush did not.” 

At such a timely juncture, with Trump’s critics hanging on every fresh morsel of Ukraine intelligence furnished by US whistleblowers, Katharine Gun herself reflects on what she would do differently, were she to find herself in the same situation now. Very little it seems… 

“I maybe would have gone direct to a journalist, but it wouldn’t necessarily have changed things,” she tells me. The film shows her passing the memo to an intermediary, which inevitably slowed the process, along with Bright’s struggles to back up the story in Washington, as well as convince his editors at the Observer.

“The principal thing was that they spent three weeks trying to tie down the story, check its credentials. If I’d walked into the Observer with this memo, and told them ‘By the way, I work for GCHQ,’ it would have gone up straight away.”

For Gun, the stories coming out of Washington as well as her own experience support her belief that whistleblowers should receive more protection, considering the sacrifice they often make. 

“It shouldn’t be such an extraordinary thing. You have to protect the whistleblower from retaliation, because everyone is innocent until proven guilty, so if one comes forward with information, they should be allowed to present it in a court of law, open and transparent, and then you decide whether it’s justified or not. If it is, you should get compensation. They shouldn’t be hounded into obscurity or harangued to a point of financial ruin or having their marriages breaking down, but that’s what happens, and not just in political and intelligence circles, but everywhere.”

Journalist Martin Bright, who now runs a charity helping young people break into the creative industries, agrees that whistleblowers should be treated with great care. 

“My equivalent figure in the Observer today faces a really difficult challenge because those they’re trying to hold to account are slippery, but that means we’re living in an age where truth has a particular currency," he says.

“So if anything, whistleblowers are now more important than ever, because they have access to reality in a world where those who have power over us are increasingly avoiding accountability.

“Back in 2003, we were under the impression that Tony Blair and George W Bush thought of themselves as men of honour, and that if you caught them out in a lie, then that would matter. It seems to me that our politicians today don’t really care, they sometimes even use the telling of untruths as a policy, almost have it as a principle that they can do that, because some of their base seems to believe that it’s quite cool to get away with stuff.” 

Bright is among those who feels the line between Blair and Bush’s actions and the current state of electoral distrust is very clear. 

“There’s a moment in the film where Bright says that the effect of the war has been to undermine our institutions and that is what we’re facing today, that if it is the case that the public has grown tired and cynical, no longer trusts its politicians, its institutions, you can definitely trace that back to Iraq, where our parliamentary system, our diplomatic system, our intelligence services, our fourth estate and our judicial system were found wanting. Is it any surprise that people no longer trust them? We do find ourselves in a very divided country once again.”

He cites a former colleague who goes further and traces the line all the way through to our current Western leaders. 

“He asked me, ‘Do you think that this film feeds into the public cynicism that has led to the populism that has brought us Donald Trump?’” Bright allows a rueful smile. 

“To a certain extent, it is the case, that in destroying that deference, we have now politicians who claim to be attacking that deference, to have this main line into what people really want, that they are the antidote, and so there are consequences that flow from what happened in those times.” 

He leaves it to Katharine Gun to point out where the blame should stop, however. She reminds him, “But we didn’t instigate it, we just reported it.” 

‘Official Secrets’ is in UK cinemas now

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