Recently I watched The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Cumberbatch completely nailed Assange’s odd speaking pattern, which irked me through large chunks of the movie. All in all I liked the film, but I just had a nagging feeling that this wasn’t an accurate portrayal of how things really went down. Assange himself has spoken ill against the film after reading the leaked script saying that it’s “irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful.”, but I can’t just take his word for it either. So I did a bit of investigating and here’s what I found.
The movie was based on two different novels. One was written by Daniel Berg entitled Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website. The movie chronicles the partnership and falling out that Berg and Assange had during WikiLeaks rise to fame starting out back in 2007 when the two began working together, and developing a friendship. Berg was infected by Assange’s idea of truth, and changing the world. In late 2008 WikiLeaks released secret documents from the Kaupthing Bank in Iceland which showed their corruption, and probably had a hand in Icelandic banking crisis in 2008-2009.
After that release WikiLeaks gained popularity around the world, all while maintaining the confidentiality of the whistleblower. The attention didn’t just come from governments, but also from other newspapers, which is where the second novel WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by David Leigh, and Luke Harding comes in. These were two journalists were at The Guardian when Julian released over 250,000 secret cables the American government had related to the Afghanistan war, that later became known as “cablegate” which The Guardian, The NY Times, and several other major news publications around the world participated in. Due to the large volume of cables, each large publication released cables that mainly affected their country.
The problem with basing the movie on these two sources is that both of these sources have reason’s to be negative towards Assange and what happened. Berg and Assange had a falling out. As far as I can tell Assange has said very little on the subject, but Berg has gone on several interviews calling Assange a tyrant, and a slave master, among other things. Berg loses a lot of credibility though by his own actions after he left WikiLeaks. He stole nearly 3500 documents from WikiLeaks that were potentially hurtful to some of WikiLeaks sources, so this might be a reason for Assange’s silence on this matter. After the split, Berg opened his own site OpenLeaks which he created by taking donations and crowd sourcing its creation. After the site launched it sat there for nearly a year before Berg stated that the site was going to shift its focus, but it still looks like he’s never done anything with OpenLeaks. From all accounts it looks like he took the money and ran. While this doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have been telling the truth about Assange, and how he’s acted, it does make me question his integrity.
As for David Leigh, and Luke Harding, they seem to suggest that they had a moral high ground, and they were redacting names in cablegate because it was the right thing to do, to protect people that may come to harm. Unfortunately this also doesn’t ring entirely true. In an interview for a newly released documentary Mediastan, the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, sat down with Julian and told him he redacted many names out of fear being sued. Brittan has libel laws that work very different then they do in America. A business or a person can sue for libel which could cost The Guardian millions of dollars. The Guardian had just recently come out of a nasty libel suit which did just that, and it made them very gun shy. Instead of going for the truth and nailing bankers, and mob bosses, The Guardian redacted the names and let them go free. Once again, while this doesn’t mean what the journalists at The Guardian had to say was wrong about Assange, but it makes me wonder about their motives.
Immediately after watching The Fifth Estate, I sat down and watched Mediastan which is a documentary made by WikiLeaks, showing their crew go from country to country to try to get other media publications on board during cablegate. The documentary is a little dry, and had low production value, but I really found it eye opening and well worth watching. One of the things I liked about it is that it didn’t really seem to show a bias on one side or another. They recorded the interviews they had with these publications and let the chips fall where they may. At one country, one of the publications employee’s told them to their faces that the WikiLeaks members were naive and wasting their lives. I kind of felt bad for them at how harsh he was, and I was surprised they left it in, because a lot of what he was saying was true.
While I wouldn’t doubt that Assange probably craves attention, and is a control freak like the movie claims, I don’t think he’s the mysterious monster they made him out to be. While neither film was perfect, I still think both The Fifth Estate, and Mediastan are worth a watch. Mediastan can be viewed for free starting tonight October 19th at 7PM EST for 14 hours on YouTube. After that you can rent it for $3 and buy it for $8.
Julain Assange and Benedict Cumberbatch had a few interactions via email before the release of The Fifth Estate, and I think they are worth a read. Assange’s letter can be found on WikiLeaks, while Cumberbatch’s response can be read here.