24 November 2013

Bill Condon's ‘The Fifth Estate’

Being no admirer of Julian Assange, I didn't rush to see Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate when it first came out but recently took the opportunity to do so at the Barn Cinema at Dartington. The film is a docudrama about the emergence of WikiLeaks from the time of Assange's partnering with the German IT expert Daniel Berg in 2007 up to the release of classified US information sourced from Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning in 2010 and their association ending. Assange's seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 forms a postscript.

The film must have had a substantial budget because of the large cast, the number of extras, the CGI and the rapid changes of locale. No location seemed to be used more than twice, usually once, and the numerous sets ranged from Berlin squats to Air Force One (or maybe Two or Three), the action not staying in any of them for long. Benedict Cumberbatch turned in a convincing Assange, and, although the film is a male-dominated nerd and journo fest, it provided a couple of strong supporting roles for Alicia Vikander (Queen Caroline in Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair) as Berg’s long-suffering girlfriend and Laura Linney as a senior level State Department staffer having to pick up the pieces after the Manning disclosures. Peter Capaldi, who is irrevocably the foul-mouthed spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker, from The Thick of It for UK TV audiences (the ones who will see this film anyway) until he becomes Dr Who, is cast as Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian.

Unfortunately, in terms of allowing comparisons to be made, the real Rusbridger has been on UK TV recently defending his paper's role in handling the material removed from NSA by Edward Snowden. Snowden and the journalist Glen Greenwald have followed the model Assange pioneered with the initial release of the Manning material by cooperating with mainstream media outlets in the form of the Washington Post (vice the New York Times), the Guardian and Der Spiegel.

Snowden and Co have put material into the public domain of much higher classification than Manning was able to access. The US designation for this stuff is TS/SCI - Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information. Years ago such items might be confined to just a few documents, knowledge of whose existence, let alone accessibility, would be confined to select individuals. But now that kind of data is held on globalised IT systems and system administrators set access permissions for individual users. However, an old question arises: who administers the administrators?

When I last wrote about Snowden, on the basis of the information which had been released at that time (July), I affected what now seems too blasé a view. Earlier this month the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) took evidence from Sir Iain Lobban, Director, Government Communication Headquarters, Mr Andrew Parker, Director General, Security Service and Sir John Sawers, Chief, Secret Intelligence Service. (Interestingly the second and third of these men had studied science at university level, but not the first, whose responsibilities, one imagines, are the most technological). A transcript of their uncorrected evidence is available, and the impact of the Snowden release is discussed on pages 16 to 18. Sawers mentions Snowden specifically:
… What I can tell you is that the leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They have put our operations at risk. It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaeda is lapping it up ... and our own security has suffered as a consequence.
Further material appearing in Der Spiegel later in the month underlines his point.

In October, one of Lobban’s predecessors, Sir David Omand, had told The Times that the Snowden leaks “eclipse[s] the Cambridge spy ring as the most catastrophic loss suffered by British intelligence”.
“You have to distinguish between the original whistleblowing intent to get a debate going, which is a responsible thing to do, and the stealing of 58,000 top-secret British security documents and who knows how many American documents which is seriously, seriously damaging,” Sir David said. “The assumption the experts are working on is that all that information or almost all of it will now be in the hands of Moscow and Beijing. It’s the most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever, much worse than Burgess and MacLean in the 1950s.”
Omand chose two names from what are often referred to as the Cambridge Five and didn’t mention Kim Philby, although it was these three who finished up as Russian house guests. Whether there was a Fifth Man, and who he was, has been the subject of speculation, the most-fingered suspect being John Cairncross. If so, he was in some ways the most Snowden-like having worked at Bletchley Park during World War 2. But in those days, although primitive computers were in use they certainly weren’t networked, and the only media he could remove was paperwork taken from only one “compartment”, in the form of one of the famous Bletchley Huts.

And who was the Fourth Man? Sir Anthony Blunt made his confession in 1964 in exchange for immunity from prosecution, though the truth (or some of it) would emerge in public in 1979. The Security Service interrogated Blunt because in 1963 an American, Michael Whitney Straight, had told the FBI that he had been a recruiter for Soviet intelligence at Cambridge in the 1930s. Straight was the son of Willard Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney. Willard died in the Spanish flu epidemic after World War 1. Dorothy remarried and with her second husband, Leonard Elmhirst, came to SW England and in 1925 purchased Dartington Hall in Devon (SW England) where Michael Straight would finish his schooling. Which means this post ends geographically back where it started.


“The film must have had a substantial budget because of the large cast, the number of extras, the CGI and the rapid changes of locale.” 

But nonetheless it seems to have been the biggest cinematic turkey of 2013, according to Forbes’ Dorothy Pomerantz. The Fifth Estate has earned only $6 million at the box office globally on its $28 million budget, on top of which there will have been marketing costs of as much as $25 million. On average studios receive about 50% of the box office takings, so Dreamworks would be about $25 million down.

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