'The Fifth Estate': Does it get Assange and WikiLeaks right?

WikiLeaks itself doesn't think so, calling the new movie a 'massive propaganda attack.' Some independent observers say that WikiLeaks has a point.

Frank Connor/Dreamworks Pictures/AP
Benedict Cumberbatch appears as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a scene from 'The Fifth Estate.' A WikiLeaks spokesman called the film a 'work of fiction masquerading as fact' – a sentiment that some observers share.

For film critics, "The Fifth Estate," a "based on real events" tale of the birth of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, is something of a mixed bag.

The movie, which opens in the US today, details the birth of the controversial organization and Mr. Assange’s relationship with German computer programmer Daniel Berg, on whose book the film is based. And critics in Britain, where the film opened last weekend, praised the skill of lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, though many found the two-hour movie was too long and lacking a clear narrative.

But its biggest critics have been WikiLeaks and Assange himself, who calls it a "massive propaganda attack." And some in the journalism world say that they have a point –  "The Fifth Estate" fails to capture the nuances of the debate over WikiLeaks.

“It’s fictional like Disney and not accurate about how WikiLeaks developed and what its aims are," says Athina Karatzogianni, a lecturer in new media and political communication at Hull University. "It’s a movie, yes, but it’s too simple and centers too much on personalities, rather than the good service they have done to highlight the pressures on journalism and surveillance culture."

WikiLeaks on defense

On its website, WikiLeaks described the DreamWorks’ drama as a "work of fiction masquerading as fact" in a long denunciation that even included denials that Assange dyed his hair white.

And while Assange was unavailable for comment – he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he fled in June 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden in connection with alleged sexual assault charges there – WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson says much of the film was "factually wrong."

“It’s created propaganda against WikiLeaks. It says the organization is irresponsible and willing to publish information without regard to the consequences, which is factually wrong," Mr. Hrafnsson says. “There are people working for WikiLeaks who are still under serious investigation in one of the biggest criminal investigations in US history. It’s a tough battle for individuals like Chelsea [formerly Bradley] Manning.”

Hrafnsson says he hasn’t seen the film, despite numerous requests for preview copies, but that supporters confirmed the movie replicated leaked film scripts.

“I think its crime is that they have taken an extremely important story and exciting story in historical terms and made it into a boring story,” he adds.

Unfair assessment?

Dr. Karatzogianni, who has seen the film, agrees. She says the movie did not explain the intricacies of WikiLeaks and the difficulties of leading the organization. “The problem is [that] WikiLeaks is a network movement with horizontal leadership. But at times Assange has had to make difficult decisions, which has upset some people. He’s had to make those decisions in great adversity, leaving people feeling excluded."

Karatzogianni says she is less concerned about alleged personal failings of Assange and more interested in his and WikiLeaks wider legacy. “We should judge him on his actions, not his personality. His actions have been beneficial to global civic society and forcing greater transparency and fighting injustice. You don’t have to like him [Assange] to recognize what’s he’s done which has left him living in a room not able to leave and Bradley Manning in prison."

“He has encouraged others to risk freedom, like Edward Snowden, by revealing illegitimate behavior by US and UK agencies in places like GCHQ. I’d call him a pioneer of how to link up databases, and innovative in handling sensitive material and how to establish collaborative journalism around the world.”

And Stuart Allan, professor of journalism at Bournemouth University, says WikiLeaks has "a lot to be proud of."

"It’s yet to be hacked which proves its systems are robust which means its sources are comfortable giving it information," Mr. Allan says. "It’s also yet to be fooled into releasing false information or caught up in a hoax which would be damaging to its reputation.”

Whistleblower or security risk?

Of course, Assange and WikiLeaks have no shortage of critics, both in Britain and abroad. In the past 10 days, both Prime Minister David Cameron and the new head of British intelligence agency MI5 Andrew Parker have criticized the leaking of thousands of GCHQ spy files by former NSA contractor Mr. Snowden, which WikiLeaks has helped with.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Cameron said it had "damaged national security" and criticized The Guardian for publishing data. WikiLeaks staffer and legal adviser Sarah Harrison has chaperoned Snowden in Moscow "to protect his safety and security" it said on its website.

Mr. Parker said the episode had done "enormous damage." He added, “Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm.”

But Allan says Assange could be compared to 1970s Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

“Ellsberg was severely criticized for what he did at the time but over time he was acknowledged for what he did, informing the public what was being done in their name," says Allan. He points to the way WikiLeaks-released footage of a US helicopter attack in Baghdad changed public perception of the Iraq War as comparison.

"I have a feeling that in years to come, Assange will be viewed the same," Allan says.

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