There’s a bit in The Fifth Estate, the new movie about Wikileaks, where Julian Assange, brilliantly played by a slimy, sweating, heavy-breathing Benedict Cumberbatch, says the following: ‘If we could find one moral man, one whistleblower, someone willing to expose secrets, that man could topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.’
That line - which is pretty true to life, having been stitched together from various utterances made by the actual Assange - sums up everything that is wrong with today’s cult of leaking. It captures the white saviour complex that lies at the heart of the Wikileaks worldview, where it’s assumed that the world of politics is now so venally corrupt, and the plebian hordes who make up national electorates so blissfully ignorant, that we require ‘one moral man’, a secular Christ, a Moses of the internet age, to prise open the public’s eyes to Reality.
The Fifth Estate is a strange film. It tries to turn the relationship between Wikileaks and the Guardian, who joined forces in 2010 to publish both US defence logs relating to the Afghan War and various communiques between Western officials, into a fast-paced thriller. It is a testament to the skills of the director - Bill Condon - that it is actually quite successful on this front. But every now and then you’re reminded that you are watching the reenactment of journalists from Britain’s most respectable and right-on newspaper having meetings with internet geeks from Australia and the whole Bond/Bourne vibe becomes ridiculous. No amount of dramatic music or darting camera shots can make Nick Davies picking up a memory stick from Julian Assange at a posh cafe in Belgium seem especially thrilling.
Davies, the Guardian‘s chief investigative reporter, played here by David Thewlis giving a masterclass in how to do smug, is the most unwittingly comical character in the movie. True to life he wears a leather jacket - because he’s so anti-establishment, people! - and he barges into editorial meetings at the Guardian uninvited. I think this is meant to symbolise an edgy disregard for rules. Certainly the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi), and his then deputy Ian Katz (Dan Stevens, LOL) seem aghast at Davies’ door-opening, office-entering antics. Davies’ character also rages against ‘churnalism’ - where hacks passively regurgitate press releases rather than get off their arses and find a story - which is profoundly, hilariously ironic since, as the film inadvertently makes clear, the Wikileaks-Guardian hook-up was ‘churnalism’ of the highest order.
Having graciously received from Assange a memory stick of documents, in the same passive way that other journalists receive press releases from corporations, our brave, Bourne-like Guardian reporters then take it back to their offices and, er, churn through it. They scour for interesting snippets of info about the Afghan War, doing word searches and name searches, basically mining a massive pile of leaked memos in search for something, anything, eye-catching. Journalism doesn’t get more passive, uncritical or undaring than that. There is barely a cigarette paper’s difference between the hack who waits for a PR-hungry institution to hand him some copy and the hack who waits for Assange or some other whistleblower to hand him ‘The Truth’ - in both cases the old role of the journo as active pursuer of truth is supplanted by a new kind of journalist that is a passive, grateful, office-bound recipient of information from on high.