The Fifth Estate – Q&A with Alan Rusbridger, Luke Harding and David Leigh

F1On watching the film:

LH – Very odd experience watching Alan to my left and seeing doppleganger Alan on the screen. What was striking for me was how well Benedict Cumberbatch captured Julian Assange – you really felt that was Julian. We knew Julian and before he stopped talking to us we knew him quite well and everything from the hair, the accent, the mannerisms to the slightly stooping gait to the way he speaks which can sometimes be quite engaging and sometimes sounds like a “speak your weight” machine. He captured all that brilliantly. I wonder whether he’s (Assange) seen it? He’s already denounced the film but I’d be intrigued to know what he actually makes of the film having seen it rather than just the script.

DL – I feel quite cheerful about it because The Guardian came out of it very well compared to the last film I remember The Guardian was in which was Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum where The Guardian reporter got shot in the first reel so anything after that is a great improvement and even though I wasn’t there and Alan isn’t like Peter Capaldi and it’s all a bit different  it was broadly OK. It was a remarkable inhibiting of Julian that Benedict Cumberbatch managed to pull off. I thought that was a tour de force.

On the struggle between the need for states to have secrecy and Wikileaks desire for transparency and whether the debate has moved on.

AR – We’re reliving it now with Snowden at the moment. At the time (depicted in the film) this was all very new, very raw, noone had had to handle this amount of material or think about these issues quite in this way before. Snowden makes this pale a little because its much more secret. There is less concern about the issue of redaction partly because of the nature of the documents and partly because we don’t have a character like Assange. What I think the film captures very well is this sort of Potemkin organisation in terms of a crowd of volunteeers not redacting the information so it’s a different situation now but I thought the essential argument about the tension between security and openness was well captured given that it was a major motion picture.

LH – There were two details I particularly liked. The failed love making on a copy of The Guardian which must be the first time in human history that a couple has tried to make love on a copy of The Guardian and not succeeded which I thought was interesting. And I loved the Ian McEwan-esque post-modern self referential ending where you have an actor playing Julian Assange critiquing a film which you’re watching. It was all rather meta if you ask me and I think it’s an accolade to be described in the film as the writers of the two worst books. I mean who could ask for more than that? The two worst books published about Wikileaks.

Have you had to revise the way that the whole subject is seen?

LH: I came rather late to the Wikileaks party and I parted company with Julian over the past year and a half when he fled into the Ecuadorian Embassy but principally over Russia. Julian has a very kind of manichean view of the world. You’re either with Julian or you’re against him and essentially Russia supports Julian and therefore gets a sort of free pass in terms of human rights and things like that. The UK, US, Sweden they’re in the enemy camp and I just think this sort of binary division is very primitive and we wrote critically about him and now he dislikes me almost as much as he dislikes David.

f4What’s your relationship with Julian Assange like now?

AR: We didn’t speak for about 9 months and then I got summoned to a meeting with him in about the summer of 2011 I think it was in which he was quite friendly. It was rather a spooky meeting. It was in an anonymous meeting room in the City and I went in and he was sitting behind a white desk and there was somebody filming it in the corner wearing what seemed to be dark glasses, glasses which attached to the camera in some way. I was trying to establish why I had been summoned to this meeting in order to be filmed. Julian explained that he filmed everything at this point so I took out my ipad and asked if it was alright if I recorded it and he was cool about that so I recorded the meeting and he filmed the meeting and then we established why the meeting was taking place. It turned out after about 3/4 of an hour that it was sort of an olive branch and he wanted to work with The Guardian again. And then about a month later he denounced us and said we were terrible people and noone should ever work with The Guardian again.

Is it too soon to know about the real effect of Cablegate? 

DH: I think we did see the beginning of something which we’re now seeing the middle of. There will be an end. It was the beginning of a genuine revolution.

LH: The whole Libya incident in the film is made up but of course there was a revolution and Gadaffi got killed but also US diplomacy which is very much the focus of the film and all the anxiety about diplomats making a mess of things and sources being compromised but actually it wasn’t the case that anyone was hurt. But more to the point I read about 3000 of these cables and I thought actually the US foreign service came out of it pretty well. They wrote well, they had literary proclivities. I think US diplomacy went up rather than down.

AR – I thought the speech at the end where I think Julian was described as the head of a giant media organisation which in a sense he was. He’s such a complicated figure as he is all these things and nothing. He is a kind of reporter, he’s a kind of source, he’s a kind of publisher, he’s a kind of analyst, he’s a kind of anarchist- he was all those things and you’re seeing something of the same thing with Snowden at the moment and this picture is emerging. I agree it was terribly prescient these vast databases which in Snowden’s case with these top top top secret material I think there were 850,000 eyes on that and how many had eyes on the material Chelsea Manning leaked? 3 million.

It’s going to be extremely hard to keep these databases secure. and as they’re discovering with Snowden at the moment the same technology that enables them to keep entire populations under a form of surveillance is the same technology which means that its impossible for them to shut it down once it gets out. This is the sort of giant struggle which is taking place between security and privacy and freedom of expression and the ability of reporters to report and have confidential sources.  I think this is an astonishing debate and it sometimes amazes me that it’s not really happening in Britain at the moment. I just got back from New York where there is an incredibly powerful debate going on which is also happening in Europe and other part of theworld and for some reason the British Press seems rather uninterested and it’s intriguing as to why this fascinating new scenario is not being absolutely ripped apart as I think.

Have they seen the Alex Gitney documentary about Wikileaks (We Steal Secrets)? Can a fictionalised drama add anything to that?

DH: Well the facts in the Gitney documentary were pretty well true whereas half the facts in this (The Fifth Estate) weren’t actually true. But then you have a sort of intensity with a fictional film which you don’t have with the Gitney documentary and that did bring alive certain things particularly about Julian’s weird nature that you don’t get in a forensic journalistic examination.

AR: (after confessing that he’s half way through watching it). I found it extremely gripping – the factual version. Very satisfying. There’s something strange about the Collateral Murder video – it’s so shocking because it’s real. So in a sense it’s almost impossible to improve on the truth but at the same time many more people I am sure will go and see this than would go and see a documentary so I think it’s great to have both.

How comfortable do you feel about scenes of real murder (the Collateral Murder video) being stitched into what is essentially a melodrama for multiplexes?

LH: I found it harrowing to see it even if it had been re-framed and restaged and re-shot and whenever I see that video I just flinch

DH: Julian showed me that video in Norway and I was just thunderstruck. I’d never seen anything like it and there is no way you could have a fictionalised version of it.

F6Is it the case that without Assange you don’t get Snowden?

LH: The post script of this is that of course the two stories converge. You have Snowden and you have Julian Assange desperately trying to make contact with him and somehow he succeeds and next thing you know somehow Snowden is in Moscow and Julian pops up in the Ecuadorian Embassy claiming to have rescued him. I think it’s a very interesting debate as to whether Julian has helped Edward Snowden or actually whether Snowden’s engagement with Julian is going to turn into a disaster. I don’t think we can answer that question yet but what’s interesting is that this “Fifth Estate” phrase is becoming reality. There are these coalitions of whistleblowers and activists who are helping each other and connecting through encrypted chat. The film captured that very well and it’s become how we now communicate – encrypted chat. Forget about phones. It’s either face to face or highly encrypted chat not speaking on mobile phones. We’ve stopped doing that and our journalistic methods have changed.

DH: I think it is a technological issue. The new world of the internet is throwing up people like Julian and Snowden and people like Manning and more will come.

Having met and worked with Assange what are your instincts about the charges against him?

AR: I have no instincts. I think it’s impossible to know. I think it would have been better if he had gone to Sweden to talk to the police and I don’t really believe he would have been at any more risk in Sweden than here and I still think that would be better but I wasn’t there so I don’t know.

DH: The Guardian did take a position on this which is one of the reasons why we had a fall out with Julian because we were very clear that when these allegations were made it was our duty to publish all the facts and that didn’t makes us very popular with Julian at the time.

The film includes a quote from the Nick Davies character that “Assange is at the top of a huge media empire that is accountable to noone and we put him there”  Its an irony that the messiah of the tech driven era can be portrayed (in the film) as such a delusional liar. What do you think of the complexities of that?

AR: I wrote that down as well because I don’t think we actually said that. I don’t think there was that sort of sense of resentment. I don’t think we thought “Oh my god I’ve built a Frankenstein”. I don’t think we put him there. He was there. He was doing this interesting stuff and I think that comes through in the film. I think the idea of what he was doing was incredibly powerful and I still believe is terribly important but I think you also get the sort of sense of… well tragedy is too big a word but this incredibly interesting,  important idea floundered partly because of the personality of the person who was involved in it.

I think it was a terribly important moment. I think it was Nick Davis’ idea immediately to bring in the New York Times as we did with phone hacking and I’m terribly focused on that idea at the moment that you can route your journalism in the highest standards of protection that the planet can offer. I’m not sure that’s absolutely true of America but it feels much safer well not safer but there are just much better protections from doing this sort of journalism in America. So this idea of The Guardian being the hinge between information that could never be published in the countries at the heat of many of these documents and using The Guardian as the hinge to the first amendment is I think a very important precedent and I think with Snowden we’ve done exactly the same. When the British government came calling and started drilling out the hard drive of our computers you can translate your report into America quite easily, and Rio and Berlin and the same thing happens there. Not being accountable is one thing but not being betrothable is another and the accountable bit is a bit worrying and the berothable bit is a bit worrying but also liberating. From my point of view I think this is an interesting model for the future and a hopeful model that you can anchor the 1st amendment to whatever it is you are trying to do or reveal in Pakistan or China or Russia where this kind of reporting is difficult if not impossible.

Q (asked by Cumberbatchweb) What do you think about the Wikileaks memo dismissing the film and by extension your book?

LH: We launched the German edition of the book in Berlin the two of us last week and both our events were basically hacked by Julian, well fanatics is probably too hard a word but supporters who were vigorously accusing us of all sorts of crimes. The sort of twitter trashing has gone on from Julian directed at us for a long time. I’m not actually sure that he read the book but he said he didn’t like it very much. It does get very silly. In Berlin one of his fans stood up and said “You sent Julian a basket to the Ecuadorian Embassy containing some socks and a bar of soap and a note saying “Love from The Guardian” which apparently did arrive but we had nothing to do with it we didn’t know. It’s all become something of a soap opera. A socks opera. Basketgate. I think the book speaks for itself. We wrote the book as a kind of fun journalism thriller shifting from location to location and I think the film captures that very well. Some of the excitement and drama.

DH: Just thinking about Julian. He’s so nuts he denounces every publication about him but how wonderful is it he’s had books written about him, he’s had a Hollywood movie which is all about him and he has actually achieved a tremendous quantity of fame. OK he gets some brick bats and some criticisms and some suggestions that he’s a little weird but the attention on him as an important individual. If I were Julian I’d think that was marvellous.

LH: But  I think there is a serious point too. If Julian had been more like Daniel Domscheit-Berg then I think Wikileaks would never have happened. In other words the fact that he has this curious, sometimes charming, sometimes obnoxious personality was what drove the whole idea forward and I think the fact that it’s been replicated,  that there are other sites out there is to Julian’s credit. And what’s interesting is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, loveable guy, nice man, nice parents and he started his own rival platform called Openleaks and it hasn’t done anything and Wikileaks is still very much in the game.

DH: There’s an interesting point implied in your question which is what the audience for this film is going to be? Because when Julian wrote his autobiography, probably the only unauthorised autobiography in history, he told all the Wikileaks enthusiasts not to buy it so I presume he’s going to tell all the Wikileakers not to watch the movie in which case its difficult to see what their audience is.

If there was any impression that you would like to correct in the film what would it be?

DH: I was sorry that it focused so much on Julian and so little on Bradley, now Chelsea Manning, because he’s the really interesting guy. A junior soldier with lots of internal anguish who decided to leak all this stuff . That’s the act of great courage not the amount of Julian grandstanding we saw in the movie.

LH: I think the Libya episode. It was quite fun but it’s completely fictional and it’s something Julian objects to and actually I have sympathy with him on that because although dramatically it went over very well in reality the kind of people who were talking to the US… We never got top secret from Bradley Manning so they were lower degrees of classification and the sort of people who were talking to US diplomats tended to be sort of analysts or experts or professors they weren’t top level CIA sources at the heart of rogue regimes. We got none of that so it was fun but it was wrong.

So Alan apart from the fact that you will now always be poised in some peoples’ minds somewhere between Malcolm Tucker and Doctor Who what was your view?

AR: Well I never swore at Bill Keller and I had lunch with him last week in New York and I apologised for swearing at him (in the film). Because of the swearing bit at the beginning, and I don’t often swear do I and I didn’t swear. But it’s better than my first line in the first draft of the script in which the film opened with the same kind of thing with the New York Times going just before us and I said in the way that I do (puts on American accent) “Goddamn American arseholes

LH: The most un-Alan thing you have ever heard.

AR: I think if you’re going to be an editor in a big American Hollywood movie you want to be Jason Robards perhaps a little more than Peter Capaldi. You want a big cigar and braces and so I was quite happy to be larger than life and sweary but really I’m a bit smaller than life and occasionally sweary.