I didn’t intend to make today’s post about the film Official Secrets (Hood, 2019) but one of my colleagues suggested we see it, and having seen it I cannot think about anything else. It’s a deeply compelling film, with some excellent performances that I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in either the topic or whistle-blowers in general. One of the great strengths of the film is the way that it portrays the slow build of frustration and anger that leads the whistle-blower to act and then the slow grinding toll that it takes upon her, her life and her relationships in the aftermath.
My colleague mentioned that it was nice to see Keira Knightly in something that wasn’t a period drama, but in a way it did feel like a period piece, with it’s careful reconstructions of early 2000s technology and websites. But beyond the fashions and the flip phones, beyond the slightly grainy archive footage, the zip drives and the answerphones, it feels like stepping into another world. Post 9/11 but before the financial crisis; before waterboarding and extraordinary rendition were terms that we recognised with resigned familiarity. If Katherine Gun feels naïve in her actions, its partly because with the benefit of hindsight we all seem naïve, in believing that once a lie has been revealed as a lie it would lose its power. (Also the journalists feel like actual journalists, rather than someone’s idea of what journalists are like.) The vast majority of the most damning things said in the film, are not spoken by actors, but are instead news clips of the things that those politicians actually said at the time. The archive usage in general is a clever move, as they’re all people that our protagonist never met and the pivotal information is what they actually said on the news to the public. It also removes that element of distraction and doubt that would creep in if they were being played by actors – focusing us not on the performance but on the words themselves, and removing the potential to be accused of re-scripting the words for dramatic effect.
Arguably this film doesn’t really tell you anything that you didn’t already know. That the Iraq war was illegal. That the government – both UK and USA – lied to their people. That there were no WMDs in Iraq. Any revelations it might have had to offer are sixteen years too late. And yet, it felt like a revelation, or perhaps more of a reminder that so much of the whole mess we’re in, in terms of politics and journalism and so much more, starts here.
It is in fact a timely reminder to those of us who work within the third estate, that it is our job to not blindly accept the word of officialdom, of press offices and publicists, to instead question and investigate. That there is a world of difference between being a public service broadcaster and being a state broadcaster; that both the press, and the civil servants at all levels, work not for the government of the day but for the people. That the government serves the people not the other way round. Naturally we should commend them when they get things right and improve things; but the other side of that coin is that we hold them to account when they get it wrong. Holding our elected officials to account is both our responsibility and an essential part of the democratic process.