The Pentagon Papers to Post-Truth Politics: Gavin Hood, Martin Bright and Katharine Gun at The Cambridge Union

Felicity Garvey 25 October 2019
Image Credit: One Woman One Vote Festival

With a run time of just under two hours, ‘Official Secrets’ is a new drama directed by Gavin Hood (the same man behind Eye in the Sky and – the perhaps less critically acclaimed – X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

Starring Keira Knightley and Matt Smith, it is a compelling tale about a remarkable woman who risked it all in order to make sure the public knew the truth. A junior translator working for GCHQ, she comes across an e-mail detailing an illegal spying operation being carried out by the USA on members of the United Nations, in an attempt for the US to coerce them into passing a UN resolution supporting intervention in Iraq. She leaked this memo, which eventually found its way into the hands of an investigative journalist, who undertook to ensure that the information was made public. It has all the trappings of a Hollywood political drama, except this film is not just a drama, but a documentary. The events detailed are not the imaginings of a scriptwriter, but the real life story of one Katharine Gun – and the journalist that took her efforts public – Martin Bright. Both Gun and Bright have worked closely with Gavin Hood to create the film, but up until now have largely remained out of the public narrative of the Iraq war, with Hood indignantly commenting during his time at the Union that they were not even invited to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. The film director’s position on the war was made quite clear by his subsequent comment that he would have liked to have seen Bush and Blair on trial.

Those behind the film called it their effort to bring a particular piece of ‘missing’ truth in the narrative of the Iraq war into the public eye. The film may be set 16 years ago, yet the themes of it are as relevant as ever to today’s politics, with Hood noting that “Hopefully, the film is just a little part of a conversation that ironically, just in the last week or two has burst onto the scene because of the Donald Trump thing. I mean, all of a sudden, people are talking about whistle-blowers as heroes for the first time.”

He continued, “I came to this as a filmmaker… as I researched it, [I questioned] ‘what is the role of the intelligence services’, and what is the philosophy and pinning of those intelligence services’? I spoke to certain people whose philosophy was that the CIA [or British intelligence services] is supposed to be walled off from politicians. The analysts there are supposed to, much like journalists, analyse the information and attempt to establish the facts, and then present their analysis to the executive branch in order for them to be able to make sensible decisions. Well, in the run up to the Iraq war, George Bush and Tony Blair were not getting the facts that they wanted to hear… So enters a different philosophical school of intelligence gathering which is normally drawn from a defense intelligence model – which is, we don’t care about the object of truth. We care about winning. Indeed, Abram Shulsky (Director of the US Office of Special Plans at the time) said ‘the role of intelligence is not truth, but victory’. If you’re at war, the role of intelligence is to help you win a war, which means the facts be damned. But is that an appropriate philosophy for a pre-war situation? … Right there, at the beginning of the Iraq war, George bush throws out all the guys who think that what their job is to gather intelligence … And enter people like Abram Schulksy, Douglas Feith. [You end up with] eight guys in a room coming up with whatever the boss needs to win.”

The subject of truth is also clearly one close to Gun’s heart, as she argued, “Of course the truth matters. You can’t make any reliable decisions if you don’t know the facts […] You have to establish the facts to get to a point of truth – and that’s why everybody is in all this confusion and hysteria at the moment – because nobody really knows what the facts are.”

You have to establish the facts to get to a point of truth – and that’s why everybody is in all this confusion and hysteria at the moment – because nobody really knows what the facts are.”

Recalling his own days at Cambridge, Bright added that while he was at university, “it was very fashionable to believe that truth was a flexible thing and that it was up to everybody to decide on their own truth. Working as a journalist I learnt pretty quickly that that was not a philosophy you could really work with. It becomes hugely important to establish facts when you’re a reporter. In this case, it was a very simple issue. It was a classic reporter’s job: you were given a document that told you what was happening that was contradicting what you were being told by the propaganda by politicians, and it was our job as reporters, collaboratively to find out whether this was real. Despite all the pressures, that’s what we did. And we put it in the paper and we put it on the front page and we published it.” However, despite his assertion of simplicity, his involvement in the case was not simply limited to being the messenger. “For me the central issue of journalism, is source protection and in my career it became very important, before I got involved in Katherine’s case, I was involved in a case with an MI5 officer called David Shayler, who leaked documents from MI5 in 1997. It was a matter of principle for us, as a newspaper to protect our source. […] It was a very difficult moment, but we were proud that we had stuck to those journalistic principles of protecting our source. […] In Katherine’s case it was different because we didn’t know who she was. We couldn’t directly protect her. When we first got the memo we had no idea it was such a young, such a junior officer who had taken this risk. That’s hugely to her credit: it was so much more of a courageous act to do this from her position.”

“In that case it was important for us to think about our source but I have to say, we were absolutely delighted when she was arrested – because it proved that it was true. We were risking everything with this story – we were pretty much sure through our work, through our triangulation, that this was real – but you always have a nagging doubt, this might be some very sophisticated forgery, and we had that moment in the newsroom when we heard a translator had been arrested – that ‘YES!’ – then, oh no, that’s terrible, better get her some legal advice.”

Despite it all, Gun had an optimistic outlook on her own experience.

“I never really felt persecuted in the UK – there were only a few right-wing papers that said my behaviour was treasonous or something. But on the whole it was fairly positive coverage.” She explained that this was, however, not the case for whistle-blowers across the pond. “In the US, You’ll find there have been a whole host of whistle-blowers who have each of them been branded the most heinous person ever. Dan Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971) was labelled the most dangerous man in the world. He faced 177 years in prison – he only got out because his legal team had found out that the prosecution had broken into his psychiatrist’s office and stolen his medical records. […] Before Ed Snowden there was Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, both NSA whistleblowers. Bill Binney was diabetic and lost both his legs and the FBI burst into his home and dragged him out of the shower while he was naked. There was Chelsea Manning, then John Kiriakou – in all of these cases, the US media never identified these people as whistle-blowers – they were traitors. They were unpatriotic.”

The work itself is already enough of a moral quandary for some, and one should think long and hard before entering that kind of career, she adds. “For linguists, it’s a difficult thing. You immerse yourself in a culture and then you turn around and they are your target. For some people, that raises moral ambiguities. For some people, it just doesn’t gel with them, the thought of listening to somebody else’s private conversations, so that’s something to consider. Another thing to consider is if you ever decide to change your mind, and you want to work in country again… These are real concerns, real issues, that I certainly never thought about at the time. It’s not something they’re going to tell you about.”

Whistle-blowers now also face a new threat: they may not see their efforts come to anything.

Gun noted that “Dan Ellsberg said, at the 40th anniversary of the publication of the pentagon papers, they had a big sit down meal with the Washington Post the New York Times executives and he said to them ‘do you think this would get published today’, and they said ‘no’!”

Bright elaborated: “I felt very protected by my institution, I felt what we were doing the work of the just, we were the big boys and we were pretty untouchable, and that just isn’t the case anymore, because the financial model is gone […] the principles remain but the institutions are not so robust. I don’t think it would be a conscious ‘oh no, let’s not do the right thing’ it’s just that your proprietors don’t want to take so many risks – I think this applies much more in fact in the case of corruption and trying to reveal wrong doing of the ultra-rich, because our media organisations no longer have the money to take them on. They’ll keep pursuing you until you run out of money – and so a lot of institutions will just not fight, they’ll not write those stories.” Politicians have also lost their fear of being embroiled in scandal, he adds. “What troubles me is that I think in the present situation, I’m not sure that it would be that simple. We knew that our politicians at the time, flawed though they were, believed in the concept of objective truth. If they were challenged and found out to have lied, then it would matter to them. The problem now is that our politicians don’t care if you catch them out in a lie.”

However, despite the pessimism, Bright did leave some room for hope: “I don’t want people to come away from this thinking that everything’s over.

“There will always be a human need for the spectrum that is gossip and investigative journalism – we need, as human beings to share information with each other. It’s great isn’t it, when you have a piece of information, that someone else doesn’t know and you say to them “have you heard…” – that’s the stuff of life! To a certain extent, that’s perhaps what we are doing… ‘did you know, that the NSA has been spying on the United Nations?’ So we will always have that human need for the exchange of information. The question is, finding new models of doing journalism. We know that the old models have collapsed and we know that the new models that can finance themselves haven’t quite been invented yet – but I have enough hope in that human need for journalism that those forms will come about.”

“What we need I think – and let’s be optimistic about this – should it not be possible in an age of sophisticated technology to develop whistleblowing tools that would allow people to anonymously to divulge what they’ve seen and for that information to then be used to identify wrongdoing? There are already a couple of models following the #MeToo movement, in the states and in this country, online tools for women to report harassment.”

…should it not be possible in an age of sophisticated technology to develop whistleblowing tools that would allow people to anonymously to divulge what they’ve seen and for that information to then be used to identify wrongdoing?

“It’s just an app – we need to develop an app!” The three laugh at their simplistic solution, though on a more serious note, Hood interjects “The word whistle-blower is not a dirty word only in the last two weeks […] “I’m hopeful that as much as [Trump is threatening the whistle-blower] – it’s not the whole public… there’s such polarisation in politics now that the other side for good or bad is almost compelled to support the whistle-blower, it’s in their interests – so maybe by pure chance, this polarisation in our politics is actually going to bring a huge amount of backing to the whistle-blower because we need some truth in the age of fake news – and that’s what gives me maybe a tiny bit of hope.”

What do you think? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject ‘Letter to the Editor’!