Hacks meet hackers in ‘The Fifth Estate’ - with messy results

Hollywood’s new take on Wikileaks stresses the risk of publishing over not publishing

Among the many disappointing things about the The Fifth Estate, the woeful Wikileaks film that opens in cinemas tomorrow, is the fact that Peter Capaldi, the actor who plays Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, gets very little screen time. Bad luck, Capaldi fans, instead here's Benedict Cumberbatch playing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange with the most bizarre attempt at an Australian accent ever.

Rusbridger, who is busy this week being painted as an enemy of national security by rival newspapers and their unnamed sources, probably won't mind. After all, Hollywood is apparently mulling two more films involving the Guardian's establishment-exposing journalism: a phone-hacking extravaganza (which if it is to be any use at all should star Sienna Miller as herself) and a whistleblower epic concentrating on the only-just-beginning story of Edward Snowden vs the US National Security Agency.

In any case, the Guardian, forced to represent the perceived desperation of the entire fourth estate, is portrayed as well-intentioned, appealingly furnished but ultimately naive in The Fifth Estate, in which it is represented by Rusbridger, then deputy editor Ian Katz (Dan Stevens) and old-school "proper" hack Nick Davies (David Thewlis).

Cinemagoers unfamiliar with Davies’ track record will know that he is meant to be an investigative journalist because at one point in the movie he is seen overhearing a significant conversation on a landing, the way investigative journalists do.


The Disney/Dreamworks film suggests that the Wikileaks editor-in-chief's motivations for exposing the contents of the Afghanistan war logs and US diplomatic cables in 2010 were wrapped up in his own hubris as hacker-par-excellence. This mentality is characterised in a different light to the quieter persona of the thoughtful editor whose decisions to publish are always tempered by journalistic ethics. The Guardian insists on redacting information that could put lives at risk, while Assange professes to view all editing as bias and an affront to his secrecy-obliterating mission.

On screen, it falls to Dan "Matthew Crawley" Stevens as Katz – now the editor of the BBC's Newsnight – to tease out the implications of the Guardian's partnership with Assange in scenes that, to borrow the phrase recently used by Katz about a Newsnight guest, will be "boring snoring" to moviegoers, either because they are already familiar with the thrust of what happened or because they were never interested in the high-minded quandaries of this radical journalist-activist collaboration in the first place.

Spoiler alert for anyone who missed all this when it happened in real life but the relationship becomes unstuck. Indeed, the film more or less insinuates that the decision of the Guardian and other newspapers to embrace Assange was a mistake from the start because they assumed a trust that was never there.

Drawn in part from the account of former Wikileaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, author of Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, the film increasingly depicts Assange as a man warped by his childhood and someone possessing of a desire to be as unaccountable for his actions as any of the opaque organisations he targeted.

It is entirely possible to make a distinction between the embassy-dwelling Assange, who Rusbridger found to be "both very inspiring and deeply flawed", and the merits or otherwise of a Wikileaks-type endeavour. But by concentrating heavily on the danger posed to government informants by the release of the documents, the film seems to side with the scary view that the whole concept of such leaks is at best misguided and at worst irresponsible. So it would be easy to come away from the film – particularly in a week in which the new head of MI5 Andrew Parker has said that Snowden's leaks gave terrorists "the gift to evade us and strike at will" – as hostile to the idea that a free press should even try to keep powerful governments and corporations in check.

But The Fifth Estate isn't totally one-sided on this point. It does at least include a brief clip of investigative freelance Heather Brooke making the case for the defence. Brooke, who was part of the Guardian's Wikileaks team, is heard dismantling the allegation that publication was reckless because it might cause harm. "This is all speculative harm that's being talked about," she said. "What seems to be being ignored is the actual harm, and that's what's being exposed."

If freedom of speech, Brooke went on to point out, is restricted along the lines of speculative rather than actual harm, then that’s a pretty severe restriction.