How my work mistake caused an ‘international incident’
Early in my career, I was asked to type up a secret memo. The error I made is now in a movie
Have you ever wondered who’d play you in a film? I had, occasionally, until the day I got the answer. In spring 2018, a message pinged on to my phone via Facebook from a journalist friend. “So this is a bit weird,” it read. “A sister of a friend is playing you in a movie, apparently. You aware of this?” I wasn’t.
“Hanako Footman is playing you in the film Official Secrets. She wants to meet you, like actors do. She saw we were pals and asked if I’d ask you. What did you do in that story?”
“That story” concerns British whistleblower Katharine Gun, played by Keira Knightley in a film that premiered at Sundance festival in January. Fluent in Mandarin, the 28-year-old Gun was employed as a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham. In 2003, she leaked a top-secret memo to the Observer newspaper about an illegal spying operation ordered by the US National Security Agency. It intended to bug the phones and emails of six United Nations delegates, from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan – nations that could determine whether the UN approved the invasion of Iraq.
The memo, which outraged Gun, ordered staff to increase surveillance operations “particularly directed at… UN Security Council members (minus US and GBR, of course)” to provide real-time intelligence for Bush officials on voting intentions.
I was working at the Observer at the time. And, although I was just a bit-player in the story, the film dramatises a monumental mess-up on my behalf – the biggest mistake of my career.
It’s 2003. The airwaves are filled with Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love, Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River and Hey Ya! by OutKast. Cool young things wear absurdly small clothing – low-slung jeans nicknamed “bumsters”, for obvious reasons; thongs; crop tops and, most ill-advisedly, “shrugs”, unflattering miniature cardigans. An incredible heatwave sweeps Europe, too, with the mercury hitting 38.5C in southern England.
The feverishness of those days extends to geopolitics. Three years earlier, George W Bush narrowly won the 2000 United States presidential election after a recount in Florida and a debacle involving hanging chads. In 2001 came the terrorist attacks of 9/11, propelling al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden into the public consciousness. Britain’s “special relationship” with the US grew ever closer, thanks to the manoeuvrings of the then prime minister, Tony Blair.
It was an interesting time for a young journalist with no newspaper experience to be joining the foreign desk of the Observer. Aged 24 and having held only junior positions at women’s magazines, I applied for the role of foreign desk assistant in late 2002. Educated at a state school and with no newspaper contacts, I had a thirst for foreign news. As a teenager, my heroes had been foreign correspondents like the BBC’s Kate Adie, Michael Buerk and John Simpson. At university I devoured the works of George Orwell – himself a former Observer journalist – Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Graham Greene, before devoting a year of my degree to the impact of reporting on the Vietnam war. What I offered in keenness must have made up for my lack of experience because, after two interviews, I took a call and was told: “You’ve got the job… if you want it?” Of course I did.
Joining was a culture shock. Our working week ran from Tuesday to Saturday, with knocking-off times getting progressively later (9, 10, 11pm) as Sunday approached. Everyone was constantly available on their BlackBerry – the height of tech at the time. The neighbouring Coach & Horses pub was our unofficial canteen. My colleagues were impressive: charismatic raconteurs, supremely well-read and worldly wise. I was entrusted with an A4 contacts book – a ringbinder of phone and satellite phone numbers and emails for correspondents all over the globe. Dusty reporters would fly in from assignments in far-flung places, handing over a bundle of disorganised receipts for obscure items: four camels, for instance, “replacements for a herd accidentally hit and killed on a road by driver”.
It was intense, collegiate and fun, and I felt privileged to be part of the team – but also out of my depth. My brilliant predecessor had left to make documentaries for Channel 4. I set about looking after flak jackets and foreign currency, visas and travel plans. I called to check in with reporters on high-risk assignments and watched the international news wires for stories. Not long after I started, I was asked to look into flights for a foreign correspondent to go from London to Diyarbakir and then help find a fixer to assist with crossing a border. I didn’t even know which country that was, let alone which border they might be crossing.
Towards the end of my second week, I was handed a printout of an email by Martin Bright (then the Observer’s home affairs editor, played in Official Secrets by Matt Smith) and Peter Beaumont (the foreign affairs editor – played by Matthew Goode). Could I type it up and save it into the system? I wasn’t given any other information. Their only instruction: “Don’t make any mistakes.” And so I set to painstakingly typing in each sentence.
As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge…
… We’d appreciate your support in getting the word to your analysts who might have similar, more in-direct access to valuable information from accesses in your product lines.
It took about 10 minutes. I double-checked it, sent it through, moved on to my next task.
On Sunday morning, I woke up to see the paper’s front-page splash: “Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war”. Underneath was the memo I’d typed up.
Of course, the story – broken by Bright, Beaumont and the inimitable New York correspondent and investigative journalist Ed Vulliamy (played with great aplomb and accuracy in the film by Rhys Ifans) – was huge. But my pride in being a tiny part of the team soon crumbled when, first thing on Monday morning, my phone rang. It was an unknown number and, as Monday was a day off for most of the news team, I didn’t expect it to be the office. It was – I think – Stephen Pritchard, the paper’s readers’ editor. He was very polite, but informed me with deft understatement and a total lack of drama that I had caused “something of an international incident”.
Fastidiously typing in the memo, and not knowing what the document was or its origins, I’d changed all the American spelling “mistakes” to British English. “Recognize” became recognise, and “emphasize” emphasise. “Favorable” was amended to favourable. I thought I was being helpful. Instead, it was a disaster.
The story that Gun had risked so much to reveal was thrown into doubt. How could this be a leaked US memo, asked websites such as the Drudge Report, when it was all spelled in British English? The wobble caught on. Was it a fake? Some outlets due to report on the Observer’s story cancelled interviews over doubts about the memo’s authenticity. It was decided the readers’ editor should publish a special dispatch to counter the thousands of complaints from readers, many American, calling us “lying limey bastards”, claiming that the story’s authors had fallen victim to a hoax and that the email was part of a campaign of misinformation.
Of course, it was not. Despite my “administrative error”, the story still made shockwaves around the world. Some days later, Gun went on to reveal her identity, and her life imploded; she lost her job, was arrested and ultimately faced a trial under the UK’s Official Secrets Act, which collapsed after the prosecution declined to offer its evidence.
Meanwhile, I struggled to make peace with the ramifications of what I’d done. Humiliated, and just a few weeks into my dream job, I rang my former magazine editor and asked for my old job back; it had, of course, been filled.
By Tuesday morning, there was nothing to do but go in and face the music. I assumed I’d be fired, and sobbed in the office loo before going to my desk. But while I am sure everyone involved was cursing my name – one of the biggest stories of their careers had been plunged into unnecessary doubt – they were outwardly kind and magnanimous. I was summoned to meet Pritchard and Bright to explain what had happened, and while there were a few eye rolls I think they understood why I’d done what I did, being in the dark about the genesis of the document. How the mistake wasn’t spotted by anyone else was also a matter of some consternation.
Somehow, I managed to put the disaster behind me. The senior editors forgave me, and I remained on the foreign desk for three years.
When, 16 years later, I found out that not only was the story being made into a film, but my mistake had been included, I had some sleepless nights. I met Footman, the young actor who plays me, at a cafe in London early last year with some trepidation. She told me she couldn’t divulge any specifics about the movie. “But is it made clear I wasn’t fired over what happened?” I asked. She was noncommittal, but said I did appear in a later scene. She wanted to talk details: what did I wear back in the day? What colour did I paint my fingernails? How did I get on with my colleagues? What were the foreign correspondents like? “Most of my outfits were probably too casual,” I said. “I was frequently hungover and more than once fell asleep in the canteen.” And how to describe the foreign correspondents? Simultaneously impressive and unpredictable.
Around nine months after we met, I was invited to a first-cut screening of the film. I watched as “Nicole” got bawled out by the Observer’s famously sweary then editor, Roger Alton (played by Conleth Hill, Lord Varys in Game Of Thrones) in front of the entire team – thankfully not something that happened in real life. Footman played a blinder as me – albeit a more groomed version.
I knew it would be hard to watch my mistake unfold, but when it came, it felt like being punched in the throat. I felt the shame all over again, and sobbed silently into my tissue. Nevertheless, the film is as brilliant as it is important. And while I wouldn’t recommend carrying the burden of a catastrophic fuck-up, as Alton would term it, through one’s career, it did provide a salutary lesson in attention to detail. It was my first serious mistake, and hopefully it will be my last. – Guardian
Official Secrets is released on Friday, October 18th