Whistleblowers make great movie heroes. Lone, courageous, principled individuals taking on powerful forces from the inside to fight for justice, they have been the basis for roles in high-quality dramas and thrillers from All the President’s Men (1976) to The Post (2018).
We’ve previously listed our favourite films about whistleblowers. Check it out.
To that group, we’d definitely add Official Secrets, the new film starring Keira Knightley and Matt Smith telling the story of Katharine Gun, a linguist at British intelligence listening station GCHQ who in 2003 leaked a memo from the US National Security Agency (NSA) to The Observer newspaper. The NSA memo asked GCHQ staff to help spy on members of the UN Security Council so they could be pressured into supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Why it should never have been made
Official Secrets is another good movie about a whistleblower, and especially important for the detailed telling of Katharine’s own story and the consequences she faced for speaking out. But here’s the thing — Official Secrets should never have been made.
If there had been comprehensive protection for whistleblowers in the UK in 2003, there would be no dramatic courtroom scene — because Katharine Gun would never have been taken to court.
There wouldn’t be the tense sequence in which Katharine and her colleagues are interrogated by an internal investigator who is trying to discover who leaked the document — because Katharine would have been able to report her concerns internally. Of course, this would have had to happen in a confidential manner, to an independent body authorised to handle classified information and and investigate such concerns.
We wouldn’t even know Katharine Gun’s name. If she wanted to, she should have been able to continue her career in the British intelligence services, safe from retaliation or retribution from her employer.
Finally, Katharine’s legal defence would have been much easier if she could have relied on a public interest defence. This means that she would not have been found guilty if she could show that the public interest in disclosing that memo outweighed the public interest in keeping it secret. However, the UK’s Official Secrets Act explicitly states that for (former) members of the security and intelligence services, any unauthorised disclosure of a document or information relating to security or intelligence is an offence.
Light at the end of the tunnel: a common EU standard for whistleblower protection
Potential whistleblowers in the European Union can now tentatively begin to hope for something approaching the necessary level of protection. A new EU directive sets a minimum common standard for whistleblower protection laws across all Member States, but it has limits. For a start, it only covers people who blow the whistle in some areas on breaches of EU laws, and clearly indicates that it does not cover classified information. But, as EU countries transpose the directive into national laws over the next two years, they have the chance to pass legislation that covers every possible whistleblowing situation, including when people report on matters related to defence, security and classified information.
It is important to say that laws are not always enough by themselves. In the United States, the whistleblower in the ‘Ukraine-gate’ scandal surrounding President Trump has faced multiple illegal attempts to reveal their identity. Such attacks seek to move attention away from the alleged wrongdoing and onto the whistleblower, and undermine the credibility of the person making the claims.
“We have to change the system, so that people are protected in the future.” — Katharine Gun
The importance of new laws — and cultural change
Katharine Gun and Martin Bright, the journalist who received her memo, recently sat down to talk to Transparency International at a special preview of Official Secrets in Berlin. Katharine highlighted the importance of culture as well as laws. “In the UK, I’ve had no public figures publicly say they support me, not at the time when I was charged nor when the case was dropped… In the US, as soon as they had my name publicly, there was this immediate movement of people who wanted to support me. I got hundreds of emails from US citizens supporting my actions.”
Can a movie like Official Secrets bring about such a culture shift?
“I’ve had very young people come up to me and say they want to be just like me. It’s great that people feel inspired, but it is not an easy road to take. For that reason we have to change the system, so that people are protected in the future.”