“The Fifth Estate”
As a flag-waving
citizen who also happens to be a journalist,
I watched this film with a great deal of
ambivalence. On the one hand, I believe
in a free press; it was one of the important democratic principles on which
this country was founded. On the other
hand, in this post-9/11 age of terrorist enemies, I do not wish to aid and
abet the enemy by giving them access to secret information about our military
operations, or our covert operatives overseas.
And yet, that’s precisely the dilemma that was faced by the
now-infamous Wikileaks. And the movie
“The Fifth Estate” tells the story of how they came to that precipitous
Australian-born Julian Assange (Benedict
Cumberbatch) began as a self-appointed watchdog of the cyberspace age.
He was clever enough with computers to not only establish the website
called “Wikileaks,” but also insure enough security that not only could
his sources not be traced; neither could he. He
traveled all over the world, exposing corruption in Africa and in
, both in government and in business. The
movie tells the story of his relationship with his protégé, Daniel Domscheit-Berg
(Daniel Bruhl), and how completely dedicated they were to their shadowy task.
They traveled a lot; they did their best to fly under the radar of any
governmental observers; they worked all the time and had virtually no private
life (one of the subplots involves Daniel’s difficulty in carving out enough
time for a girlfriend; Julian seemed to have no interest in such things at
all, and didn’t make it easy for his cohort to do so, either).
As Wikileaks began to develop an
international whistleblower reputation, Julian began accepting some speaking
engagements, where he continued to insist that there were “hundreds” of
people associated with his company. In
actuality, most of the time, there were only two:
Julian and Daniel, frantically taking on different cyber-personas.
Eventually, Daniel brought in a couple of friends, but Julian had a
difficult time trusting them, and he invited an intern, unbeknownst to Daniel.
Thus began the rift between the two men which became a complete
estrangement by the time of the momentous opportunity presented by the
American serviceman who somehow had access to all those top-secret military
Daniel was adamant that the “Fourth
Estate” press, such as “The New York Times,” should be involved in
extracting some of the sensitive information, particularly any which would
jeopardize the lives of innocent government employees.
Julian was equally adamant that Wikileaks would not be edited by
anyone, and that freedom of information was a more important principle than
security safeguards, particularly decided by others.
Their sharp disagreement was made more poignant by Julian beginning to
believe some of the adulation he was now receiving from various quarters about
his previous work, and his fierce argument that any difference of opinion was
tantamount to personal betrayal. Yes,
the super-private Julian was now hooked on denying the privacy of everyone
else. Was megalomania a factor in his
disingenuous negotiations with professional (read “Old School”)
journalists? The rebel in Julian simply
did not want to be tamed, and enjoyed being accountable to no one.
And that’s precisely the attitude that caused so much consternation
among American government officials (aptly played by Laura Linney and Stanley
As of this writing, Julian, ironically
indicted for sexual assault in
, has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in
, where he has been granted diplomatic asylum since June of 2012.
His founding of “Wikileaks” raises the ethical question of our
decade: in our instant information age,
when should a free press be muzzled for the common good? And who decides?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St.
Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,