Criticism of Julian Assange and Wikileaks as Reflected in the Film, "The Fifth Estate"


On January 4, 2015 I viewed the Blu-ray disc of the 2013 film The Fifth Estate directed by Bill Condon, about the news-leaking website WikiLeaks. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as its editor-in-chief and founder Julian Assange, and Daniel Brühl as its former and now disaffected spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The screenplay was written by Josh Singer based in-part on Domscheit-Berg's book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website (2011), as well as WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy (2011) by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. The title of the film, The Fifth Estate is a term used to describe the people who operate in the manner of journalists outside the normal editorial and judgmental constraints imposed on the mainstream media. The film performed poorly at the box office and garnered mixed critical reaction, receiving criticism for its screenplay and direction; however, praise was given on the acting, particularly Cumberbatch's performance. My primary reason for viewing the film was to see Cumberbatch play Assange; I became interested in his acting after viewing the first three seasons of his TV series Sherlock, and his portrayal of Alan Turing in the 2014 film The Imitation Game. Like most viewers, I considered Cumberbatch's portrayals in all three roles to be extremely successful artistically, and very entertaining. Watching the film, of course, reminded me of the controversial political role of Julian Assange, who remained, as of January 2015, for all intents and purposes under house arrest in the London Embassy of Ecuador, where he was granted asylum, in order to avoid extradition to Sweden for prosecution for rape and molestation.

Following the screenplay, Cumberbatch portrayed Assange as an egotistic, conceited, perhaps justifiably paranoid individualist who, remarkably, created Wikileaks essentially by himself, while claiming initially that he had many assistants. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, identified in the film as Daniel Berg, appears to have been Assange's first genuine, devoted helper, who became disaffected because of Assange's refusal to use normal editorial restraint and judgment in protecting the identities of people mentioned in the leaks whose lives might be compromised by publication of the information. Berg's view reflects the highly complicated role of Wikileaks as a new journalistic medium, called the "Fifth Estate" most strongly associated with bloggers, journalists, and media outlets that operate outside of the mainstream media, and often in opposition to mainstream media. This followed the concept of the "Fourth Estate", which emerged in reference to forces outside the established power structure, and is now most commonly used to refer to the independent press or media.

The reception of Wikileaks has been complex and controversial. On the one hand it has been strongly supported by advocates of freedom in communication, and in its exposure of criminality and injustice; on the other hand, its lack of editorial control and judgment in publishing vast quantities of unedited documents and communications, which sometimes places the lives innocent people mentioned in the leaks in danger, has been strongly condemned. For a summary of its reception I quote the Wikipedia article on Wikileaks as it appeared on 01-05-2015. (As usual I do not include the footnotes which can be accessed on Wikipedia's website):

"WikiLeaks has received praise as well as criticism. The organisation has won a number of awards, including The Economist's New Media Award in 2008 at the Index on Censorship Awards and Amnesty International's UK Media Award in 2009. In 2010, the New York Daily News listed WikiLeaks first among websites "that could totally change the news," and Julian Assange received the Sam Adams Award and was named the Readers' Choice for TIME's Person of the Year in 2010. The UK Information Commissioner has stated that "WikiLeaks is part of the phenomenon of the online, empowered citizen." During its first days, an Internet petition calling for the cessation of extra-judicial intimidation of WikiLeaks attracted more than six hundred thousand signatures. Sympathizers of WikiLeaks in the media and academia have commended it for exposing state and corporate secrets, increasing transparency, assisting freedom of the press, and enhancing democratic discourse while challenging powerful institutions.

"At the same time, several U.S. government officials have criticized WikiLeaks for exposing classified information and claimed that the leaks harm national security and compromise international diplomacy. Several human rights organisations requested with respect to earlier document releases that WikiLeaks adequately redact the names of civilians working with international forces, in order to prevent repercussions. Some journalists have likewise criticised a perceived lack of editorial discretion when releasing thousands of documents at once and without sufficient analysis. In response to some of the negative reaction, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern over the "cyber war" against WikiLeaks, and in a joint statement with the Organization of American States the UN Special Rapporteur has called on states and other actors to keep international legal principles in mind. According to journalist Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, WikiLeaks is motivated by "a theory of anarchy," not a theory of journalism or social activism."


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