Next week, the story of Julian Assange and Wikileaks hits the big screen in "The Fifth Estate." Brooke speaks with Guardian reporter--and former Wikileaks employee--James Ball about the story of Wikileaks, the new film, and what it was like seeing something he experienced firsthand dramatized by Hollywood.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next week, the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks hits the big screen, with the release of the film, The Fifth Estate. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, and it has some thrills.
CORRESPONDENT: The White House today blasted the leak of over 90,000 military documents…
SARAH SHAW: The military logs exposed hundreds of informants. There are lives at risk here.
“JAMES BOSWELL”: I need names of sources that could be harmed if these cables are put out.
“JULIAN ASSANGE”: They’re coming after us. We need to publish now.
“KIM ZETTER”/WIRED: This is the biggest leak of classified information in history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The movie follows Assange and WikiLeaks through the publication of the Afghan War logs, the video and audio of US military killing civilians in Baghdad from an Apache helicopter and the release of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables. Earlier this year, a documentary on the same subject was also released, arguably even more exciting. It was called, We Steal Secrets.
JULIAN ASSANGE: My name is Julian Assange. I’m the editor of WikiLeaks. We help you get the truth out. If you get this material, give it to us, no questions asked, and you will help change history.
JAMES BALL: The Internet lets governments get more information than ever, but it lets citizens do the same.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Ball is a recurring talking head in the documentary. He worked for WikiLeaks before becoming a data journalist at the Guardian newspaper. James, welcome to On the Media.
JAMES BALL: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So two nights ago I saw The Fifth Estate and then last night I saw the documentary, We Steal Secrets. And despite loving everything that Benedict Cumberbatch has done, I [LAUGHS] found the documentary somehow more exciting and ultimately more satisfying. And I wonder if you can set aside the fact that you’re a recurring character in the documentary, how did you feel if you weighed the two projects?
JAMES BALL: I think it’s quite hard to say. I think what I really liked about Alex Gibney's documentary was that you actually got a very human story of how Bradley Manning came to – sorry, I should say Chelsea Manning – came to make the decisions that she did, and the price that she paid as a result of that, alongside this huge global intrigue that the publishing was.
I think The Fifth Estate really played up the drama of the second half of that and the cypherpunk feeling of WikiLeaks, but you didn’t quite get that emotional call somehow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bradley Manning, as he was at the time, was one of the most fascinating characters one could ever encounter, either in film or in real life.
JAMES BALL: It was actually what Gibney’s film was criticized for, for humanizing Manning and not having this sort of poster hero or this sort of treacherous person. I think that’s kind of how it works in the real world. You don’t have these two-dimensional heroes and villains. And, actually, Manning’s own court defense, in the end, sounds a lot like Alex Gibney’s film.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It really does. But getting back to Hollywood, The Fifth Estate, you’ve got this central drama, and I wondered what that experience was like for you.
JAMES BALL: So it’s an absolutely surreal viewing experience for me. I have Peter Capaldi, the next Dr. Who, playing my current boss -
- and Benedict Cumberbatch playing my ex-boss.
[LAUGHS] And – but, you know, I remember fewer pulsing disco nightclubs and beautiful backdrops.
And I don’t remember the Guardian staff looking quite so attractive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But did people argue like that?
JAMES BALL: Oddly, the arguments, if anything, were often even fiercer, as they can get in real life, quite shouty, quite aggressive. So maybe those bits actually are fairly close to life, if not in the right order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the major conflicts represented in the film and the documentary was over whether WikiLeaks should redact names and sensitive information that could put people at risk, in and among those thousands – hundreds of thousands of documents from the State Department. The newspapers and the WikiLeaks staff wanted to redact but Assange resisted. Here’s a clip from the film.
DANIEL BRÜHL AS DANIEL BERG: These are human beings, Julian, and their lives are at stake.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH AS JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, what about the lives of the soldiers and the civilians involved in these conflicts, death squads, unreported civilian casualties, countless incidents of friendly fire. This is information the world needs to know! So the next time you find yourself lecturing me about this organization, please try to remember why I created it and why I hired you to help me.
JAMES BALL: I think we can disagree on the rights and wrongs, and I still feel like they should have been kept more redacted than they were. But there’s never been any sign of anyone actually coming to harm, and not even actually having the consequences that you see in the film, which is some set of hypothetical US source being smuggled out of the country in a very tense sort of race against time. It was perhaps true of the spirit of the US response. I don’t think we ever actually saw it happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The documentary suggests that he really did struggle over this issue more than the Hollywood film does. Was Julian Assange at all conflicted about bringing innocent people to harm?
JAMES BALL: It’s quite hard to speculate what Julian is thinking. He’s quite good at mirroring to people what they want to see in him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you get involved with WikiLeaks?
JAMES BALL: I was at a not-for-profit production company in the UK, and we got word slightly ahead of the Afghan War logs that all of this was going down and managed to arrange a meeting with Julian, had this late-night meeting in a Turkish restaurant, went back to a kind of garrett that he was staying at and left with 400,000 Iraqi war logs in my pocket, which we used to make various bits of television. And then we went on and essentially published all of that material, and I get a message about 2 o’clock in the morning on my computer, very kind of Matrix or something –
- saying, hey, I, I know you’ve worked out what the next one is. If you want to work on it, you’re gonna have to work for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] For pay? [LAUGHING]
JAMES BALL: For pay, yeah. So hey, I took a pay cut when I left WikiLeaks. It’s – Alan Rusbridger is a fine editor, but he offered me a lower salary than Julian Assange.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Julian Assange does not like this movie. In advance of the release of The Fifth Estate, WikiLeaks leaked the entire script. Assange has called it a “massive propaganda attack.” If you think the film was relatively accurate, why do you think Assange is so upset about it?
JAMES BALL: Well, Julian’s explanation would be that I am an enemy of WikiLeaks and, therefore, I would say that it's fine, wouldn’t I? Julian has very much hit the point where you are with him or against him. I think when you are really burning with passion, it’s very easy to sort of succumb to notable cause corruption, and it’s this idea that I should be held accountable to different standards than other people, because I'm the good guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JAMES BALL: Governments have to be held accountable and be transparent, but I can't be. You know, “You can't question me. You can’t demand evidence from me –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm –
JAMES BALL: - because do not know how difficult it is to be me?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Still, the possibility that The Fifth Estate might have been a smear job worried Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Assange. He tried to reach out to him before the filming began. Assange refused. He said, quote, “I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe this film is a good film.” Do you think that the characterization is – fair? And, if so, is it because you’re against him? [LAUGHS]
JAMES BALL: I think people who do extraordinary things – and whether you like WikiLeaks or loathe it, it’s pretty extraordinary - don't tend to be sort of affable, easy-going, easy-to-digest characters. And Assange is a complex and difficult character. That actually comes across quite often in the film. There’s also this magnificent bit. It’s based of no knowledge at all, but I love to imagine that Cumberbatch has to do it, where Julian is condemning the forthcoming WikiLeaks film. That’s just great fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your falling out with Julian Assange, was it over the redaction issue? Was it a particular moment?
JAMES BALL: There was this moment where an email came into my inbox from a UK freedom of speech group, and it was alleging with some evidence that someone associated with WikiLeaks had met with the dictator of Belarus, that he had handed over a load of material from the State Department cables relating to that country and opposition groups, and all sorts of stuff that could get activists locked up for quite a long time. And I was, of course, really alarmed. This was everything we were working against, everything we didn't want to happen.
It's about freedom of expression. It's about democracy. And I tried to get us to investigate it, but instead the insistence from Julian was that we just put out these blanket denials, including that, that the guy who supposedly handed over the material never had access to it. And I knew he did because I had given it to him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was a Russian - you describe him as an anti-Semite who had a long association with Julian?
JAMES BALL: That’s correct, yes. He was a man called Israel Shamir. We didn’t know who he was. He was introduced to us as a friend of Julian's on a false name, and he asked me for a lot more material than most people did – all of Russia, all of Eastern Europe, Israel, I really only started wondering about him and thinking about him shortly afterwards, when he came back and asked for all of the cables that related to the Jews, which, of course, immediately [LAUGHS] you have a bit of a red flag on that. And I essentially told him that that just wouldn't be technically possible, I – you know, to get rid of him.
I’d been very wary of him for a while and then when this came, it just seemed to confirm everything I'd been worried about. And I don’t think this means Julian was part of some conspiracy or had terrible ideas. I just really found that the moral core of anything that you were doing dropped away for me personally at that point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And did you confront him?
JAMES BALL: I did. We had absolute screaming rows. And it kind of eventually came to a head. I was planning on leaving anyway, but Julian gave me what he called a “direct order” [LAUGHS] to help out Israel Shamir’s son with something. And I kind of said, well, look, you know I’m not prepared to do that, for all of these reasons.
And I had a conversation [LAUGHS] a little bit like the sort of heartfelt warmth between Daniel and Julian in the film, where he’s saying, look, I’m giving you a direct order, are you refusing a direct order? [LAUGHS] I thought I was joining a journalistic enterprise, not a military. So, of course, I’m refusing a direct order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were saying it felt like that final scene of George Orwell’s Animal Farm?
JAMES BALL: Yes, I – I think it, it’s really quite strange how similar it is because all the NSA, all the military, all the State Department will tell you is, obviously, we’d love to be transparent and open and share this information, but we just can’t because of the gravity of what we’re doing. And I honestly don’t think that WikiLeaks saw it was giving the exact same answer for the exact same reason. And it’s quite funny. It makes you realize how difficult it actually is to talk about transparency and apply it to yourself. It’s really easy to apply it to everyone else and quite good fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James, thank you so much.
JAMES BALL: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Ball is a reporter for the Guardian.