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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Fifth Estate: First Rate and Important

I just got back from a private screening of The Fifth Estate - the new movie about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.   The screening, though, was in a public theater - the Greenburgh Multiplex.  And it was private because I was the only person in the theater, truly.  (Ordinarily my wife would have been with me, but she's recovering from a cold.   She was concerned her cough might disturb people in the theater - little did she know.)

Now I assume part of this poor attendance can be attributed to a typical weekday night.  But some of it is no doubt due to the public's lack of interest in this movie, and/or the negative reviews it's received, and that's a shame.

A lot of the movie is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, the German info-activist who helped get WikiLeaks going, but who split with Assange when the Manning leaks first hit.   Assange has denounced the movie on the grounds that it is based in large part on Berg's book, which Assange of course thinks is biased.  You know what?  I don't care.  Since I wasn't there, I can't possibly know whether Berg's negative assessments of Assange are true.   But it doesn't matter, because even if Berg is right, that does not counter-act or erase the enormous and revolutionary good Assange has done.

Among the aspects of WikiLeaks which are verifiable is that no one lost his or her life as a result of the Manning leaks.   The movie, however, included a high-tension scene of someone outed by leaks escaping from Lybia to Egypt, with the lives of him and his family in immediate peril.   Did this really happen? Perhaps.  But the only things we know for sure happened as a result of the huge number of cable documents Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning gave to WikiLeaks is that people in the US State Department and elsewhere were embarrassed.  And maybe that's good.

What's certainly good in the movie is this:   In one of the best scenes in the movie, the UK Guardian editor (one of the three papers that published the initial leaks) talked about how the fourth estate - journalism prior to the digital age - started when courageous pamphleteers published Parliamentary discussions which were supposed to be secret.  In those days, all such governmental deliberations were kept from the public.  But how can a democracy work if such deliberations are kept from the people who vote?  In provoking questions such as these, The Fifth Estate continues in the tradition of important movies about the media, ranging from Medium Cool to The Social Contract, and television shows like The Hour and The Newsroom.

Our freedoms are indeed predicated on access to information and knowledge.  Kings and parliaments even in more democratic societies strove to keep that information from view, but lost those battles in the long run.   In today's age, a WikiLeaks or its equivalent is needed to keep our world fully informed. Whether Assange is a nice guy or not is beside the point.  What counts is that he and WikiLeaks are fighting that same battle today, on the global level of digital media.   And we the freedom-loving public are its beneficiaries.

For more of my views about WikiLeaks, see this live chat several weeks ago on Canada.com ...

Also catch my interview about The Fifth Estate on Bob Mann's Let's Consider the Source this weekend (October 26-28, 2013) on Sirius/XM Radio.

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