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06.11.2019

Whistleblower vows she would do it again and calls on media freedom campaigners to support those who leak official secrets

By Jane Whyatt

Former intelligence officer Katharine Gun has no regrets about leaking a CIA memo to the press in an attempt to stop the US and its allies invading Iraq in 2003. She risked a thirty-year jail term, was called a ‘traitor’, lost her job and felt obliged to leave the country.

Whistleblower vows she would do it again and calls on media freedom campaigners to support those who leak official secrets Katharine Gun with a poster for the film Official Secrets, in which her part is played by Keira Knightley. Photo: ECPMF

But now her true-life story has been made into a Hollywood movie Official Secrets, with international star Keira Knightley playing Katharine Gun. The journalist who received the leaked documents, Martin Bright, is played by Matt Smith and the film is now showing in cinemas across Europe. 

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) is supporting special screenings of Official Secretsin Berlin and Hamburg, with Gun and Bright taking part in public discussions after the show to stress the importance to press freedom of journalists and whistleblowers working together and protecting each other.

In an interview with ECPMF, Katharine Gun explained why, after living quietly with her family in rural Turkey for more than a decade, she is now seeking the international spotlight:

ECPMF: Would you do it again?

Katharine Gun: Yes I would, if all the circumstances were the same. That’s my red line - not harming others. The Iraq war was unjustified, it was illegal and it caused so much destruction in Iraq, also to US and UK veterans.

Q:Now you are championing the cause of whistleblowers. How do you think whistleblowers could and should be better treated?

A: For example, when you’re at school if a child sees another child being bullied and they ask the teacher to do something about it, the teacher doesn’t tell that child to shut up. The teacher doesn’t say “Sit down and shut up or I’m going to bully you!” That’s how we should treat whistleblowers, because that’s how they react when they see corruption, fraud or any kind of harm to others. That’s what they do.

Q: You’ve been reviewing Edward Snowden’s memoirs, about why he blew the whistle and what happened to him after that. What’s your view of the Snowden case?

A: It’s slightly different from mine because he was concerned about the lies the US had ben telling their own citizens about the bulk collection of their data and why it was necessary and this whole surveillance state that we’re witnessing across the globe where states are turning their attention and their monitoring inward on their own citizens. That is a concern for us. They’re talking about internal threat, domestic threat. I discussed in my recent article in The Nation about the disparity between the power of the state versus the power of the individuals. They have amassed such an overwhelming power that they can literally do and say anything about the individual and the individuals have no recourse to be able to defend themselves or be treated justifiably.

Q: What do you think should happen to protect the rights of whistleblowers?

A: That is something that should be looked into because when information is exposed I think you can judge on a case-by-case basis whether the intention was altruistic or not. As long as the whistleblower doesn’t face retaliation, they don’t fear for their life or livelihood, then they can follow their conscience.

Katharine Gun received the CIA memo as part of her day-to-day work at the British intelligence-gathering centre, GCHQ. It was an explicit request for damaging information about representatives on the UN Security Council that could be used to pressure or blackmail them into voting for war on Iraq. How it ended up on the front page of The Observernewspaper is shown in gripping detail in the film Official Secrets, directed by Gavin Hood.

https://youtu.be/nRdoWD1qqfI

The Observer’s investigative reporter who received the leaked memo was Martin Bright. He now works freelance and has founded a charity to support young people, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to break into the creative and media industries.

Martin Bright told ECPMF the film is true to life in that the newspaper editor Roger Alton was sceptical about printing the memo, since it had a policy at the time of supporting military intervention in Iraq and had close links to Tony Blair’s Labour government.  

I was lucky because my editor backed me up and we published the leak. We had our differences but he trusted me. At the time I didn’t know it was from Katharine Gun – we only met much later when she was facing trial,” Bright says.

Now Bright and Gun are touring film festivals and media freedom events together in Europe, the UK and the USA. 

The ECPMF is co-hosting events in Germany, with the film in the original English and German sub-titles

  1. The Berlin debate takes place on 12. November 
  2. And the screening with Q & A in Hamburg, is on 13. November

For tickets to these special preview screenings please email press@ecpmf.eu