The woman behind Wikileaks: "I am not speaking with Julian"

Birgitta Jónsdóttir talks about what Wikileaks biopic The Fifth Estate got wrong.

This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com
 
It’s a few weeks before the Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate goes into wide release, but the film is already making news. Last week, Wikileaks leaked a version of the script along with an internal memo calling the film “irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful,” and contesting its depiction of the organization. At the center of the film are Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), Internet activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), and Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir ("Game of Thrones" actress Carice Van Houten)—the three central players of the organization’s most contentious era. Jónsdóttir and Domscheit-Berg both left Wikileaks several years ago over disputes about its transparency and leadership, and the film’s script is based in part on Domscheit-Berg’s tell-all book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website. I talked with Jónsdóttir, who advised director Bill Condon on the film, about the script and what parts of The Fifth Estate might actually be true.
 

Linda Kinstler: Have you seen the film?

Birgitta Jónsdóttir: No, I’ve only seen near final versions of the script. I’m not sure if I will be able to go to the premiere. I will be doing my parliamentary duties at the Inter-Parliamentary Union around the same time.

LK: Were you invited to the premiere?

BJ: I actually had asked to be invited.

LK: What kind of input did you have in the film?

BJ: When I saw the script, at first, I was furious. ... The script was based on two books [Domscheit-Berg’s and David Leigh and Luke Harding’s WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy] that are sort of divorce books. When you write about recent history, and you’re upset, you’re always really biased, even if there are lots of facts that are accurate.

LK: Have you spoken to Carice Van Houten, who plays you in the film?

BJ: I helped her a little bit when she was in Iceland just to get an idea of how I speak.

LK: Why did you decide to collaborate with the film, especially given Wikileaks and Assange have been quite vocal in critiquing it?

BJ: Julian was never going to be happy with the script. ... I decided to participate with this film because I feared that it would be unbalanced, because it was based on these two books.

LK: Why was it so important to you to take out the Iran plot? [An early version of the script included a subplot in which a Wikileaks cable revealed the identity of a U.S. source embedded in the Iranian nuclear program. Forbes reports that in the final cut, the plot has been shifted to Libya.]

BJ: That scene was a complete fabrication. To write that Wikileaks had compromised the source in relation to the nuclear program, was just too political, too incorrect, and too damaging. There’s a lot of misperception of what Wikileaks was and is about in the United States. It’s been blown up into this whole black-and-white debate. I was branded a terrorist because, at the time that this was happening, I was collaborating and working with Wikileaks. I thought there was a massive army of volunteers and collaborators. Then I realized, “We’re like five or six people, and somebody has just leaked the biggest leak in history.” Of course, the script is very inaccurate in many ways. But I could sense in the script—and I hope that people can focus on this element—how Wikileaks changed that debate, how people have become more aware of their own power, and how Wikileaks has enabled and empowered a lot of human rights groups all over the world.

LK: What other changes did you make to the original script?

BJ: In the original script, they had us [Jónsdóttir, Domscheit-Berg, and Assange] sitting in a hot tub discussing "Collateral Murder" [a video released by Wikileaks showing footage of U.S. soldiers firing on civilians in Baghdad]. It was completely distasteful, so I demanded they take it out; they had actually already taken it out by the time I got a hold of Josh [Singer, who adapted the script].

LK: So that never actually happened?

BJ: No, no—and there were lots of things. I never undressed and gave Julian my clothes when he was posing as a woman. [In the leaked script, it’s actually a journalist named Alex Lang who swaps clothing with Julian.]

LK: Have you had any contact with Julian about the film, or about Wikileaks?

BJ: I am not speaking with Julian, I haven’t spoken with him for a while. ... I left Wikileaks a long time ago and our friendship soured, so I’m just doing my thing and he’s doing his. I’m primarily focusing on trying to bring about legal change not only in Iceland, but elsewhere. That’s the path that I’ve been taking.

LK: Earlier this summer, you said that you found out you had been the subject of NSA surveillance. Have you found out anything more about that?

BJ: I have only been able to get the confirmation [that the U.S. government was looking into] Twitter messages and metadata. [In 2011, Jonsdottir appealed a U.S. Court Order that required Twitter to hand over private records from her account.] ... But a couple of my friends who were also part of the Wikileaks team in Iceland got a letter from Gmail last summer stating that the NSA, or the FBI, requested their messages and data. I’ve been an activist for a long time, so I’m always careful. I can protect myself if I want to, I can remain anonymous in what I do. ... I took the Twitter matter to court because I wanted to raise people’s awareness that that sort of surveillance is happening. It bothers me that people don’t seem to understand that even if they haven’t done anything wrong, that doesn’t mean that they should give away these fundamental rights for privacy.

LK: In the leaked script, Daniel claims that Julian dyes his hair. Wikileaks denies it. Can you weigh in on that?

BJ: I never saw him do it, so I can’t. He did have some hair bleach that he left behind, but he had lots of weird stuff that he left behind. ... Hair becomes pretty dead when it’s bleached, and his hair didn’t look like that.

LK: You have said that Wikileaks has changed since your time there—can you comment on how it’s changed?

BJ: It’s sort of become more of a “MegaLeaks” than a Wikileaks. ... It doesn’t have the same grassroots element that it used to have, if you know what I mean. It’s more like an institution in collaboration with large media platforms. It’s not good or bad, it’s just different.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Linda Kinstler is a reporter researcher at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @lindakinstler.

This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Image: Getty
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Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.