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Vol. 41 No. 21 · 7 November 2019
Short Cuts

Would you whistleblow?

Joanna Biggs

In February​ 2003, I spent a lot of time saying ‘liar’ to my computer screen. I was twenty, in Paris on my year abroad working as a translator of press releases about mechanical diggers and franking machines, while back home my country was trying to go to war illegally. I must have looked at the Guardian website every 45 minutes; for me, the 2003 online version of the Grauniad with its central column of boxed pictures will always be the true Guardian website. The Guardian received many of my ‘liars’: it initially supported the war.

I was reminded of how I felt in those days during the opening scene of Official Secrets, which stars Keira Knightley. (I took a perverse liking to her when it was unfashionable to, around the time of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie; and I have somehow ended up as a true fan, an opening weekend Keira completist.) The movie starts in February 2003, with Keira as the once and future whistleblower Katharine Gun, watching Tony Blair explain to David Frost why it was necessary for Britain to go to war. ‘Bloody liar,’ she says. ‘They’re all bloody liars.’ Frost and Bliar don’t react. (I remember this too, the fury and the not-reacting.) Blair leans forward and insists that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction that could reach Britain in less than 45 minutes. Keira, angrily: ‘Just because you’re the prime minister, doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts.’ There was laughter in the cinema at this, the laughter of recognition, or maybe derision. Does anyone, any sane person, still believe that politicians don’t routinely, brazenly lie? It was that laughter that hurtled me back to 2003, precisely because I didn’t laugh then.

It makes sense to me that I would be obsessed with the politics of early 2003, because that was when I was first surprised by the state abuse of power. Was I surprised because the government was supposed to be left-wing? Or surprised simply because, born in 1982, this was my first left-wing government? The moviehouse laughter made me wonder whether it wasn’t just me: whether, at least in the Anglosphere, 2003 might mark the beginning of a certain sort of political lying. In that year the government lied, and we all knew it was lying, and people stepped forward to confirm that it was lying. We took to the streets in our millions, Paris London Rome Berlin, and Gun herself, sick at the idea of war, printed out and tucked into her knickers an email from the NSA: the US was asking translators like herself at GCHQ to listen out for anything that might compromise delegates from countries on the UN Security Council which looked likely to withhold assent to a resolution supporting war against Iraq. How can a girl believe in an institution that asks her to gather blackmail material to make it easier for her country to begin an illegal war? How can a girl believe in a government that asks its people an unanswerable question, pretending it is a yes-no question? What once was met with fury – apologies to Marx – is now met with laughter.

And applause. At the end of the movie, as the credits rolled, the audience clapped. Gun’s decision to break the Official Secrets Act led to the NSA memo being published on the front cover of the Observer, astonishing the world for the half-day it took for the Drudge Report to denounce it as a fake. In Clerkenwell a newspaper sub-editor, traditionally the last to touch text, had allowed the original American spelling of the email to become English spelling; what deputy chief of staff at the NSA would type ‘recognise’ instead of ‘recognize’? The Observer failed to explain what happened, but GCHQ, knowing the email wasn’t fake, opened an internal investigation and within days Gun confessed. We’ve barely heard of her – compare David Kelly – because when the government took her to court for breaching the Official Secrets Act, it dropped all charges on the day the trial opened. Gun’s defence had rested on the government handing over the iterations of the legal advice it had received on the legality of the war. It preferred to set her free.

‘Would you whistleblow?’ the friend I went to the movie with asked me afterwards. The screen version of Gun projected a clarity I rarely feel in life. Asked by Scotland Yard why she thought it was acceptable not to do as she’d been ordered, Keira explained that she wasn’t answerable to the British government but to the British people: ‘I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.’ The sort of person who has rhetorical resort to ‘the people’ now – Orbán, Bolsonaro, Farage, Trump – doesn’t use the term the way Gun does in the movie. Hers was an acte gratuit, which brought her nothing but trouble. She Brexited nine years ago, and now lives in Turkey.

I spent 15 February 2003, the day of the Stop the War march, waiting for my boyfriend at the Gare du Nord, Valentine’s Day mixtape in my pocket, instead of marching to the Bastille with 200,000 other people who had been shouting ‘menteur’ at their screens. I’ve never quite forgiven myself for that. All my fury did was hit the screen. But I remember its high, clear quality: I was certain that standing against oil-fuelled empire-building, against war itself, against the obvious lies, was the right thing to do. (Iraqi war dead: 300,000, Coalition war dead: 5000, and no WMD found. We were right then and we’re still right now.) Now I long for that certainty. When, in summer 2016, Corbyn apologised for Labour’s role in the war – that’s my president, I thought – I got a lovely echo of that forgotten feeling. It seems that I am also nostalgic for the first time I lived with clear furious righteous knowing. Last night, on the bus, I listened to one young woman tell another of the notification that had just come up on the cracked screen of her phone: the Guardian would illuminate today’s day in Parliament, where the prime minister had lost and won on the same day. They both … laughed.

What is my political duty right now? I march. I still shout at my screens, at the radio. I stopped listening to the Today programme several years ago when I noticed I had shouted at John Humphrys five times before breakfast, for several weeks in a row. (Humphrys in May 2003, told by his boss to read out Alastair Campbell’s insistence that the dodgy dossier wasn’t sexed up: ‘I can’t read this rubbish!’ That’s my Today programme.) But I barely know who to be angry at. The people who voted for Brexit have something to say, just not in the way they said it. The politicians seem as hopelessly divided as we are. The lies are so entrenched that it’s difficult still to be angry about them. The shell-shocked media are trying to stick to their asymmetric notion of fairness. And I didn’t act even when I was absolutely sure of myself. I haven’t had the heart to follow every 45-minute twist over these last four years, to trace my finger over the squiggly flow charts, to keep refreshing the live blog. Fury can get daubed on walls and made into torches and channelled into record-breaking marches, or it can Britishly ebb away with boyfriends visiting and the fact that marches never get you anywhere anyway and it wasn’t as if the men in your life listened to what you said about politics before Brexit. The neiges d’antan are always purer, I thought in the cinema; retrospect is crisp. Nevertheless, I would that it would snow again. I would that I were Katharine Gun in Official Secrets.

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