Secrets and Lies: The Truth of Official Secrets

Martin Bright on the Iraq War, and being played by Matt Smith

Secrets and lies: Matt Smith as Observer editor Martin Bright in true life whistleblower drama Official Secrets.

When the U.S. and its coalition of the willing invaded Iraq in 2002, the simple, bloody fact was that most experts on the region knew – or at least, suspected – that there were no weapons of mass destruction there.

Martin Bright, then Home Affairs Editor for Britain’s The Observer newspaper, has those same suspicions, and even when a whistleblower, Katharine Gun, leaked emails proving it, the world still went to war. Now the story of that lie comes to theaters as political drama Official Secrets, with Keira Knightley as Gun, and Matt Smith as Bright. "I can't say I wasn't delighted when I heard Matt was going to play me," Bright said. "I think he grasped pretty quickly how he couldn't play a sneaky, ratlike journalist in the same way he played Prince Phillip or Doctor Who. It's a tribute to his acting that he comes across as a really great journalist – but I would think that."

Looking back on the events of the film, Bright referred the deliberate attempt to deceive the public as “an exercise in authoritarian psychology. If you talk to people now, they say, ‘Well, we knew there wasn’t anything there.’ And yet, within each institution you look at, there was a small cabal that managed to push through the agenda that brought us to war.” That applied to the intelligence community, governments and, Bright said with a note of sadness, “even our newspaper.”

“It was extremely tense,” he said. “There were very serious differences of opinion, and it was extremely difficult for – not just journalists on our paper, but for readers as well – that the paper decided to publish an editorial in support of intervention. I can’t overemphasize how painful and difficult it was to work through those times. It’s difficult enough when you’re trying to break stories on the brink of war, and you’re trying to understand what’s going on, but it’s all the more difficult when you don’t quite know where you stand with your colleagues or your editors.”

That’s part of why he was prepared to work with the filmmakers on Official Secrets. There are no narrative short cuts, no courtroom antics for dramatic effect, no composite characters. In fact, there was only one major change. A key document drop did not take place, as shown in the film, in a shadowy underground garage. "That was done for poetic and cinematic effect," said Bright, "with reference to All the President's Men. We met in a coffee shop in Soho. That's generally where journalists meet most of their contacts, but it would be a bit boring if I met everyone in Patisserie Valerie."

Martin Bright
Austin Chronicle: Every journalist, at some point or other, has found themselves in the position of thinking, 'We're off here.' But this was such a huge issue, and had such a tectonic impact on global affairs, how did it feel to know there was the split in your newsroom, between what you were reporting and the editorial line?

Martin Bright: Some of what was going on at the Observer was entirely legitimate differences of opinion that happen in any newsroom, and people have different roles. It's perfectly correct that the political editor should have very good connections with government, have contacts right at the top of the administration, and wish to protect those contacts. At the same time, it's important for investigative journalists who don't depend on such sources to be trying to find out what that government is up to.

The difficulty in the run-up to the Iraq war was that the journalistic community more generally, and not just in our own paper, I believe had become too close to the Blair government. They had forgotten that the basic job of a journalist is to report on the facts, as far as is possible and as they see them, not adhere to an ideological agenda. I think that, within the fourth estate, there was a degree of group think that wanted things to work out, that wanted – quite legitimately – to see the end to Saddam Hussein, and there was some hope that it would lead to some kind of democratic domino effect. But people got carried away with themselves, and in the end that was shown as a huge, if not catastrophic, error of judgment.

AC: One factor I remember having conversations with people on the ground on Afghanistan in 2001-2 about was the very real fear that invading Iraq would spread coalition forces too thin, and derail any reconstruction there. Were you hearing similar concerns?

MB: At the time, people were only dropping hints to me. I was the Home Affairs editor of The Observer. I wasn't a foreign correspondent, I wasn't somebody who had links into the defense world or the Foreign Office. That was why it was very important for me to bring in Ed Vulliamy (played in the film by Rhys Ifans), our then U.S. correspondent and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), who is an expert on foreign affairs.

There's a scene in the film where I talk to a retired admiral who had an advisory role towards the press. It's quite clear to me, looking back to my notes, that he was dropping huge hints about the unhappiness within government. But the terrible thing is that those people, the good people, kept doing their jobs and they remained loyal to government. So he was not in a position to tell me what he could have told me because to do so would have been disloyal, as far as he was concerned. This was not someone who felt it was right to break the Official Secrets Act.

I think what was happening within the defense establishment and within certain aspects of government and the Civil Service is that they were desperate for us to do our job better, and they were wondering why on Earth aren't journalists digging deeper? Why are they taking what's being told to them at face value? Now, with the benefit of hindsight, they're able to say that explicitly. But at the time very few of us were picking up the hints.

AC: What's astounding is that there still hasn't been a reckoning. There's been, 'Oh, well, there was misreporting,' but there hasn't been a major period of soul-searching. It was like, after Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N., people went, "Well, what were we supposed to say?" even though their own reporting contradicted what he said?

MB: I think that's oddly true. Despite all the enquiries – and there have been a number, in the U.S. as well as the U.K., and we hear that Powell feels quite bad about it – there was almost nothing in that speech that was true. It was a huge misrepresentation, and the important thing about the Katharine Gun leak was that it revealed that they were searching for whatever was necessary – "The full gamut of information," it says in that leaked memo – to provide intelligence, to provide information that would be useful for Powell in that presentation. It was very specific.

Of course, the purpose of that presentation was very much not to present the facts as they were seen. It was to make the case for war, and I think there's a very specific problem here, which is about the role of the intelligence services. I think in this sense they are not dissimilar to journalism. The purpose of intelligence used to be to provide information that would be useful for policymakers to make decisions. It was not that the policymakers had made decisions, and then they sought intelligence to fix those decisions. We, widely, in the fourth estate made the same mistake: we were looking collectively to find evidence that would fit the move towards war.

There was a very widely publicized story in the Observer about the links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, stories about stockpiles of anthrax, stories that were wrong that had been fed by intelligence agencies that wanted a war, and we in the media acted as a conduit for those stories because we wanted to be at the front line of journalism that would make the case for war.

I didn't run any of those stories, and I'm trying to be as generous as I can towards my colleagues and the pressures that they. But when you're being provided with what appears to be exciting raw intelligence direct from the CIA, that can be very seductive.

Official Secrets opens in Austin this week. For review and listings, see our Showtimes.

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Official Secrets, Martin Bright, Matt Smith, Iraq War, WMDs

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