'Official Secrets': the story of the British spy who tried to stop a war

We speak to Katharine Gun, whose whistle-blowing actions are headed for the big screen

00331-Official Secrets  -Photo Nick Wall.RAF
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When Katharine Gun came across a memo while working for the British government in 2003, her whole world changed. A translator for UK intelligence agency GCHQ, Gun read a brief from the US National Security Agency urging its British sister organisation to spy on members of the UN Security Council, to gain influence in a vote on whether to sanction an invasion of Iraq. Concerned, she copied the memo – and it found its way into the hands of Martin Bright, a reporter for British newspaper The Observer.

The real life story the film is based on

These events, and the fallout, are being portrayed on the big screen in Gavin Hood's Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley as Gun. While Gun may not be as famous as other whistle­-blowers, such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, her actions certainly didn't go unnoticed. Daniel Ellsberg – a former US military analyst who was responsible for exposing the Pentagon Papers, a study on America's political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 – called Gun's work "the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen". 

When she confessed her actions, she was sacked, arrested and released on bail for eight months, before being charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. The case was dropped in February 2004. "I was tremendously relieved," says Gun. "But to be honest there was a tiny amount of anti-climax. We really wanted to go to court and have a battle with the government and say, 'Look, the war was illegal.' We didn't get to do that."

That day, on the steps at London's Old Bailey, Shami Chakrabarti, who was director of human rights group Liberty at the time, leaned over and spoke to Gun. "She said, 'You never know, Katharine, in 10 or 20 years, they might turn this into a film.'" She wasn't far off. After Marcia and Thomas Mitchell published 2008 book The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War, various attempts were made to tell Gun's story on film, with the BBC, Channel 4 and HBO all declining to take on the project.

Katherine Gun was accused by the UK government of breaching the Official Secrets Act but the case was dropped in 2004. IFC Films

Turning her story into a film

Eventually, finances were found and a director sought. A former lawyer, South African filmmaker Hood was considered to be the ideal choice to tell Gun's story, with hard-­hitting dramas such as 2005's Tsotsi, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, Eye in the Sky (2015) and Rendition (2007)on his CV. As clued in as he was, Hood didn't know Gun's story, which was sidelined as the UK and the US invaded Iraq in March 2003 in the rush to topple Saddam Hussein.

"You tend to look at these stories, the Iraq War, from a big global perspective and you can't quite wrap your arms around what on Earth happened," he says. "Here was a story about a particular individual who was as close to someone like us, an ordinary citizen … yes, she worked for GCHQ but it wasn't as if she was a general or a politician or some huge public figure. She was an ordinary person that you could relate to in extraordinary circumstances."

00632-Official Secrets-Photo Nick Wall.RAF

Gun, who now lives in Turkey with her family, travelled to London for five days to be interviewed by Hood. Understandably, she was hesitant and did not want her story to be altered to suit Hollywood. "I said, 'I really wouldn't be able to stand by it if it didn't have a factual basis.' And Gavin said, 'I agree. We need to make it as factual as possible.' He was determined to get as good a portrayal as he could."

As he refined the script, Hood continued his scrupulous research – interviewing journalist Martin Bright (played in the film by Matt Smith) and Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), the human rights lawyer who came up with a remarkable defence for Gun. "What none of us wanted was to invent material events that weren't supported by what actually happened," Hood says. "We wanted to legitimately say at the front of the film, 'This is a true story.'"

'You cannot question the bravery of that act'

What impressed Hood about Gun was her sheer guts. As the film shows, she risked it all for her belief that the UK couldn't go to war based on a vote that may have been manipulated through coercion and bribery. "This woman was brave enough to speak up with the threat not only of losing her job but losing her freedom," he says. "You cannot question the bravery of that act. You can debate whether it was naive to do it, whether it was right to do it, but you cannot question this woman's bravery."

Gavin Hood, director of <i>Official Secrets</i>, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Dave J Hogan. 

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For the director, it's a story that raises questions of loyalty: to yourself, your government, country and family. "She was obviously not loyal to the government, which in this case is fine, given what the government was doing," he says. "But the harder one is the question of loyalty to family, marriage, relationships. She paid a price, her husband paid a price, their marriage paid a price, their life has paid a price, because of the choice to be loyal to conscience and country. And I thought that was interesting."

Since the film was given its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, Sir Ken Macdonald, the former UK director of public prosecutions, has claimed in an interview with The Observer that he dropped the case against Gun because "it became clear to me that she could only get a fair trial if we disclosed material to the defence that would compromise national security".

Official Secrets, however, suggests the case was dropped because it would expose the legal advice offered to the British prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, by his attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The film even claims that Macdonald met Emmerson at his home, telling him that Gun had committed "a deliberate act of betrayal" – an encounter that Macdonald has denied.

Arriving in the wake of other whistle-blower movies such as The Fifth Estate (2013), Snowden (2016) and The Report (2019), Hood's film has important lessons in this age of fake news. "We all need to be conscious of what news we take as gospel," says Gun. "And we need to maybe be a little bit sceptical about what we digest."

She also wants audiences to ask themselves one simple question: "At what point would I stick my neck out?"

Official Secrets is in cinemas from Thursday, September 12