Ahead of Official Secrets’ release this Friday, Stylist spoke to the incredible woman the story is based on to hear what it was really like to go against the US Government
It’s 2003. Tensions between the USA and Saddam Hussain are rising. President George Bush believes that Hussain is a threat to his country following 9/11. Hussain insists he has no weapons that make him a threat to them.
Katherine Gun is working at GCHQ. A Mandarin translator, she’s interested in politics, but more interested in getting her work done and getting out the door. That all changes, though, when she receives a memo from the National Security Agency in America. They want her to help bug the United Nations offices in a bid to determine whether the UN approved the invasion of Iraq, and sway them towards approving war.
All of this creates the backdrop for Official Secrets, directed by Gavin Hood and staring Keira Knightley as Gun. The story is a dark and jarring tale following Gun’s conscientious objection to the task, her leak of the memo which ends in the hands of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), the manhunt for the criminal ensued and her treatment by the police when she admits it’s her.
It is rare that the most powerful scene in a film takes place in a grey, dingy office. But one of Official Secrets’ most impactful moments is when Gun, in an interview with Scotland Yard officers, snaps, and angrily explains that she doesn’t work for the government.
“I work for the British people,” she says, and changes the course of the film – and history – forever.
Here, we speak to Gun about her real life-role as a whistle-blower, and what it’s been like seeing herself portrayed in a movie by Hollywood’s Knightley.
“When I saw that email it was literally like a red flag to a bull,” Gun tells Stylist’s Chloe Gray. “I had already researched Iraq, and I’d come to the conclusion that there was no justification for the war. I just instinctively reacted to it and I wanted to stop harm to others. I guess the whole issue politicised me.”
For a quiet woman from Cheltenham, the Official Secrets movie marks the second time she has fallen into the spotlight – albeit a more pleasant one. The first time she made headlines was in 2004, when the media barraged her for the leak after she was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act.
“Ironically, becoming known publicly was my biggest fear. And it was partly because I’m on the whole a fairly shy person. And my marriage to my husband was very new at that juncture, and he had a very unstable status in the UK. So I really didn’t want any of that to be scrutinized because it just felt too vulnerable,” she says.
Gun was followed, denied legal advice and her Turkish husband faced deportation. She wasn’t charged for eight months – a gruelling period which is depicted as just a few unbearable minutes in the film. So how did she handle nearly a year of despair?
“You just have to get on with life, there’s no alternative,” Gun says. “You could curl up in a ball on your bed, but that’s not going to achieve anything. And of course there were days I felt like doing that and maybe did do that. But you do just get up and go through the motions and try and make that day count for something.”
To keep herself occupied, Gun started a master’s degree. And which subject did she choose to study? “Global ethics,” she laughs knowingly.
During all of this, the war in Iraq – the very thing Gun had set out to stop – began. On 20 March 2003, the US and UK military invaded the country. Her defence lay in proving that the ongoing war was illegal, and that she was trying to expose wrongdoing. Her case was so strong that the prosecution dropped charges against her, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the war was officially ruled as an unlawful fight.
“It was sort of bittersweet,” she says of that moment, six years after she was on trial. “[The leak] was a failure on many levels. The only consolation I can really gain from the whole experience is that that exposure of the email prevented the UN from giving the US and the UK approval.”
Maybe it was a failure. That might explain how Gun has gone on to live a relatively normal life, moving to Turkey to be close to her husband’s family, raising a child, rather than becoming an Edward Snowdon character. “I wouldn’t describe myself as an activist” she says. However, she did change the way people relate to politics, and the leak “undermined all the institutions that we used to hold dear” to put it in her own words.
There’s a real potency to Gun’s tale of truth-telling in our world of social media and fake news. Nowadays, everyone can invent their own news – and call out stories – on social media, and it’s changed the way we interact with headlines. What does Gun make of this shift in behaviour?
“I think it’s important for people to find that truth and follow through on it,” she says matter-of-factly. “We’re living in a society where there’s a cacophony of noise and opinion. It’s all of very ephemeral and neither here nor there. I think there’s a danger of people becoming blasé [about information] but at the end of the day, truth and reality matters. If we could just get the facts straight, then you can start to have an opinion on the matter.”