In a recent interview with Newsweek after the release of her film, Risk, the Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras asks “What is the motivation of the source?” as part of a reply to a question about a decision on what is newsworthy.
That should tell an observant reader one thing: Poitras may be 53, but she it still very naive. Every leak that ends up on the front or other pages of a publication, or on the TV screen, emanates from someone with an axe to grind. Perhaps one is looking for a business advantage and leaks some details about a rival. Or else, one may be from one political faction and looking to gain an advantage over a rival faction.
Or indeed it could be someone inside one political faction leaking against one’s own, in order to challenge for the leadership. Or it could be a person who has been jilted who is looking to gain revenge. But this is of no concern to a real journalist; the only point of debate for one in the journalism profession is whether it is newsworthy or not.
Poitras’ comment tells one that she is not really versed in the art of journalism, though her byline has appeared on some pretty big stories. She is uncertain about what makes up news.
It is this naivety that leads her to believe that people who are fighting for a cause have to be perfect. Which, in the main, accounts for the split that has arisen between her and WikiLeaks, after she violated the terms of an understanding under which she was allowed carte blanche to film Julian Assange and others who are part of WikiLeaks for the purpose of making a documentary.
(Poitras was involved with Jacob Appelbaum, a developer for the Tor project, and someone who has had a high profile in the security community. Appelbaum has been accused by multiple people of sexual harassment; whether Poitras was also harassed is unknown.)
But for someone who has any worldliness about them, it should be apparent that one cannot run an organisation like WikiLeaks and make it what has become, a thorn in the flesh of world powers, by being nice to all and sundry. One has to be mean, nasty, vicious and able to give as good as one gets. One has to be cunning, crafty, learned and willing to take risks. And one cannot be nice to everyone and still achieve as much as Assange has.
Poitras chose to release her final cut of Risk, the one that went to theatres in the US, as something that focuses on what she deems to be sexism in multiple communities: “It was important to me to look at not just allegations of abuse but the culture of sexism that exists not only within the hacker community but in other communities.”
She says, “I don’t see any incentive for any woman to make claims around abuse if they didn’t experience that”, without being aware that the two women who were pushed to make allegations about rape against Assange were not doing it of their own volition. It is a naive and emotional reaction to a situation where politics was the decisive factor.
There are some similarities to the situation that developed around Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel. Some women felt that he was too aggressive and abusive and tried to bring him down. They used similar arguments to that which Poitras has raised. Torvalds manages the kernel development team and is known for not beating around the bush when people screw up.
Poitras’ film has been released at a time when WikiLeaks is under great pressure. Now that the probe into Assange in Sweden has been dropped, he will be targeted by the US which is desperate to extradite him and try him for releasing footage of the Iraq war that showed exactly how barbaric US troops have been in Iraq.
Thus it is unlikely that Poitras will ever be allowed to film anything to do with Assange or WikiLeaks again. It also casts a shadow on her reputation as an unbiased observer.