The Fifth Estate

Was Julian Assange a journalist or not? How transparent was he about his own motives? Journalism PhD student Rik Smit went to see The Fifth Estate.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tried to stop production of The Fifth Estate, a biopic about him, but he couldn’t do much from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he is currently living. The movie is now showing at Pathé and Journalism PhD student Rik Smit believes it raises questions about transparency.

To begin with, The Fifth Estate asks whether or not Assange is a journalist. ‘Journalism is first and foremost a business, so newspapers must make a profit. However, Assange’s website was free and accessible to everyone. The thing that journalists and Assange have in common is the fact that they are both seeking the truth. However, journalists don’t want the truth to harm people or put them in danger, and Assange wants full transparency, no matter what the consequences are.’

Rik Smit

PhD student Journalism Rik Smit / Photo Pepijn van den Broeke

Even though The Fifth Estate has a sentimental side showing Assange’s upbringing – he had an unstable childhood, moving house 30 times by the time he turned 14 – you can’t help but develop a negative impression of his personality. The movie shows him as a man who is difficult to work with and wants to claim all WikiLeaks victories as his.

‘I believe he can be vain at times, but mostly he is an idealist who believes in his cause. He truly wants people to have every bit of information, so it is very difficult to convince such a person that his way is not always the right one.’

Personal information

The Fifth Estate reveals that the documents which made Assange world news contained personal information about people, even their home addresses. That is something that journalists would never publish. However, journalists were happy to read and use the contents of the documents on WikiLeaks, so where do you draw the line?

‘Journalists are hemmed in by rules and conventions, but that is not a bad thing, since that way fewer people end up getting hurt. Assange made it very clear that he didn’t want to edit anything. He obtained his information by hacking and collecting, and published exactly what he found. This makes him a good hacker rather than a good journalist who claims responsibility for the information. Transparency versus ethics is a very important theme in this movie.’


WikiLeaks was more honest with its information than journalists will ever be, or so it claimed. ‘On the other hand, Assange had an agenda as well and wasn’t always that transparent himself.’ Assange’s accomplice, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, plays an important part in the movie because he questions the good that WikiLeaks is doing and ends up resigning. ‘After that, Assange started tweeting very negative things about Domscheit-Berg which were untrue. So how honest was Assange himself?’

WikiLeaks was a new information provider, but at the moment the website is very quiet. In the meantime new whistleblowers have arrived on the scene, like Edward Snowden. ‘Assange didn’t trust journalists and wanted a new way of giving people information. WikiLeaks was not hype; you will see websites like it cropping up time and time again. After all, a movie has just been made about it.’