Whistleblower as Celebrity

There have been many famous whistleblowers in our time but few have stood out and made a stir in celebrity culture: that being Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Assange is known for the website ‘Wikileaks’, which allows for anonymous sources to leak information about their workplace and government. Edward Snowden is known for releasing NSA documents that prove the US have been intercepting and spying on citizens’ private information, such as their web searches, text messages and phone calls. Chelsea Manning is known for leaking thousands of documents to Wikileaks, including a video of American soldiers killing innocent civilians during the Iraq war.

To recap briefly, today Edward Snowden is in exile in Russia, where he is safe to stay until 1st August 2017 under the rule of the Russian government who offered him asylum for three years. Assange is in exile in the Ecuador Embassy in London. He has a warrant for arrest against him in Sweden for rape allegations and fears if he returns to Sweden he will be sent to America to face charges under the Espionage act. This act is a WWI era statute that is meant for spies, not whistleblowers, who give information to the press, one that imprisoned Chelsea Manning. The act does not allow for a ‘public interest’ defence, which has been crucial to the whistleblowers of our time. In fact the public interest has been so vast, many films and documentaries have been made about them such as ‘We Steal Secrets: Wikileaks’, ‘Citizen Four’, ‘The Fifth Estate’, ‘Wiki Rebels’, ‘Mediastan’, ‘The Snowden Files’ and the 2016 blockbuster ‘Snowden’. Members of the public hold rallies in whistleblowers defence and well-established charities, such as Amnesty International, create campaigns to persuade President Obama to pardon them.

It is important to point out that Assange isn’t actually a whistleblower at all; he is more a provider for them and should be known for his hacker abilities. He acts most like a celebrity, perhaps from his own desire of rock stardom. The culture that surrounds celebrities can have its bright and much darker sides. Take Kim Kardashian as a nuanced example of these darker shades of being famous and the recent news of when she was gagged, tied up and dumped in a bathtub in her hotel in Paris as thieves stole £7 million of jewellery. This news spread like wildfire, and the Internet had no sympathy, sending her death threats and treating her inhumanely, as if her fame, which separates her and celebrities like her from the rest of the population, makes people unable to empathise. We are seeing this more and more with whistleblowers too. It is as if the limelight casts a shadow on what they risked for truth and justice and highlights who they are as people, which is hugely unimportant.

But the difference between whistleblowers and celebrities is that whistleblowers are not meant to be particularly interesting as people; the essential issue is what they have achieved on behalf of democracy. They proved so influential in their achievements that a Swedish Newspaper nominated Manning, Assange and Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. There is a website called ‘chelseamanning.org’ where 50 plus celebrities show public support of her. Amongst the celebrities that support Chelsea are Vivienne Westwood, Russel Brand and MIA, who see her as a truth teller and believe their status, as cultural figures, will help to free her. Are whistleblowers themselves cultural figures? What is the difference between a whistleblower and a celeb? They’re both on TV, both followed, both written about, both have fans and stalkers, films and documentaries are made for them or about them, both groups are constantly in the public eye and all try to keep an element of privacy.

What is dangerous however is the more a whistleblower transforms into a celebrity, what they did and why they’re famous becomes second place, forgotten.

Snowden is called a “computer geek” in the media yet there is an action film coming out about him. It’s a Jason Bourne-style thriller with a very exaggerated role of the real Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who was said to spend time with Snowden when he was cast and felt honoured to play him. Snowden is portrayed as superhero-type in the film, with a scene where he finishes an aptitude test, which normally takes 5 hours, in 38 minutes. This scene represents Superman tendencies, such as flicking through a book in a number of seconds to gain all the knowledge. It’s entertaining and it's Hollywood but is it true to the sincerity of whistleblowing? Manning has tried to commit suicide; she’s facing solitary confinement and has 30 plus years in jail. There’s nothing ‘super’ about that.

‘Snowden’, which has yet to reach British cinemas, received mixed reviews. No one thought to ask what Snowden himself thought of the movie, it’s as if a film about him, with his name as the title, holds more worth. Snowden has been morphed into a celebrity without his consent. Julian Assange too was morphed when his cartoon lookalike appeared on The Simpsons. Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth’s co-founder is releasing a special cassette of his new single ‘Chelsea’s Kiss’, named after Chelsea Manning with the proceeds going to Manning’s support network to pay her legal fees. All these instances, which blur the line between whistleblowing and celebrity, were nothing to do with the whistleblowers themselves. Whistleblowers have values; there is no entertainment factor. It’s just them and their opinion. In that sense, they could be viewed as the purest celebrity as they inspire people for what they did first hand.

This elevated celebrity culture causes real people, behind the media coverage, the fans and the fame to be dehumanised. The reason why Kim Kardashian, our celebrity example, is famous is obscured and irrelevant. What audiences forget is that they’re human just like anyone else. It is easy to get wrapped up in the media coverage; there are allegations in some news outlets saying Snowden isn’t even a whistleblower, but a liar and a spy. The general public can get wrapped up in celeb culture to the point where they forget the real heroes, like Manning, and the reason why they were famous in the first place. It is here that we find the lines are blurred between whistleblower and celebrity, one releases serious allegations that sentence them to 35 years in prison, whilst the other is a cultural fad with riches that would do anything to keep their celebrity status. All Snowden, Assange and Manning wanted or believed in was freedom of speech. Whistleblowers should be celebrated not celebrities.

Words by Maisie Florence Post