The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Independent on Sunday, 21 December 2014

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew The Interview but it’s not too late for it to take a stand

There is something inherently ridiculous about dictators. For anyone born after the Second World War, it is hard not to laugh at old newsreels of Hitler, with his slicked-back hair and toothbrush moustache. It is equally tempting to tell jokes about the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who looks as if he’s been packed into a sausage skin – but only if you live outside the country and are not at risk of ending up in one of his horrific prison camps.

Kim may not have the power to drag us from our beds, but the FBI has accused North Korea of carrying out a cyber-attack on one of the most powerful companies in Hollywood. Sony Pictures Entertainment owns Columbia and TriStar, which between them made everything from the Spiderman movies to the critically acclaimed District 9. Columbia also produced Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial drama about the hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. So it’s all the more disappointing that Sony has been supine in the face of cyber-terrorism.

Over the past month, a group with a Stalinist-sounding name, the Guardians of Peace, has hacked and published embarrassing emails between senior Sony executives. Instead of recognising the potentially devastating effects of this cyber-attack, many news outlets responded like sniggering teenagers, gleefully reproducing unflattering assessments of well-known stars. A picture of Angelina Jolie rearing back from Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal was widely published.

It was less amusing if you happened to work for Sony and found your private medical information had been posted online. Some reports claim that the company’s computer systems were wiped out, temporarily destroying its ability to perform such basic tasks as paying staff. That would have been bad enough, but then the hackers upped the threat level. Their target was a movie called The Interview, a “comedy” about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, and the Guardians of Peace threatened a terrorist attack if the film was not withdrawn. Sony Pictures capitulated, cancelling the film’s Christmas release and claiming that the company had no choice because cinemas didn’t want to risk showing it.

Just about everyone, including Barack Obama, thinks Sony got it wrong, although the CEO, Michael Lynton, says the company has not backed down and hopes the film will still be shown. But it clearly felt isolated, turned into a laughing stock with little support from the industry or beyond. Like celebrities whose phones were hacked by tabloid newspapers in the UK, the company’s executives were treated to an outburst of victim-blaming that completely ignored the illegality of the cyber-attack and its terrifying implications. If hackers can do this to a film studio, what’s to stop them doing it to an airline or a hospital?

Privacy has had a bad press in recent years, thanks to organisations such as WikiLeaks. The argument that everything should be out in the open is little more than an adolescent spasm: would you like your medical records or your complete financial history published online? I don’t think many people would argue that desperate negotiations to free hostages should be carried out in full public view, but they take a more lenient view when someone’s dashed-off emails are stolen and published on websites. Hacking confidential information is a crime, whether it’s done via mobile phones or the internet.

In the Sony Pictures example, one of the few people who immediately grasped this fact was George Clooney, who accused “a good portion of the press” of abdicating its duty. He accused journalists of behaving “frivolously”, an apt description for articles that amounted to little more than exclaiming, “Wow! Look what Amy Pascal said about Leonardo DiCaprio!” Clooney also revealed that he tried to get his peers in the film industry to sign a petition backing Sony against the hackers, but every single person he approached refused. I couldn’t help comparing this behaviour unfavourably with that of the Hollywood Ten, a group of prominent writers and directors accused of communist sympathies, who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s.

There is an irony here: Hollywood is famous for action movies in which rugged male actors take on terrorists, aliens and dictators. Faced with a credible threat to the industry’s commercial viability, most of them were too scared even to sign a piece of paper. It’s as if Hollywood has only just discovered what human-rights campaigners have known for a very long time: dictators are nasty people and Kim Jong-un is one of the worst of the current crop. That isn’t a reason to avoid making films about North Korea, but you have to be prepared for the consequences.

It’s also an opportunity to think again about freedom of expression, a subject that causes a great deal of confusion these days. I’ve worked with writers from all over the world who have suffered for claiming this fundamental human right, facing imprisonment, exile, even death. It’s about telling the truth, exposing corruption and challenging abuse of power; it emphatically isn’t about hacking commercial information or publishing nude photos to embarrass female celebrities.

Even now, it isn’t too late for Sony Pictures to change its mind. The long history of attempts to censor controversial books and films offers a way forward: when Penguin faced death threats after publishing The Satanic Verses, a group of British publishers got together and brought out Salman Rushdie’s book in paperback, sharing the risk. Sony could make a powerful argument that the threat against The Interview is a denial of free speech, invite cinemas in the US and Europe to show it simultaneously, and offer an indemnity against claims in the unlikely event of a terrorist attack.

I’d be at the top of the queue to see it. It doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I don’t want my choice of movies controlled by dictators or cyber-terrorists.

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