My girlfriend, Woodstock, has a name for films like this. A private joke, it takes some unpacking but I suspect that many couples might have their own name for something similar: this is a Psí film. Gloss: she calls me dog, Pes, and this is a "dog film". This means whatever she wants it to mean at the time, I suppose, but there are a couple of types of films and series that fit. One might be typified by All the President's Men. Here we see one or two men (it probably shouldn't be more) fighting against something bigger than them which they might equally have chosen not have bothered themselves with. Not The Rock and Jason Statham kind of fighting, mind you - not that I would know what that even is - though a bit of bare knuckle action might not be misplaced if they get themselves into the wrong kind of trouble by dint of their attitude towards authority, their inability to quit chewing on that bone &c. The Post makes it into this category by a whisker, Chernobyl by a country mile. I say men. Woodstock will tend to describe it this way and it is true that unreasonable men tend to feature. In fact, Silkwood is a Psí film, as is Erin Brockovich, though less so. It is not so much politics per se, then, as the operation of power, and often the abstruse maneuverings of institutions and shady characters. In the purest kind of Psí film Woodstock doesn't feel the tension at all: what are they so excited about? So, what's the big deal right now? Etc. Things happen that you don't much notice unless you read too many broadsheets at the very least, or, better, know something about how they get put together. Still, if she doesn't always get the appeal, this first style of Psí film is at least structured with tension and resolution in mind and might even - on the Spielberg side of things - offer up the promise of a karmic pay off or a victory of sorts, however Pyrrhic it may be. Then though there is a more earnest documentary type of Psí film of which Vietnam by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick may be the only example Woodstock cares to know. She indulges the former type now and again, and sends me off on my own to watch the latter.
Left to my own devices in Britain for a month or two in the lead up to Brexit, I watched a handful of Psí films, neglecting almost entirely for days at a stretch the need for self-care, for anything approaching R&R. Of these, she might have got on best with Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo, which doesn't hold back on the realities of war though it frames it in a more domestic story of human interest; it also suggests the presence of a number of strong women even if it does not follow them for long. And then having by now survived God knows how many Psí monologues about surveillance capitalism and Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, she would surely have tolerated Netflix's The Big Hack, which has a characteristically Netflixy sheen to it in the way the most Psí reportage in the New Yorker has a certain fey elegance, a witty cosmopolitan turn of phrase to take the edge off. In my first week or two back in Britain I watched all of the films of Laura Poitras and fancy I might still persuade her to watch Citizenfour. Given that, in Prague, she had watched the whole series of Chernobyl in the space of a couple of days and had found it quite as enthralling as I had, texting me excitedly no sooner than she had seen the leader of the miners ('What a man!'), and saying something fairly Psí when a couple of her friends had gone next door after a couple of minutes, declining to watch any more, something to the effect that it was a duty, more or less to watch it, it would seem that she has travelled pretty much as far as she was likely to in this direction. With all this in mind, Alex Gibney's No Stone Unturned, is the kind of film I wouldn't even throw in to a list of possibilities in the hope she might go for it sooner or later. It's not merely the fact of how I came to it, via Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room! The film covers the paramilitary murder of six men in a pub in the small village of Loughinisland, County Down, Northern Ireland during The Republic of Ireland's unlikely victory over Italy in the World Cup.
There will undoubtedly be people who feel I ought to have an animus against Alex Gibney for his work on We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. I'll lose points with some for not having a nuanced point-by-point stance on the film and what it means in terms of our necessary fight against state surveillance, the control over information, and the manipulation of the narrative regarding those who oppose the above. Now that Julian Assange is wherever he is, now that he is going wherever he will be going, and since I have seen what appears to be grounds to believe that, on the subject of Assange, prominent investigative journalists who are involved in very significant stories, and the equally prominent news organisations they work for, have been fed misinformation concerning Assange, it is quite possible that Alex Gibney got owned when he tried to take on that story. Did he get owned to the degree that it's not worth watching the film? I don't know but suppose not. It's been some time since I watched it and though it's certain I knew more about it then than I do now, I don't have the time or the consistency of motivation for the kind of concerted research that would be necessary to give me any confidence that I was on the right track and, honestly, when it comes to navigating the flows of misinformation we are talking about on such an issue where anything approaching hybrid warfare or advanced state information campaigns might be involved, it is intellectually as challenging as it is physically challenging to navigate a grade 5 stretch of water in a kayak; the difference is that the chances of death increase exponentially the more you get it right. Whatever we are to make of any of that, we might be able to state without fear of contradiction that at the time Gibney was making the film (having set out to make a documentary about the World Cup itself), the flows of information relating to Northern Ireland had slowed almost to a Grade 1 trickle. We might, but that Brexit, the reason Woodstock would likely pass on this film, has made all of this so dangerously topical again that it may be a long time before anything might be stated about the unfortunate land without contradiction or wider dispute.
No Stone Unturned has one thing in common with Welcome to Sarajevo and that is the feeling it gives the viewer that the difference between a functional, if perhaps drab, society, and a war-zone, a situation of constant or intermittent but at all events palpable state of conflict, is no greater nor any less banal than the difference between a functional marriage and a rancorous divorce. As different as these places may be, they share the fate of being situated a certain distance from the European periphery. Are they European? Yes and no, and yes then no then yes. Yes when it suits. Yes when they must be made an example of, or when their history can be offered up as a motivational narrative, a warning, or a politician's version of Jerry Springer's Final Thought. The yeses tend to be explicit and infrequent, the nos more regular and most often implicit; it's more a state of being forgotten, of being, when noticed at all, spoken of, spoken for, and never spoken to. In Sarajevo the fighting was intensive, compressed, lasting a few years; in Northern Ireland it was periodic, playing out over decades. Violence, though never wholly unexpected, comes out of the blue. A journalist picks up the phone, excited about the match. The win will be all over the newspapers. No it won't, he is told. Six innocent men were killed in a bar as they watched. And of course it had been too good to be true. A quiet village in Northern Ireland is not a quiet village in the North of England and nobody there ever fully forgets that.
All of this was soon to change. On 15th December The Joint Declaration of Peace was issued by John Major, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Albert Reynolds, then Taoiseach. The Loughinisland massacre would be all but forgotten. The car abandoned in a field. The weapons, Czechoslovakian vz. 58 assault rifles. The masked men in boiler suits. The civilian targets. The tit for tat back and forth. The rumours of that dread word, collusion. Everything about the attack was a tragic cliche belonging to a time everybody was trying to put behind them.
The title comes from a promise. No stone will be left unturned in investigating the attack. Tragic cliche: this was a lie. Gibney's film is what happens when, twenty years later, somebody turns up without a horse in the race upending the stones and seeing what comes crawling out and what scuttles quickly back into the shadows. One of the things we discover is the truth of a proverb the people of the Czech Republic are not alone in claiming for their own, that a fish stinks from the head down.
Is it a good film? It is, and it certainly leaves the viewer in no doubt about some of the moral difficulties the state and its apparatus was confronted with in the period, the times they were tested, and some of the times and some of the ways they fell short of what we might hope or expect of them. So too do we see, and through just one of the countless atrocities (many of which will inevitably remain undocumented) how the past... isn't. Not for the victims' families. Not for the survivors. Not for the perpetrators, still working in the area, living next door to the children and the partners of people they have killed. England has been on its own magical mystery tour of an imagined past for some years now. Northern Ireland has been living the real deal.
Of course, it is not an easy watch. If it were a book, it might be called put-downable, a slog. I watched it in short sprints, sometimes days apart, dipping in and out. I do this often, but needed it here.
And so did I find the film shocking? I might have had I not once spent countless hours researching a novel (another unwritten novel!) which touched on the conflict in Northern Ireland. It was summer, I suppose, 2014, and I watched films, read books, watched documentary series, including the trilogy of documentary series Provos, Loyalists, and Brits, filmed by Peter Taylor for the BBC from 1997 when Sinn Fein entered those historical all party talks. I remember reading Big Boys' Rules by Mark Urban, the story of the the SAS in Northern Ireland back in Prague in 2004 and reading it again ten years later. Were it not for that, I would not have been completely in the dark. I might ask how could I have been but that I have learned in time to understand that most people know, even choose to know, as little about many areas of politics as I have always known about football or cricket. That is reasonable enough. For me, despite the way I talk about Psí films sometimes, it's not purely some Kantian notion of 'duty' that drives me to watch them. I enjoy something about some of this stuff. Sometimes it's a perverse kind of enjoyment and, naturally, with a film like this it's not enjoyment at all - it's very far from that - but there is nevertheless some mental challenge or struggle to understand, something which, whether I might choose to change it or to at least turn it down a fraction here and there if I could, is tangled up in who I am and how I interact with the world. I could not have brought myself to watch a game of football like I watched this film. Not unless it were between Russia and Czechoslovakia in 1968 or some such backdrop of the international political reality. For all that though, the question - how could I not know something about this? - remains legitimate, repeats on me. I could, after all, name a lot of football clubs and a handful of players from the years I was growing up. I read Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and Tim Parks' A Season With Verona. I could tell you, relatively speaking, which clubs had been doing well and which had not. And then I remember just how often Northern Ireland and the Troubles was on the news when I was growing up. There was a mortar attack on a sitting Prime Minister during a cabinet discussion of the Gulf War. There were countless bombings. Public events were regularly disrupted or contingency plans explicitly made on account of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. A supergrass in 1999 revealed that the IRA had been behind the famous theft of a racehorse. There was an attempt on Margaret Thatcher's life. There was the regular unreality of actors speaking the words of representatives of the banned-from-the-airways Sinn Fein on the national news. Howard Marks mixed with the IRA when smuggling cannabis. Weren't we all surrounded by this stuff? My parents were Irish. My father had spent the first fifteen years of his life living a handful of miles from the border in county Donegal. They had met in Birmingham in the 1970s. My mother had heard at least one of the blasts when, on 21st November, 1974, bombs exploded in two public houses in the city, killing 21 people, and injuring 182. They once said it was the anti-Irish feeling in the city that prevented their giving us Irish names. I am autistic and rather particular about facts. I studied politics at university. But for all that I admit to sharing my parent's incredulity about how little many or indeed most English people know about Northern Ireland. How could all of this be missed?
And so here's a question: can you watch this film, knowing little or nothing about all of this, and come away informed? No. Not by a long stretch. And not because of any perceptible fault in the documentary that I could lay out in measured logic, nor even because that could not be true of any documentary film taking on any worthy subject, whether it be Citizenfour or We Steal Secrets or The Big Hack, but rather because this is the story of one tragedy. If the story of the film, inevitably the myth of the film, the stuff of press releases, is to be believed, this is one incident picked up more or less at random, and certainly by accident. The story of the Troubles, now that would take some telling, and I'm certain that I could find a hundred people, each of them having researched this one subject for years, decades of their lives, and they might each lay out for me a different fault in even the hours long trilogy Provos, Loyalists, and Brits, or any of the books I had read on this topic. But watching this now seeded a different question in my mind. One relating, of course, to Brexit. How much would be enough to know about the Troubles, to begin to make informed decisions touching upon the fate and the realities of the province?
On this point, I differ from most people I meet, especially in the Czech Republic. Psí films and newspapers and conversations about what is going on in the world are not all about duty, and yet I am a republican in instincts. I believe that if we do not know what is going on in the world, if we do not inform ourselves about decisions made in our name, if we do not call people to account, we inevitably lose our freedoms. I believe too that, in Britain, in the United States, in the Czech Republic and the V4 countries, people have taken freedom for granted for too long. I believe that whether it is Andrej Babiš or Boris Johnson or Donald Trump or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin who is attempting to shape your country in their image, you ought to know who they are and who they surround themselves with, and what is happening to the institutions between you and them. Chernobyl is part of the history of the Czech Republic whether its citizens like it or not; it may for the moment be a part of the European Union but over half of its Czechoslovakian pre-history was communist and the man who did as much as anybody - if through miscalculation - to end that period, Mikhail Gorbachev, views Chernobyl as perhaps the real reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. When I express irritation that intelligent, educated Czechs can be so dismissive of that history as to walk out on a cinematic reconstruction of those events after as little as ten minutes, or when I am staggered at how little a typical Czech of my generation understands of twentieth century history, I am expressing a belief about citizenship. The same can be said of Northern Ireland in Britain. Now others may draw the line of active citizenship somewhere else but if I might play it down when talking to people who believe instead that the duty of a true Englishman or even a Brit should be more in the line of watching the Ashes or supporting their local football club, I think something like watching this film would be the least anybody could do to understand what is an essential part of Britain's broadly post-colonial history. Skip an episode of Downton Abbey or Peaky Blinders or two, maybe forfeit Gary Oldman as Churchill and try instead to grapple with what the fuss was about when, in the mid nineteen nineties, peace was secured in Northern Ireland and, thereby, in the British mainland where the greatest number of terrorist deaths have been caused by a nominally christian sectarian dispute.
A lot of this belief is about where we are now. Watching The Post, and stopping it occasionally to field questions and explain the background and the significance, I couldn't help but editorialise about the difference between how it was then and how it is now. Daniel Ellsberg considers Edward Snowden a hero. "Leaks", he says, "are the lifeblood of the republic." Those of us who still have an anachronistically maximalist notion of what duties citizenship confers upon us, or what public interest journalism ought to mean, could talk for hours about what it meant in 2013 when Edward Snowden's archive was entrusted to a number of newspapers versus what it meant when Daniel Ellsberg took his photocopies to The New York Times. What is certain is that, in 1971 those feuding newspapers hit the streets, it meant something. It meant something for the war in Vietnam. It meant something for Richard Nixon. If the subtext of Chernobyl is what dangers secretive government and unaccountable decision making meant for all of us, The Post and the supporting roles played in it by the Supreme Court, by newspaper owners, by reporters, whistleblowers, and, not least of all, by newspaper readers, engaged citizens, is what it looks like when democratic scrutiny works. We are, I would argue, a long way from that now.
Admittedly, this is a high bar. I will come to defend it in a moment. Meanwhile though, let's look how far from achieving it we are. Because whatever we think of the above as a notional minimal for engaged citizenship - and many of you will be irritated by it or think it absurd, an example of hairshirt progressivism or an intellectual's condescending attitude to football fans and people who would rather enjoy their lives - we must surely demand at least that of politicians. How are they standing up?
I have watched documentaries and films on Northern Ireland secretaries such as Mo Mowlam. They took risks and made compromises, but most in my lifetime knew what they were getting into. Mo Mowlam's is a tragic story more than worthy of cinematic treatment but even the incumbency of a Peter Mandelson had its moments. This, meanwhile, is a quote from the last but one, one Karen Bradley, talking to House Magazine a year after Gibney's film was released: "I didn't understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland - people who are nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice-versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community." She was born in 1970. I will never be able to fathom this level of ignorance. It simply does not compute. Leading Brexiter, Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, has dismissed the notion that visiting Northern Ireland might give him some insight about the issues affecting the people there. He can understand all he needs by studying it, he says, or by speaking to the Conservative electoral partners, the hard-line Unionist DUP. Current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has been known to compare the border in Northern Ireland to a border between two London boroughs.
Johnson and those around him would close down parliament to secure the Brexit he claims the people demanded in the referendum in 2016, though the logic imputed to the rather opaque binary result of the question posed in the summer of 2016, has unfathomably gathered in specificity for such people over the years. They have a habit of declaring those who disagree with their interpretation of the referendum result as saboteurs, even describing them as anti-democratic. Sometimes I am myself irritated by the high-minded tone of remainers, their tendency to talk down to people. Many of the people who voted to leave in 2016 had been ignored by the mainstream parties for decades. They knew it. Their rejection of the technocrats and the bureaucrats and the polyglots is pretty understandable for anybody with a passing knowledge of anywhere on the British periphery. Still, many or most people in the Conservative party know very well that David Cameron's promise of a referendum on an issue with so many technicalities and fiddly constitutional consequences was foolhardy at worst and, at best, that it rather recklessly overturned what had been a proud Conservative tradition of representative democracy.
"...it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." So said Edmund Burke in a speech to the electors of Bristol and whatever we may think of the famous unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, it is built around such statements.
I last came to Britain with Woodstock in the autumn of 2017. I met up with a former friend of mine and his probably-now wife, who works for GCHQ. The Czech Republic was awaiting the results of parliamentary elections which, as expected, would see the country drift further, fast, into the populist grouping of the European Union with strong gains for a far right party, the communists, and the overall winner, a party led by the country's second richest man, a former secret police informant who owns much of the country's media, a holding firm which controls much of the country's agricultural output, and says he wants to run the country like a company. I had been working on a novel I believed both to be important and more or less unmarketable, and I was generally pessimistic about the future. I had come to consider Prague my home and worried what Brexit would mean for it. I thought, furthermore, that the people of the Czech Republic did not have the skills of critical thinking or the motivation to sufficiently inform themselves. I said so. My old friend remarked that I have a low opinion of the people there. Perhaps that was so. But I tried to explain what I considered to be an important distinction. What makes a person a good person, a good friend, somebody you want to spend time with, hang out with, chat to, is something different from what makes that person a good citizen. This is especially the case in a low, dishonest age, at a time when the institutions have rotted, when the people in charge of the media do not believe in public interest journalism, when elected representatives do not believe it to be their duty, or to be in their interest, to tell the truth, and when powerful interests are invested in selling a lie and politicians ally themselves with lobbyists and digital strategists who excel at manipulation.
The power of the conservative case as represented by Burke is at its strongest in a country populated by people with principles. Where, that is, the classes and castes of people who work in newspapers and in journalism, in publishing, in politics, in the armed forces, in religious institutions, in education, &c. operate, broadly speaking, not merely in their own interest but based upon some notion of the common weal. The electorate then bring their own perspectives, their own experience to bear in choosing the best people, that is, honorable people, honest people, people who are willing and able to do the above. Those people then use their judgement. What this means, overall, is that it doesn't matter if the people understand every issue.
Boris Johnson has betrayed the people by telling them they can have their cake and eat it too. He is playing a dangerous game by playing down the difficulties involved not only in Brexit, but in the catastrophe of a no deal Brexit, in feeding the public lies and simplifications and, long after a serving MP was murdered by adherents of an extremist group, after others have been hounded and intimidated by aggressive groups of men who chant slogans and throw around words like "Nazi", he is throwing out the idea of mature judgement, enlightened conscience, and he is certainly shrugging off the responsibility of any consequences for the United Kingdom, for Northern Ireland, or anywhere else. Whatever anyone may think of the wisdom or otherwise of leaving the European Union, the means are at least as significant as the ends here, and for any of this to work in terms of governance, the very least we would need is for my idea of active citizenship to be commonly shared. At the time of the referendum, I do not believe this to have been the case with regards to the facts of membership of the European Union - the notorious spike in Google searches following the result would seem to bear this up - and still less with regards to Northern Ireland. A podcast on the Knowledge Gap linked to below would back this up.
Above, I talk about football, and seem to dismiss it. In actual fact, football clubs such as Bury FC, which is soon to be kicked out of the league as money, and global flows of money, and branding in a global marketplace, has become more important in the game, are an important part of civil society. A group of men meeting up in a local pub to watch a football game are important to the functioning of democracy whether or not they talk about anything else, though they probably will. In a piece entitled "Britain’s infrastructure is breaking down. And here’s why no one’s fixing it", Aditya Chakrabortty prominently discusses the British pub as part of its social infrastructure. One of the tragedies of the attack on that pub in Loughinisland that night was the hope that people can put into a football game, and the fact that at that moment and following that unlikely goal, it might have seemed that things were going well for the island of Ireland. People in that pub at that time might well have felt that for once they were in good hands. The paradox is that when politics is working, when society is working, you don't have to talk about politics.
To summarise, we get the representatives we deserve. At best. No Stone Unturned is one perspective on what the border in Northern Ireland has meant in the past. Watching it, the viewer gets a feeling of what is at stake when we talk of the imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. I am pessimistic and not for the first time; I fear that we are witnessing every single day precisely what it means to live not only in a country, but in an age, where all of our most important institutions have been corroded, where we have been led, for decades, by people who either believed that the public interest is best secured by our seeking our own selfish pursuits, or who simply did not care a damn about the public interest at all.
Sometimes the release of a film such as this spurs the authorities into action. Gibney writes in the New York Review of books how two producers of the film, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, had been arrested for the "theft" of classified documents: "Some 100 police officers, fully armed, had turned up at the homes of Birney and McCaffrey, and the offices of Birney’s company, to take them into custody and confiscate their computers and digital records—everything from company hard drives to personal cellphones." If the people are to be in the driver's seat from now on, they are going to have to fight a lot harder to be informed.