#FrancisOnFilm: Brexit

24 January 2019

The British film Brexit, which premiered in the US on HBO on January 19th, flirts with a critical problem in the ethics of journalism: is it permissible to fill gaps in a story with fictionalized accounts of events? According to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists the answer is a resounding "no!" Seeking and reporting truth is the first principle of journalistic ethics; journalists are admonished never to "misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story."


But Brexit is not a documentary. It is a retelling, sometimes fictionalized, with a political point: that Britain's decision to depart from the EU was manipulated by strategic use of information gleaned from social media to personalize messages. The filmmakers' explicit goal, as reported to IndieWire, was to make the story "a digestible message" to a broad audience at a critical time.


Despite scattered disclaimers in the film, for those not in the know it might seem a compelling and accurate description of how Britain got into the messy situation it faces today. But there are demonstrable fictionalizations in the film, one of the most egregious being a scene in which the character of Dominic Cummings, the strategist for the "Leave" campaign (compellingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is presented as testifying before Parliament, when in reality he has refused to cooperate with Parliament's efforts to investigate whether the Leave campaign violated British privacy law in its use of personal data from social media accounts. And the film, perhaps in the interests of story-telling, presents what is at best a contestable account of what actually happened. According to a scathing review in The Daily Beast, Brexit misrepresents the Leave campaign's victory as resulting from its brilliant strategy rather than its demonstrated overspending in violation of British election law.


Do makers of films that fictionalize real events have obligations not to misrepresent in the interests of telling a good story, particularly when they aim to make a political point? The makers of Brexit have defended themselves by saying that they clearly indicate that the film is not a documentary and that they are not journalists. As close as the film comes to a truth claim is the statement in bold letters at the beginning that it is "based on the incredible true story." But with this statement the film comes very close to actively misleading the viewer. The film doesn't say that it tells a true story but it does encourage the viewer to think that there is a truth of the matter that it largely adopts. Moreover, it suggests to the audience that they should suspend their suspicion that some events are too incredible to be true.


On the other side, the Brexit film-makers clearly intend to contribute to the public debate at a critical historical moment. They use a particularly powerful medium to do so—that of film. They retell events that actually happened in ways that are just accurate enough to seem true and that can lead people to believe that they are true. These methods have been criticized for undermining democratic deliberation in many countries. They blur lines between what is news and what is not, and what is history and what is fiction. They contribute to the suspicion that there is no line between "fake" and "real" news. Perhaps of particular concern is that they do so at a point when history might actually be changed.


Brexit belongs to that category of films now called "docudramas"—films that retell events that actually happened. Some films in this genre mix archival footage with re-enactments in ways that are readily apparent to viewers. Others, like Brexit, retell the events in ways that may or may not be fully accurate and that reflect the viewpoints of the storytellers. Vice—the film about Vice President Cheney that garnered a Golden Globe award for Christian Bale in 2019 and has been nominated for several Academy Awards—is in a similar vein to Brexit.


Traditional newspapers have an outlet for journalists who wanted to present their interpretive spin on events: the editorial page and opinion columns. As newspapers give way to blogs, this line is being blurred too. But not every retelling is indistinguishable from recreating or fictionalizing and it seems to me that the directors of Brexit should have been more explicit that they were presenting some actual events in the context of a retelling that was in part fictionalized rather than presenting an account that might seem incredible but was based on "true"—that is, actual—events.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, January 26, 2019 -- 11:26 AM

I suppose it is obvious to

I suppose it is obvious to state that, oh well, it is just a movie. I have not seen it, and will not go out of my way to do so. Smoke and mirrors is pretty typical on the current world stage. That politics gets a bad rap is business-as-usual, so no one should be surprised by this. Fake news is just another symptom of disarray. Conscious human beings, who have seen misrepresentation and misdirection will be misled, only in so far as they lets themselves be caught up in something which corresponds to their personal and/or political view. Other minds are still being educated; still operating through trial-and-error;still trying to figure out what is worth paying attention to and what is not. The Dick Cheney story, itself, may be largely fake news, but even if it is not, it is OLD news, in the scheme of modern blitz news. In any case, lies are what they are. And if they are not actionable under law, censure or else wise, then they are nothing more than unfortunate synchronicities. Yeah, I believe in that Jungian precept because I have seen it myself. The experience gave me something else to think about. Eerily so. An end note, then: I have never before heard so much emphasis on 'making deals' in connection with government. How about that? Hey, even The Truman Show was just a movie---wasn't it?