Belfast Telegraph

Bad Korea move by Hollywood to buckle in face of Kim's threats

By Joan Smith

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.

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, 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an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, and the Guardians of Peace threatened a terrorist attack if the film was not withdrawn.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.

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.

In the Sony Pictures example, one of the few people who immediately grasped this fact was George Clooney. 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 10, 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.

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.

Sony could make a powerful argument that the threat against The Interview is a denial of free speech and invite cinemas in the US and Europe to show it simultaneously.

I'd be at the top of the queue to see it.

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