Sony, the White House, and 10 Downing Street: What’s the Quid Pro Quo?

BrokenHollywoodLots of ugly things crawled out of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s emails leaked by hackers this past autumn.

The leak of emails and intellectual property, including then-unreleased film The Interview, was labeled “a serious national security matter” by the White House. In January this year, President Obama issued an executive order increasing sanctions against North Korea, the purported origin of the hack on SPE’s network and computers.

Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony Corporation, a Japanese multinational conglomerate. In offering retaliation on behalf of SPE, the White House placed SPE on par with critical U.S. infrastructure, though no one will be physically injured or die should SPE be hacked again, and the market won’t collapse if SPE loses money on all its movies this year.

If SPE, a foreign-owned, information security-challenged entertainment firm, is now entitled to military protection against cyberattack, what is it the White House and the U.S. will receive or has received in exchange?

What’s the exchange in this quid pro quo?

Which brings us to the matter of STARZ’ cable series, Outlander, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron‘s government.

In 2013, STARZ network ordered the 16-episode adaptation of bestselling historical fiction novel, Outlander by author Diana Gabaldon, from production companies Tall Ship Productions, Story Mining & Supply Co., and Left Bank Productions, in association with Sony Pictures Television.

While STARZ was the U.S. distributor, offering the series on its own cable network, SPE’s TV arm appears to have handled overseas distribution to broadcast, cable, and video streaming services.

Outlander’s cross-genre narrative is set mainly in 1740s Scotland; the story is sympathetic to a Scottish protagonist and his time-traveling English wife who are caught between the British and Jacobites in the ramp up to the 1746 Battle at Culloden. The Scottish people and countryside are treated favorably in the series’ production.

The program debuted on STARZ in the U.S. on August 9 last year — a little less than six weeks before Scotland’s independence referendum (“IndyRef”). Outlander began airing in Canada and Australia in August also, and in October in Ireland after the IndyRef vote.

Distribution deals in other countries including Germany, Hungary, Japan, and the Netherlands led to wider release overseas last year.

But Outlander never received a distribution deal in 2014 in the UK, in spite of its many Scottish and British fans’ clamor and the source book’s status as a renewed bestseller in advance of the show’s U.S. debut. To date the series has only released on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK, for paid video-on-demand streaming — not on broadcast or cable.

At least one email leaked by hackers revealed that SPE personnel had a meeting or meetings with Cameron’s government. In an internal email from Keith E. Weaver, executive vice president, SPE executives were told,

“Your meeting with Prime Minister Cameron on Monday will likely focus on our overall investment in the U.K. – with special emphasis on the jobs created by Tommy Cooper [the ITV show], the importance of Outlander (i.e., particularly vis-a-vis the political issues in the U.K. as Scotland contemplates detachment this Fall), and the growth of our channels business…”

The implication is that SPE would suppress any effort to distribute Outlander to the benefit of Cameron’s anti-independence position, in exchange for “growth of our channels business…”

What exactly does this mean?

And is the pursuit of growth confined to SPE, or did “channels business” mean something else? Were Sony executives also looking for opportunities for Sony Corporation, which includes Sony Computer Entertainment, Sony Music Entertainment, Sony Mobile Communications (once known as Sony Ericsson), and Sony Financial?

Did SPE executives and the Prime Minister agree not to seek broadcast or cable distribution Outlander in the UK before this month’s election?

It’s bad enough that SPE may have mislead Outlander’s other production companies as well as author Gabaldon, who believed that a UK distribution deal was being sought as of last summer.

But this sustained suppression of content based on historic fact, to reduce friction against Cameron’s government, is beyond the pale.

Think about it: Was Cameron so worried about the outcome of not only Scotland’s independence referendum, but his Conservative Party’s performance in this week’s upcoming UK election, such that he negotiated a deal with a U.S.-supported Japanese-owned entertainment company to suppress a cable television series featuring a positive Scottish sentiment?

Recall what SPE president Michael Lynton said about the theatrical release of The Interview this past Christmas:

‘‘We have never given up on releasing ‘The Interview,’’’ Lynton said in a statement Tuesday. ‘‘While we hope this is only the first step of the film’s release, we are proud to make it available to the public and to have stood up to those who attempted to suppress free speech.’’

Apparently SPE’s okay with trampling creators’ free speech provided there’s a quid pro quo negotiated in the Queen’s English with a foreign government.

The undisclosed quid pro quos may explain, though, why Sony Corporation hasn’t booted SPE president Lynton out on his ass. One would think that a business whose core product is digitized intellectual property would have placed more resources and effort on information security, rather than spending $20 million a year on membership fees to the Motion Picture Association of America for lobbyists protecting their intellectual property rights. And one would think that a major failure like the 2014 email hack would have resulted in an executive purge at SPE.

Having kept Lynton on board, what exactly did parent Sony Corporation get out of the hack, or out of negotiations with UK’s PM David Cameron?

But go one step further: Do the other major film studios and their parent corporations also enter quid pro quos with governments to suppress intellectual property in exchange for undisclosed benefits?

And will Sony and its subsidiaries, along with the other major film studios and their parents, seek more quid pro quo arrangements from within U.S. government-established and protected Information Sharing and Analysis Organizations, as outlined by President Obama’s Executive Order 13691, signed after increasing sanctions against North Korea?

5 replies
  1. Alan says:

    Some comments on the Scottish aspects of this:
    1. These deals between the British establishment and the media are par for the course. The difference here was that it was secret censorship but this would hardly be shocking news to most Brits. This sort of behavior is assumed if it isn’t obviously going on. A thriving alternative online media has developed in Scotland as the mainstream media are widely perceived as corrupt and biased. See coverage of this phenomenon here. Some of these alternative sites such as Wings focus on exposing the corruption of the traditional media. There’s also a parody site of BBC Scotland. The BBC are widely perceived as biased in Scotland. You can see the former leader of the SNP exposing this sort of corruption in an exchange with one of the BBC’s star political correspondents here
    2. More than anything else the discussion with Sony shows Cameron’s tin ear when it comes to the Scottish electorate (which is of course why many Scots have increasing detested Westminster politics since the 1970s–they are ignored). He’s an idiot if he thinks a movie about fictitious events set in the 18th C. would have affected the outcome of the Indyref. The Scots don’t vote for the Tories because most of them hated Thatcher. And the SNP have become popular because Labour, the traditional alternative to the Tories in Scotland, are increasing perceived as Tory-lite. Scottish nationalism isn’t a cultural nationalism. Most Scots want to puke every time a media story mentions the movie Braveheart in connection with Scottish politics. Scottish nationalism is a civic nationalism. It’s a desire for social democracy. It has arisen and grown in strength in reaction to the neoliberal policies of Thatcherism and Blairism and the concentration of wealth and power in south-east England. (And there are plenty of English people in England who have common cause with the SNP on these grounds.)
    3. The only reason Cameron cared about the union is that he didn’t want to be remembered as the PM who lost Scotland. Immediately after the Indyref was over he started using Scotland to stoke English nationalism (“English votes for English laws!”). He saw the sort-term opportunity to damage Labour in Scotland and reduce their overall seat count in the national election and went for it. If he was really stupid enough to believe that the movie would affect voting patterns he would have gone back to Sony and begged them to release it before May 7th given his about turn.
    4. None of this matters all that much. A majority of Scots are fed up with the three traditional UK parties: Conservatives (Tories), Labour, and the Liberal Democrats.  The polls suggest the SNP will jump from their current 6 seats in the UK parliament in Westminster to close to a clean sweep of all 59 Scottish seats. None of the UK parties are listening to voters north of the border and, worse, are calling into question the legitimacy of SNP MPs likely to be elected by the Scots–so much for democracy. The latter is all with the intent of stoking English nationalism and capturing key swings seats in England. Before the Indyref the message of the unionist parties was “Scotland is an important partner in the union and has an important role to play”; after it was over and the vote was won, it was back to “STFU and do what you are told”.
    5. Everything that held the UK together in the past has gone. Unless there is some sort of major structural change after the election the UK will come apart. There probably needs to be further devolution, some sort of federal system, and probably some type of proportional representation (latter already exists for the devolved Scottish parliament). Given the current leadership of the three main UK parties–their naked self-interestedness, opportunism and small-mindedness–this seems unlikely.
    6. There are significant implications for the US. The SNP do not want to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent (and want it out of Scotland) and are opposed to the UK backing up America’s foreign military adventures.

    • Rayne says:

      1) “…deals between the British establishment and the media are par for the course…but this would hardly be shocking news to most Brits.”

      Tell that to UK #Outlander fans, who sincerely believed a UK distribution deal was in the offing since summer 2014. If this was par for the course with ENTERTAINMENT content, these numerous fans who’ve been waiting for an adaptation since early 1990s didn’t think so.

      Many fans also saw BBC’s NEWS coverage leading up to #IndyRef as deliberately misleading—little different from what we see in U.S. with Fox, and what they’ve come to expect with NEWS content given the influence of Rupert Murdoch.

      But ENTERTAINMENT content, based on historical fiction about events 200 years ago? Come on. Something else was going on here.

      2) A: Cameron’s tin ear — no, this is a case where he can hear just fine, he and the Conservative party know their political grip is and has been tenuous. Negotiating with Sony was a desperate move to preserve the unity vote in September, and the general election now.

      B: “Most Scots want to puke every time a media story mentions the movie Braveheart in connection with Scottish politics.” That’s because Braveheart was a maudlin piece of shite, a corruption of historical materials tacked over a narrative. That said, there are some Scots who are pleased that Braveheart did revive interest in Scottish history and politics, even if the movie was crap.

      3) I don’t think Cameron gives a shit about his legacy. It’s about other, much, MUCH bigger issues than Cameron’s massively uninflatable ego.

      4) “None of this matters all that much,” you say, and then proceed with this and two more points.

      If the SNP wins the seats projected by Five Thirty-Eight, they can make or break either Conservatives or Labor by voting as a bloc, assuming Conservatives and Labor also win nearly identical numbers of seats at ~270-280 each. Conservatives and Labor would then prove they are Labor-lite or Conservative-lite by negotiating with each other to overcome the SNP bloc. They’d literally do SNP’s promotional work for them. The only real risk to SNP right now is not sticking together — and more bullshit misinfo/disinfo from whichever party is in 10 Downing Street.

      The three biggest issues at stake as far as the global deep state is concerned: North Sea oil drilling and revenues, Trident, and RSB. If the Scots were to try another independence referendum, should Conservatives and Labor continue privatization and austerity measures while ignoring Scots, the 5-6% swing vote might vaporize. And then what would become of oil money, the nukes, and RSB+other UK banksters’ reliance on Scots’ much-lower mortgage default rate, required to improve overall UK mortgage instruments when bundled?

  2. Alan says:

    By “none of this matters all that much” I simply meant that Cameron’s little deal with Sony and the various attempts by the unionist parties and the media to deal with their Scottish problem haven’t been very effective. The more they say and do the bigger the hole they dig for themselves in Scotland.
    That said, it is highly likely we’ll see truckloads of more “bullshit misinfo/disinfo” from the so-called unionist parties and the media in the coming weeks. They just can’t help themselves. So far the SNP have been painted as Stalinists, fascists and run by themost dangerous woman in the world. The hyperbole is a bit out of control, even by British media standards, but there will be plenty more to come once the SNP end up with a large block of MPs.
    Cameron’s Outlander delay is just stupid and some of the dirty tricks, such as the French Ambassador meeting memo, have been equally stupid and incompetent but you have to wonder if there are more serious things they have been up to that we don’t know about. No doubt there will be more leaks in good time and we’ll find out.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I can’t wait for the lawsuits by agents, actors, directors, producers and the like for lost profits for media whose distribution is intentionally stopped by executives making better deals with governments and wannabe (opposition) governments. And, oh, wait, Mr. Obama’s TPP, if agreed and ratified by enough governments, would make such suits even easier and more lucrative. Or would Mr. Obama and his peers deem such suits threats to their “national”, or at least, personal political security?

    • Rayne says:

      Here’s the problem: We already know from what Hollywood has done with female actors and directors that they are willing to walk away from profitable gigs just to make a fucking point as to who’s in charge.

      The parent company is either none the wiser, or they aren’t sharing this info with investors/analysts and are sanctioning this behavior.

      In the example given here, we don’t know who bought the rights to the series, we don’t know if Sony can prevent STARZ from distributing or going to other production teams. It took +20 years to find the right development/production team as it was, and if Sony has its fingers in the mix, they could screw with the next 20 years.

      STARZ being a much smaller company, they may not be able to rock the boat with Sony even if their shareholders wanted some recompense. It could be too costly to tackle this, eating into capital needed to continue other productions.

      If you have any suggestions about getting around this, I’m all ears.

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