Have you ever wondered who’d play you in a film? I had, occasionally, until the day I got the answer. In spring 2018, a message pinged on to my phone via Facebook from a journalist friend. “So this is a bit weird,” it read. “A sister of a friend is playing you in a movie, apparently. You aware of this?” I wasn’t.

Hanako Footman is playing you in the film Official Secrets. She wants to meet you, like actors do. She saw we were pals and asked if I’d ask you. What did you do in that story?”

“That story” concerns British whistleblower Katharine Gun, played by Keira Knightley in a film that premiered at Sundance festival in January. Fluent in Mandarin, the 28-year-old Gun was employed as a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham. In 2003, she leaked a top-secret memo to the Observer newspaper about an illegal spying operation ordered by the US National Security Agency. It intended to bug the phones and emails of six United Nations delegates, from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan – nations that could determine whether the UN approved the invasion of Iraq.

The memo, which outraged Gun, ordered staff to increase surveillance operations “particularly directed at… UN Security Council members (minus US and GBR, of course)” to provide real-time intelligence for Bush officials on voting intentions.

I was working at the Observer at the time. And, although I was just a bit-player in the story, the film dramatises a monumental mess-up on my behalf – the biggest mistake of my career.

It’s 2003. The airwaves are filled with Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love, Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River and Hey Ya! by OutKast. Cool young things wear absurdly small clothing – low-slung jeans nicknamed “bumsters”, for obvious reasons; thongs; crop tops and, most ill-advisedly, “shrugs”, unflattering miniature cardigans. An incredible heatwave sweeps Europe, too, with the mercury hitting 38.5C in southern England.

Nicole Mowbray: the young journalist pictured in 2004. Photograph: Catherine Shaw/The Observer
Nicole Mowbray: the young journalist pictured in 2004. Photograph: Catherine Shaw/The Observer

The feverishness of those days extends to geopolitics. Three years earlier, George W Bush narrowly won the 2000 United States presidential election after a recount in Florida and a debacle involving hanging chads. In 2001 came the terrorist attacks of 9/11, propelling al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden into the public consciousness. Britain’s “special relationship” with the US grew ever closer, thanks to the manoeuvrings of the then prime minister, Tony Blair.

It was an interesting time for a young journalist with no newspaper experience to be joining the foreign desk of the Observer. Aged 24 and having held only junior positions at women’s magazines, I applied for the role of foreign desk assistant in late 2002. Educated at a state school and with no newspaper contacts, I had a thirst for foreign news. As a teenager, my heroes had been foreign correspondents like the BBC’s Kate Adie, Michael Buerk and John Simpson. At university I devoured the works of George Orwell – himself a former Observer journalist – Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Graham Greene, before devoting a year of my degree to the impact of reporting on the Vietnam war. What I offered in keenness must have made up for my lack of experience because, after two interviews, I took a call and was told: “You’ve got the job… if you want it?” Of course I did.

Joining was a culture shock. Our working week ran from Tuesday to Saturday, with knocking-off times getting progressively later (9, 10, 11pm) as Sunday approached. Everyone was constantly available on their BlackBerry – the height of tech at the time. The neighbouring Coach & Horses pub was our unofficial canteen. My colleagues were impressive: charismatic raconteurs, supremely well-read and worldly wise. I was entrusted with an A4 contacts book – a ringbinder of phone and satellite phone numbers and emails for correspondents all over the globe. Dusty reporters would fly in from assignments in far-flung places, handing over a bundle of disorganised receipts for obscure items: four camels, for instance, “replacements for a herd accidentally hit and killed on a road by driver”.

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