Truth, Lies and Fools

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Truth, Lies and Fools

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  • Piers Morgan, writing in the New Statesman acouple of years ago, looked back upon his depar-ture from the Daily Mirror, when he was sackedafter his paper published fake photographs ofBritish soldiers mistreating Iraqis. Pointing outthat other evidence had subsequently emerged of British abuses in Iraq, and that no one had ever been convicted of perpetrating the hoax thatfooled him, Morgan declared: I wonder some-times if it would be impertinent to ask for my old job back.

    It is not the only occasion on which he has airedthe idea that events had justified his decision topublish the photos, even though almost no oneseriously contends today that they were genuine.Morgans view seems to be that it can be right tomake an assertion in print based on bad evidenceproviding other, better evidence eventuallycomes along to support the assertion. In otherwords, he got it wrong but he was right anyway.

    Similar arguments are sometimes heard insupport of the Andrew Gilligan news reports onthe sexing up of the Iraq dossier, and they aretopical again today. With Al Gore found guiltyby a high court judge of nine errors of fact in AnInconvenient Truth, with Michael Moores hotlycontested health-care documentary Sicko open-ing here, and with the Court of Appeal pro-nouncing on a landmark case about journalisticresponsibility, right and wrong and fact and fic-tion are suddenly on the agenda.

    The anger generated by these debates can beterrifying. Dip into the internet for guidance onhow far you can trust Sicko and you will becaught in a blizzard of detailed accusation andcounter-accusation on such matters as the cost of Cuban health care, Canadian hospital waitinglists and the privatisation of the NHS.

    And the outrage can have an almost drunkenquality, with the entire credibility of an argu-ment supposedly hanging on the smallest detailof disputed evidence. It calls to mind Christo-pher Hitchenss sweeping verdict on MooresFahrenheit 9/11: To describe this film as dishon-est and demagogic would almost be to promotethose terms to the level of respectability. To

    describe this film as a piece of crap would be torun the risk of a discourse that would never againrise above the excremental.

    Behind such polemics is an assumption thatseems like nothing more than a piece of commonsense: that people should get their facts right.Journalism and documentary-making are aboutthe truth otherwise they would be called fic-tion and if either of them presents untrue infor-mation, it is betraying its reason for being.

    Al Gore, as he basks in his Nobel glow, shouldbe thinking about this. When someone with hisresources makes nine certifiable errors, most ofthem of overstatement, there can be no excuse,and along with his scientific advisers and re-searchers he has to take responsibility for anydamage to his cause. Gore may console himselfthat Mr Justice Barton said the film was stillbroadly accurate and with caveats could beshown in schools, but he knows that its impact isblunted and he cant blame his critics for that.

    Life is complicatedYet the idea that people must always get theirfacts right, like almost everything that is labelledcommon sense, is incomplete and unsatisfac-tory. Life is more complicated than that, so, per-haps surprisingly, there are grey areas betweenright and wrong.

    For one thing, journalism inevitably makesmistakes: producing large newspapers every dayor every week is not like producing Faberg eggs,and readers and lawyers have to understand thatyou cant hang around until every detail is per-fect. In that context, it is normal to get thingswrong occasionally. For another, if someone iswithholding information on a matter of publicinterest without adequate explanation, thenspeculative journalism based on the availablefacts is perfectly justified, indeed natural evenif it may eventually prove to be wrong.

    By way of example, the early years of the Deep-cut scandal, involving the deaths of young sol-diers in a training camp, were marked by exces-sive official secrecy. Some stories published in thepress on the basis of the few facts available were

    22 OCTOBER 2007 | NEW STATESMAN | 33

    wrong, but they ultimately performed the usefulpurpose of pushing the Ministry of Defence intogreater openness. Its not a general licence tomake things up, but its a case where a greatergood can be served by speculative reporting.

    The courts, too, have found that journalistscan be right and wrong at the same time. In thepast fortnight, the Court of Appeal broke newground by upholding what is called a Reynoldsdefence in a defamation case brought against theauthor Graeme McLagan over a book about policecorruption called Bent Coppers.

    The judges ruled that McLagan had the right to publish certain allegations, even though hecould not be sure they were true, because it was amatter of public interest and he could show hehad behaved responsibly. The Reynolds defencehad previously been used successfully by news-paper journalists, and this ruling set aside anobjection that the authors of books had the timeto get all their facts right.

    Does all of this mean that Piers Morgan shouldget his job back at the Mirror? No. As he wellknows, he gambled on the validity of those pho-tographs, lost, and paid an appropriate price forthe damage to his papers reputation. Only if hewere to prove that the pictures are real could heexpect his case to be reopened, and he cant.

    The test in all these grey areas between rightand wrong, as the judge who first upheld theReynolds defence in 1999 laid down, is whetherthe wrong thing is stated knowingly or withmalice or recklessness, and whether the journal-ist has acted conscientiously or responsibly.

    Lord Nicholls went on to provide a helpful listof ways of judging the latter. Was enough doneto test the quality of the information? Was therean urgent need to publish? Did the writer ornewspaper present it as fact, or with caveats?Was the other side of the story presented?

    Piers Morgan would not pass those tests. Norwould Al Gore (he would fail on the first). Nor, inmy view, would Andrew Gilligan in the sexed-up dossier case. But Graeme McLagan passedthem all, proving that in the right circumstanceswe have a right to be wrong. l

    By Brian Cathcart

    Truth,lies andfools

    Inconvenientuntruths: wasGore wrong,but rightanyway?

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