Monday, 24 September 2018

Facts and truth: journalists and novelists

This is based on the (rather long) talk I gave at the Graham Greene International Festival in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, on 22 September 2018.

There is a hoary old joke that journalists of a certain age enjoy telling each other that goes like this: Two retired journalists are meeting up for a drink. ‘So,’ says the first journalist, ‘What are you up to these days?’ ‘I’m writing a novel,’ says the second journalist. ‘That’s amazing,’ replies the first journalist. ‘Neither am I.’

The point is this. There are very few journalists who haven’t fantasised at some point about writing a novel. It’s not surprising: after all, we write for a living, we construct narratives; we are – like novelists – story-tellers. Yet very few journalists actually manage to write a novel – and only a tiny number manage to write a good novel. So why is that the case? Are journalism and novel-writing similar? Or are they entirely different, the only real similarity being that they both involve putting words one in front of the other?

A few years ago, I interviewed the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She had just given a lecture in which she discussed what she called realist fiction. ‘Realist fiction,’ she said, ‘is not merely the recording of the real, as it were, it is more than that, it seeks to infuse the real with meaning, which perhaps is why the artist works with a frown. As events unfold, we do not always know what they mean. But in telling the story of what happened, meaning emerges and we are able to make connections with emotive significance. Realist fiction is, above all, the process of turning fact into truth.’

Turning fact into truth? What exactly does that mean? I had an opportunity to ask Adichie when I interviewed her the following day. When I sat down with her in a BBC studio, I asked her: ‘If you and I were to witness the same event, and then each of us wrote about it – you as a novelist and I as a journalist -- how would our accounts differ?’ She looked across the studio desk and smiled. ‘People would be moved by what I wrote,’ she said, ‘they would be informed by what you wrote.’

Ali Smith made a slightly different point in a recent interview with Nicola Sturgeon at the Edinburgh Book Festival. They were discussing the prevalence of lies in modern society, and Ali Smith said: ‘Fiction and lies are the opposite of each other. Lies go out of the way to distort and turn you away from the truth. But fiction is one of our ways of telling the truth.”

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Julian Barnes speaking at a public event, and he came up with a splendid suggestion. All novels, he said, should have a sticker on their front cover. ‘Trigger warning: contains truth.’

So Adichie, Smith and Barnes all agree: fiction is a way of telling the truth. I would argue that so is journalism, but let’s use Adichie’s formula as a starting point. She argues that people are moved by what novelists write, but they are merely informed by what journalists write. Of course, as a journalist, I do want people to be informed by my journalism – I marshal the facts to the best of my ability, sort them out into some kind of structure, and hope that I am imparting useful, accurate information. Rule number one for all journalists: Get it right.

But do I sometimes also want people who read what I have written, or who hear what I have broadcast, to be moved? Do I want my work to have, to use Adichie’s phrase, ‘emotive significance’? And if I do, am I straying across that line which she says divides novelists from journalists?

Read the following passage, and see if you can decide whether it was written by a journalist or a novelist. ‘The road south is narrow and endless. We have been driving since early morning, and the green hill country has begun to lose focus. It is a blur on to which have been painted occasional villages in shades of muddy brown and the burned yellow of banana thatch. At each village, small boys run to the edge of the road, offering cokes and bananas for sale. Some of them thrust skewers of burned meat, rancid and charcoal black, through the window. At first we found them entertaining, almost dancing in front of us, cheering excitedly as we approached. Now, seven hours later, they are tiresome, another hazard of the road along with the cattle and the goats. Any journey, even towards war, becomes a matter of routine if it goes on long enough.’

Or how about this? ‘For several mornings they were pursued by yellow butterflies which were a welcome change from the tsetses. The butterflies came tacking into the saloon as soon as it was light, while the river still lay under a layer of mist like steam on a vat. When the mist cleared they could see one bank lined with white nenuphars which from a hundred yards away resembled a regiment of swans. The colour of the water in this wider reach was pewter, except where the wheel churned the wake to chocolate, and the green reflection of the woods was not mirrored on the surface but seemed to shine up from underneath the paper-thin transparent pewter.’

Both passages are powerful descriptions of an African journey. Both, I think, conjure up vivid images in our minds. The second one comes from A Burnt Out Case by Graham Greene. But the first passage was written by a former colleague of mine at the BBC, Fergal Keane, in his book Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey, in which he recounts his experiences reporting the Rwandan genocide more than 20 years ago.

Fergal is a journalist, and his book is clearly not a novel. But does it have ‘emotive significance’? Does it do more than inform? Does it move? I think the answers are Yes in each case, which means that the line which Adichie tried to draw may not be as clear as she suggests.

Here’s another example: ‘As the sun’s last rays bathed the Cathedral square in light, the symbols of Communism and Catholicism overlapped and seemed almost to merge. The heavy walnut coffin was carried solemnly from the Cathedral and hundreds of red flags dipped in respect. Fists were raised in a Communist salute that seemed to be directed at the small crucifix carried by a priest in front of the coffin.’

That’s a description of the funeral of a young Italian Communist activist who was shot dead by neo-Fascists in 1976. It’s journalism, written by a journalist, and yes, it conveys the facts of the funeral. But I think it also does more. I should admit, by the way, that I’m the journalist who wrote it, while I was a correspondent for Reuters news agency based in Rome.

I could have written it differently, of course. I could have written: ‘A young Communist activist was buried today after a Catholic funeral in his home town of Sezze Romano.’ So why didn’t I? It would have been much more in keeping with Reuters’ usual style: spare, unadorned prose, conveying the facts simply and succinctly. More than forty years later, I can no longer remember why I chose to write it as I did – perhaps I fancied myself as a new Ernest Hemingway – but I think I probably did want my report to have some kind of ‘emotive significance’ – by highlighting the juxtaposition of Communism and Catholicism in a single ceremony.

Perhaps I even came close to crossing that line, turning facts into truth. Perhaps I felt that the facts on their own, baldly stated, weren’t quite enough. One thing I’m sure of, however – I was not then, am not now, and never will be, a novelist.

Zadie Smith wrote in her introduction to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: ‘Too much time has been spent defending Greene against the taint of journalism; we should think of him instead as the greatest journalist there ever was. If more journalists could report as well as Greene bringing us the explosion in the square [one of the most vividly drawn scenes in the novel], how long could we retain the stomach to fight the wars we do?’

I might take issue with her use of the word ‘taint’ in such close proximity to the word ‘journalism’, but I see what she’s getting at. She, like me, sees that line between facts and truth as far more blurred, more indistinct, than we might think at first. Greene certainly understood journalism, and journalists. Like Evelyn Waugh in Scoop, which to me is still the finest novel about journalism ever written, he understood the absurdity that so often accompanies the practice of journalism.

Here’s Fowler, the cynical, world-weary journalist in The Quiet American: ‘I fly to Hanoi airport. They give us a car to the Press Camp. They lay on a flight over the two towns they’ve recaptured and show us the tricolour flying. It might be any darned flag at that height. Then we have a Press Conference and a colonel explains to us what we’ve been looking at. Then we file our cables with the censor. Then we have drinks. Best barman in Indo-China. Then we catch the plane back.’

I never reported from Vietnam, but I recognise that picture only too clearly. And there’s another Fowler line that has stayed with me: ‘My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action — even an opinion is a kind of action.’

There’s a character in the Tom Stoppard play Night and Day who puts it well: ‘A foreign correspondent is someone who lives in foreign parts and corresponds, usually in the form of essays containing no new facts. Otherwise he’s someone who flies around from hotel to hotel and thinks that the most interesting thing about any story is the fact that he has arrived to cover it.’

But back to Fowler and The Quiet American. ‘Even an opinion is a kind of action’? Are reporters really not allowed to have opinions? Not when they work for the BBC, that’s for sure, although here again, the lines can get blurred. There are strict guidelines to be followed, and I wrote about them in my memoir, Is Anything Happening. ‘The BBC’s editorial guidelines for news presenters – a set of rules that should really have been inscribed in stone for Moses to bring down from Mount Sinai – are meant to help presenters negotiate a path between the safe ground of ‘news’ and the treacherous shoals of ‘comment’. They are not, alas, quite as clear cut as ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

“Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views.”

Martin Bell, who reported for the BBC with great distinction from Bosnia and many other places, used to talk of what he called the ‘journalism of attachment’ as opposed to ‘bystander journalism’. Good journalism, he argued, especially journalism about conflict and war, cannot, should not, confine itself to a clinical factual narrative. It must, said Bell, show that the journalist cares as well as knows. A journalist’s words, he might almost have argued, must carry ‘emotive significance.’

I agree that facts alone are sometimes not enough. My aim as a reporter is always to try to convey to a reader or listener what they might see and hear – and feel -- if they were where I am. But I don’t think I need to tell them what I think, or feel – my aim is to provide enough information for them to form their own emotional response. ‘Here,’ I say to them. ‘Take hold of my hand. I want to show you something.’

This is how my friend Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, who was killed in Syria in 2012, explained why she, and other war correspondents, put their lives on the line. ‘Someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people – be they government, military or the man on the street – will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.’

She might have said ‘…because we believe that what we write does have emotive significance.’ Like all journalists, she believed that information is power, and that if people are well informed, they then have the power to make a difference, even to make things better. Why report wars, after all, if not to bring home to people the reality of war, in the hope that the knowledge will make future wars less likely?

The death of Marie Colvin – who there is strong evidence to believe was deliberately targeted and murdered by the Syrian regime – and the gruesome murders of other foreigners by the Islamic State group made it all but impossible for foreign journalists to continue to cover the war. And what we have learned, in Syria as in many other places, is that if journalists cannot tell the truth about what people in power are doing, then those people will construct their own version of the truth.

Four years ago, I reported from the world’s newest nation, south Sudan, which was already disintegrating into civil war. I saw people on the brink of starvation, utterly destitute and in fear of their lives. I was very angry, and very upset at what I saw, but I tried to control my emotions when I filed a long piece for The Observer. This is how it began.

‘It is happening again. Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, 30 years after the famine in Ethiopia, Africa's twin scourges are back. This time it is a single country facing a double disaster. South Sudan, the world's newest nation, not yet three years old, is on the brink of catastrophe.’

Short sentences. No emotive adjectives. Just stark facts, which – I hope – said what needed to be said. Facts, yes, but also, I hope, at least a nugget of truth.

So let’s try to imagine a novel about South Sudan, written perhaps by Graham Greene. The first thing to say is that he would certainly have spent more than five days there. He would also have spent more than two hours sitting at his typewriter. I often think that people fail to appreciate how journalists operate – at great speed, and under great pressure. Facts are hard enough to gather in the little time available; truth will often have to wait till later.

More importantly, though, Greene would have created a central character to drive his narrative. Like Fowler in The Quiet American, or Querry in A Burnt-Out Case, or Castle in The Human Factor, the character would be complex, conflicted, a human peg on which to hang profound questions about both the human condition and the condition of the world in which we live.

And that device – a central, named character to entice the reader, listener or viewer -- has now become an essential tool in nearly all journalists’ box of tricks, adopting the style of the novel and the short story, marshalling facts like a journalist and turning them into truth like a novelist.

In 1984, I reported extensively from India after the army had ruthlessly brought to an end a Sikh insurgency in Punjab, centred on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I was working for The Observer at the time: here’s how one of my reports began. ‘Major-General Shuhbeg Singh (Indian army, cashiered) died with his walkie-talkie still in his hands. The man who, for the past two years, had been the military mastermind behind Punjab’s bloody rebellion by Sikh fundamentalists, was calling the shots right to the end. He died of bullet wounds, in the smoke-filled basement of one of the holiest buildings in the Golden Temple of Amritsar.’

That use of a central character at the beginning of a story is now so common place that it has become a cliché. Pick up almost any newspaper, turn to the feature pages, and likely as not, what you find there will open with a similar device.

In 1996, more than 1,200 men were massacred in Libya’s notorious Abu Salim jail. It went virtually unreported until after the overthrow of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News, wrote a book about the Libyan revolution called Sandstorm, in which she described meeting the families of some of the men who had been slaughtered. Here’s an extract: ‘A woman thrust a small blue envelope into my hand, the kind used by old-fashioned photographic shops. I opened it in my hotel room, and found a faded colour passport picture of a round-faced boy with thick black hair, wearing a cream shirt, and a similar-sized photograph of an older man with white hair, wearing a black fez and a traditional black robe, a jird, fringed with gold brocade. A closer look reveals that he is sitting in a wheelchair. His legs, which are covered in white bandages have been amputated at the knee. A father, a husband, an uncle? How did he lose his legs? Was he already disabled when they threw him into prison? I keep the pictures in my study. The boy and the old man stare out at me: people I never knew, victims of a crime I never heard about until long years after their killers tossed their bodies into an anonymous mass grave.’

Facts? Or truth? It’s journalism, without a doubt, but when you read it, are you informed – or are you also moved?

I remember once talking to a reporter who had been embedded with US troops during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Being embedded means you are assigned to a particular military unit and you go only where they go and see only what they see. The only real difference between the soldiers and the reporter is that the soldiers have weapons and the reporter does not. This particular reporter said something that struck me as quite profound. ‘Being embedded,’ he said, ‘is like watching a war through a letter box. You can see what’s directly in front of your eyes, but that’s it. You have no idea how it fits in to the broader picture.’

It applies to more than just embedded reporters hurtling across a battlefield in an armoured vehicle. A reporter can be only in one place at a time, has only two eyes, and can talk to only a limited number of people before the next deadline. Novelists, on the other hand, well, novelists can take as long as they like … I’m tempted to say to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘I’ll try to deal with the facts now; you can look after the truth at your leisure.’

To be fair, she did recognise this journalistic dilemma in her lecture when she said: ‘As events unfold, we do not always know what they mean.’ I would phrase it slightly differently: ‘As events unfold, we never know what they mean.’

As a BBC news presenter for more than twenty years, I asked many hundreds of stupid questions, but by far the most common was some variant of: ‘So what do you think all this means?’ The only honest answer, of course, is ‘I have no idea. We’ll have to wait to find out.’ But woe betide any interviewee who was so honest – that’s not what editors, or their listeners and viewers, want to hear. We live in an age of instant gratification: people want to know everything, and they want to know now. Waiting is not an option.

So I don’t regard journalists and novelists as somehow occupying entirely different planets in the literary universe: journalists with their pathetically inadequate facts and novelists with their profound and enduring truths. Look at Charles Dickens: journalist and novelist. Look at Graham Greene: even if he was ‘tainted’, to use Zadie Smith’s word, in the eyes of his critics, he was both journalist and novelist. He dealt in both facts and truth.

The main problem I have with Adichie’s formula is that both facts and truth are somewhat slippery concepts. What exactly are facts? What, indeed, is truth? The dictionary definition of the word ‘fact’ is that it is ‘a thing that is known or proved to be true.’ And the definition of ‘true’? ‘In accordance with fact or reality.’ So the definitions form a perfect circle: it is a fact if it is true; and it is true if it is a fact.

Which brings us to George Orwell. In Nineteen Eighty Four, the central principle of the ruling party is that the past is mutable. It has no objective existence; it survives only in written records and in human memories. But since the Party controls all the records, and is in full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.

Now consider the tale of that notorious meeting that Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr, had with a Russian emissary during the presidential election campaign in 2016.  At first, the Trump campaign denied that there had been any meetings with Russians; then they admitted that the meeting had taken place, but said that it was primarily to discuss a programme for the adoption of Russian children. And then, just last month, the President himself said – on Twitter, of course -- that the meeting was ‘to get information on an opponent.’

In the words of Trump’s lawyer, speaking in a TV interview: ‘Over time, facts develop.’ Facts develop: it’s pure Orwell. Sometimes it’s a fact that two plus two equal four, and that the sun always rises in the east; but over time, those facts develop. Sometimes, two plus two equals five, or perhaps six, and the sun rises not in the east, but in the west, or even in the south. In his book The Art of the Deal, published more than twenty years ago, Trump wrote in praise of what he called ‘truthful hyperbole’, which he called an ‘innocent form of exaggeration’ – innocent, he said, because ‘people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.’

Orwell would have understood perfectly. The truth is what people want to believe. And they are happy to believe what they are told by a leader whom they trust. Just as Orwell predicted, the Party controls the past, so the Party controls the truth.

As a reporter for nearly fifty years, I have spent my entire adult life believing that facts are important and that the truth matters. I have never believed that ‘over time, facts develop’, or that there is such a thing as ‘truthful hyperbole’. But I am prepared to admit to an uncomfortable truth. There are facts, and there are facts. Two reporters can observe the same event, report it entirely accurately, and still come up with two very different accounts. How? By choosing to marshal different facts, to emphasise some and disregard others. The choices that journalists make are not rooted in science, but in their own understanding of what matters, what’s important, and what isn’t.

For example: eighteen years ago, several white farmers were murdered in Zimbabwe by activists who called themselves ‘war veterans’ and said they were seizing white-owned farms in furtherance of President Mugabe’s land reform policies. I was working at the BBC at the time, and of course we reported the murders. On one occasion, during a reporting trip to Zimbabwe, I even managed to visit a white-owned farm as it was being besieged by heavily-armed pro-government activists.

But some of the white farmers who were attacked were also activists in the main opposition party, the MDC. But what was more relevant to the BBC’s listeners? That they were white, or that they were opposition supporters? ‘A white farmer and his family were murdered today in Zimbabwe by war veterans who said they were seizing their land to redistribute to landless peasants.’ A truthful statement of the facts.

‘An opposition activist and his family were murdered today by pro-government militiamen who invaded their farm.’ That is also a truthful statement of the facts – but they are different facts and they give a subtly different impression of what happened.

Here is another one: ‘Palestinian fighters fired a salvo of rockets into Israel last night after Israeli troops killed a teenager in Gaza.’ Or alternatively: ‘Israel responded in force to a cross-border incursion by Palestinian fighters last night during which a number of shots were fired. One Palestinian was reported killed.’ Both reports are accurate, but each chooses to frame the narrative differently.

I think it is important to acknowledge that neither facts nor truth are as unambiguous as we might sometimes like to think. Let’s look again at my report from Italy on the funeral of that young Communist activist all those years ago. As the sun’s last rays bathed the Cathedral square in light,’ I wrote, ‘the symbols of Communism and Catholicism overlapped and seemed almost to merge.’

‘Seemed’? What kind of fact is that? Did the symbols of Communism and Catholicism merge, or didn’t they?

‘Fists were raised in a Communist salute that seemed to be directed at the small crucifix carried by a priest in front of the coffin.’ ‘Seemed’ again. In my striving for truth, was I perhaps guilty of stretching the facts?

If I had been writing a novel, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered. Novelists are allowed to stretch facts in their search for truth. Journalists, on the other hand, quite rightly, are expected not to stray. When we read a novel, we know we are reading fiction: the events described did not really happen; the characters who people its pages did not really exist.

John Lanchester’s novel about London, Capital, is centred on one, fictional street, Pepys Road, in Clapham, and it captures the essence of the city in a way that I don’t think journalism could. It conveys a truth in a way that facts alone could not, even though Lanchester is a journalist as well as a novelist.

The same can apply in the world of film. Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake, is the fictional depiction of what can happen when a man slips through the benefits net and falls victim to heartless austerity. But everything in it, according to the film-makers, is based on actual events. So when I interviewed the producer, Rebecca O’Brien, I asked her why, if everything in it was true, they hadn’t made the film as a documentary. Because, she said, the story they told was more powerful – and more truthful – when treated as a fictional narrative.

Having recently reread some of Graham Greene’s novels, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the most significant difference between what journalists do and what novelists do is that whereas journalists try to describe the state of the world, novelists focus on the state of the human condition. It is not so much a question of facts and truth, which can get hopelessly blurred when you start prodding at them a bit, but with the collective and the individual.

It would be dishonest of me not to admit that for much of my adult life, I read very few novels. I was an obsessive journalist, addicted to facts, you might say, rather than truth. Only as I approached the age of decrepitude did I finally acknowledge that I was missing something. And that what I was missing was an understanding of the human condition.


So now, at last, I am reading more novels. Perhaps I am spending a bit less time keeping up with the latest Brexit developments, but I hope I’m spending more time learning what it means to be human. Fewer facts, but – perhaps -- more truth.