When does licence become invention?

Johann Hari has gone one step too far.

We all do it -- journalists, historians, even human beings. We all tinker with the truth in order to create an actuality that feels more truthful than the truth itself. How many times have you deliberately misquoted someone in order to make that anecdote a little bit funnier? How many times have you retrospectively put words into your own mouth in order to banish an espirit d'escalier? How quickly "I wish I'd said" becomes "what I said"! In fact, claiming that you said something you meant to say is considered so acceptable that even MPs are allowed to edit their speeches in Hansard. The relationship between what actually happened and what we say that happened is a fraught one, as every police detective will tell you.

I'm having a similar problem with my current book project, which is a new history of the Great Escape. Some of the RAF officers' memoirs are at such a huge variance to what they told MI9 investigators after the war, that it is now almost impossible to even get near the truth. This isn't because they were liars (OK, a couple were), but because they had told the stories so many times, over so many decades, that the natural tendency to exaggerate, inflate, massage and entertain has twisted the truth into something that is nearer to fiction than fact. For historians, the best you can do is to go with what your knowledge tells you is right, and to trust testimony made nearer the event than, say, at a speech made at a golf club last week. Anyway, for me, chasing the unobtainable -- that is, the truth -- is part of the fun of writing history.

Because the truth is a flakey place indeed, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the plight in which Johann Hari of the Independent now finds himself. Journalists face the same problem of representing the truth as historians, but they have to deal with it on a much tighter timescale. And, unlike historians (ahem), journalists are under a lot of pressure to deliver something punchy and immediately appealing. In other words, the temptation to sex up the dossier is huge.

I remember once writing a piece for the Times on the archaeological work going on at London Bridge during the building of the new Tube station. My features editor asked whether we could say that the archaeologists had discovered a Roman brothel. I said it was possible, as there were often brothels at the entrances to cities, but there was no proof. He told me to put that in, and -- you've guessed it -- he cut out my disclaimer, and the piece appeared the next morning claiming that the Museum of London had found a Roman brothel. Cue angry letter, which I left him to deal with.

But former colleagues and I did worse, far worse. One was sent to Heathrow Airport to interview women in WH Smith about their holiday reading. Unsurprisingly, he couldn't be bothered to go, and he went back home and wrote the piece from there. I recall chucking in the odd line to this great work of fiction. I was particularly proud of my "totally made up woman in her late 30s", the ambiguity of which sailed very close to the wind. In the mid 1990s, I once covered a Rolling Stones comeback concert in Sheffield for the news pages in which I was supposed to interview members of the audience, but I was too gauche for some reason, and just made up the quotes, because -- and this is perhaps salient -- I thought my quotes would better tell the story than the people I was supposed to be talking to.

Because of my guilty hack past, I initially found it hard to throw stones at Hari's misleading insertion of interviewees' previously spoken or written words into an interview. His justification seems almost plausible:

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I've quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It's a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview. Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it.

I think Hari is mistaken to claim his interviews are "intellectual portraits", because that gives him an artistic licence to write up an interview in the same way as Lucien Freud might paint the Queen. A newspaper interview should be a fairly straightforward and truthful account of an encounter -- it's not a profile, and if it is, it should be billed as such. And if Hari wants to include his subject's words from other sources, then it's very easy to stitch them in without losing any immediacy.

I was wrong to make up my quotes all those years ago, and Hari is wrong to make up his quotes today. The problem is, Hari is playing a bigger game than I was when a junior writer on the Times many years ago -- he is very high profile and he has even won prizes. He shouldn't play fast and loose with quotes, and neither, if an unpublished letter from Rowan Wilson to the Independent is correct (I'll leave you to Google that one), should he make things up. That letter is particularly damning.

We are all guilty of using licence, but to rely on it to the extent that Hari has done is to cross over into the world of invention. We have to draw these lines somewhere, and Hari must surely know, in his heart, that he has stepped over where most of us "content providers" mark that boundary. He should apologise to his readers.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser