Sam Bourne, or as he is known in real life, Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland was interviewed by his long term friend Alan Little who began by asking him what the difference is between Jonathan Freedland and Sam Bourne?
Jonathan answered by saying that when he is writing as a journalist he can take an idea and see both sides of an argument, but when he begins to think about a subject and his mind takes him into ‘what if’ territory, then thanks Sam Bourne who pursues that angle.
The conversation very quickly turned to a discussion on truth and what truth is post 2016. Freedland talked about the journalists who are working to keep track of Trump’s lies and how one journalist he knows of at CNN is doing that full time and has worked out that he lies at the rate of 5.8 a day.
Then there is Britain and the Brexit bus. The Head if the Statistics Authority told them that the figure was wrong and asked them to change it, but the Conservatives decided to brazen it out regardless.
Vladimir Putin lied over troops in Crimea. Johnathan Freedland wrote columns about this for the Guardian. But Sam Bourne thought, ‘What if someone deliberately set out to erase historical truths by killing historians, holocaust survivors and librarians of note. That is the theme of his most recent book, To Kill The President.
Allan Little pointed out that politicians have always been less than truthful. Radavan Karavic lied over Kosovo; Antony Eden lied to the Cabinet over Suez, so what is different now?
Freedland agreed citing Clinton and Nixon as previous US Presidents who have lied. But, he says, their lies were carefully crafted around a form of words that they thought they might just get away with – more a linguistic stretching of the truth. He described it as looking for a needle of truth in that line between truth and a lie. It was no different with Nixon and Watergate.
But with Trump it is different. He just doesn’t care. He cited a story told by Anthony Senecal,the long term Butler at Trump’s Palm Beach estate, Mar a Lago. Senegal tells how Trump likes his visitors to be told that Disney tiles in the nursery were hand painted by Walt Disney himself. When guests asked Trump if that was true, he just shrugged and says ‘who cares?’
Putin is the same, says Freedland. Russia Today, Putin’s propaganda network broadcasts wild conspiracy theories because he wants people to be confused. You can, says Freedland, now believe anything you want by selecting items from the digital news supermarket. Nothing is true and everything is possible – that is the world we are now living in.
Freedland talked about covering the David Irving libel trial in which David Irving sued Penguin Books and American author Deborah Lipstadt in the High Court of Justice in 1996, asserting that Lipstadt had libelled him in her book Denying the Holocaust by calling him a holocaust denier. Irving defended himself, and his whole case was based on the fact that he could not have denied the holocaust because it did not happen.
The defendants took a clear decision not to put holocaust survivors on the stand to spare them that indignity and in pursuit of his case Irving dismissed the written testimony of survivors as unreliable. He also dismissed the testimony of the Nazi perpetrators of these terrible crimes by saying that they were extorted by British intelligence under torture.
He claimed that photographs were doctored and written evidence was falsified, nit picking over every dot and comma.
Freedland told a rapt audience that he had sat in on these sessions and they had made him feel (unsurprisingly) physically queasy. Irving was, he said, showing us a world where the ground beneath our feet is not solid. A terrifying glimpse of a world where truth is unimportant. Now, the judgement of the courts was very clearly to find for the defendants in this case, but that relentless questioning of the facts has not gone away.
For Freedland that physical queasiness came back in 2016. That feeling of vertigo as history was weaponised. He describes the lies of Karavic as the canary down the mineshaft – an outlier for the perverting of truth.
So, in his book To Kill the President, he posits a world where the US has just elected a volatile demagogue. His protagonist, Maggie Costello, a seasoned Washington operator and stubbornly principled, discovers an inside plot to kill the President – and faces the ultimate moral dilemma. Should she save the President and leave the free world at the mercy of an increasingly crazed would-be tyrant – or commit treason against her Commander in Chief and risk plunging the country into a civil war?
Sam Bourne was writing about book burning and destroying libraries and then Christchurch happened; it was, he says, a truly chilling moment.
The truth, says Freedland is weak when not everyone believes it. Truth relies on shame and the shameless simply don’t care.
Freedland likes to make sure when writing his fiction that the factual things in the real world that he uses are accurate, however wild the fiction. He will do an authors note where he clearly lays out which are the factual elements and which the fictional.
He talked about technology and the fact that lying is be8ng weaponised by it. The rise of social media means that it takes no time at all for lies to speed around the world. Studies have apparently shown that a false story travels six t8mes faster and much further than a true story! It is a triumph of vitality over veracity.
It’s going to get worse, too. He told the audience about an Edinburgh lab which has put together a sound recording of a speech that JFK was due to make in Dallas the day after he got assassinated. It sounds, he says, very convincing. So what is to stop others doing the same thing for fake truth purposes?
Then there’s video. In the pornography world it is now possible to ‘deep fake’ the face of one person onto the body of another in a very convincing manner, catering to an audience who wants celebrity porn.
But if that is possible, soon it will also be possible to ‘prove’ a fake news story using audio and video recordings. This kind of thing is subtracting from the pile of real evidence.
So, asks Alan Little, can this kind of thing be regulated? And do the liars believe their own lies?
Freedland believes that awareness is key. Liars he says, set out to cause confusion. The tobacco industry model was to say ‘our product is in doubt.’. Climate change deniers will shrug and tell you that ‘no-one really knows’. No-one he says, ever mounted the barricades over confusion.
Asked if anything can be done to stem the spread of such false truths, he suggested that there are people working on a system that could provide early flagging of false stories. Something like a little warning that pops up to say to you that yes, you can share this story, but you may find you look like a total prat if you do…
A truly fascinating hour’s discussion and one that left me feeling very uneasy about how we manage to keep being able to tell the difference between true stories and false news. Journalism has never been in more danger from a fragile newspaper economy, yet never have we needed it more.
I bought the thriller, of course. But this session was about so much more than that, it was an important contribution to how we police our own understanding of facts and that for me, was exceptionally interesting.