|And how many sources confirmed your story?|
Last week I read this piece in the New Statesman, by professional journalist Andrew Gimson, who also wrote a biography of Boris Johnson.
Long ago, when he went to Brussels as a correspondent, his rivals accused him of embroidering his news stories for the Daily Telegraph in a way that was not strictly true. This was intensely annoying for them, especially when they were hauled out of bed to follow up reports that turned out to be inaccurate. They were not prepared to accept the defence that Johnson had made these imaginative embellishments in order to dramatise a deeper truth – namely, that Jacques Delors, the then president of the European Commission, was grabbing power at the expense of the nation states.Gimson's wider thesis is that the Conservative party and wider society are now riven not on left-right lines, but between fun-loving types like Boris Johnson and Puritans, amongst whom he counts Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.
The quotation above is designed to make the point that while the Puritans insist on mere facts, there is a deeper level of truth which can be accessed by buccaneering free-wheelers like Mr Johnson.
I agree with Mr Gimson. There is certainly a place for those who generate imaginative narratives about the way the world works in order to dramatise their philosophical, cultural and political perspectives. It's called fiction, and it's what I make my living teaching and researching.
Mr Johnson wasn't publishing fiction at this point (though I have read his comic novel about suicide bombers, Seventy-Two Virgins and his book of cautionary verse). He was writing for the news pages about specific events and decision made by actual people in a real organisation for credible newspapers whose readers had an expectation of accuracy. And yet he cheerfully concocted stories from soup to nuts, or as Gimson has it, 'imaginative embellishments'.
This marks me out as a Puritan, clearly. But the story isn't really about Boris Johnson. Yes, his blatant lies contributed to the public's trust in the EU decaying to the point of Brexit. The wider story however is that Andrew Gimson and the New Statesman have succumbed to the disease of 'truthiness'. An early example was the exchange between journalist Ron Suskind and George W. Bush's spokesman back in 2004.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."Sadly we expect our politicians to lie to us these days. What's really poisoned the public sphere is the total collapse of the dividing wall between 'news' and 'opinion': if Boris's tall tales were on the opinion pages we'd all have giggled at his exaggerations. Instead they were on the supposedly factual news pages and therefore gained illegitimate credibility.
The New Statesman knows that Johnson's claims about straight bananas, standardised condom sizes and banned sausages were lies, because it recently printed a piece dedicated to linking these lies with the referendum result. Now, however, they're happy to print without comment a defence of such behaviour which entirely rejects the notion of basic factual truth, on the grounds that it's boring or short-sighted.
Why should I ever believe anything Mr Gimson or the New Statesman (I'm a subscriber) prints in future? I have to assume that any claims they make are informed by a desire to access a 'deeper truth' which – crucially for this discussion of media ethics – must remain untestable and even invisible to the reader. We all know that journalism is necessarily incomplete and can never be impartial, but this is a new low: a journalist and a news magazine proclaiming that it's OK to lie, and uncool to object.
(I sent the NS a short letter on this subject: it went unprinted).