The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, June 03, 2003

The Blairs (Jayson and Tony) and Truth: the war, fantasy, hypocrisy, the whole nine yards...

I confess: I've had fun with the Jayson Blair story (this piece from May 28, for instance). A less appealing bunch of characters involved down there at Grey Lady Central one could scarcely wish to meet. They deserved what they got.

And the war lies, too: from Tony, George and the rest of the reptiles. They lied, they were called on their lies - and it made not a blind bit of difference! You either laughed or you cried.

But enough is as good as a feast. Following, as one should, the Jayson-related agonies of the media on Romanesko, I see signs of a salutary turning of the tide.

The Big Lie is, of course, that a journalist or politician or brain surgeon can provide us, the Great Unwashed, with the Truth on any particular subject. There is no Truth; it's not out there - or any place else. And journos and pols are professionally too scared to fess up to the fact. They'd rather be castigated for telling porkies.

A couple of pieces from that tide-turning, via Romanesko, natch:

From the San Francisco Chronicle (May 30), a piece by Jon Carroll retails some earlier media slippings off the pedestal - and then hits the bull point:
So here's the deal: Media are untrustworthy. They are susceptible to information fraud, and they always will be. Your job is to verify, confirm, triangulate. Mediated reality is a pallid entity compared to the real thing. It's fun in here, but it ain't life.

And when he says your he means you and me: the civilians, the suckers, the admass, the proletariat [1]. Ever man his own Quality Control Department. Almost as if we were grown-ups...

And from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (June 1) a piece by Dennis Roddy picking up the plagiarism angle: all news is, to one extent or other, picked up from somewhere else - the agencies, of course, and a whole lot more. Providing genealogical tables for every snippet - namechecking every source - would make news pieces hospital-clean [2] but unreadable. It would be typical organisation-stuff: doing what can be measured, ticking boxes, signing off, passing the buck. And it wouldn't do anything for the actual quality of the news product as consumed by you and me.

A piece from the New York Sun (June 3) makes much the same point, with special reference to TV news.

The media response to the Jayson Blair story has been displacement activity, misdirection - and a whole lot of frantic onanism. It's producer-obsessed in an utterly Stalinist, Old Left sort of way: in the debate, the Customer isn't King - he's nowhere.

Turning to Tony Blair, that other prestidigitator of fact and fantasy, much the same. The talk is all about enquiries of all shades and types (and a British prime minister has plenty to choose from to bury bad news [3]).

The problem is that, even if there were an open mechanism for effectively getting at what happened, much of the material is, I suspect, genuinely deserving of being kept secret on security grounds. The case for keeping it so is much easier to make than the case for invading Iraq ever was.

And, as per usual, British eyes are looking westwards to the supposed Nirvana of the Congressional committee (of which UK parliamentary committees are but pale and apologetic shadows). The Senate Armed Services Committee and Intelligence Committee will investigate the intelligence on Iraqi WMDs. (Well, USA Today (June 1) says will:
Two Senate committees will investigate whether the Bush administration misused intelligence to make the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and justify a war to depose Saddam Hussein.
Whereas AP (June 2) says may:
Sen. John Warner, on CNN, said the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee may look into the situation.)

Either way, cispondians should not allow their irrational Americophilia about Congressional investigations [4] to get their hopes up: a piece in Government Executive Magazine (June 3) scrapes the rose tint off the glasses, with a case study of a hearing of that self-same SASC which is supposed to get the goods (if goods there be) on intelligence double-dealing. Read the whole thing; but this gives a flavour:
Warner again interrupted the questioning to announce that he had just received a hand-delivered letter from the CIA stating that evidence of a North Korean missile with enough range to reach California was old news. Immediately after that, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, began a question by stating that the day before, the CIA had revealed the new information that the North Koreans had a missile that could reach Hawaii. Things like that happen when senators don’t pay attention and staffers don’t tell them to revise their scripts. Akaka then moved on to his concerns about the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Guam.

The only truth is that there is no salvation in the judgement of others.

The medical analogy is useful (if not pushed too far): just because a patient is capable of asking intelligent questions doesn't make him able to do the operation; but, just because he's not qualified to do the operation doesn't mean he can't ask intelligent questions.

The decision on treatment should be the patient's (wherever possible), in careful and informed reliance on the opinion of the doctor's. Both parties have their own responsibilities.

  1. Strangely, there comes to mind Orson Welles's £20,000 question in The Third Man.

  2. Not that hospitals are clean, of course: the magic letters are MRSA - it's not cool for medics to wash their hands any more....

  3. This Guardian piece (June 3) runs through the possibilities. Blair is still trying to hold the line against, though.

  4. One of the few areas left, perhaps.

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