When the truth mattered (and why it still does)

Separating proper journalists from propagandists and trolls is easy enough—can they handle a story which upsets friends and allies?

Nick Cohen

Journalism is either denounced as fake news or elevated into a civic mission. To journalists, or at any rate good journalists who work for decent editors, the screams of propagandists from Putin to Trump via every variety of right- and left-wing troll, are as irrelevant as the sanctimony of the journalism schools.

A craven desire to uphold the hidden agendas of the neo-liberal elite or woke Left does not drive them, as journalism’s enemies claim. Nor are they noble campaigners inspired by dreams of telling truth to power or of writing the “first draft of history”. To hell with all that.

What motivates the best of them is encapsulated in a cry from Conleth Hill, playing the editor of the Observer in Official Secrets, the most realistic depiction of newspaper life I have seen on film since All the President’s Men.

“It’s a fucking good story.”

Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum runs the legal maxim—let justice come though the heavens fall. Journalists should be motivated by the desire to go for a good story whatever the consequences. It needn’t be a story that brings down a government or stops a war—although both have their attractions. Being the first to expose a wrongdoer, or simply to make as much trouble as possible for the pompous and the powerful, is enough. When the exceptions for needless invasions of privacy and unwarranted harassment of celebrities have been made, journalism at its best is driven by the determination to crack stories open.

The question that tests journalists, along with anyone who boasts of possessing an independent mind, is whether they can handle “the wrong kind of story”: the inconvenient truths that expose and threaten old friendships and political positions. News organisations that fail it display a contempt for their readers and for themselves.

Official Secrets opens in October. I would have wanted to see it even if it had been a slender work. It has a good cast—Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans as well as Hill—and it is set in my very own newspaper, the Observer, in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003. Beyond these attractions, director Gavin Hood has made a serious film that takes arguments from the Iraq conflict and raises questions that are, if anything, more important today.

Hill plays Roger Alton, a part-infuriating, part-charming editor of the Observer from 1998 to 2007. Alton was probably too right-wing to run a liberal paper. Not that he would have accepted the old political labels had life in them at the turn of the millennium. (“Fuck, Nick, can’t you see that left and right don’t mean anything these days?”) Tony Blair was a prime minister made for him, although Alton preferred to adore him from a distance. Office legend had it that when the political editor told him he had arranged a meeting with Blair, Alton cried: “Fuck, I can’t meet the prime minister. I’m just a sub.” While waiting in Downing Street for his interview David Miliband walked by.

“So what changes do you plan to make to the paper?” Miliband asked.

“Bit more sex on the front page. More sport. That kind of thing.”

Easy to look down your nose and disapprove, and I certainly looked down mine when I was in his newsroom. But Alton had an argument. The late 1990s were a happier time when politics was so unthreatening it seemed not to matter. There was space for a bit more sex and a bit more sport. I only wish there was now.

Given the editor’s politics, or absence of politics, it was inevitable that Alton would go along with Blair’s willingness to ally with George W. Bush in the run-up to the second Iraq war.  Although I was entitled to disagree, I supported them too. Saddam Hussein was one of the worst dictators I had seen in my lifetime. As importantly, the worst elements of the Left had taken over the anti-war movement, and I knew they must be fought. (They have gone on to take over the Labour party and may yet take over the country. My thinking has not changed.)

The Observer was a serious newspaper and its staff felt no constraint about expressing every shade of opinion. More to the point, it was a newspaper, and what electrifies newspapers are stories. Katharine Gun provided one that went to the heart not just of Bush and Blair’s justification for war but of what it meant to be a serious journalist.

Keira Knightley plays Gun, a translator at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who thought her duty was to protect her country and uphold the rule of law. In January 2003, she and her colleagues at the spy centre in Cheltenham received a memo from Frank Koza, Chief of Staff (Regional Targets) at GCHQ’s counterpart in the US, the National Security Agency (NSA). “As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council members . . . for insights as to how membership is reacting to the on-going debate Re: Iraq.” Koza wanted material that could put pressure on representatives of Angola, Pakistan, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea to authorise the use of force, and make the war legal in the eyes of most international lawyers. He was hoping for “the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprises”.

Gun was such an impressive figure because she understood the significance of what she had read at once. Knightley portrays her nervousness at breaking the Official Secrets Act. She trembles as she approaches a photocopier with the memo. But she knows what she has to do. The US and Britain were “trying really hard to legitimise an invasion, and they were willing to use this new intelligence to coerce and perhaps blackmail delegates, so they could tell the world they had achieved a consensus for war,” she told Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, the authors of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War. American success at the UN would give war the appearance of legality, so Gun did something unconscionable to a spy who had accepted the taboos of GCHQ, and leaked to the press.

At least she tried to. Gun had no idea how to get the document to journalists. She passed the Koza memo to a peace activist. Her friend passed it to Yvonne Ridley, who had started out as a tabloid reporter, then been captured by the Taliban on assignment in Afghanistan. She converted to Islam on her release, and joined George Galloway and the blossoming alliance between the white far-Left and the Islamist religious Right in the anti-war movement. Ridley called Martin Bright, then the Observer’s Home Affairs editor, and presented him, and the paper, with a journalistic dilemma.

How could the Observer be sure the memo was authentic? Bright (Matt Smith) did not know the source. All he knew was that the document had come via Yvonne Ridley, not a reporter most journalists would stake their reputation on—and I say this as someone who in a sentimental moment once organised a petition to stop her being chucked out of the Observer.

The one checkable fact was whether a Frank Koza worked for the NSA. Proof of his existence was proof that the document was genuine. Bright asks the paper’s Washington correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, for help. Vulliamy finds a way to confirm that the mysterious Mr Koza works for the NSA. The foreign editor, Peter Beaumont, pumps his MI6 sources: in their wariness about the memo, he finds a kind of confirmation. Bright feels vindicated when the head of the D-Notice committee, who could have issued a UK reporting ban, says his job was to protect national security, not save the Blair and Bush administrations from political embarrassment.

Gavin Hood does not duck the arguments in the Observer office. For this was not a story that suited the prejudices of its senior staff. Kamal Ahmed, the political editor in 2003, was a novice. He had been promoted too quickly, and sent to cover politics when he had no experience of Westminster and few contacts in Parliament. Downing Street was his best source of news, and an exposé could alienate No 10. If Ahmed had an authority problem, it was that he was too respectful of it. (Ahmed says of this period: “I wasn’t involved in this story in the way portrayed, and the film’s characterisation of my role and opinions about the story are untrue, as the film-makers know.”)

Alton admires Blair, and has authority problems of his own. Ahmed raises doubts. Martin Bright and Peter Beaumont argue for the story. What should Alton do? He should remember what journalists are for and authorise publication for the best reason imaginable: “It’s a fucking good story.”

Sounds easy when I put it like that. Tell the truth whatever the consequences. Publish and be damned. Hunt, corner, kill. All those macho slogans. But if the old nostrums of journalism are true, how can we be living in the age of trolls, when dictators and alt-fascists and alt-Stalinists can mobilise their supporters against honest reporters and get away with damning investigative journalism as fake news? How can Trump and Putin reign? To measure our decay, consider that the Blair government cared about the charge it had lied to the public and rejected it with fury. Politicians in the mould of Trump, Johnson and Corbyn feel no shame if their deceits are exposed. They care only that their supporters believe them as they dismiss truth as lies.

Official Secrets captures journalism in the last days of an old world when the mainstream media’s dominance was just about in place. A critical mass of public service broadcasters, serious newspapers and magazines, MPs, academics and professional bodies maintained the conventions of public accountability, and the morality that sustained them. They are now everywhere in retreat, and I accept that in a small way they were the authors of their own downfall.

Old serious journalism rested on foundations the demagogues of the 2010s have found easy to subvert.

No one believes in telling the truth whatever the consequences. Marriage, love, friendship, political alliances or any kind of communal bond would be impossible if you exposed every fault in the people around you. The Blair government might have thought the Observer had made a commitment to support the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. GCHQ’s behaviour did not alter the facts of Saddam’s tyranny. The genocidal slaughter of the Kurds, the poison gas, the torture chambers, the blood-soaked personality cult had all still happened, and would continue to have happened whatever British spies did.

Martin Bright was torn about the 2003 war, while Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy were against it. Yet if they had found a story that justified Bush and Blair’s actions, their political beliefs would not have mattered and they would have pursued it. To a journalist, their behaviour seems normal. To outsiders it can seem like the privilege of a vulture, which feeds on any meat it can find.

Martin Bright had no idea who Katharine Gun was. Even so, he alerted lawyers specialising in civil liberties that there must be a GCHQ worker out there in urgent need of their help. Bright recognised that the state would go for the source. In theory, the Observer was open to a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (an authoritarian law that allows no appeal to the public interest); in practice, journalists were privileged. Bright said later of the coercive institutions of the British state: “They’re cowards. They preferred to take on the little guy—in this case, little woman—rather than us big guys.”

Imagine that Gun had talked to the most scrupulous journalist on earth before deciding whether to go public. He or she would have done everything they could to protect her, as Bright did. But they would never have taken their duty of care to its logical extreme. They would never have told Gun that her memo would not stop the war, and that all things considered it might be best for her and her family if she forgot about taking on the government. Journalists don’t kill a good story.

As it turned out, Gun endured the silky vindictiveness of the British state, which pretends to be civilised as it slips the knife into the gut. Gun confessed almost as soon as the Observer ran the story—she was a hopeless liar and in any case she didn’t want innocent colleagues to be blamed. She was arrested and bailed but the appearance of due process didn’t last. The immigration authorities detained her Kurdish husband, Yasar, and almost succeeded in deporting him. It felt like a punishment for embarrassing the government. The director of public prosecutions made her wait until the first day of her trial at the Old Bailey before dropping the case. Gun’s lawyers had found a way through the apparently impregnable defences of the Official Secrets Act: if at the time of the leak the attorney general was advising Blair that war would be illegal without a UN resolution, Gun could argue that she had acted out of “necessity” to prevent an imminent loss of life in an unlawful combat. Rather than suffer the embarrassment of seeing the attorney general’s advice scrutinised in a public court, the government resolved not to proceed with the prosecution. But it waited until the last minute to let Gun know.

The journalists did not suffer, and you could say that shows today’s Trumpian critics have a case: journalists were part of an  “elite”. They may have been, once. But contemporary journalists will find the charge ridiculous. Revenues for news organisations have collapsed. The internet has destroyed the media’s finances and its quasi monopoly on news production, leaving reporters to compete as best they can with tens of millions of online voices. At the time of the second Iraq war, young reporters could expect to buy a home and to receive a reasonable pension. Today, most can’t. In terms of income and job prospects, journalists’ lives are closer to the lives of the mass of their readers than at any time in the last 100 years. They have never been less of an “elite”.

Realism is not the demagogue’s concern, however. Denigration of media elitism has grown in inverse proportion to journalism’s decline. In fact, I suspect it is the result of journalism’s decline. Like any bully, politicians can smell weakness. When they have Twitter and Facebook to mobilise their supporters, they can safely challenge the efforts of “elitist” broadcasters and print journalists to make them accountable.

They ask: “What are these ‘stories’ journalists say they must publish whatever the consequences?” Fake news from contaminated sources, comes the answer.

Arguments about why one subject is a “story” but another is not have always occurred and have always been worth having. They are almost irrelevant today because they have been taken over by political thugs and exploited to buttress their power. A second inverse proposition applies. The truer a story is, the more likely it is to be reviled as a fabrication or an irrelevant distraction from what really matters. It is axiomatic on the Corbyn left that the anti-semitism their leader and his followers have spent years wallowing in isn’t real racism but a fantasy created by the Israeli government and the British right. Equally, it is axiomatic on the Johnsonian right that warnings of Brexit producing a national humiliation are the fabrications of an anti-democratic ruling class that has been corrupted by the European Union.

Political trolling, properly defined, is not simply the propagation of lies. No one, not even Donald Trump, wants or needs to lie all the time. Rather, it is the marshalling of sympathisers in old news organisations—partisan newspapers and unregulated broadcasters—and online to lie about, minimise or distract attention from politically dangerous truths. Trolling, when it has political significance, isn’t incontinent abuse but targeted propaganda.

The Blair government appeared the master of media manipulation. It lied and covered up like all governments. But it never occurred to its officials that they could run a campaign saying that the truths told about the Anglo-American attempt to subvert the United Nations were fake news, or that anyone would believe it if it did.

Sixteen years on, everything has changed. Roger Alton now works for the Daily Mail, and I am sure he is happy there. The BBC bureaucracy made Kamal Ahmed its Head of News. Ed Vulliamy has retired. Peter Beaumont is now a foreign correspondent on the Guardian. Martin Bright, one of the best journalists I have known, moved briefly to the New Statesman. That he has never had another full-time job in journalism since tells you as much about the profession’s decline as any number of profit and loss statements. He now runs a charity that finds jobs in the arts for underprivileged young people. Katharine Gun lives in Erdogan’s Turkey. It doesn’t strike me as an ideal home for a liberal Englishwoman or her Kurdish husband, but then Britain was not a safe space for them either.

The best journalists debate the worth of their work at a time when exposure and disgrace no longer bar politicians from office. They ask how they can fulfil a democratic duty when the powerful no longer care if they are caught in a lie and their supporters want to be lied to.

Timid and boring though it may seem, I can see no alternative to carrying on as before. The enormous provocation of Trump, Corbyn, Brexit and Johnson is leading many to become so committed to opposition that they will never examine the faults on their own side. They worry about the consequences and the heavens falling.

Their tactics can never work, morally or practically. Thinking about consequences risks turning a journalist into a politician. You ask yourself whether your writing helps or hinders a cause instead of worrying about the truth and importance of your research and strength of your argument. Take this road and you quickly descend into self-censorship and deceit. Travel further and you find yourself no better than the garbage politicians and their entourages of lackeys who call themselves “outriders”.

Meanwhile, I can cite you exhaustive studies, which prove that honest factual reporting remains the most effective journalistic technique. It doesn’t convince fanatics cocooned in their bubbles, of course, but then it  never did, and I have yet to see evidence that the readers of the 2010s include significantly more unreachable fanatics than readers from the past. Even if I am wrong, you cannot reach them without becoming them. Serious journalism, like anti-extremist politics in general, has to distinguish between the hardcore, who can never be persuaded, and the rest who are open to argument.

All you can do is produce the best work you can and leave it to others to determine what happens next. Despite the moral ambiguities about the role of the journalist and the earnest arguments about what we should say and how we should say it, despite the concerns about the explosion of propaganda the internet has enabled and the undoubted feebleness of the response of traditional reporting, the old advice remains the best: just tell the fucking story.

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