Lies and damned lies, Gyles Beckford

Truthteller
Stephen Davis
Exisle Publishing, $30.00,
ISBN 9781925335897

“Aren’t we all investigative journalists?” my colleague asked, as we lamented the quality of the coffee at an early hour in the newsroom kitchen.
“We’d all like to think so,” I replied. “But some of us are more investigative than others, perhaps.”

It was one of those innocent, non-committal exchanges prompted by the question, “What are you up to?”

At the base of my colleague’s question, of course, was the presumption that all journalists ask questions, investigate, probe, take nothing for granted, look for the spin, the obfuscation, the smokescreens … the bullshit. 

Unfortunately, that’s a good deal wide of the reality. 

And this is where Stephen Davis’s book steps in. As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

There is a war on truth. And the liars are winning. There is an increasingly large number of weapons in the arsenal of the rich, the powerful and the elected to prevent the truth from coming out — to bury it, warp it, twist it to suit their purposes.

So the foot soldiers of news, shrinking in number every year, are outgunned, out-thought, out-manoeuvred. Scoring the occasional battlefield win, claiming the odd scalp, but the tide of the war is moving against us.

Davis, a former television reporter, writer for the British Sunday Times, editor of the New Zealand Herald, and journalism tutor, has assembled a collection of his own war stories to show how dirty it can get when the powerful – in or out of government – put their minds and resources to writing their version of the truth. As Winston Churchill put it, “A lie gets half way around the world before truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

In 11 chapters, the author details various incidents in which truth was the first and, in some cases, second and third casualty of the battle. This is where Truthteller is supposed to be “the essential guide for understanding the modern media world”. 

An introduction details the “toolbox” of nasties used by the Nasties, as they peddle lies and deception. From there it’s the plight of a New Zealand-born MI6 agent; Brazilian rain forests; the sinking of a ferry in the Baltic; human shields in Iraq; a murder confession in Australia that gets ignored; and was an Antarctic death more than just an accident? And there’s more.

Each chapter is used as an example of a particular tool of deception and suppression of the truth, such as the conspiracy, the outright lie or “alternative truth”, delay, intimidation, disinformation, official secrets and character assassination, to name just a few. Some of these episodes are long in the tooth – the rain forest chapter goes back to 1989; others are early-to-mid 1990s.

The sub-text is that, given a choice between cock-up and conspiracy, choose conspiracy. This is one of the book’s distractions. 

The exposure of the original conspiracy, which was constructed to hide the truth, is achieved by arriving at another conspiracy, using material unearthed by the journalist. For example, the sinking of the Baltic Sea ferry, Estonia, in which more than 800 died, was likely a result of Russian action to halt the transport of secret Soviet-era military technology, all of which was a cover-up by the Estonian, Swedish, British and, for their own special reasons, the Russians:

Intelligence sources have confirmed that the Estonia was carrying crucial data – telemetry and components – from the Soviet space and missile programmes … British intelligence was behind the smuggling operation, working with the Swedes. Intelligence sources say the Russians learnt of the snuggling operation and tried to stop it.

But there is little attribution or substantive evidence to back up this version of events. There are only three footnotes for the chapter.

Similarly, the mystery of people burned, battered or boozed at the American Antarctic base at McMurdo station (was it a hushed up nuclear accident, referred to on an internet page that was no longer available, and why the need for the pockets full of salt?) morphs into a story about the mysterious death of a scientist at the South Pole. Was it accident or suicide, and where did the methanol fit in? The death has never been adequately explained, and the file remains open. The suspicion about the death is intensified by the lack of an adequate explanation by authorities and, in this case, also an American corporation. And there is an allegation of American diplomatic pressure to deter and obstruct a New Zealand police investigation. Some supporting evidence or documentation – almost anything more than just “sources said” – would have been welcome.

The chapter has a colourful scene- setter:

It was nearly dark and visibility was close to zero on the runway carved from the ice at McMurdo Station Antarctica … An Air Force Hercules flies in. The heroic mid-winter flight – in total darkness and with a temperature low enough to free the plane’s oil and fuel within minutes – gets worldwide coverage.

A little later at the South Pole: “Darkness gradually descended, escorted by plummeting temperatures and howling storms. The wind feasted on each flag still flying.”

It may be the editor in me, but this and quite a few other breathless passages could have done with a good subbing.

Two of the chapters deal with New Zealanders caught in the machinations of British officialdom. There is Richard Tomlinson, an MI6 agent, who fell foul of the British secret services, was sacked for spurious reasons and tried to write about it, only to be enveloped in a global miasma of disinformation, character assassination and official secrets stretching from Europe through to New Zealand.

The second is about a New Zealander, known as Mike Coburn, who was part of the ill-fated British SAS mission that was to become the best- seller Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab. Coburn sought to publish an alternate version of the disastrous raid, but was hounded by British authorities as they tried to suppress his book, although they had few qualms about McNab’s heroic portrayal.

In both cases, there seems little doubt about the heavy-handed, uneven treatment of the men, but Davis seems to have warmed to them because of their underdog status, perhaps fulfilling the admonition of the fictional Irish bartender Mr Dooley that “the job of the newspaper is to give comfort to the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

There are a couple of local incidents that might have done with some more detail – the abortive New Zealand defence of the America’s Cup, and Davis’s own travails as editor of the New Zealand Herald, when confronted by his directors and publisher, Tony O’Reilly.

He largely exempts journalists from scrutiny, save for a chapter about the “good news” story of the trapped whales in the Arctic. Our craft, with its diminishing resources and commercial imperatives to get clicks on websites and eyes on screens, could have done with a more thorough going over. After all, “aren’t we all supposed to be investigative?”

The book itself is a bit of a jumble of typefaces – the body text of descriptive pieces in serif, the explanation of the deceptive “tool” in sans serif. The photos are often grainy, in murky halftones. 

For all that I see these as detractions, the book contains useful pointers about the immensity of the challenges facing, not only journalism, but also broader society and democracy. Library shelves are replete with books in a similar vein, and industry publications, such as the Columbia Journalism Review, carry articles galore about the threat truth is under. But a ready reckoner of how to spot truth’s enemies and their weapons will not go amiss.

Davis has pointed words for the responsibility we current journalists, teachers and parents carry to educate and instil in younger generations the value of truth and information in a digital age distorted by social media, and manipulated by bots and algorithms:

We can also teach our children to be intelligent consumers of information, to understand the difference between fact and opinion, to understand that gossip is just that, and to be prudent in what information they share on social media or in person. Let’s teach them to be less quick to come to an opinion, to ask more questions before making up their minds, and to realize that the complex problems of our planet can’t be explained in a tweet or YouTube clip.

Amen to that! 

Gyles Beckford is RNZ’s business editor and was part of the joint investigative team with TVNZ and Nicky Hager into the New Zealand end of the Panama Papers.

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