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Mount Truth is besieged by a faction of dramatist

Simon Jenkins

Journalism this month mourned the death of one of its own, Eddie Clontz, late of Palm Beach, Florida. For 20 years, Clontz entertained and terrified America with stories in his Weekly World News. No other journal would print them. His greatest scoop was the 1988 headline that “Elvis is Alive” . . . and living in Kalamazoo. When, in 1993, he reported that the singer was now dead, readers were so upset that he resurrected him.

To Clontz we owe the revelation that “Seven congressmen are Zombies”, that al-Qaeda killers were masquerading as garden gnomes (“says top CIA source”) and that “Bat Child Found in Cave” had escaped, fallen in love and was backing Al Gore for president. When asked if his stories were true, Clontz roared, “We let our readers decide.” Tens of thousands trusted him, not least in his right-wing fanaticism. His discovery of a “hive of baby ghosts” was greeted with readers flocking to adopt one. Many of Clontz’s best stories, I am told, were written by Britons fleeing “toffee-nosed” Fleet Street tabloids.

Was Clontz a public menace or a hilarious practical joker? I am moved to wonder by the latest assaults on Mount Truth by the global entertainment industry. I have been watching the BBC’s Dunkirk. I have pondered Sir David Hare’s dramatisation of the Potters Bar train crash. Wild horses will not get me to Mel Gibson’s “Christian Right” version of the Gospels, The Passion of the Christ. I have also seen Robert McNamara’s The Fog of War, a strong candidate for best documentary at the Oscars on Sunday.

None of these works purports to be fiction. Each claims journalism’s licence, the sword of truth. In Dunkirk, the BBC says it has reconstructed the exact incidents and characters, even the words, of those taking part in the evacuation. David Hare attributes all recent train crashes to privatisation, selectively reporting what various participants have told him. He holds some up to heroism and others to scorn.

The Guardian journalist, Richard Norton-Taylor, and others have made a small industry from turning public inquiries into stage plays. We have been given dramatised versions of the Scott and Stephen Lawrence inquiries. Hutton has been reconstructed at the Tricycle Theatre and by Panorama on television. The words are those used at the hearings, but they are edited, adapted and put into the mouths of actors for dramatic effect, with beginning, middle and end.

Although I share the bias of most of these writers, I find their exploitation of reality disturbing. Dunkirk was a valiant stab at reality history, but its actors were clearly modern, behaving as modern actors do. When interspersed with “real” war newsreels the veracity collapsed. This face and voice is not Churchill’s, so why should I believe that the words are his? How do I know that the German treated the Briton that way? The intention was to convey horror and confusion. It was far better done with exclusively “real” material in the BBC’s epic Great War, now on cable. That was horrific.

Sir David’s essay accompanying his Permanent Way leaves the audience in no doubt of his anger. But how much of the play’s reporting is accurate is a mystery. Does it matter? Since it aspires to truth, I think it does. The inquiry transcripts contain more subtle bias. The moods and expressions of the actors cannot avoid the bias hindsight. Mr Norton-Taylor admits that he regards Hutton as “a scandal going to the heart of government”. It is like a newspaper declaring its bias on page one.

Mr McNamara in contrast lays these concerns to rest. He uses no actors or fabrications. An 87-year-old man drones on above the contemporary footage of historical events, the Second World War, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam. Here is true hindsight, the horror of war and the folly of error contemplated in retirement. Reality is firmly in the past. Today is for reflection. Time is in its proper sequence. The effect is powerful.

“Creativity” is now invading reality at battalion strength. Nothing is sacred. Last month, in an article in The Times, biographer, Sara Wheeler, confessed that she had been “chronically short of primary material” for her gripping life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the Antarctic explorer. She decided instead to “to convey a poetic truth”. I admire her work but confess to being shocked. Ms Wheeler explained that every documentary writer did the same, citing Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Norman Lewis and Peter Carey. If you were a good enough writer, she said, “you can do anything you damn well like.” Good enough journalists can’t.

When Keats declared that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know, a thousand fiction writers cried Amen, grabbed the nearest newspaper and ran to the bank. Films such as Oliver Stone’s JFK and Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father invented facts to allege a conspiracy to kill Kennedy and to jail the “Guildford Four”. Both films relied on old propaganda techniques of manufactured pseudo-veracity. They were like early American movies romanticising the Wild West, exploiting what the American historian, Daniel Boorstin, called “the power to be mistaken for reality”.

Art is potent. So are facts. Mix the two and the cocktail can seem irresistible. Jean-Luc Godard remarked that “cinema is truth 24 times a second”, not because it was true but because the medium was so powerful that people believed it. Writers and directors know what they are about. They want to do what a newspaper columnist does, persuade an audience of a point of view. But they accept none of the disciplines to which journalists must adhere. If I were to declare that many of the facts so far used in this article were merely “based on” real ones, that I had invented some and gingered up quotes to get at “a deeper truth”, readers would I hope be shocked.

In this matter our old friend, Lord Hutton, paid journalism a compliment. Last month he demanded of it higher standards than from other merchants of reality, such as those operating in central government. Journalists, he said, must pass the most rigorous test of accuracy and “soundness”. He took no such puritanical view of civil servants. They were excused of lying if subjected to “subconscious influence”, even in the highest affairs of State.

This week newspapers revealed what some might regard as a media deception. We were fed with tales of a little old lady in the West Country apparently unable to pay her council tax. We now learn that she never had to pay it and was the creature of a political party, a tabloid, a large sum of money and the publicist, Max Clifford. This was surely unethical and newspapers have not been slow to say so. But had the lady been presented in a reality play or a “council tax reconstruction” , I am sure she would have been considered a brilliant creation.

Stage and screen are now claiming access to journalism’s greatest asset, the trusted depiction of reality. Faction is all the rage, alongside docudramas. American publishers are said to have lost interest in fiction, demanding instead anything based on real people, real incidents, real lives. They are standing Eliot on his head. Humankind it seems cannot get enough reality. Reality is apparently a debt owed by journalism to literature.

I disagree. Tarnish the public’s belief in truthful reporting and both sides of this fence are in trouble. I believed the recent BBC reconstruction of the “Granita dinner” between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It was presented as a plausibly seminal event of modern history. Then the waitress on the night in question, clearly a close observer, wrote to The Guardian saying that the whole thing was a travesty. My confidence in the reconstruction collapsed. It was fiction.

Journalists have their own problems making sure facts are right. But accuracy is a discipline that they recognise and try to honour. My experience of faction and docudrama is that such discipline seldom applies. The authenticity borrowed from journalism is polluted and distorted for dramatic effect, whether to make a political point or merely to make money.

The risks here are considerable. Other professions may hack chunks from Mount Truth and carry them off elsewhere. Journalism requires the mountain to remain intact. Otherwise readers will vanish. Keats was simply wrong. Beauty is not synonymous with truth. Worse, it is becoming an excuse to rape and slaughter it.