It doesn't pay to let the facts obscure the way

The Story Is True
October 26, 2007

"Crisis, what crisis?" is one of the most famous, or infamous, quotes to be found in the modern political lexicon. This 1978 quote, attributed to the Labour Prime Minister of the day, Jim Callaghan, was supposed to have been his reaction to the wave of strikes then hitting Britain. But, as is well known, Callaghan never actually said those words - they were the result of the fertile imagination of a Daily Mail (where else?) headline writer. But did it matter that Callaghan never actually said these words (they were not put inside quotation marks). Didn't the headline say, more powerfully and pithily than the PM himself, what he actually meant?

Bruce Jackson, in his fascinating book The Story Is True , would argue that it did not matter that these weren't exactly Callaghan's words. What was more important was whether the headline accurately expressed what he really meant. And if one listens to recordings of what the faltering Labour PM actually said to the reporters greeting him on his return from a summit on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, it is pretty clear that the headline did indeed capture, in those three words, what it took Callaghan many, many more to actually say.

But Jackson has another significant point to make, which is that stories have as much, if not more, to do with the listener than the teller. The waiting reporters, and their colleagues back at the paper, wanted to hear Callaghan say something that would confirm the political prejudices of their newspaper and equally reinforce, for their readers, what they wanted to read. And that is exactly what that quote did.

Jackson's book, more a series of personal anecdotes and reflections than a sustained narrative, makes a number of other fascinating points not least of which is that the role of stories, in any society, is to help its members make sense of the world, to bind them together more closely and pass on social and cultural values. But all of this raises a question that is perhaps more pertinent for philosophers than scholars of writing such as Jackson: does the act, conscious or otherwise, of creating or recreating "facts" that are not strictly true (since the events might not have happened to the storyteller as such, or not in that order or that location or whatever) nullify the essential "truth" that the story contains?

This review is being written on the day that The Times has revealed that some sections of the speech that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had, a few days back, delivered to the Labour Party's annual conference were in fact "lifted" from the speeches of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. In the normal course of things, "borrowing" lines from politicians that have worked well in the past is not a hanging offence.

However, in this case some of the passages related to stories about the battle to save Brown's boyhood sight, the lessons he learnt from his father and his friends from primary school days. Assuming that the basic facts of these stories were correct, did it matter if Brown and/or his speechwriters polished and re-arranged them a little in order to make a more powerful political impact? Isn't this what we all, usually in more humbler surroundings, occasionally do? Amusing anecdotes can be made that much more amusing by the odd addition or deletion; a powerful parable being told to a class can be made that much punchier with some judicious sub-editing.

For most of us it is not of great import. No one (in the normal course of events) is going to make important judgments about us, based on the telling of one or two hoary old anecdotes. But for politicians it can sometimes be very different. The revelation that a politician has been "economical avec la vérité " can be extremely damaging, although, as US presidential hopeful John Kerry experienced with his "stories" about his experiences in Vietnam, damage can be done even when all the facts are true.

Jackson has produced a thought-provoking and readable book; but there's one odd lacuna, and that is the absence of any discussion about the way that journalists, in virtually every culture I know, refer to a conglomeration of facts as a "story". Journalists will frequently say "that's a great story" or "that's not a story", meaning that this particular set of facts represents something that can or cannot be reshaped and retold in a way that their editors and readers will recognise as a "story". Had Jackson turned his attention to this issue he might well have come across that well-known journalistic adage: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." To which he might well have responded: "Why not?"

Ivor Gaber is research professor in media and politics at Bedfordshire University.

The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories

Author - Bruce Jackson
Publisher - Temple University Press
Pages - 256
Price - £13.99
ISBN - 9781592136063

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