Leveson Inquiry: memory and language – Brown & Murdoch
Murdoch tells the Leveson inquiry that in a telephone call the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, declared ‘war’ on his company. Something you’d remember, right?
Gordon Brown tells the Leveson inquiry that there was no such call.
We could toss a coin for who is telling ‘the truth’ and charge the other party with perjury, or we can, as I attempted to in yesterday’s blog post, analyse the language, the content, and the anatomy of memory to see what comes up.
The bone of contention: there was a call -v- the call never happened
Of course there was a call between Murdoch and Brown, more than one over the years, but a call in 2009, some time after the Sun had withdrawn its support for the Labour Party, is the call in question.
Brown says ‘the call did not happen’. What he means, perhaps, is that the call did not happen the way Rupert Murdoch says it did. Murdoch, and I find this surprising, given the way memory works, was able to briefly quote, apparently verbatim, not what just he said to Mr Brown, but what Mr Brown said to him.
Brown does not remember making a threat. Murdoch remembers the exact words. Telling the truth under oath is a problem, because you can tell the truth only according to what you recall of the time, or the conversation in question. I can barely remember what I said to someone last week. If you were ask me to recall a conversation in 2009, verbatim, I don’t think I could. Not even if it was really important, or emotional. Those kinds of conversations tend to be remembered like impressionist paintings, all loose brush strokes and overall tones. A telephone conversation is even harder to recall than a face-to-face one, because you have far less sensory information to lay down as a memory. It’s a voice coming out of the receiver – no particular visual impressions at all.
If either of Brown or Murdoch had a copy of the call, then, that would really be evidence. As it stands, we are left with this: two powerful men’s impressions of a conversation, amongst many, that they once had.
Brown will be personally invested in being the kind of statesman, or just man, that does not make threats. It’s hard to say what Murdoch is invested in, in terms of his own public image. When he appeared before MPs, on the custard pie occasion, he seemed, at times, for all the world like a fragile and doddering old man. Now, a few months later, this image is turned on its head as he puts in a polished performance of high detail memory recall worthy of Derren Brown.
I don’t believe Murdoch’s verbatim account but neither do I believe that Brown would remember exactly what he didn’t say to Murdoch, over the years. Murdoch’s business is headlines, on balance I can’t help but think that in putting those headline soundbites directly into Brown’s mouth, he has revealed the values and ethos that have got some sections of News International where they are today.
That said, I think that in the matter of Sarah Brown’s apparent ongoing friendship with Rebekah Brooks, after the Sun ran the intrusive and apparently unauthorised story about the Brown’s son, Gordon’s Brown’s claim that his wife is ‘forgiving’ doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Whilst in office as Prime Minister, the Browns appear to have bitten the bullet and played the media game, whether they liked it, or approved of it, or not. I suspect at an intellectual level, Gordon Brown rigorously separates his public and private roles and it is this dichotomy that allowed him to make statements to Leveson that made some reporters ‘jaws drop’.
Mr Brown may not say what others think they saw, but that doesn’t meant that he recognised it himself, at the time, or as a memory now.
And does it really matter anyway? As the real evidence stacks up, that which doesn’t rely on people’s memories (which are notoriously unreliable), a blurry picture is emerging. A post-modern portrait in which it seems to me that certain sections of the press and some politicians have far too symbiotic a relationship for a country that likes to bang on about democracy and (mark you, Michael Gove) free speech.