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The Leveson Inquiry: memories and language

As this inquiry churns on and on in the background of economic gloom and matching weather I have been interested to think a little about how it all works, not on a legal or regulatory level, but in the minds of those giving evidence and those charged with making judgements about the evidence.

Memories are not showreels, fixed in our minds for evermore. Memories are made up of a cocktail of chemicals and electrical energy fired around the brain, as neurons share encoded sensory information with each other, whilst creating new synaptic connections and neural networks, or something… What I am getting at, is, that a memory is not fixed. A memory changes in the recall, so it is a dynamic process and the way you happen to remember events becomes the strongest connection in your brain over time. Which is how we arrive at an inquiry to find that people remembering the same events are describing them in contradictory terms, whilst all still telling the truth.

A neural network, not Mr Osborne’s

So how does Leveson decide what is what in this jungle of interconnected, yet sometimes opposing memories? Well, I suppose he might consider who seems more consistent, more reliable as a witness, by examining whose testimonies have some underlying cohesion to them. If I were him, and I am glad I am not, I would also think about the personal story about the event that the witness has revealed in their recalling of ‘the facts’, because within the language used I believe there are some hints to a person’s inner processes and subsequent narrative about their public self.

Take George Osborne’s testimony about the BSkyB bid by the Murdochs. His tone and bearing appear equanimous, he sounds a reliable witness. He may be so. Examine the language he uses to rebut allegations that the Tories were somehow complicit in nodding the takeover through after the election, because they had already agreed to it prior to the election in return for support from the Murdoch press. He talks about a ‘vast conspiracy’ it being ‘complete nonsense’ ‘you have to be a real fantasist to believe that…’ ‘cunning plan’. He then concludes that the ‘facts simply don’t bear it (the allegation) out’.

So despite his apparent equanimity, George Osborne, rolls out this colourful and descriptive language to merely assert that the Conservatives followed ‘proper process’ in the matter of the BSkyB bid. This big gun language seems to have been specially drafted in by the Chancellor and, to my mind, sits outside his usual lexicon. There may be two reasons for this: one, that although he believes the facts do speak for themselves, they are somewhat thin on the ground so the forceful language is an attempt to fill the gap between evidence and belief, and two, that his fundamental belief that his political opponents are ‘fantasists’ who are willing to entertain ‘complete nonsense’ has strongly influenced his recall of events. His memories then, are not an account of the facts, but an account of his beliefs about the protagonists, including himself: Tory = rational and truthful, opponents and others not totally convinced = fantasists.

It’s not like that though is it? Most of the facts and ‘the truth’ are going to lie somewhere in the grey middle. With partisan evidence like this, I fear we are never going to get there. To me, and I don’t care for the guy – so take it as you wish, the language comes across as arrogant and self-serving and does not even hint at an interest in getting to the heart of what Leveson is all about. In terms of getting to the truth he may as well have said, ‘What? Me, Guv? Not me, Guv’ and left it that. Except that he’s not that humble and if he had it wouldn’t have got me thinking. I think it is almost possible to hypothesise that the strength of the memory does not guarantee its veracity. A vivid memory may not always be down to an accurate recollection of the original event, and may be more to do with the manner and narrative within which it has been repeatedly recalled since.

Next up, Gordon Brown, and what he said about his wife, Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch.