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The Leveson Inquiry: more ‘complete nonsense’

David Cameron was questioned today. He borrowed his Chancellor’s phrase when saying that although he was actively courting all the media in the run-up to the general election, it was ‘complete nonsense’ to suggest that he was prepared to trade policy for a newspaper’s, specifically The Sun’s, support.

He did acknowledge that he and Rebekah Brooks were ‘pushing’ the same political agenda. Of course this must have been by chance, it was nothing to do with his PR activities as leader of the opposition. And neither was the texting and the socialising and neighbourly, old boy’s networking stuff. In YOUR head, David, in YOUR head. In mine, a lot of what you said today sounds like more of that, by now ubiquitous, complete nonsense.

Of course it is perfectly possible that The Sun could have decided to go against Labour in the election without David Cameron’s ‘help’. There’s not a lot of choice after all in the two-and-a-quarter horse race. Personally, I’d rather papers didn’t ‘support’ a party, it seems like an Industrial Revolution anachronism in a digital world; I just need the media to report the news, not manufacture it in-house.

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was a call between Murdoch and Brown, more than one over the years, but a call in 2009, some time after the Sun had withdrawn its support for the Labour Party, is the call in question.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.

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.