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What if it’s not possible to write “the truth”? What if words themselves are the problem?

About the most hotly debated subject since the former president and would-be president Donald “The Donald” Trump launched the term Fake News has been journalism and truth. Indignant news hacks the world over have declared that the truth runs through their triple-source-checking veins. And now, in the face of the latest iteration of artificial intelligence scraping up and regurgitating everything – warts, lies and all – we journalists are declaring ourselves ever more valuable as gatekeepers to facts and truth.

David Montgomery must be suffering severe acid indigestion as the cost-cutter who, speaking at the German Embassy in 2007 and quoted in Press Gazette, said “sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check”. It’s beginning to look as if soon we’ll ONLY be sub-editors of AI-created stories: karmic revenge on a man who so resented being an unsung subeditor that he wanted to wipe them from the face of the balance sheet.

Today’s sub-editing means opensource checking of anything and everything to find the fakery: not just names, ages and addresses, but directions of cloud travel, wind speeds, sunrise times; counting digits on the hands of computer-generated popes; reversing the reflections in water. Hacks have had to become data analysts.

But is getting the facts straight enough to warrant the label “true”? What about the words themselves? What if they can’t be trusted? Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is meaning in the mind of the reader. Writers of all types, sub-editors (and fiction editors) are becoming increasingly wary.

Context might save the day. But context takes space and can lead to clunkiness. A recent pacy article in the Times Magazine referred to the late Who drummer Keith Moon’s appearance in court dressed as Field Marshal Rommel as vaguely amusing. It added, in brackets, “in the Seventies, Nazism was often lampooned rather than derided as outright evil”. There’s a passion-forreading killer if ever there was one. Presumably, it was some sort of chaff to divert opprobrium. It may be wise to add some chaff of our own here as the balance of opinion tends to agree that Rommel was not a Nazi. Er, should we define Nazi?

Universal truths and a common interpretation of words are what fiction writers, poets and playwrights have relied upon to engage with their audiences without tedious exposition. The Booker prize-winner George Saunders, in his short-story-writing manual A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, demonstrates how great Russian story masters sought emotional truths to make the reader believe and invest in something purely imaginary, simply through the careful juxtaposition of well-chosen words and the reader’s own inner life. Even punctuation matters. He quotes the Russian writer Isaac Babel: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a full stop in the right place.” Keith Waterhouse would have loved that.

When audiences engage with plays, novels and theatre, argues Saunders, they know from the start that these are fiction and so are already “switched on” to weighing the words against real life. That’s traditionally been the point of the arts: we get a thrill from experiencing fictitious “truths” so keep reading/watching. But, he warns: “The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world.” Without practice, “it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces”. Words, in other words, can be weaponised.

The safety curtains marked “fiction” are fraying and no longer protecting readers from the feelings generated behind them. Writers can no longer feel safe in the knowledge that any anger/arousal/fear/disgustgenerating words have been safely housed within boundaries marked “imaginary”. Jane Austen and Chaucer readings come with trigger warnings attached.

Moreover the lines between fact and fiction are blurring. Journalistically researched, narrative non-fiction – books such as A Day in the Life of Abed Salama by Nathan Thrall and These Are Not Gentle People by Andrew Harding, which resemble fiction – has become a best-selling genre. These tales, like all investigative journalism, call for something to be put right. But the writers can’t know how their reader will react. Will terrible events simply be softened by appearing to be novelised? Or will terrible events anger uncontrollable numbers of people because they’re presented in a more engaging way than the facts alone? Same words, different outcomes.

This dangerous ground appears to be the bastard (a note has just flashed up on my screen warning this word may be offensive to some readers) child of the evocative “new journalism” of the 1960s and 70s? Thanks for nothing, Tom Wolfe. Back then, the new-journalism proponents argued that the rock-solid environment for their colourful reporting, in newspapers and magazines, ensured readers would trust what they read was true and rigorously checked. Today, however, whether cause or effect, audiences have fallen out of trust with the traditional media, and so its content.

Instead, environments better known for tapping into emotions are shaping public opinion. Alongside narrative non-fiction, theatre productions, and film and TV drama, albeit based on “real events”, are

becoming more influential than reports of the events they are based on. Take the verbatim play Grenfell: in the words of survivors. Or ITV’s dramatized documentary Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Or even, heaven forbid, The Crown. In terms of word-for-word veracity, they are quite different from each other, but they are all presented in artistic ways that tap into emotions and what the public believes. And each has generated debate far wider than its entertainment value – possibly law-changing and public inquiry affecting in the case of Mr Bates vs…

Tom Stoppard, who has been wrestling with words and their meaning to audiences for the best part of six decades, raised the problem of language in Britain today in an interview in December by Dominic Maxwell. In his recently revived 2006 play Rock ‘n’ Roll, he has his character Jan, a Czech academic, say, when hailing the stability of the English mindset: “A thousand years of knowing who you are gives a people confidence in its judgment. Words mean what they have always meant.”

Although the context is national security, what Stoppard now says has even wider relevance: “The words in that speech feel out of date. It feels as if that is an England that no longer exists… freedom of expression is much more constricted than it was when the play was new, and that’s not very long ago, 17 years.”

And today your computer will warn you to not use certain words for fear of offence. The bastard. Poor Jane Austen: with words meaning a different thing to each individual, is there such a thing any more as a “truth universally acknowledged”?

Liz Vercoe

The writer has spent more than 25 years writing for, editing and solving problems on UK national magazines. She sits on the BJR editorial board.

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