A few years ago I read Andrew Rawnsley’s book Servants Of The People, and very fine it was too; it is a well written and entertaining telling of the early New Labour years full of interesting anecdotes and incisive analysis. But, I wondered as I read it; what to make of all those florid descriptions of private conversations between two parties where the author wasn’t present? How reliable a record were they of what had actually occurred? This was easily resolved; they simply weren’t to be relied upon, not at all – how could they be? – and to think otherwise would make me either deluded or a fool.
Seeing as Andrew Rawnsley does apparently believe his words to be utterly reliable, I can only conclude then that he is either deluded, a fool, or a deluded fool. Let’s take the example in the news, Rawnsley’s allegation that Gus O’Donnell verbally warned Gordon Brown about his bullying conduct towards his staff. Rawnsley defends his story as being “100%” accurate, his source “24-carat”. Utter, utter arse. Let’s assume that this conversation did take place; the only way he can credibly insist that the story is 100% accurate is if he was there, and he wasn’t; even if he were, we’ve all been in situations where our account of events and our reading of a situation differs markedly from others who were also there and whose opinions are just as legitimate as our own.
So, in the absence of actually being there, the only other way Andrew Rawnsley can seriously claim that he has covered events with anything like a 100% accuracy is if he has spoken to both parties involved, and I think we can be pretty sure that, in the case of O’Donnell and Brown, he hasn’t. In order to justify his 24-carat claim, then, Rawnsley has all but admitted that he has spoken to Gus O’Donnell and has his first-hand version of events; but if we are to believe that there are two sides to every story – and I think we should – then that must leave us with Rawnsley’s account being 50% accurate at best. Add in all other factors – O’Donnell, being human, will have all manner of reasons for overplaying or underplaying his part, even for outright lying when briefing a journalist – and I’d rate the veracity of Rawnsley’s story at about 27%; the quality of his source may be 24-carat, but the quality of his sources story is more like die-cast metal. Which is not to say that the story isn’t true, mainly or wholly, just as die-cast metal is perfectly good when it comes to the manufacture of Space 1999 Eagle Transporter or Star Trek USS Enterprise toys. But just as you wouldn’t want to be handed a die-cast metal spaceship at the altar on your wedding day, a die-cast metal story hardly seals the deal. Apart from anything else, one day you’ll drop that Eagle Transporter on you aunt’s kitchen floor and snap the engine off in a jagged white break; and the bay doors of the Enterprise will get loose over time and then you’ll lose that orange plastic space shuttle that clips on underneath, and you’ll never find it, no matter how often you check the back of the sofa, and it won’t ever turn up, not even when you move house, although you’re twelve-years-old by then and no longer bothered, because it must have gone up the Hoover, let’s face it.
I digress. The point is that Andrew Rawnsley has been told something, written it in a book and claims it to be true; but he can’t know that, so it’s just a story he has been told and cannot possibly verify. He was on Newsnight yesterday along with Daniel Finkelstein who similarly stated that he knows these claims are true because loads of such stories have been going around Westminster for years. Well that’s a slam-dunk! Received wisdom is now historical record! Frankly it calls to minds the dubious police practice of “trawling” for allegations rather than actual evidence, yet Finkelstein even referred to these allegations – my choice of word, since that is all they possibly can be at this stage – as being examples of the sort of “facts” that journalists should report (although, since he doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “pedantic” that could merely be down to his poor knowledge of English vocab). Honest to fucking God it makes you want to cry. Whatever happened to a bit of journalistic scepticism? Is it left behind in the cloakroom when they enter the lobby? Are they too dim to countenance that at least some of these stories could be the ulterior imaginings of Brown’s opponents, or is it that they are too busy congratulating themselves on being “in the loop”? Are they naïve or arrogant? Judging by Rawnsley and Finkelstein’s performance on Newsnight I’d say the latter, actually.
Look; I’m not saying that these stories aren’t true, I simply don’t know and yes, I can well believe them. But the likes of Andrew Rawnsley and Danny Finkelstein don’t know either, unless they were actually present at any of these alleged incidents; the difference is that while I entertain doubts and keep an open mind, they seem to have abandoned their critical faculties so as to confidently claim an insider’s total knowledge based on the self-serving rumours that swirls around parliament’s bars and tea rooms. Well they’re welcome to their credulity, but the rest of us should bear in mind that these are stories, authored by politicians and the like, and adapted by journalists with books to sell and column inches to fill. That’s hardly a recipe for accuracy, reliability and truthfulness in my book.