True north?

Who do we trust any longer? Where do we go for truth? The difficulty of finding certainty against a backdrop of spin, counter-spin and outright untruth is fast becoming one of the defining anxieties of our times. Yet in an unusually febrile news week, three of the main stories have been distinguished by the veracity of the human emotion at their core.

Boris Johnson is an unconscionable buffoon, if a clever and mendacious one. The image of him dangling from a zip wire at Tower Bridge, a union jack clenched in each pudgy fist, trousers at half mast and a mad grin on his face, is all the political epitaph he will ever need or deserve.

But there was nothing manufactured about the anger expressed in his letter of resignation to Theresa May. It had about it all the bitterness and frustration of a man seeing his personal ambition thwarted. It would be foolish to think we’ve seen the last of him, and next time we do the mask will doubtless have been restored, but there was a nakedness in his behaviour this week that rang like a bell.

England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia had no less clear a ring to it, albeit one a great many people were hoping not to hear. But beyond the simple fact of the closing score, the real story was one of human endeavour, of a group of young men coming together and maturing at great speed on an almost impossibly public stage, to see a distant dream nearly but not quite realised.

It was hard not be touched by the sight of Gareth Southgate at the final whistle consoling each member of his squad in turn. And the photograph of him in the Luzhniki Stadium, long after the crowds had left, standing on a deserted terrace in deep embrace with his wife, brought a lump to my throat.

And then there were the Wild Boars. Roller-coaster is hardly the right metaphor in the circumstances, but the remarkable rescue of the Thai boys and their football coach from potential entombment or drowning in the Tham Luang cave system, took a global audience through the entire spectrum of human emotion.

For me, as a lifelong, card-carrying claustrophobe who happened in the midst of it all to be making his first ever Channel crossing by Eurostar, their predicament was imbued with extra horror. But the courage and selflessness of all involved, rescuers and rescued, brought not only relief but a sense that there is still good in the world after all.

As if to underscore the essential truths of these three stories, I also read this week two articles about the wider and murkier waters against which they unfolded. Both were deeply alarming.

Fintan o’Toole, columnist with the Irish Times, argues that we [the world] are in a phase of trial runs and that what is being trialled is fascism. Fascism arises slowly, he says, starting with rigged elections following which power is consolidated by control and intimidation, while propaganda is used to engineer polarising social divisions, to identify an ‘other’, a despised out-group that threatens the existing order, and gradually to accustom people to the defence of the indefensible.

No bells ringing there, then. He uses the term ‘blooding’ to describe the moment when people first experience the dark pleasure of brutality, and find that they can think the unthinkable. The process has already begun within the democratic world, he warns. I urge you to read his article here.

Nick Cohen, meanwhile, an English political journalist writing in the New York Review of Books, accuses the BBC of mounting journalistic cowardice. He cites three examples of the corporation’s timidity in tackling issues of national importance: the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data leak, the Brexit campaign funding scandal, and the exposure of Russian interference in British politics.

I am of the generation that was brought up to regard the BBC as one of the pillars of civilisation. It still sometimes shocks me to recognise that I no longer believe it to be the vessel of truth I once thought; and to Nick Cohen’s list I would add its abject failure to investigate the current scandal of ‘dark money’ contributions to Tory campaign funding in Scotland. Allow the fear of speaking out to dominate, Cohen concludes, and you will end up like the BBC: ‘platitudinous, frightened, and irrelevant.’ You can read his piece here.

The shade of George Orwell is present in both these articles; implicitly in Fintan O’Toole’s piece, explicitly in Nick Cohen’s with its reference to the quote on the wall at Broadcasting House directly behind Orwell’s recently (and ironically, in Cohen’s view) unveiled statue: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

There is, and until we are overtaken by artificial intelligence always will be, human emotion at the heart of every story, whether it’s one we want to hear or not. Where that seems veiled or opaque, we have to ask why and keep on asking. It may be the only hope we have of finding true north in such times as these.

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