MY TINY mind is still shattered by the discovery that one of the
most respected journalists in Italy, whose interview with Pope
Francis caused shockwaves through the Roman Catholic world, did
not, in fact, take notes or make any other record of the interview
while it was happening.
Eugenio Scalfari, a former editor of La
Repubblica, has confirmed to a French journalist that the
whole of his interview, splashed all over the paper on 1 October,
was reconstructed after the fact.
So none of the wonderful phrases - that the court is the leprosy
of the papacy and so on - may, in fact, have been real.
This is not to say that the Pope wouldn't like to have said
them. His spokesman says that he read and approved the piece before
publication. But there is a huge - and to my mind very important -
difference between representing what someone thinks and reporting
what they actually said.
To some extent this is a cultural problem. Anglo-Saxon
newspapers are much keener on literal accuracy than European ones.
Anyone who has ever transcribed verbatim interviews knows that most
of what people say is unquotable, in any event, and often makes no
sense at all when written out. Meaning is conveyed in part by
context and in part by gesture and inflection.
The Nixon White House tapes, for example, are almost
incomprehensible for much of their length, even when the words are
clear. So there is something to be said for cleaning up speech to
record what people meant rather than what they actually said.
None the less, I think that the Anglo-Saxon method is an
important recognition of the limits of journalism. This is not
because it is necessarily more truthful. A wholly accurate quote
out of context can be much more misleading - and part of a much
bigger lie - than a prettied-up thing that no one ever actually
Yet the convention that what is reported was actually said does
act as in important check on truth, as well as accuracy. It tells
the readers the parameters within which the report may be
misleading, deliberately or otherwise. In conjunction with other
checkable facts, it works as an invitation to trust what the reader
There is also a process of humility involved. There is an
enormous amount that journalism simply cannot tell us. Some truths,
and some stories, are unknown at the time of writing. Others simply
cannot fit the medium. I would happily argue that novels can tell
more of the truth than journalism. But they are an entirely
distinct form, with different rules. Journalism is, in a sense,
more worth while and more honest when it tries to tell less of the
There is one final temptation to a subtler dishonesty involved
in the business of talking without notes. The best reason for doing
so is that it makes an interview feel more like a conversation:
less like an act performed in a box on television, and more like
something two people might do for each other, in private.
But this is wrong. When you talk as a journalist or with one, on
the record, you are not having a real conversation with a real
person. You never can be. It is a peculiar but essential part of
journalism that it depends on making public some things that were
not intended to be. No doubt even an atheist would rather have a
private conversation with the Pope than an audience. But, as soon
as we do that, we stop being journalists.
ONE possible counter example to this would be Cole Moreton's
Sunday Telegraph inter-view with his old friend Lee
Rayfield, the Bishop of Swindon, who has cancer. The Bishop is
reasonably confident that the lymphoma won't kill him, but is very
well aware that the cure could be lethal, because the chemotherapy
has knocked out his immune sytem.
Moreton writes: "He has seen what can happen. 'A few years ago,
an archdeacon was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He was doing
really well, then he got the flu. He died within a few days. That's
how serious this is.'
"Faith is no longer hypothetical. 'Do you know the film Touching
the Void? The guy who was cut from the rope and fell didn't pray,
because he just knew he didn't believe in anything.
"That is not how it is for me. I have a fragile, limited faith
with loads of questions, but this is not a fall into the unknown.
As a Christian . . . well, the play-acting is over, isn't it? When
hope is put to the test, you either have it or you don't. I am
finding that I do.'
"And when I leave, he shakes my hand again."