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An Anglo-Saxon attitude to notes

11 October 2013

Immunologist on his illness: Bishop Rayfield talks to Cole Moreton in The Sunday Telegraph

Immunologist on his illness: Bishop Rayfield talks to Cole Moreton in The Sunday Telegraph

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 said.

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 cannot check.

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 truth.

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."

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