I flicked on the telly the other morning and saw Simon Schama giving his all, yet again, in a rerun of his series on the History of Britain.
He was doing the Norman Conquest and, as you might expect, there were several references to 'The Chroniclers' - the men (mainly monks) on both sides of the Channel, who have told us almost all we know (or think we know) about what happened in the mid-11th century.
I'm well aware that Simon Schama exercises appropriate caution when faced with a 'source'. How does the writer know these 'facts'? Who is he writing for? Why is he writing? etc, etc. Still, in the flurry of a TV script, there was no time to labour the point that the reality might not have been exactly as depicted in the surviving accounts.
Anyone who has ever done historical research knows the fatal lure of the single, uncorroborated document: hard to disbelieve because it’s all we have to go on, and valued (perhaps over-valued) precisely because of its uniqueness. It’s the historian’s equivalent of the penchant journalists and politicians have for ‘secret’ intelligence - their automatic assumption being that information is more likely to be true if it isn’t public, when the opposite is more likely to be the case.
The chances are that a lot of the things we accept as historical fact are only faintly related to what really happened. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. If the story is embedded in the national consciousness, maybe there’s a case for leaving it undisturbed. After all, we can’t understand the literature, songs, or even the politics of the past unless we know the old tales.
Although the academic historical game is all about questioning and rewriting familiar stories, in practice, if people think that Alfred burnt the cakes or Robert the Bruce was inspired by a spider, it may not do any harm to let that notion lie.
In my time, I've had experience of helping the 'facts' to acquire a settled shape. In the 1970s and 80s, I worked in BBC news and current affairs. I suppose that era qualifies as 'history' now, so I'll take the chance to tell you a couple of anecdotes.
On the night of August 16/17 1977, I was a very junior sub-editor in Radio News. In those days, before computers, mobile phones, and with even the now-defunct CEEFAX in its infancy, we relied for our information on stringers phoning up, and agency reports coming in by teleprinter.
|The machine looked something like this|
One of the jobs on the night shift was monitoring this stuff as arrived. If anything significant or urgent turned up, and you were reasonably sure it was true, you pressed a button on a microphone on the desk, and your voice rang round BBC newsrooms and offices, alerting the staff to the breaking story. It was unusual for much to merit announcement on the blower during the night: there were no bulletins on any radio outlets till the morning, and no morning TV at all. In any case, most overnight news came from far-away lands that rarely made it into our summaries - places where our night was their day.
On that August night, a flash came through from one of the American news agencies, saying that Elvis Presley had died. I pondered for a moment whether to announce this. You'd hardly believe it now, but in 1977, Elvis wasn't such a big deal. For my generation, born too late for his heyday, he represented a past age, eclipsed by our home-grown talent.
We knew him only as a flabby has-been, or the star of some rather embarrassing flims in livid technicolour
(this is a view I have since revised thanks to the post-mortem rediscovery of his early career!).
Anyway. I studied the flimsy piece of paper, and decided that I would go ahead.
So it was that I broke the news of Elvis's death to the people who would relay it to the nation hours later.
I was completely unprepared for what followed. Telephonists from the switchboard rang the newsroom in tears to check. Serious journalists I regarded as geriatric (they were probably in their 40s) started arguing about how to cover the story in the morning bulletins. The genie was out of the bottle when another piece of copy arrived, from the same agency and, lo and behold, it seemed that Elvis was still alive. This new account had him in hospital, but recovering. I felt a complete idiot, imagining dismissal, or at best a savage bollocking in front of the rest of the staff. A kind colleague suggested I should wait till more information came in before returning to the squawk box to retract my rash announcement and, sure enough, other agencies soon piled in with confirmation of the death. I must have been the only woman in the world who was relieved by that news. It turned out that the ‘alive’ report had been bumped down the priority list of the American telex operator when news of the death came through, and mistakenly left in the queue for transmission.
That didn’t matter in the UK. There was no output overnight, and the ‘Elvis alive’ story was never broadcast. Few of my colleagues even knew it had existed. But in America, were the news programmes were live on air, that little blip became one of the foundations of the conspiracy theories that led to the regular stream of Elvis ‘sightings’ which continue even today (when he would be 78 years old). For many people, it’s a ‘fact’ that the death of ‘The King’ is a fiction.
By the way, back in our radio newsroom, that night continued with a spectacular fight about which Elvis track to play on the morning news. The home news editor was insisting on 'Blue Suede Shoes'; the Foreign Editor (a venerable and cultured man, normally known for his calm dignity) was almost apoplectic in his support for Hound Dog " For God's sake! Hound Dog was the very essence of the man!" I seem to recollect things being thrown, grown men stomping around, and some world-championship sulking in the small hours. I don't think I ever again witnessed such passion over a news story in all my years at the BBC. As far as I can remember, the solution was to play one track at 7am, and the other at 8 - quite a daring manoeuvre in those days.
My other story comes from the year before, when, as a News Trainee, I was temporarily posted to the newsroom at BBC Norwich. It wasn't exactly the Washington Post.
You may remember that the summer of 1976 was unusually hot.
I don't think we would find those temperatures (in the high 70s Fahrenheit) particularly extreme these days, but back then the astonishing weather was our main story every night. The chocolate in a local sweet factory would not set, and the whole city smelled of cocoa; you could fry an egg on the bonnet of a car; there was botulism in the Norfolk Broads. And because of the heat, not much else was happening.
After a few of weeks of the heatwave, we were getting stuck for new things to say. Talking in the bar one lunchtime (those were the days), someone suggested that when the rain eventually came, all the oil and rubber that had collected on the roads during the drought was likely to get mixed into a slippery mess. It might be dangerous. That afternoon, I wrote a story along those lines. I may have managed to get some authority (such as a policeman or a representative of a motorists' organization) to endorse the idea. I probably made it sound as if the warning had originated with them, but essentially the item – though plausible - was a complete invention.
The next day I took my driving test. There was no written exam then. Instead, the practical drive ended with a few technical questions from the examiner. After some general Highway Code stuff, he said, "Now, what will we have to look out for on the roads when it starts to rain?" I'm not sure whether he was expecting the authoritative answer he got, but it was enough to counterbalance my rather daring right-turn across a dual carriageway. He must have been a Look East viewer. As far as he was concerned, the 'Killer Sludge' risk was fact. I passed my test.
This business of how 'truths' are established is one of the subjects dealt with in my new book, The Last Minute. It is based in the present day, but the message about the unreliability of evidence is the same as that propounded on all good History courses.
|This is the sort of thing you'll see there. There's much more|
The reality and those reports don't match exactly, but it's the post-event confection which, in the real world, would go on to become established 'fact'.
There's no suggestion in The Last Minute that the distorted accounts are malicious, or deliberately designed to mislead. The syrupy tributes to victims we know to have been flawed are more the product of human nature and lazy reporting than conscious mendaciousness. But what I hope I am doing is drawing attention to the need for appropriate skepticism about 'evidence', even when it comes from a source very close to an event.
I'll round off with another tale from the 1970s, which is loosely connected with what I've been on about today. I'm not suggesting that it's true, of course!
President Nixon woke up on a winter's morning and looked out of his bedroom window to see 'Richard Nixon is a %*$!' written in urine in the snow. He commanded his security team to analyse the urine to see who had written the message. The news came back that it was a senior member of the administration. "Sack him!" cried Nixon, "and make sure the press hear what a *!!!** he is".
"You might not want to do that, sir," said the aide holding the security file. "You see, its X' s pee, but it's Mrs Nixon's handwriting."
when evaluating evidence, always ask yourself whose 'handwriting' it’s in, and why.
PS Here's something for students of body language:
PS Here's something for students of body language:
|The President meets the King. Elvis and Nixon, 1970|