Note from Christopher G. Moore:
International Crime Authors Reality Check welcomes abroad Jarad Henry, an Australian crime fiction novelist who has worked in the criminal justice system for fifteen years. He has a degree in criminology and regularly speaks about crime trends at conferences and seminars. He has a lot to say about aspects of the criminal justice system.
Jarad’s debut crime novel, Head Shot, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and for the Ned Kelly Awards Best First Crime Novel. Blood Sunset won the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Jim Hamilton Award, and was shortlisted for the Vogel Award. It was also runner up for the readers choice award in the 2009 Summer Read. His most re––cent novel is Pink Tide.
The Price of Truth by Jarad Henry
In 1917 Senator Hiram W Johnson delivered a speech to the US Senate and brazenly declared that truth is the first casualty in war. Since then, history has proven him right time and time again. Propaganda and manufacturing a reason for war goes with the territory of generating support.
Controlling media messages is central to this. In historic times this was undoubtedly easier as the Internet and social media have opened up a range of new voices, globalised the world and connected people to avenues of knowledge not possible two decades ago.
Even so, the need to control truth will remain. As technology advances so too will those whose agendas are centred on communicating ‘truth’, or at least a version of it. And just as those seeking truth make use of modern day technology, so too will those who wish to obscure truth; classic cat and mouse, spy versus spy.
Already there exists a vast body of evidence to suggest people are more likely to believe something if it is written than if they hear it or see it on television. There is something about the written word that offers trust and validity. That makes the Internet a great resource, but not always a reliable one.
So how much is truth actually worth? Does it even matter and why bother asking?
In many cultures the truth isn’t given the same level of importance as other factors. Saving face or avoiding embarrassment over a mistake or doing something wrong leads to an acceptance of lies, where fabricating a story even when all parties know it to be untrue is seen as a better option than the truth. Any westerner doing business, living or forming relationships anywhere in Asia should be aware of this.
Conversely, in western democracies we are taught to value the truth. The same can be said in the world of crime writing; our sleuths bravely traversing the dark and evil world in search of the ‘truth’.
Returning to price of truth requires a sliding ‘comfort scale’ of importance. From that we can put a value on it. The value may not necessarily be monetary. In the case of war, we can count the financial cost of weapons, military deployment, infrastructure and other allocations, but human death can not be costed.
One would hope that for most people, the concept of human life is beyond fiscal value, although proponents of war seemingly attempt to place a value on it. Soldiers who pay the “ultimate price serving their nation” is almost a preset template for journalists the world over. Even in so-called piece time, we hear stories of police and firemen who die in the line of duty, fighting fires, drug barons, human traffickers, people smugglers, alcohol fuelled violence, wars of a different kind.
Then there are the uncivilised people, dark forces of organised crime who exploit others for their own benefit and who (at least according to popular perception) place little to no value on human life. Again, if we are at war, regardless of how war is defined, how do we know what is truth and what is not? At this end of the scale we pay an impossible and unobtainable price for truth, because in war truth itself is dead, suffocated by contradictions, lies and hidden agendas from almost every angle.
So where does it all begin? Surely it can’t all be wrong. If the truth, in whatever format, isn’t completely accurate, does that always mean we’ve been lied to? Is that always a bad thing? Going back to the sliding scale, there has to be a grey area, some middle ground where truth falls from unobtainable to the lowest extreme of irrelevance.
Here, at the bottom end of the scale, it never hurts to let the truth get in the way of a good story, does it?
Comedians do it all the time and we embrace it. They adopt a character and re-invent funny stories for our amusement. This is in most cases harmless and simply provides the comedian with a tool or device to make people laugh. They bend the truth or fabricate entire events for our benefit. You might even say they make lies funny. Some have become legends doing this; Eddie Murphy and his two stand up acts Delirious and Raw from the 1980′s are cult classics. In this instance the price of truth is the cost of a DVD, a ticket to a show or simply time spent watching your favourite comedian on television.
Moving up the scale, we climb away from the safety of the comedy stage and enter a grey area where truth becomes harder to assign a value or price. This is where truth is blurred and the price tag negotiable, depending on your stake in the game, your cultural beliefs and moral compass. As writers of crime fiction, this is where we love to work. The best stories are found in the murky world of lies and deceit, but this is still entertainment. It isn’t real life.
Even when we base a novel on a ‘true story’, the price of truth is still on the low end…or is it?
The New York Times recently published an article about Truman Capote’s classic “In Cold Blood”, marketed at the time as a ground breaking new genre, where the true story of a brutal murder is delivered in the form of a novel. Questions are now being asked about the author’s research methods, the accuracy on key elements of the investigation and character portrayals in the book. Capote created heroes and legends, changed the face of crime writing and made millions in the process. But it would seem he didn’t let the truth get in the way of his story.
The price here is credibility and how the notion of any publicity is good publicity may pull the trigger on truth. It brings to mind New York Rapper Flavour Flav from the group Public Enemy saying ‘We want real history, not his-story…’
So what about me? My crime novels are a blend of fact and fiction. Crime fact-ion, you could say. I do my best to portray real life. I base my books on real crime, real procedure and real events that affect real people. But I also have creative license and I deploy this resource as strategically as any sniper on the front line.
Its is a balancing act, an important part of a craft in which I pick and choose between fact and fiction, and follow a few basic rules to keep the story and characters as realistic as possible, without exposing trade secrets of policing and compromising my integrity or employment. My books, like those of most crime novelists, are scary fairy tales for adults. We create chaos for the reader, send them on a journey in search of justice, then restore order. But that doesn’t happen in real life. In real life, the stakes are higher and the price of truth goes up.
It is in this space where I work as a strategic advisor. My day job. Turning perception into reality. Making people believe things are happening when they aren’t. Taking attention away from one thing and making them focus on another. I’m a spin doctor, a word smith, the guy who works in the mud of a political landscape that changes like the weather. It’s not magic, nor is it lying, but it is an illusion and a craft and like any illusionist, my stage is dark and murky. I don’t get paid to lie; that is my moral compass, but there are times where it gets close. When bending the truth reaches breaking point.
Jesse J tells us not to worry about the Price Tag, and that it’s ‘not about the money’, but I’m not sure I believe her. Maybe for musicians it isn’t, like writing isn’t the motivator for most authors, but in the world that I work it is always about the money. Money and truth, or the perception of truth, are as intertwined as any well tuned guitar.
Just as in war time, media influence is critical in driving government direction. Public Policy 101: Control the media and you control perception. In nations where media outlets are controlled by elite groups, or the government itself, this is easy. There is no tug of war. Spin doctors require little creative skill because truth can be contained more easily.
Step into a so called free thinking and democratic world where the media is not controlled by government, or a small collection of elite groups, and things become more complicated. The word perception takes on a whole new meaning.
Perception = reality = truth = votes.
In North Korea, I would doubt its major newspapers would have the capacity or desire to criticise the government. But here and other western democracies it is often in the media interest to do so, to create a sense of unrest and inaction, to stir the pot and portray the government as lacking control. Sensationalising violence is usually good fodder.
If it bleeds, it leads. They do this in the name of keeping the politicians on their feet and doing their job, but in reality we sacrifice truth and the cost of this is policy ‘on the run’.
David Simon’s cult classic television series “The Wire” sums it up brilliantly when the Editor of the Baltimore Sun tells one of his journalists that their job is to report the news, not manufacture it. I don’t think he’s entirely right, which is the whole point of the comment. That is, their role should be to report the truth, without fear or favour. In a perfect world they would, but it isn’t a perfect world.
Case in point: Throughout the late 1990’s and into the millennium, binge drinking and alcohol related violence began to threaten Melbourne’s image as a safe tourist destination. In 2002 a fight between rival gangs in an exclusive nightclub led to the murder of three men and put the issue of violence on the front page.
In 2004 an altercation at a St Kilda hotel left ex-cricketer David Hookes with fatal head injuries and again put the issue of alcohol related violence in the spot light.
Seizing the opportunity, in 2007 the Herald Sun, the largest daily newspaper in Australian circulation, began a campaign demanding an end to alcohol fuelled violence and a solution to a problem that reporters claimed threatened the entire country’s reputation.
The campaign ran for almost three years and labelled Melbourne specifically as a “Binge City”, resurrecting old tensions between the liquor industry and its regulators.
In response, the government implemented a 2am “lockout” on all venues, which galvanised the industry’s legal response and resulted in exemptions being granted to the majority of affected venues. In the end the entire strategy cost millions of dollars and the government ended up with egg on its face, but it still didn’t learn.
Police resources were increased, new government departments established and a raft of projects, strategies and policies created. One involved increased liquor license fees of venues that played amplified music.
Outside the Tote Hotel in Collingwood, more than 4000 people rallied against the regulations, claiming it would force many popular venues out of business. In a further protest, the live music and liquor industries joined forces in a show of defiance at Parliament House.
With an election looming, the government was forced to negotiate and refine its regulations, allowing certain venues to apply for exemptions to the fee increases. The Tote Hotel re-opened for business in mid 2010 and the government lost the election.
So what happened to the ‘truth’ in all of this? Driven by the Herald Sun campaign, knee-jerk reactions resulted in bad policy and even worse direction. The government and its regulators underestimated the people’s desire for truth. The truth was that dealing with the real issues of poor or unsafe transport, limited availability of taxi’s and cut backs to front line police forced the policy makers to take the easy option and blame ‘rogue licensees’.
Print run sales of the Herald Sun rocketed, nightclubs and pubs were tarred with the same brush, and many operators were forced out of business. Meanwhile, the casinos and the multinational corporations who manufacture the alcohol in the first place were buying up huge advertising space in the Herald Sun, solidifying not only their share prices but also controlling perception and insuring them against any negative press.
Nowadays the Herald Sun has moved on and getting mileage out of other issues, such as drugs in the various football codes.
To the public, it would seem, the issue of alcohol related violence on the streets has been solved, even though this is not the case. People are still getting very drunk on weekends, the city population is growing by 70,000 per year, infrastructure isn’t keeping up and people are unable to find taxi’s late at night to take them home, meaning fights occur regularly.
So, as in war, the price of truth being lost in all of this is difficult to measure, as it would have to include not only tangible factors such as increased costs to police, hospitals and emergency services, but also the human cost of injury and death.
Review committees, academics and researchers have attempted to come up with a figure, but no one agrees on what should and shouldn’t be counted. In essence, they face the same question I began with. What is price of truth?
In my next essay I shall explore the opposite of this, the cost of lies.
For now, I’ll conclude with an assertion that nearly a hundred years after Senator Hiram Johnson made his famous quote, truth is still the first casualty in any war, be it an invasion, mass bombings the war on drugs, or a political campaigns driven by media hype and public perception.
Putting a price on truth is dependant on our individual comfort scale, and a complex mix of cultural and interest values we assign to its importance. This ranges from total irrelevance to the completely impossible, with a multitude of factors colliding in between, causing confusion, diversions and a breeding ground for spin doctors who are often just as frustrated as those on the receiving end.
But for crime writers it’s the best place to be, the grey zone, where nothing is clear and uncertainty compels us to read on. Order and chaos are created and diffused with the craft of balancing fact and fiction. That’s where good crime stories form. But when fiction dictates fact – or truth – real people get hurt and there is always a Price Tag, even if Jessie J tells us not to worry about it.
In a final touch of irony, there is still contention over who actually coined the phrase of truth being the first casualty in war. There is also debate about the actual wording of it, as the speech was never recorded – apparently, at least according to the internet!
And so it seems our future may well result in nothing more than a revised version of the same quotation and the current status quo; that being the only truth in war is that truth itself is the first casualty. At least that much we can count as fact, or can we?