Richard North, 30/07/2020  

Still working on The Great Deception, I've finally reached 2009 and am working up a narrative on which part of my current chapter will be based.

Each year starts with a blank sheet of paper – virtual in this case, as all the writing is done on-screen. The first thing I do is assemble a timeline. and the way I choose to work is the hard way. Initially, I pick a single newspaper (or broadcaster) archive and raid it for stories, copying and pasting them in chronological order – starting as close to 1 January as I can get, and finishing with the last story posted in December.

Interestingly, it doesn't matter which periodical I choose. There are always huge gaps in the timeline – even with my own blog, which is also a useful source. Some aspects of a particular event might be covered quite well. Sometimes there is nothing on them until the matter becomes high profile, and then it is dropped as quickly as it is picked up.

To get round this, after I have raided one title, I repeat the process with another, and another, and another. In all, I might visit a dozen or more different titles, and most often from several countries. The Irish press is good on some issues, the English-language German press is good on others, and then there are the news agencies, the US and the foreign language press.

Once I have got a basic timeline, I can overlay it with all manner of official and semi-official papers. The European Council presidency conclusions are always a good staple. Hansard records are very useful, and especially where figures such as prime ministers make statements for the record after specific events – such as IGCs and European Councils.

Then there are the official documents, such as White Papers, the European Commission COM finals (communications), speeches and press releases. Up until the end of Gordon Brown's tenure, I also have political biographies, and there are also the books about the big events such as the financial crisis and the referendum.

Gradually, I accumulate all these sources, layered one on the other. If I let it, a file for three months might run to 50,000 words or more, a year running to over 200,000 words. But, as I am assembling the sources, I am trimming them down, and merging them. All the time, I am cross-checking and trying to iron out inconsistencies and obvious inaccuracies.

In this particular case, with 2009, my target is to trim the narrative down to about 4,000 words. It will fit in a chapter covering the four years from 2006-2009 inclusive, and my budget for the whole period is 14,000 words. I wish I had Booker's freedom – he wrote 17,000 words on one year, but there is nevertheless a certain merit in working to a restricted length. It imposes a certain discipline.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that, for any one event – much less a sequence of events – it is fair to say that no single source will give you the full picture. In fact, to get anything like a comprehensive view, even multiple media sources will not give you what you need. Invariably, resort will have to be made to official documents and other non-media sources.

This, then, takes us further than the aphorism attributed to Mark Twain: "If you don't read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed". In fact, this was probably concocted from multiple sources, in particular Thomas Jefferson, who made two relevant observations.

Firstly, in a letter complaining about misinformation in newspapers, he wrote:
Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.
… then passing on his views about not reading a newspaper:
I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.
All this, of course, doesn't necessarily suggest that the synthesis of "polluted" material is going to be wholly accurate. All we can possibly say is that, melded with possibly more reliable sources, it is the closest approximation to truth that one can manage. Even then, that truth can change as time passes and more sources become available, such as confidential government archives.

And what brought this to mind was my reading one article (online) from the Guardian yesterday, based on an interview with EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan.

Generally speaking, I regard uncorroborated oral testimony as the least reliable source of evidence, and when it comes only in the form of a newspaper interview, it can only be accepted with a great deal of care, and all the normal provisos.

However, if this "polluted vessel" is anywhere near close to the truth, there is some interesting material there. Hogan asserts that British negotiators in the current "future relationship" talks have only started to engage with the most contentious issues "in the last week or two", and then only after pressure from business groups.

He says there has been "a change of attitude" by Downing Street in July, when the denizens realised time was running out but that the talks were "not as advanced as we would like". But, despite intensive negotiations this month, common ground between the sides is yet to be found with about 12 weeks left before parliamentary ratification will need to be sought.

Hogan points out that there are "five or six" major issues standing in the way of a deal. One of the most pressing, he claims, are the rules this government is prepared to apply to state aid.

Actually, I read something in the Financial Times recently, which seemed to say something not dissimilar. Thus, we're either getting a coordinated attempt to misinform, or there is a germ of truth in what we're being told.

So far, it is being said, No 10 has refused to fulfil its "promise" to publish details of its state aid regime, leaving the details wide open. Hogan says officials in Brussels are getting nervous that too much is being left to the last moment.

The Brits, apparently, are claiming that it is not necessary for the EU to have sight of the new regime, as domestic legislation is no longer relevant to Brussels. But the EU wants a clearly defined code, otherwise it could give strategic exemptions from its own state aid regime, allowing Member States to subsidise European companies competing with British businesses.

We have been waiting for the last three months for the UK to come to the table in terms of meaningful negotiations, Hogan says, "And I actually say it's only in the last week or two that we have noticed that people are starting to engage on the UK side".

Meanwhile, Whitehall has been busy seeking new trade deals for the UK. We are told that an agreement with Japan is set to be announced within weeks. But it also seems to be the case that it will be less ambitious than had been hoped, leaving out treatment for British food exports.

Hogan then goes on to point out some of the difficulties we will have, negotiating on our own, but if we need to take what he says with some care, the same must apply to the UK government spokesman.

From that source we get: "The UK has engaged constructively on all issues throughout the negotiations. Unfortunately the EU's unusual approach has meant we have only been able to progress at the speed of the most difficult issues. Both sides will need to work energetically if we are going to get an agreement in September".

On balance, I think I might have difficulty with that even if it came under a confessional oath, and my immortal soul was at stake. And, the worst of it is that, in the last chapter I will write in TGD, I will have to use some of this stuff. Needs must, I suppose, but it would be nice to have less polluted vehicles.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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