I'm old enough to remember a time that sounds like a fairytale. Long, long ago, when men wore lapels big enough to pass for aircraft carriers for flies, two journalists decided that whatever it took, they were going to uncover the truth. They did. They uncovered the fact that the President of the USA had not only sanctioned a burglary but had lied about the fact. Those two men digging for the truth got President Nixon out of the Whitehouse. I wanted to be a journalist back then.
I was brought up in a household full of lies, half-truths and ommissions. Maybe that was part of it. My father, for reasons that as Hunter Thompson, another famous journalist and sometime liar, often said were never made clear, used to pretend to be Australian. That was the family truth. When one day in my twenties I’d had about enough of this I went and found his birth certificate records. He was as Australian as I am. And I can’t really remember all the words of Waltzing Matilida.
A couple of days ago Grenfell Towers burned down. As there was with the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, there was a lot of nonsensical hysteria. With the disappeared airplane, people were demanding to know exactly where the airplane was, not least because the airline couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the unfortunate truth, that it was 99.9999999% certainly at the bottom of the sea.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we regretfully announce the unscheduled arrival of Flight MH370.”
Even when they eventually said pretty much exactly that, many people, especially on social media, demanded the Latitude and Longitude of the crash-site and in its absence insisted there was a cover-up, an alien abduction, a Bond-style villain holding everyone hostage, the CIA holding everyone hostage and/or a Lost-style TV drama scenario where a jetliner miraculously lands on a desert island without explooding and killing everyone on board. I thought at the time it would have been less heartbreaking for everyone concerned if the airline had just been able to treat everyone as adults, and say openly ‘look, sorry, they’re pretty certainly dead.’
With the destruction of Grenfell Towers the hysteria has gone another way, with people demanding to know why ‘they’ couldn’t be told the exact number of people dead in the fire, even though at the time the fire brigade hadn’t even left the building. The original official estimate of just 17 people didn’t help.
There are lots of obvious reasons: they haven’t got all the bodies out. Some of them bodies won’t have physically been found yet. Quite possibly, in the intense heat inside the buidling, bodies won’t resemble bodies at all.
But I remember a time when the same media that accepted this phenomenally low figure accepted another set of figures.
Without blinking, when they were told maybe 40,000 people had died on 911, the mass media reported this without hesitation. When the figure was revised down to 25,000, that was the figure that stuck. The reality, let out days or weeks later, that in fact, around 3,500 people died in the Twin Towers attack, wasn’t exactly banner headlines. The same media, most especially the BBC, happily reported the collapse of Tower 7, the one that fell down because an airplane didn’t crash into it, nearly half an hour before it collapsed. Think about that for a moment. Why did the BBC do that? Why did the reporter stand there in front of a screen showing the very tangible Tower 7 and claim it wasn’t there? The answer is depressingly simple: because somebody told them to.
Seventeen people didn’t die in the Grenfell Flats. Nor did 40,000 people die on 911. You are not being told the truth. No President or pretty much anyone else is ever going to have to worry about losing office as a result of journalism ever again.