Book Reviews - Versions of Truth

Paul Marshall reflects on a recent conversation between Channel 4’s Jon Snow and law reporter turned novelist, Elenor Dymott.

Easter is not a bad time to recall the question Pontius Pilate is reported as having asked: ‘’what is truth?”. Jesting Pilate would not stay for an answer, says Francis Bacon. It is not clear whether Pilate’s reluctance to enter into further debate on the question was attributable more to judicial impatience or intellectual humility. The narrower issue of truth as to disputed fact, that the trial process is believed to facilitate, may not be straightforward. Lord Justice Browne commented:

“I think that in civil cases (unlike criminal cases) the witnesses are seldom lying deliberately. But I am very sceptical about the reliability of oral evidence. Observation and memory are fallible, and the human capacity for honestly believing something which bears no relation to what really happened is unlimited.”

That could have been an epigraph for Elenor Dymott’s debut novel Every Contact Leaves a Trace. “If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her ... I went into a dark room with my camera for a time, and I came out with a photograph of a woman I had never seen before”. The protagonist, Alex, is a solicitor who married Rachel some 10 years after they were students together at Oxford. They meet again at a wedding in the Temple and enjoy each other’s company, and each other, in the gardens of the Inner Temple. They return to their college where, after dinner, he discovers her on the lawns, her head stoved in by a stone. So begins an inquiry, animated by grief, which destabilises and undermines what was thought known by Alex about the person he married.

Oxford is less hazardous than fiction requires. But fiction may hold a mirror, of a kind, to reality and Dymott’s novel is an engagingly written meditation on grief of loss doubled by disagreeable discovery. The novel is pervaded by a certain melancholy redolent of George Smiley in its recognition of the essential and disappointing fragility of appearance.

The fragility of appearance was a leitmotif of a discussion entitled The Truth, the whole truth and a version of truth?, the first of a series headed ICLR Encounters hosted by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting and held in the Old Court Room in Lincoln’s Inn on the evening of 3 April. Elenor Dymott was in conversation with Channel 4’s anchor Jon Snow discussing getting at the truth, variously as a journalist and law reporter turned novelist.

Jon Snow referred to his difficulty upon arrival in Cairo, him not knowing a word of Arabic, in trying to understand the reality of whether a revolution in Egypt was happening or not. It depended, he said, upon where you were in the country, whether or not in Tahrir Square, and with whom you spoke. He described the difficulty in journalists having to distance themselves from their own preconceptions and prejudices (an experience shared, no doubt, with judges), in identifying reliable source material, in simplifying complex and nuanced circumstances, and in forming a view in time for the inescapable approaching broadcast.

Conscientious journalism is a version of the truth so constrained. He went on to allude to the temptation for journalists to simplify the Arab Spring by adopting an overlay to events unfolding elsewhere when these may be, and often are, quite different. He then gave a personal insight into the role of journalism in the convictions for the Stephen Lawrence murder that he thought marked a defining moment for the country. Journalism here, in combination with the iron determination of Stephen’s parents, achieved more in establishing truth and doing justice than the State, unaided, was able to do. Machiavelli stressed the importance of chance in politics, but as Snow made clear, it is no less so in journalism; what of truth or justice, but for the chance fact that Neville Lawrence had worked as a decorator for Paul Dacre?

Apart from discussing her writing, Dymott referred to her experience as a law reporter. She highlighted the distinction between the ephemeral, often compelling, facts that give rise to decisions that endure as propositions of law after the human drama and crisis that are their occasion fade. She admired but also deprecated judicial detachment, recalling Chekhov’s observation that judges have a tendency to become like butchers.

Law reporting, as both Dymott and Paul Magrath introducing the discussion reminded us, is concerned with truth in a rather narrow sense, limited to the operation of rules in the context of adversarial, partisan contest. But the rules are indisputably important. There may in fact be no such thing as a company, simply the relevant rules, but that reality is more than the smile of a Cheshire cat. The law, like good novels and good journalism, is concerned only with a “version of the truth” within prescribed terms of reference. None of these is, or purports to be, the whole truth. Sometimes it is not a bad thing to be reminded of this. ?

Paul Marshall, 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square

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Paul Marshall

Practising commercial and company law, Paul is a member of the Chancery Bar Association and an editor of Butterworths Corporate Law Service.