Seeking the Truth

Is all ‘history’ subjective?

I have never kept a diary. I could explain that as a form of modesty, manifesting in the belief that nothing that happens to me is so important that I will need an accurate record to refer to at some time in the future. Mostly, though, it is simple laziness. And there is, too, the certainty that the truly significant events in one’s life will be locked in as a permanent memory.

When browsing The Ashdown Diaries for my post yesterday, I came across this remark in the preface: “diaries can be the most seductive form of historical inaccuracy”. A sobering thought for someone who likes to research historical events and the people at the heart of them. He goes on to explain: “They appear accurate because they are contemporaneous but, being wholly subjective, they can, in fact, be quite the opposite.”

Emily Maitliss and Priince Andrew. Image from the BBC website at the link provided below.

In our media obsessed world there is another source of information about events: the interview. And that can take many different forms. In a post on the BBC website, timed to coincide with a relevant court case being heard in New York, Emily Maitliss explains how her widely viewed and quoted interview with Prince Andrew was deliberately contrived to provide him with the opportunity to tell his side of the story. “We had talked through the things he wanted to say earlier, so part of my job that day was just to let him speak.”

In common, I imagine, with most people, I love watching television shows and reading articles based on interviews. I even had a strand on my website here where I interviewed authors.

The ‘chat show’ format, whilst occasionally revealing interesting facts about the interviewees, is much more about promoting that person’s latest book/movie/album/TV series.

Newspaper and magazine articles that ‘profile’ a particular individual often refer to conversations with close associates and/or family members in order to capture something of the essence of the person. So do television ‘retrospectives’.

Political interviews are more concerned with the background to a particular policy proposal that the individual is responsible for, less about the person’s life beyond politics.

Irish television has a couple of novel approaches to series based around interviews to tease out aspects of the subject’s life. The comedian Tommy Tiernan takes on three interviews, recorded live, in which it is claimed he has no idea who the subjects are until they appear from behind a curtain.

A screen grab from one of Tommy’s shows which accompanied the Irish ‘Sun’ article linked below.

Obviously, when the subject is someone well known to the viewing public – and at least one of the subjects of each programme falls into this category – he has some prior knowledge. If the person is involved in the entertainment industry he has probably met them. So there is something to go on. And it usually involves an exploration of some aspect of the subject’s private life: an unhappy childhood, an addiction, a messy divorce, for example. As with Maitliss and the Prince, it’s an opportunity for the person to tell his or her side of the story.

But Tommy’s guests also include people whose extraordinary story has never made it beyond their local weekly newspaper or radio station. He knows nothing of what they have done that someone has deemed newsworthy. The task of teasing out the details is, therefore, far from easy. But it often makes for riveting television. The programme regularly tops the viewing figures here in Ireland.

This picture featured on the Irish Times website with the following sub-text:-
It was Byrne’s apparent horror at Fry’s words that really energised the story on social media.
Photograph: RTÉ I found the image and caption accompanying the article linked below.

The other series I have in mind was originally begun by legendary Irish broadcaster Gaye Byrne. Since Gaye’s death it has been taken over by another host, much loved in Ireland, Joe Duffy. In “The Meaning of Life”, the host explores the spiritual life of his guest, their core beliefs and how they arrived at them, always ending with some version of the question “if there is a god, and you finally meet him, what will you say?”.

Always fascinating, at least to someone interested in people’s motivations, sometimes controversial, such as when actor and writer Stephen Fry explained his atheism to Gaye Byrne, it’s a programme I hate to miss.

Future historians will be able to access all this material in an attempt to arrive at the truth surrounding the most significant events of the twenty first century. Will they reveal the truth or a “seductive form of hisorical inaccuracy”? And if the latter is the case, how will anyone ever know the truth? And when it comes to those of us exploring the past, with much more limited documentary evidence, how certain can we be about anything?

7 thoughts on “Seeking the Truth

  1. Good question.
    I was interested in then US Attorney General William Barr’s answer to a similar question about what would history say about the Trump administration.
    His answer: Oh, I’m not worried. We’ll be the ones writing it.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I started keeping a sort of diary/Journal about 10 years ago – nothing very interesting in it most of the time, but it has been useful in going back to imortant events I might have noted ! I don’t think it would make a best seller after I;m gone, but it is a way for me to keep track of things!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Your Irish programmes sound interesting, I would certainly be watching them. History must always be subjective, although some facts are left standing such as castles or DNA in skeletons and more recently photographs. We have only to read or see reports of events we actually witnessed to realise how many interpretations. autobiographies are by definition our only chance to know a persons inner thoughts, but we can only take their word for it.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Excellent, interesting, article Frank. Certainly, diaries are by their nature subjective. There is also, perhaps, a difference between a teenager’s unrequited love and the accounts of a statesman’s personal record of events. History is, beyond the broad facts of WHAT happened, inevitably relative when it comes to why. And, as we know, sometimes the facts are uncertain. Ideally, the historian will want to cross-reference several primary sources to arrive at an interpretation. That said, I do wonder how historians of the future will cope without the diaries and letters that people used to keep. Not only will it be less likely that a previously unseen piece of information will turn up in an attic trunk or some such, but digital records strike me as being even easier to manipulate than written ones.

    Liked by 1 person

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