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History and a reporter's notebook

HISTORY, CLAIMED Thomas Carlyle in his study of the French revolution published in 1837, "is a distillation of rumour." The subsequent 160 years have witnessed the invention of the camera, the tape-recorder and television, not to mention eavesdropping and data-storage technology of which Carlyle could not have dreamed. But for the purposes of writing history, even the most recent history, we really mightn't have bothered.

The thought struck me amid the latest batch of allegation and counter- allegation over events at the close of the Kosovo war on Friday June 11. What really did happen when, as British and French forces waited on the frontier to enter the province, a detachment of Russian troops dashed from Bosnia to seize Pristina airport? Why the delay? What caused this huge, if ultimately inconsequential embarrassment of Nato? The first accounts suggested that an infuriated Sir Michael Jackson, the commander of K-For, was ordered to wait 24 hours so that the tardy US marines could share the glory of being among Kosovo's first liberators? Not a bit of it. Washington quickly retorted: it was the fault of General Jackson, who had concluded his men were not ready.

And what happened when Nato did get wind of what the Russians were doing? Did General Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme military commander, order a mobile spearhead of allied troops to strike for Pristina, only to be refused by his British subordinate? More intriguing still, did an exasperated Clark then order an airborne parachute attack to wrest control of the airport from the Russians - which Jackson again blocked, according to Newsweek magazine, saying he had no intention of "starting the Third World War"? Compounding the mystery, however, President Clinton then curtailed Clark's tour in Brussels, instead of making the offer of a second term. And the truth behind these rum events? Alas, it's almost certainly too late to find out.

For those seeking to establish the facts of such controversies, one brief moment of opportunity usually presents itself. It comes in the immediate aftermath of the event in question. It lasts a day or two at most - but sometimes, in this age when spin is a science and rebuttals are "pre-emptive", a matter of hours or even minutes. Then the inevitable mechanisms kick in: the desire of protagonists to protect others, the need to present their own behaviour in as flattering a light as possible, and of course the selectivity of memory. The further you are from chronological ground zero, the dodgier the raw material becomes. Facts are massaged, recast and sometimes reinvented.

That is why daily journalism is the first draft of history and why, the further you get from that first draft, the tougher history gets. I learnt the lesson from the tale of Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanged under Blackfriars bridge in London in 1982. I had met him and interviewed him beforehand, I reported on the case itself and the ensuing collapse of his Banco Ambrosiano, and then wrote a book about it. In an affair which enhanced the reputation of almost no-one, the most precious material was what I and other journalists gathered very early on.

Of course the process was imperfect. We wrote against the pressure of deadlines; and everyone knows how an error, once printed, becomes set in stone as received truth. But the initial material was basically uncontaminated by the self-interest or amnesia of our sources. Later, as my book project developed, came in-depth interviews with participants in the story, the acquisition of bank audits and various other confidential documents. Essentially however, these fleshed out the how and the why. In the writing of history, how things happened and why they happened are only superstructures, built upon a version of what happened.

And with the years, fact and fiction become increasingly indistinguishable. The Calvi case remains the most extraordinary single story I have ever covered, and the other day, rummaging in the attic, I came across by chance my diary of 17 years ago. I opened it in eager anticipation, expecting sepia memories to be restored into living technicolor. Not a bit of it. And, worse still, even the sequence of events that I did seem to remember was entirely at variance with the presumably correct one contained in the diary. Whether Calvi was murdered or committed suicide almost two decades ago is a mystery likely - notwithstanding the "confessions" of a couple of Mafia turncoats - to remain one for ever. So too, I venture, will be what happened in and around Kosovo only two months ago. In both cases, we must distil the rumours as we please. But then, that's what makes history such fun.