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.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering