The truth about Melvyn Bragg. Or is it?

'When Jane Austen wrote: "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." she can never have believed it'
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The Independent Online

" 'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer," according to Bacon. Well, jesting Pilate would have been in big demand on radio and TV these days and would certainly have stayed around for an answer. This isn't just because anyone who jests is automatically given their own series these days; it's also because anyone who has his own take on reality is the sort of person who is likely to be rung up by a producer and roped in for a discussion about truth or objective reality or scientific validity or whatever the product is being marketed as on that particular day.

" 'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer," according to Bacon. Well, jesting Pilate would have been in big demand on radio and TV these days and would certainly have stayed around for an answer. This isn't just because anyone who jests is automatically given their own series these days; it's also because anyone who has his own take on reality is the sort of person who is likely to be rung up by a producer and roped in for a discussion about truth or objective reality or scientific validity or whatever the product is being marketed as on that particular day.

It happens whenever people are discussing a new biography or a political memoir or a parliamentary report or the report of a royal commission or even a round-up of the newspapers. How much of this is the truth? That is the question. It happens a lot on Today, when John Humphrys is not sure that his interviewee is sticking to the rules of truth. It happens whenever someone is spinning the truth one way and someone else is trying to unspin the truth. And it happens whenever two or three intellectuals start fencing about historical fact.

"How can we be sure what really happened?" says someone, often Melvyn Bragg. "How can we ever know the real truth?"

"Ah, but what is the real truth?" says someone else, usually the radio version of jesting Pilate. "Is there really such a thing as truth? Would it not, perhaps, be fairer to say that there are always different truths, or different perceptions of the truth?"

"Yes, that's right!" says a third person, who has to be there because you can't have a proper programme with just Melvyn Bragg and jesting Pilate. "There was a survey out the other day which studied the contradictory statements of various witnesses of a recorded event, showing that personal testimony is always wrong and conflicting, so there never is a real truth."

"Oh, but hold on," says Bragg; "that doesn't mean there isn't a real truth! It just means we haven't perceived it correctly. After all, there are some things we know objectively to be true..."

I always love such discussions in the media, because they seek to wrap up in 20 minutes what it takes philosophers a lifetime to wrangle over. At the end of 20 minutes the programme pundits haven't really reached any very interesting or firm conclusion, of course, but then nor have the philosophers at the end of their lifetime; at least the Melvyn Bragg fraternity have had the sense to call off their match in good time.

You may think it's unfair to invoke the name of Melvyn Bragg, but I can remember a specific instance of a discussion involving him and the truth which for a moment trembled on the verge of enlightenment. It took place at about the time Julian Barnes published his History of the World in 101/2 Chapters, because Barnes was on the programme to discuss it, and the talk got round to the nature of history and truth, and I remember Bragg trying to cut through the flim-flam by saying that there are some things that we objectively know to be true.

"I don't believe it," said Enoch Powell. "Name one."

"Well," said Bragg, "if one country invades another country, that is an invasion. There are no two ways about it. One country has invaded another. It's an objective fact."

"Absolute rubbish," said Powell. "It's just your perception of what has happened. The invading country may not see it as an invasion at all but as a pre-emptive defence move, as the Israelis usually do, or as an attempt to regain stolen land, or as a punitive and morally justified act..."

"Yes, that's true," said Bragg, "but..."

But there really is no "but". Enoch Powell was right. If you're going to be rigorous, there is no such thing as objective truth. All truth has to be perceived by the human mind, which is a subjective, faulty instrument, so it is impossible for us to be sure of anything. But - which is what Bragg may have been going on to say - it would also be impossible for us to act on that basis, so we have to act as if there were certain truths. Even Jane Austen pretends to do it. When she starts Pride and Prejudice by writing: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man," etc etc, she can never have believed what she was saying, but it was a good line, so she said it.

Actually, nowadays all novels begin with a lie, which is solemnly repeated from book to book, namely, that "no character in this novel is based on any living person". The only novelist in the modern world who ever told the truth about his novel wrote this at the beginning of it: "All the characters in this novel are based on real people. Any resemblance to fictional characters is totally coincidental."

Anyone know who it was?

Answer tomorrow...

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