Truth or fiction - it's all the same these days

When even the landing on the moon is open to doubt, all-embracing scepticism would seem in order
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The Independent Online

According to a radio report yesterday, Nasa is to invest in a mighty new telescope that will send back detailed pictures of the surface of the moon. One of its most important tasks, apparently, is to produce definitive proof that the moon landing of more than 30 years ago did, in fact, take place, laying to rest persistent rumours that the one small step for man was in fact one giant con-trick.

According to a radio report yesterday, Nasa is to invest in a mighty new telescope that will send back detailed pictures of the surface of the moon. One of its most important tasks, apparently, is to produce definitive proof that the moon landing of more than 30 years ago did, in fact, take place, laying to rest persistent rumours that the one small step for man was in fact one giant con-trick.

Do you believe that? In fact, do you believe anything? Now that we have reached a stage in our evolution when even a televised landing on the moon is open to doubt, an all-embracing scepticism about everything and everyone would seem in order.

Lying is as old as humanity but the traditional constraints on re-inventing the facts – guilt, fear of being found out, a vague sense of morality – seem not to be having much effect these days. News, as reported in the more shamelessly populist newspapers, is no longer a reflection of events but simply the version that suits the proprietor or journalist on the day.

One day, red wine is good for you; the next, it is messing you up. One week, a survey definitively confirms that men are more biologically programmed to cheat on their partners than women; the next week, an equally authoritative report reveals the opposite. One moment, a royal valet is a shining example of old-fashioned loyalty, the next (after he had sold his story to a rival newspaper), he is a contemptible creep with a dubious sexual past.

Journalism has never been famous for its clear-eyed devotion to truth, but at least, until recently, newspapers behaved as if they believed in the truth of what they published. Now even that pretence has gone. It is all a game, and is accepted as such by readers.

On this occasion, the press is not leading but following, for objective truth is under siege wherever one looks. In publishing, the division between fiction and non-fiction, once as fundamental to the business as that between children's and adults' books, becomes fuzzier by the week.

Novelists have been playing the truth-or-fiction for some time now. Paul Theroux's My Other Life was in the form of a memoir, told by Paul Theroux and set in locations where the real Paul Theroux had lived, but was an extended fantasy. Philip Roth played similar games with reality in The Facts. More recently, a great regiment of fiction-writers, notably Edmund White and Hanif Kureishi, have injected their novels with a charge of authenticity by borrowing, or appearing to borrow, from the authors' own lives.

Approaching from the opposite direction are the new memoirists, whose stories of heart-breaking childhood hardship and abuse not only borrow stylistically from fiction but frequently have the same regard for what actually happened. Today's non-fiction writers are in the entertainment business; the story is always more important than the precise facts.

What is significant about all this is that no one particularly seems to care. Just as readers accept that a book under the name of their favourite celebrity will in fact be written by a tame hack, so they seem to regard embellishment and invention as part of the memoir game. The publishing industry, which tends not to be kept awake at night by questions of morality, has happily followed the market to the extent that the memoir of dubious provenance has almost become a genre in its own right.

Last year, a certain Michael Gambino was paid $500,000 (£320,000) for the manuscript of The Honoured Society, a memoir of his life as the grandson of Carlo Gambino, the famous Mafia godfather; when the Gambino family objected, Carlo turned out to be Michael Pellegrino, an alleged con-man who had previously been indicted for impersonating an FBI officer.

Then there was Tom Carew, who earned £100,000 for Jihad!, his account of being an SAS officer in Afghanistan; his only connection with the SAS was, it later transpired, having taken and failed the entrance exam twice.

More recently, a certain amount of doubt has been cast on The Cage, Tom Abraham's sensational re-visiting of his experiences in Vietnam, where he was captured and tortured by the Vietcong – again a high earner in publishing and newspaper rights. Awkwardly, there are no records of Abrahams having gone missing during his service in Vietnam and, according to the woman to whom he was married at the time, he failed to mention his capture in any of the daily letters he wrote to her.

Yet the progress of The Cage has been unaffected by suggestions that, just possibly, it may not be true. Last week, Abrahams was the subject of the peak-hour Radio Four series The Choice. His interview with Michael Buerk, complete with the now obligatory crying jags, made compelling listening. Fact? Fiction? What the hell, it made great radio.

terblacker@aol.com

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