News media, as we know, merely report what is told to them but all too easily those reports somehow morph into indisputable facts in the public’s generally un-enquiring mind. And from there, if we are not careful, those reports can pass into history as being an accepted fact even if the story is untrue.
Here’s a classic example: The UK Guardian recently published an Associated Press article titled “Osama bin Laden’s diary: ‘Consider Los Angeles, spread out the targets’”. The article goes on to say:
Osama bin Laden kept pressing followers to find new ways to strike at the US while he was in hiding and his terror organisation was becoming battered and fragmented, officials have said, citing his private journal and other documents recovered in last week's raid.
The worrying aspect of this is the almost unnoticed part that runs; ‘officials have said’. In other words, the entire article is based not on what the writers of the article have seen with their own eyes but on what some anonymous officials have told them. What’s disturbing is how the reporters failed to clarify the officials’ statements by demanding to sight and read for themselves the private journals and documents that the ‘officials’ refer to. In most courts of law statements by officials like this would not be acceptable as ‘evidence’ because it would be regarded as ‘hearsay’. It’s not actual evidence; it’s simply a story told by somebody which may or may not be true.
For the historian, the word of an anonymous ‘official’ without evidence to support such a statement would simply not be acceptable as becoming a part of the record of the annals of time. Yet it is likely to become a part of recorded history simply because it was published by a well-known mainstream newspaper whose tens of thousands of readers have either not got the time to check the facts behind the story or who are of a disposition to either reject or accept unequivocally the veracity of the story. Either way, the facts of the story remain unsubstantiated. It is then possible that at sometime in the future the story could be dug up by some research historian taking a look at our era who will then use the story to substantiate some academic thesis which then also passes in to the annals of time and becomes part of history.
The real historical value in this instance is not so much in whether or not bin Laden pressed his followers to find new ways of striking the US but, if it is found that there is no such ‘journal’ or ‘documents’ – and so far there is no hard evidence to say there is other than the officials’ word – and the officials lied, then why did they lie?
The world needs to rely more on real evidence rather than simply the statements of government officials reported in the media all of whom have an appalling record of telling us the most outrageous porkies. Historians cannot allow these stories to become part of the future historical narrative of our times. The reality of ‘facts’ may be unpalatable to the readers of today’s news and not suit the purposes of today’s politicians but ‘facts’ are never unpalatable to the historian; they are a necessity.