Sharp-eyed JC readers may have noticed that I have a book out. It’s a novel called To Kill the President, published under my pseudonym, Sam Bourne. I’ve been interviewed a few times and one question comes up often, as it has ever since Mr Bourne entered my life. “Which is harder, writing journalism or fiction?” I used to have a ready-made answer. “Oh, fiction is much harder,” I’d say with a gleam in my eye, “because you can’t make things up.”
The point of the gag was that readers of fiction expect real-world details to be meticulously researched: they’ll join you on a wild ride into outlandish fantasy, but put Green Park on the Northern Line and they’ll hurl your book across the room.
I try not to use the joke — with its implication that journalists tell lies — these days. In the era of fake news and post-truth, it no longer seems like a laughing matter.
Indeed, there are now questions that everyone, whether a consumer or producer of news, must wrestle with daily. What is real and what is fake? We will always have our own opinions, but are we destined never to agree on a common set of facts?
These are, I stress, questions for everyone. But Jews have a particular, if unwanted, role to play in this crucial conversation. For we have a decent claim to have been the first to feel its full force. We Jews were the canary in the post-truth coalmine.
I’m thinking of the first organised effort to deny basic, documented facts: the movement that was initially branded Holocaust revisionism, but is now more accurately termed Holocaust denial.
Those shoddily produced 1970s pamphlets, decrying the “Holohoax” and asking “Did Six Million Really Die?” were, it is now clear, a foretaste of what was to come — the denial of established facts, rooted in a willingness to dismiss overwhelming evidence in pursuit of an ideological agenda.
I recall my own experience covering the libel trial brought by David Irving against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt in 2000. I sat in court as Irving blithely dismissed document after document. Transcripts of interrogations of Nazi officers by Allied inquisitors could not be trusted, he said. Why, those SS men might have been testifying under duress or else seeking to curry favour with their captors.
Testimony of the survivors of the Nazi camps was equally suspect, insisted Irving. They were making it up to win the world’s sympathy for the creation of Israel or to extract lucrative reparation payments. You could dismiss their words out of hand. Confronted with a document pointing to the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, he would wave it away as a likely forgery.
On and on he went, cheerfully disregarding any piece of evidence that didn’t fit his bigoted and racist world view. And I have never forgotten the feeling that this induced in me: a rising queasiness, like being on the deck of a listing ship. If Irving prevailed, if he persuaded us we could not trust even the most established facts of our past, then how could we function? Apply Irving’s method to any event, and history would fall apart in our hands. How could we know that Henry VIII had six wives? What if every document that said so was blithely branded a fake? The ground beneath my feet seemed to be falling away.
Irving lost his case, dismissed by the judge as a “pro-Nazi polemicist” who had doctored the documentary archive and was not fit to be called a historian. But his approach, the menace he represented — a willingness to twist facts into lies — has endured, and spread wider and higher. Now the most powerful office in the world is occupied by a man who has, as I write, uttered 363 documented falsehoods since swearing the oath that made him US president. Meanwhile, a referendum critical to Britain’s future was won by a bogus number plastered on the side of a bus.
And yet the Jewish experience of fake news predates Irving and the Holocaust deniers. I’m struck by the notion that, nearly a thousand years ago, the tiny Jewish community of Norwich, consisting of perhaps two dozen people, was the victim of a fake news attack when they were falsely accused of murdering a 12 year old boy. So was born the blood libel, the wholly invented notion that Jews killed gentile children in order to use their blood for religious purposes. That lie endured for a millennium, spreading across the globe to become a staple motif of murderous antisemitism and costing countless Jews their lives.
In other words, we Jews know that fake news cannot be cast aside as a mere joke. It can endure — and it can be lethal.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist. His new book is To Kill the President by Sam Bourne, HarperCollins, £7.99