Interview'Post-truth is a real challenge to journalism'

Novel envisions Yad Vashem burning as plotters eradicate historical truth

Leading UK Jewish journalist Jonathan Freedland once again turns his hand to fiction as his alter-ego, the best-selling thriller writer Sam Bourne

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Jewish author Jonathan Freedland. (Philippa Gedge)
Jewish author Jonathan Freedland. (Philippa Gedge)

LONDON — Jonathan Freedland was on stage twice at last month’s London Jewish Book Week, albeit in rather different guises.

As the annual literary festival commenced, the BBC broadcaster and influential columnist for the Guardian newspaper chaired a sober debate on the future of democracy.

Five days later, Freedland, one of Britain’s most prominent Jewish journalists, was back again. This time, under the pseudonym of best-selling thriller writer Sam Bourne, discussing his newly released novel, “To Kill The Truth.”

Taut and disturbing, it is the tale of an effort to erase the evidence of the greatest crimes in human history. As academics and survivors of the Holocaust are murdered, the world’s greatest libraries set ablaze, search engines hacked, and Yad Vashem burned to the ground, it becomes clear that the plotters are attempting to eradicate the past and the world’s means of remembering it. To foil it, Freedland calls into service once again Maggie Costello, the fictional White House aide and heroine of three of his previous novels. The book also sees a reappearance of her former Israeli lover, Uri, as well as Crawford “Mac” McNamara, her Steve Bannon-like antagonist in Freedland’s 2017 novel, “To Kill The President.”

Like that book, which was eerily prescient of the early months of the Trump administration, Freedland’s latest offering is set in an America whose volatile and childlike president shows the fragility of the truth when pitched against a man who lies frequently, brazenly and shamelessly.

Thus, while Freedland suggests the book is designed to be “above all a story that people read and want to get hooked on,” he is also seeking to “raise and wrestle with some of the pressing questions about where we are going with the truth and post-truth.”

‘To Kill the Truth,’ by Sam Bourne, the pen name of British-Jewish author Jonathan Freedland. (Quercus publishing)

Despite the contemporary and American backdrop, it is events that occurred nearly two decades ago in Britain which provide much of the inspiration for the novel.

“What happens with a lot of these books of mine is that there is often a current provocation, a current prompt that then combines with a thought or a memory that I’ve had for many years,” says Freedland, who spent four years as the Guardian’s Washington correspondent in the 1990s.

This happened with his first Sam Bourne book, “The Righteous Men.” It turned on a story that Freedland had been told as a child by his mother “that was lodged in my head for over 30 years and was suddenly triggered again by a visit to Crown Heights, where I spent a week reporting among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of that neighborhood,” he recalls.

For his latest novel, it was the memory of reporting the 2000 libel case brought by Holocaust denier David Irving which returned to him three years ago as he witnessed and wrote about the UK’s Brexit referendum and the American presidential election campaign. Those seismic events led the Oxford English Dictionary to anoint 2016 “the year of post-truth.”

“All the post-truth stuff was happening and so much more: Putin, climate change denial, the anti-vaxxers, the Trump presidency itself,” argues Freedland.

“All those things made me really recall [what was] in some ways a physical sensation I had had during the Irving trial, which was the sensation of the ground beneath my feet falling away; that there was nothing firm or solid to stand upon because you couldn’t be sure of the past if people like Irving were essentially denying the historical record,” he says.

Freedland vividly describes his recollection of watching Irving as the latter sought to convince the London court that the historian Deborah Lipstadt had libeled him when she called him a Holocaust denier.

“I sat day after day observing him dismiss documents, dismiss eyewitness testimony, dismiss the confessions of the perpetrators. He dismissed it all and said more or less everything [was] fake: eyewitnesses could be making it up, documents could be forgeries. Listening to that long enough eventually had an effect on me which made me feel: How do you even know what ground you stand upon if somebody can so easily deny the past?” says Freedland.

British Holocaust denier David Irving. (JTA)

The return of that feeling of almost “physical queasiness” in 2016, believes Freedland, “acted as a prompt for this story.” Among its central characters, “To Kill The Truth” features a charismatic and unconventional self-styled historian engaged in a libel fight after being labeled a “slavery-denier.” It was, Freedland suggests, an attempt to place “a David Irving right in the middle of America’s most sensitive issue – race and slavery – in a state, Virginia, which has been riven by conflict over race.”

Freedland’s ambition is, though, much greater than simply placing the Irving trial in an American context.

“Often what I’m trying to do with these books is take an anxiety – usually an anxiety I myself have – and, in order to dramatize it, you have to make it sharper [and] more extreme than it is at present,” he says.

“To Kill The Truth” is thus premised on an attempt to destroy the entire historical record, not just deny the evidence of a specific event.

“What partly enables people to see a real problem more clearly is to take it to its logical conclusion and to imagine it in its most extreme form,” Freedland says.

Freedland, whose self-confessed ambivalence towards technology is apparent in the book, is also concerned about the rise of fake news and how traditional journalism responds to it.

Illustrative: In this October 4, 2018 file photo, a Trump supporter holds up a T-shirt reading ‘You Are Fake News’ before a rally by President Donald Trump in Rochester, Minnesota. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

“Much of technology really frightens me,” he says. “The motor of the story is about these people who are destroying evidence, but the thing that interested me more, because I thought it would be more novel and newer to the reader, is this notion of not just destroying past evidence, so much as adding to it and drowning it with extra, fake evidence.”

Costello is the victim of just such an effort in the book; an element of the plot which was, in part, inspired by scientists last year creating an audio “recording” of John F. Kennedy delivering the speech in Dallas he was due to give on the day he was assassinated.

“They hailed this as a wonderful breakthrough, but I immediately thought: if you can do that with him, you could then do the same with a speech that he not only never gave, but never meant to give or planned to give,” says Freedland.

What, for instance, would stop the manufacturing of “fake audio” of Barack Obama declaring he’s a Muslim or a secret Marxist and that he was, indeed, born in Kenya, Freedland asks.

“Post-truth is a real challenge to journalism,” Freedland warns. “One of the features of this post-truth period is traditional journalism doesn’t know quite how to handle it. The traditional, BBC model of balance was fine when both sides were playing by the same rules or at least aspiring to be truthful. But if you have people who willfully don’t mind lying and really don’t care, and I think Trump is in that category, then that form of journalism really doesn’t work.”

Jonathan Freedland. (YouTube screenshot)

Although Freedland returned to the United States in 2016 to cover the presidential election, he has spent much of the past three years dissecting the turmoil which currently roils British politics, not least Brexit and Labour’s capture by the far left under Jeremy Corbyn.

Given the affinity many British Jews once felt for Corbyn’s party, does the Labour anti-Semitism crisis trigger in Freedland that same physical sensation from the Irving trial which other recent events have led him to recall?

“It’s not the same sensation, no,” he responds. “But it’s certainly been an unsettling, dispiriting time for people like me: Jews who grew up to see the Labour party as their natural home. Both my parents voted Labour at every election, so did my father’s grandparents and the same was true of my siblings. It felt as natural to vote Labour as to fast on Yom Kippur or sit around a seder table at Passover. My late father wore a red tie on every election day: red for Labour.”

It felt as natural to vote Labour as to fast on Yom Kippur or sit around a seder table at Passover

At its very simplest, Freedland says, that support “came down to the sense that Labour was the party of the underdog, and Jews were the underdog.”

Freedland denies that Britain is entirely afflicted by the kind of populist, post-truth politics which he sees in Trump’s America — yet.

“I think we are probably behind America on this one, but not that far behind,” he says. “Lies were a big part of the Brexit campaign, and conspiracy theory is flourishing on both the right and left.” The social media trends that trouble him, he adds, “are global, with Britain affected as much as anywhere else.”

Illustrative Britain’s opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (R) speaks to the press after meeting with the EU Brexit negotiator at the European Commission headquarters on March 21, 2019, in Brussels, on the first day of an EU summit. (Aris Oikonomou / AFP)

As a Jewish writer, Freedland notes, his novels are inevitably informed by his Jewish identity. “What’s really interesting to me is how readers totally embrace that; they have no resistance to it,” he says.

Freedland’s first three Bourne novels, he says, were “explicitly Jewish books.” “The Righteous Men” – described in Britain on its publication as a “Jewish Da Vinci Code” – was set in Crown Heights and “The Last Testament” in Jerusalem, while “The Final Reckoning” is a Holocaust story.

The fact that they sold so well – in all, Freedland’s novels have sold over 2 million copies and been published in more than 30 languages – “shows you, I think, that when Jewish people are just pretty comfortable with their own identity, other people are equally comfortable,” he says.

Although less explicitly Jewish, “To Kill The Truth,” Freedland believes, reflects a “Jewish sensibility” with its “concern about memory and history.”

“Jewish people will identify with that very strongly. We are a people who exist in some way on our memories,” he concludes.

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