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Nothing but the truth

July 16, 2012


“Any last questions before I say goodbye?” I chirped, closing after several days of lecturing at the Diplomacy and Global Governance summer school at London Metropolitan University.  London was humid, drizzly and the buildings around the university stifling in a decay that was unromantic – I was pleased to be concluding my summer stint in the city. A young Russian, perhaps the most vocal in class raised his hands. A smile curled his lips. “Can you tell me was Bin Laden really killed? Did he ever exist?”

Although my assignments in Iraq, Sri Lanka and Slovakia were spoken of, over the past couple of weeks, the insights shared most with students centered around Pakistan – both my time working at the Foreign Office and now as a visual artist. We spoke about the intricacies of government-to-government relations between Britain and Pakistan and looked at people-to-people diplomacy – how ordinary citizens are bridging gaps that less credible actors are unable to make. One area we honed in on was strategy.

In foreign policy terms, the higher profile the issue, the more it draws the interests of the analysts. I saw it happen with Iraq and Afghanistan and it’s happening too with Pakistan. The word “terrorism” also brings crowds. Reports, studies, surveys, polls – all attempting to make sense of it all – and many contradicting one another.  For the noble truth is that if you look at any given situation for long enough you will see straight through it and out the other side. A quest to cover all angles, if uncoordinated and left to run out of control begins to tear at the very fabric of the issue. My oft-quoted favourite philosopher, Jean Baudrillard is critical of opinion polls in his essay, The Masses. “People are always supposed to be willing partners in the game of truth, in the game of information. It is agreed that the object can always be persuaded of its truth; it is inconceivable that the object of investigation, the object of the poll, should not adopt generally speaking, the strategy of the subject of the analysis, of the pollster.” I have seen for myself in Iraq how dangerous it is to rely on surveys conducted by soldiers with guns as an absolute truth.

So strategy becomes clogged, it slows down with the weight of analysis and progress to solutions stalls whilst strategic direction is argued. In the case of Pakistan – I shared with the students some headline findings all taken from real bits of research. It was a crude and roughshod affair.

In half an hour the group of mainly Russian students learned of the Pakistani’s love for cricket and hockey; levels of literacy and mobile phone use; partition and the legacy of the British Colonialisation; the complex relationship that Pakistan has with it’s military; and the million-strong Pakistani diaspora in Britain – as a legacy of the Mangla Dam Project. I also shared my film work, the process behind it and the trip to Karachi to make it. One student asked me how I managed to find ordinary people in Pakistan. And all seemed surprised to learn that the sight of a non-Pakistani with a film camera drew smiles from children, waves from passers-by and many “ordinary” and “extra-ordinary” strangers who were keen to help and take part.

“It’s not actually what the media tells us what Pakistan is like” one girl stated. Bingo. If there is only one message that I hope the students take back to Russia with them it’s that. In Perceptions of Evil, I wrote that whilst we might all acknowledge mistrust in newspapers and the broadcast media, there is evidence to suggest that we, nevertheless build our perceptions of events, people and places by what the media tells us. Every consumer of news media needs to be awakened to the fact that as cynical as they might be, they are building perceptions based on the information they are receiving. The “truth” many news consumers receive about Pakistan is that it is of a backward, flooded nation, with extreme religious views that are prone to slide into violent acts every five minutes. A country of veiled, oppressed women who spend their days preparing hot curries for their husbands who return home to throw acid in their faces.

The media can play a positive societal role as self-appointed “truth finder” with investigative journalists honourably risking life and limb to uncover wrongs, but when it slides into a permanent fixation on the bad, the overwhelming effect is not truthful.

The only reference made to Bin Laden all week, was to discuss Sohaib Athar – the IT consultant who tweeted from Abbottobad during the raid on Bin Laden’s home under the name of @ReallyVirtual. His messages offer the news consumer something more credible and trusted. Yet, as his Twitter name suggests, in a very Baudrillardian sense, he can’t be taken as offering absolute truth. This is one man’s view.

So I return to the question. Is Bin Laden really dead – did he ever exist? My alter-ego – a paranoid conspiracy theorist who has driven himself to distraction – would have been delighted by the question. But I was disappointed. Perhaps I had provided such fresh insight into Pakistan and my various roles at the Foreign Office, that the student considered I might be a holder of one or more noble truths?

“Can you live with the fact that for events such as these – the Death of Bin Laden, you might not ever know an ultimate truth? Or that there might not even be an ultimate truth?”

The student nodded. “Yes, I think I can”, he said. At which point I disappeared in a puff of smoke and left them wondering if I had been there at all.

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy. Her book  A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found here and on facebook.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.