Many decades ago I sat down to discuss with a cross-section of people at a dinner table, a forthcoming Federal election in Australia. The majority of people were debating the individual strengths of the two political leaders seeking the highest office in the nation. The opinions they offered, varied in depth of analysis. In one extreme case, a lady at the party suggested that her vote would go to candidate ‘X’ because he had lovely hair, and looked virile. In the majority of cases their prospective use of vote, especially examined in hindsight, was based on the message of ‘spin-doctors’. The eventual victor of this political election was touted in the public eye as a likeable rogue, and a family man. His then wife, later exposed a different side to the story writing in her biography (after he had left her, to marry a more glamorous woman); a story of forced abortion, alcohol, drug abuse, and serial adultery.
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I thought then as I do now, that much of what shapes our intellectual formation, and political decision making, is not as much thought-out – but thought-less. As Pavlov’s dogs, we react to jingles, statistics without substance, celluloid heroes and fantasy on screen, and political debates in which the value of a policy, our opinion, our knowledge of history, is determined not by veracity, but how information comes across to us from the camera, and in what mood we are in, when we receive it. Too often the bell rings – and we react. Is it indeed true that the louder the bell that is rung – the more likely that the sound is rung by a Truth-teller? In a world of frenzied mass media – viewer beware.
The 2019 motion picture, Mr. Jones, tells in part the story of the Welsh-born journalist, Gareth Jones, a Cambridge educated man who sought to discover whether the events that he had heard occur of famine in the Soviet Union, were accurate. Jones, following on from the work of another eminent British writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, went to the Soviet Union to see for himself. As the film portrays, Jones helped uncover a truth buried under layers of misinformation, purveyed not only by the Soviets who were perpetrating a brutal system of genocide, but also disseminated by such media authorities in the West such as the New York Times, and their Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Walter Duranty. In the case of both Muggeridge and Jones, history has clearly revealed that they were indeed ‘truth-tellers’, but popular opinion was blinded then to the truth, because of the smoke-screen of public-perceived authority. What the populace forgot was for a big lie to be covered up, a far bigger institution needed to provide the shadow. The more the lie was repeated – by these authorities, the more it was perceived to be the truth. Those little voices, crying out – must be lying, for if they were telling truths, why wouldn’t louder voices hear them? The answer is simply, as in the case of the Holodomor, political and economic ends were justifying the means. Ukraine and other disempowered nations of the Soviet Union, had to be sacrificed in order for the Soviet experiment to succeed, and in order for United States ‘big business’ to make even bigger business. Both Jones and Muggeridge were speaking on behalf of an ‘insignificant’ little people who spoke a language not of the Russian elites.
On the positive side, the film Mr. Jones, brought to centre stage the reality of the Soviet and Russian persecution of the Ukrainian nation and its people. This perspective of history had been nearly completely ignored. Those who had been persecuted and survived had been shouted down as liars. The film was an opportunity to hear the voice, of the voiceless.
But disturbingly, the creators of Mr. Jones twisted the truth of Gareth Jones’ life for increased political effect; something that undermines the poignancy and legacy of the film. The problem one has when you commence making alterations to facts within a historical biography, is that once the facts are questioned – people wish to know at what point ‘artistic license’ began and ended.
In this lengthy excerpt from a statement made by Phillip Colley, The True Story behind the ‘True Story’ of ‘Mr Jones’, the Great-Grand Nephew of Gareth Jones, Colley, pointedly aims at the ‘artistic license’ taken by the producers of the motion picture. Colley writes: “But I can’t say I was happy about it – there were so many inaccuracies and straightforward untruths, I was shocked. A private screening confirmed my worst fears. Gareth was the only reliable named journalist to witness the Soviet famine of 1933, but what he witnessed and what the film claims he witnessed are completely different. The film leads the viewer to believe only Ukraine was affected, but, as my uncle reported, millions were dying across the Soviet Union. In his famous Berlin press conference, on 29 March 1933 on leaving Russia, he reports: ‘Everywhere was the cry, ‘’There is no bread. We are dying.” This cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, the North Caucasus, Central Asia.’ Gareth was not just a ‘Hero of the Ukraine’, he was also a hero for people suffering across the Soviet Union; he was a hero for truth. So, when used as the central character in a film by Agnieszka Hollande, billed as “the most important true story you will ever watch”, and when much of what is presented in that film is not true, it needs to be pointed out. Is it really acceptable to promote a film prominently as a ‘true story’ and then in small print at the end of a long list of credits hide behind a standard disclaimer stating there are fictional elements? Andrea was handed an incredible story on a plate. It could have been told honestly as many great, genuinely ‘true’ historical films are, like Downfall. Instead she has invented multiple fictions. Gareth was a witness to the famine; not, as the film implies, a victim. In truth there was no love interest. He didn’t witness any dead bodies or any cannibalism, let alone take part in any; he never saw any grain requisition, forced labour or body-carts; he was never chased, never ran, never hid or disguised himself on his hike along the railway line. He was never imprisoned. Far from the claims of the film I don’t think he ever felt himself to be in any great danger, protected by his fluency in Russian, his charm and a useful VIP gratis visa. Furthermore, the narrative frame of the film, that Gareth met George Orwell, is simply not true, despite James Norton and the filmmakers attempts to spin otherwise. Similarly, for the claim that Gareth inspired Animal Farm there is no firm evidence. Does this matter? Is this all excused by ‘artistic license’ and trumped by the general ‘good’ of shining a light on an important, unrecognized part of history? Maybe. Maybe not. When a film creates a fake public perception of history, surely this cannot be a good thing. The classic example of film fiction becoming accepted as historic fact is Eisenstein’s staged storming of the Winter Palace in his 1927 film October. It never actually happened as portrayed. But thanks to the film, in public perception, it did. As historian Anthony Beevor has pointed out, “In a post-literate society, the moving image is king, and most people’s knowledge of history is regrettably based more on cinematic fiction than archival fact”. A certain amount of dramatic interpretation is expected but is it acceptable to change the facts? The appetite for ‘true stories’ on screen has resulted in many such controversies like that over the Oscar-winning Green Book, The Imitation Game and even the Netflix hit series The Crown. Already the internet is littered with untruths as a result of this film: that Gareth was “a Welsh diplomat who worked for Chamberlain and once interviewed Hitler” (he was not and did not); that he met George Orwell (he did not); that he went to Russia to interview Stalin (he did not); that he WAS murdered by the Soviets (there is no conclusive evidence for that). The filmmakers have admitted that Gareth did not witness all the events depicted in their film but told me they feel justified in using him to portray their version of what happened in the Holodomor. But I feel, by not telling the truth, they have muddied the historical waters. With so many falsehoods in the film how can any of it be relied upon? Gareth is used as a vehicle, presenting him as a witness to things he never actually saw, things which, though they may have happened, are not verified by his records. But the way the film presents the information implies that they were witnessed by this man who always tells the truth – therefore, they must be true. It seems to me that in the pursuit of their own agendas the makers of ‘Mr Jones’ have dealt with the suppression of truth by the perpetuation of further untruths, and produced a propaganda film… I hesitate to say it is the most important story you will ever read, but it is certainly an interesting one, that stands tall without the need for ‘Hollywood’ fabrication. It is the story of a brilliant young journalist, full of energy and zest for life, who risked everything to report the truth. That his life was extinguished so young remains a deep and enduring tragedy to my family. As for the Holodomor, I applaud the filmmakers for shining a light on this woefully underreported part of history. So, do go and see the film if you can. Despite its inaccuracies it is an important story and a good film, and yes, of course it has helped raise the profile of a man I’m immensely proud to be associated with. A man whose character, incidentally, lead actor James Norton captures brilliantly. But it would be a mistake to take what you are watching at face value. I wonder what my mother and brother would have thought…”.
The crux of Colley’s article is that in a society where people have ceased reading and stopped searching for the truth – our truths today are discovered by way of quick-fixes via popular media, and are at best – face value. If this be the case, as it most likely is – then people who report on history, or political events need to be made acutely aware of what great responsibility they have to accurately depict and convey history. Colley is correct – both Jones’ memory and the Holodomor do not require any embellishment – the truth alone, is astonishing, gut-wrenching and memorable enough. Such embellishment as in Mr. Jones, provides sympathetic scholars, little room to manoeuvre when criticized.
So what can we conclude? The Scottish pioneer economist, Adam Smith, once said that an integral condition of a perfectly Free Market is that the consumer has perfect knowledge about products and prices in order to make a rational choice that ensures the maximized level of utility (consumer satisfaction). By having a combination of perfect knowledge and freedom of mobility within a market, the consumer would no longer be a serf to be manipulated, but be a sovereign – acting as a catalyst to control the levels of demand, for a product, and by doing so, controlling the production process. Another condition of Adam Smith’s perfect market was that there were no barriers for firms to enter the market-place. This would allow any firm to become active in the marketplace – thus achieving a greater depth and volume of product, and hopefully an increased level of satisfaction for the consumer. The dawn of the internet has meant that the notion of Adam Smith’s sovereign consumer has quite nearly come to fruition. The consumer is now able to sit in the comfort of their homes, searching for products to purchase, able to compare prices on the touch of a keyboard, and transcend international boundaries in seconds.
Yet consumer economics is one aspect of the individual’s interaction with broader society. The creation of the World Wide Web, and the speed of knowledge transmission via digital media, has also meant that the individual has not only been empowered, economically, but threatened in terms of the quality of the information they receive. The individual today requires a vastly more heightened level of discernment. We turn on the television, or search the internet, to be told opposing truths, be they from the left or right wing media sources. One eminent commentator tells us a story of gloom – another commentator speaks of the same situation in euphoric terms. Intellectual formation and subsequent decision-making by the populace is influenced by the perspective a particular media source wishes to drive. The media therefore does not become an unequivocal conveyor of truths, but rather the shaper and manufacturer of popular opinion, seeking some form of profit. Whereas prior to the dawn of mass media and the saturation of news commentary in the home, an individual may have constructed opinions by way of reading or discussion within families and local communities; a frenetic-paced life, sees many in the modern milieu as gaining truths from five minute news sources, current affairs programmes, or Netflix, believing what an ‘authority’ tells you – because they are an ‘authority’. Ground-swells occur because seemingly majority opinion must be right. Whereas Adam Smith’s perfect market, can be tested, by way of products being of a certain quality and competitive price; it is vastly more difficult in a world of ‘perfect knowledge’ to choose prudently when the topic at hand becomes not one of consumer goods, but of historical and political truths purveyed to the populace. No matter how voluminous the information we have at our finger-tips, to adequately use our political franchise, an individual requires not only information, but discernment in order to weigh up the credibility of the sources they are viewing, and also the arguments being deliberated upon. The adage ‘Consumer Beware’, is applicable to free market economics, but perhaps more so today, we need to consider an additional catch-phrase – ‘Viewer Beware’; because we are not only what we eat and what we consume – we also are in danger of becoming what we are uncritically fed; and what we pass on as truth to others.