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Thursday, 25 November 2010

To Tell the Truth, or Alter It?

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As fiction writers, we often take factual situations and even people as the basis for our stories. To what extent is it valid and/or morally defensible to pass off an altered factual account as fiction? I was prompted to ask this question when one of my writing friends, Patricia Love, invited me to a LinkedIn discussion forum as follows: Has anyone ever written a piece of fiction based on a public or historical event, or a piece of news that required some investigative reporting?
(Some areas of interest are whether writers find it challenging to present a narrative that is reliable, yet subtly subjective.) You might wish to follow the link and join in the discussion; I have.

But, back to my question. Many books have been written as fictionalised versions of a factual situation, or thinly disguised portrayals of real people. My interest is in whether such conversion is right; morally, artistically and socially. We live in a world where it is now possible to present entirely fictional information as fact, whether in written, photographic or film form. In fact, due to advances in the CGI process, it is becoming almost impossible to tell the real from the manufactured in film nowadays. The amalgam of journalism with online mechanisms makes the reporting of items, once considered as 'news', open to all manner of distortion, plagiarism and Chinese whispers (my apologies to Oriental friends). So that we, as the consumers of the news, are no longer able to determine whether what we are being shown, told, informed about, is real or merely the workings of some fevered journalistic brain.

I recognise that we are far too far down the road of technology to go back to the days of newsprint and lead type. Though there is no real evidence that news presented in those 'good old days' was either neutral or factually accurate, of course. But we do need to be aware that the world we now inhabit allows ideas, opinions, propaganda and dogma to be presented as truth, and that this 'truth' is then abused by people in positions of power.

Is there anything we can do, as citizens intent on discovering the reality behind a given news story, to learn what is true and what is false? Short of examining the issue from a number of different and disparate viewpoints, we are unable to sort the chaff from the wheat.

It is for this reason that organisations such as the BBC World Service, still a well-respected purveyor of news over the globe, must continue to be strictly governed to prevent both deliberate and accidental bias or distortion. Doubtless, there are other international news organisations that are currently equally trusted. We lose these organs of truth at our peril. For, without them, we dive steeply into the world of those newsrags that sell lies, mistruths, legends and myths (urban or otherwise) as truth entirely from a profit motive. Under such a regime, we will find ourselves incapable of trusting any information gained and will become unable to form informed opinions and make important choices on all manner of subjects.

Which takes me back to the fiction question. Is it right to take real situations and people and turn them into fiction? Or, does this practice encourage the use of fiction in real journalism? This is an invitation to discuss and put forward points of view, so, please, let's have them.

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