Saturday 22 October 2016

In truth, Kimmage leaves the pack behind

The TV documentary Rough Rider showed that a "fact" today may not be a fact tomorrow, writes Declan Lynch

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

There is something called the Communications Unit in Leinster House, from which a man called Ciaran Brennan wrote last week to the Irish Independent, quoting a very old line about journalism. 
"Comment is free but facts are sacred" is the line, attributed to the editor of the Manchester Guardian CP Scott, and cited with approval by the man in the Communications Unit - "while commentary is an integral and important part of any newspaper, that commentary should always be based on fact", he opined.

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And to be fair to Mr Brennan he would not be alone in endorsing Scott's line, which you can hear being quoted in tones of wry approval by many in politics and in journalism itself, when they can't offer a line of their own, which is most of the time.

So here's a fact: throughout his cycling career, Lance Armstrong passed many drugs tests, conducted by the highest authorities in the game. It was such an established fact, that Lance himself kept quoting it, and many of the journalists in turn reported it, and so the great wheels of the media kept turning in a manner that might gain the approval of those in the Communications Unit itself who declare that "commentary should always be based on fact."

Paul Kimmage, who perhaps wasn't familiar with the Scott dictum, or who may be the sort of fellow who thinks that a line which was right for journalism in 1921 might not be entirely right in 2014, had a different opinion about the facts of the case.

Indeed watching Rough Rider on RTE1 last week, you got a strong sense of a man who was constantly facing the realisation that everything he had been told about this strange business of ours, however wise it seemed at the time, was turning out to be bullshit. That usually, the opposite is true.

And one of the reasons that a man such as Kimmage can appear disagreeable to his peers, is that the true version - not some selection of ultimately misleading "facts" - is obvious to him. 
Great journalists have a kind of an innocence in these matters, at some deep level they just don't understand the game of "objective journalism", or maybe they just can't stand the boredom of assembling their daily quota of all these bogus "facts", knowing that that which is regarded as a fact today, may not be a fact tomorrow.

But it is the scale of the illusion that is so daunting. I mean, could anything in the world have been more obvious than the fact - yes eventually there was a fact that stood up here - that Lance and so many of his kind were doping? That they were operating in a culture of doping that was so deeply established, the "objective" journalists either didn't see it any more, or had formed a cynical consensus that for all factual purposes it did not exist?

Kimmage, of course, was not objective. He had ridden in the Tour de France himself, he had loved the game and hated it, he had had his own brief encounter with doping , he had lost good friends due to it, he was emotionally involved. He was subjective.

And while they'd say in the Communications Unit of the Houses of the Oireachtas that good journalism is objective and not subjective, here too the opposite tends to be true. The story of the Tour de France being utterly corrupted by doping and by all the official dishonesty around it was a story so deeply felt by Kimmage himself, you could say on a couple of levels that it was the story of his life.

Adrian McCarthy, the director of Rough Rider, understood this well. He knew that for Kimmage this was not business, it was just personal. And in those scenes in which the writer is tapping away at his laptop, he seemed to be engaging not in some form of reportage but in writing his autobiography.

Mostly he seemed to be acting on instinct, not according to any formal procedure or anything that the Communications Unit might regard as good solid journalism. But then most journalism that is any good is largely instinctual - you didn't see Kimmage intoning any dinner party mantras about "the journalist keeping his opinions to himself", about "just putting down the facts and letting the reader make up his own mind."

No there was none of that.

For the aspiring journalist who doesn't want to go to college to learn that "comment is free but facts are sacred", and then have to spend the rest of his life unlearning all that, there was the fine example of Kimmage acting alone, not as part of a pack.

The pack has a great desire for objectivity, for balance, for keeping the old show on the road. And of all these dubious instincts, perhaps the most insidious is the desire to be inside the tent. On a minor level you see it with the political reporter dreaming of being the government spin-meister standing at the back of the room with his arms folded. In something as important as the Tour de France, it can mean that almost an entire community can be acting against the common good for generations.

And there is Kimmage, outside the tent, bringing it all down, and bringing it back home.

Sunday Independent

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