Leading up to Waitangi Day, commentators are all over the Main Stream Media frantically telling us the "truth" about the events surrounding the Treaty signing in 1840. Yet for centuries historians, journalists and the courts have declared that getting to the objective truth when trying to discover what happened at a particular event has proved impossible. Here is what my friend, Harvard economist, Rafael Di Tella, has to say about the matter in his article called "Information or Opinion? Media Bias as Product Differentiation":
In 500 B.C., Thucydides’ wrote in his account of the Peleponnesian War: “With regard to my factual reporting of events, I made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way & not be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I've described or else heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eyewitnesses have different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality from one side or the other or from imperfect memory." Kovach & Rosensteil (2001) in The Elements of Journalism note how this account alludes to the challenges in any task of non-fiction: "How do you sift through rumor, gossip, failed memory, manipulative agendas & try to capture something as accurately as possible, subject to revision in light of new information & perspective? How do you overcome your own limits of perception, your own experience & come to an account people recognize as reliable?” They note the difficulties posed in this task have resulted not only in journalists rejecting the term objectivity as an illusion, “but in various legal opinions, which declared objectivity impossible".
On the relationship between the courts and the truth, some great quotes come from the eminent American legal authority, Alan Dershowitz:
= "The defendant wants to hide the truth because he's generally guilty. The defense attorney's job is to make sure the jury does not arrive at that truth".
= "The prosecution is perfectly happy to have the truth of guilt come out but it, too, has a truth to hide: it wants to make sure the process by which the evidence was obtained is not truthfully presented, because, as often as not, that process will raise questions".
= "The judge has a truth she wants to hide: she often hasn't been completely candid in describing the facts or the law"
= "That is why a criminal trial is not a search for truth. Scientists search for truth. A criminal trial searches for only one result: proof beyond a reasonable doubt".
So next time someone tells you that the media, journalists, lawyers or the courts in NZ are busy working out where the objective truth lies, tell them to give you a break.