Is it okay to lie in the service of a greater truth?

19th March, 2012

I’m just catching up with this quite remarkable episode of one of my favourite shows, This American Life.

Quick background. The “monologist” Mike Daisey has been achieving plaudits for a remarkable, tense, elegantly-written and powerfully-delivered theatre show in which he visits a Foxconn iPhone factory in Shenzhen, meets the illegal unions, the crippled workers, the under-age girls, etc. etc. “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”, he asks at one point.
This American Life recorded Daisey’s monologue and broadcast it. It became the most popular ever episode of a deservedly popular show. This American Life fact-checked the background, but they didn’t fact-check Mike Daisey’s traveller’s tale itself – partly, they say, because Mike Daisey deliberately put them off the scent.
And alas, This American Life are now reporting that important parts of Daisey’s story are entirely fictional.

And so TAL have now retracted the entire episode and have a fascinating discussion of what went wrong. I thoroughly recommend listening to the program (I’ve not even finished listening myself but I want to get the word out).
Daisey’s defence, as discussed in the New York Times, is to my mind unacceptable – basically that he was true in his own fashion; he’s a theatre guy, not a journalist, so he can invent and exaggerate.
I am reminded about what a friend at The Economist told me after Johann Hari’s exploits: it’s absolutely fine to make stuff up – and when you do so as a foreign correspondent, it’s also really easy to do – but when you do it needs to be filed under “fiction”, not “nonfiction”.

One thing that always bothered me about the Daisey episode was the way Daisey glossed over what a terrible life people had in China in the 1950s and 1970s. He mentions Shenzhen used to be a lovely sleepy fishing village, and implies – although never comes right out and says it – that things were great before Deng Xiaoping let the bad old corporations into China. (In fact China suffered the worst man-made famine in human history, and the cultural revolution.)
I felt that these were the actions of a man wanted to put his own very strong slant on the truth. Naively it did not occur to me that Mr Daisey might depart from the truth entirely. In his own words, he says that “Stories should be subordinate to truth.”

This has left me feeling a still greater respect for This American Life for confessing their mistakes so straightforwardly, and viewing Daisey as something of a tragic figure – a man who has misused great talents. Maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?

Update: Tim Worstall disagrees with Mike Daisey on most things but he’s backing him on this issue.

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