A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré
As authors who construct elegant plots like to remind us, “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.” And having reminded us of this fact, they proceed to bombard the reader with contemporaneous events that just happen to occur with some degree of synchronicity. Of course, those predisposed to see conspiracies, would no doubt be delighted to read more meaning into such accidents of occurrence. I prefer the view that even authors who live with their heads in a bucket do occasionally look up long enough to see something of the world before retreating back into their craft of writing. So when reading this book, I’m mindful the trial of Bradley Manning has just reached the predictable verdict of guilty and Edward Snowden is lurking out of sight, but not out of mind, in Russia. These are our whistleblowers du jour. Not forgetting Julian Assange, of course, the facilitator who prefers de facto imprisonment in a room in central London to investigation for alleged sexual offences in Scandinavia. Such individuals risk much in the name of freedom of information. Whenever governments or the powerful would prefer the truth be concealed in favour of whatever lies they have presented to the world, we embrace the courage of the few brave men who prefer to do something to ensure the world becomes better informed. That they take this action in the knowledge the powerful will attempt to shut down their leaks and take some measure of revenge for being prepared to leak “secrets”, confirms their reckless disregard for their own interests. They sacrifice themselves for the greater good as they see it.
Sadly, the majority are prepared to do nothing even though their consciences may be severely tested. This reflects the power of socialisation. As children, we’re taught it’s more important to fit in, to run with the herd, than to stand out against the tide and rebel. Deference to authority figures is the dominant motif in the education system. References to more abstract norms of morality are footnotes most children fail to investigate. The Kantian notion there might be imperatives not to accept the prevailing norms when universal principles are at stake is left to rot of the shelf of history. Only the victorious side in any battle can claim the losers were wrong in blindly following orders. During the battle, people are disciplined or executed for failing to follow orders — pour encourager les autres as Admiral Byng learned to his cost after the Battle of Minorca.
So it is we come to A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré (Viking, 2013) — a remarkably convenient book to appear at this time because it should help to promote a discussion of how people in government should react when they become aware of improper behaviour and an attempt to cover up the consequences. We’re interested in three individuals. Toby Bell is the young man of talent in the Foreign Office who’s being groomed for advancement by an older and supposedly wiser Giles Oakley. In a low flying position, we have Christopher Probyn, a civil servant in British Intelligence. Bell works for Fergus Quinn, an ambitious junior minister, and comes to understand “his” Minister is breaking a raft of government rules and, probably, international laws by staging Operation Wildfire on the Rock of Gibraltar. He understands he cannot simply walk in and stop the Minister. The problem is how to protect himself should there be any blowback. He therefore “acquires” evidence and hides it away.
Three years later, Giles Oakley has moved into a senior position with a British bank, Probyn has been knighted and has retired to the countryside, and Bell has been promoted. It’s at this moment, a soldier who had been involved in Operation Wildfire contacts Probyn. This shakes up the man’s quiet world of retirement into countryside squiredom and pricks his conscience. Except he has only personal experience and no objective evidence. In a world which has pitched this operation as a great success, how can he suggest a government cover-up? Desperate to “do something”, he contacts Bell and herein lies the rub. Bell has a career stretching in front of him so long as he does nothing to rock the boat. Until Probyn contacted him, he had nothing at stake. Now if Probyn was to be indiscrete, he might be forced to use his evidence as a shield. But in moments of quiet reflection, he has to acknowledge this may not be enough. Of course, Oakley is out of the direct firing line now. He might know enough to be helpful, but why should he care when he’s not at risk?
It was Edmund Burke who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In a world increasingly subject to government surveillance, it’s now necessary for society to discuss just how far states should be allowed to intrude on our privacy. Although there’s some degree of threat from terrorism, the need to offer protection to citizens has to be balanced against the basic human right to privacy. With newspapers like the Guardian threatened by the British government for publishing information leaked by Snowden, and Lader Levison feeling he should shut down Lavabit rather than hand over the data demanded by the US government, we need to decide more precisely what our values are. Expanding our vision, there are also questions over the morality of extraordinary rendition (kidnapping suspects), enhanced interrogation techniques (and then torturing them), and such prisoners being characterised as enemy combatants (to justify their torture and indefinite detention). The degree of secrecy surrounding government activities makes the role of whistleblowers more important if society is to understand what states are actually doing in the name of their citizens. A Delicate Truth takes a steady look at the dilemmas facing people who know something “dangerous” to the state’s reputation. Their socialisation should predispose them to remain silent. If socialisation fails, fear may achieve the same objective. Although there are slight elements of preachiness and some obvious hostility towards America, this is a terrific book and the best from the old master for a few years. You should read it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.