In the 1920s, the pacifist propagandist Arthur Ponsonby (author of Falsehood in Wartime) did much to discredit all the 1914 accounts of German atrocities in Belgium by pointing out that many of the stories that appeared in newspapers during the autumn of 1914 were obviously inventions.
This, from The Times, is a good example:
A stirring story. With German cruelty, British heroics and a touch of nudity, it is a news editor’s dream. But the sceptical reader might start asking questions. Where did this actually happen? How did women in this condition reach the British trenches? How did the officer with a wounded shoulder manage to shoot so unerringly?
Stories like this have fed the assumption that German atrocities in Belgium were all invented by the newspapers, or by the British government, but the truth is more complicated. The Times almost certainly printed the letter in good faith, coming as it did from so reputable a source as a clergyman. At the time, with the French imposing a news blackout on the war zone, letters from soldiers and eye-witnesses were almost the only source of information about what was actually happening. This one must have been especially attractive because it confirmed all the current prejudices about what was happening in Belgium.
Who wrote it? My money is on the vicar’s brother, but at this date we can’t tell.
The interesting question is – whoever the author was, did he (or she) realise that he was writing fiction? I suspect that he was so emotionally involved in the narrative of the War that he wrote down his imaginings, and assumed that they were fact, or as good as.
Is that hard to believe? But the same thing is happening now. The Guardian and other newspapers have been running horror stories based on the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus: An Out Syrian’s Thoughts on Life, the Universe and so on…
These culminated early last week when it seemed that the author, Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, went missing. Her cousin posted alarming messages. She was clearly a victim of the deeply unpleasant Syrian authorities.
Today, the truth has come out. Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari never existed. Her blog was the work of Tom Macmaster, an American living in Edinburgh. The man was so emotionally involved in what was happening in Syria, that he was convinced that his fiction was the truth,or as good as. After being exposed, he posted this self-important message:
Apology to readers
I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.
I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.
This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.
However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.
To the rest of us, the Orientalism may seem to be his own. With all the careless abandon of an imperialist, he has assumed the identity of a fictional Syrian woman (and stolen the photograph of a real one). He assumes that he knows what such a woman might say. He claims to give her a voice, but his sensationalism maybe drowns out the voices of real women.
He writes: ‛I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.’ No, he probably doesn’t, any more than the fantasist of 1914 realised that he was muddying the pools of history. Or the Holocaust fakers – so emotionally involved in the story of what happened to the Jews in Auschwitz and elsewhere that they fabricate sensational fictions to which they are so emotionally committed that they pass them off as truth. When the nonsense they produce is debunked, it provides easy ammunition for Holocaust deniers.
Doubtless the Syrian authorities will now be saying of any dissenting voice: ‛That’s not a Syrian – probably some American in Edinburgh.’ Mr MacMaster has done a terrible disservice to the cause that he supports.
As for the mainstream media that were taken in by the fake blog and reported it (such as CNN and the Guardian), they were in much the same position as the Times was in 1914. It is hard for reporters to get into Syria, and even harder to find out what is happening. News editors eagerly grab at anything that seems to be revealing what is really happening in the country – and are probably especially grateful when the material confirms their own prejudices.
Update 14th June: Mr Macmaster has now apologised more fully – and yet another lesbian blog turns out to be the work of an American male. Are there any real lesbians? I’ve started to wonder about Gertrude Stein…