Jul 14 2017

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Technology is rising on the Discworld, as surely and erratically as the morning light from the Disc’s sun. Moving pictures appeared briefly in Moving Pictures, but the unreality that they involved kept them from securing a lasting place among the entertainments for the people of Ankh-Morpork. In more recent books, the semaphore “clacks” have come to form a rudimentary long-distance communications network. In the stories, they echo some of the effects of the telegraph in our world; at the time Pratchett was writing the books, they reflected the growth of the internet.

In The Truth, some dwarfs have discovered a way of turning lead into gold. They have figured out movable type printing with lead letters, and people are paying them in gold to print various things. William de Worde, a dissipated but mostly harmless nobleman, has been making something of a living writing a letter full of news about Ankh-Morpork and selling copies of it to people near and far who need to know about key goings-on in the city. He stumbles into the dwarfs’ workshop and sees possibilities. He feels the pull of a buzzing newsroom, though at the start it is only de Worde and the printers. He has an idea what a paper filled with news could mean for a city, especially one on as perpetually changing as Ankh-Morpork. He can’t stay away. It’s a heady feeling. I know it well.

Not everyone in Ankh-Morpork likes new technology, or the ruler who is letting such things develop. Some of the city’s wealthy and powerful have done quite well with things the way they are, and these people think the city could do with a chief executive who is a little more pliable behind the scenes. Some of them have gotten together and hatched a plan to help the current Patrician, Lord Vetinari, retire; they have brought in a pair of talented foreigners to execute the plan, if not necessarily the Patrician himself.

We are not running the city,” said [a voice from] a chair.
“But we care about the way it is going,” said another.
“Ah,” said Mr Pin. “Right. I remember. You are concerned citizens.” He knew about concerned citizens. Wherever they were, they all spoke the same private language, where “traditional values” meant “hang someone.” He did not have a problem with this, broadly speaking, but it never hurt to understand your employer.
“You could have got someone else,” he said. “You’ve got a guild of Assassins here.”
A chair made a sucking sound between its teeth.
“The trouble with the city at present,” it said, “is that a number of otherwise intelligent people find the status quo … convenient, even though it will undoubtedly ruin the city.”
“Ah,” said Mr Pin. “They are unconcerned citizens.”
“Precisely, gentlemen.” (p. 93)

Soon after the meeting of the Committee to Unelect the Patrician breaks up, William de Worde has a meeting with Lord Vetinari, and there commences the first of a series of interesting discussions about the role of the press in society as a whole.

… Lord Vetinari read his way through the Times again.
“What a very … interesting document,” said the Patrician, suddenly laying it aside. “But I’m forced to ask … Why?
“It’s just my news sheet,” said William, “but bigger. Er … people like to know things.”
“Which people?”
“Well … everyone, really.”
“Do they? Did they tell you this?”
William swallowed. “Well … no. But you know I’ve been writing my news letter for some time now—”
“For various foreign notables and similar people.” Lord Vetinari nodded. “People who need to know. Knowing things is part of their profession. But you are selling this to anyone in the street, is that correct?”
“I suppose so, sir.”
“Interesting. Then you wouldn’t entertain the idea, would you, that a state is, say, rather like one of those old rowing galleys? The ones which had banks of oarsmen down below, and a helmsman and so on above? It is certainly in everyone’s interest that the ship does not founder but, I put it to you, it is perhaps not in the interest of the rowers that they know of every shoal avoided, every collision fended off. It would only serve to worry them and put them off their stroke. What the rowers need to know is how to row, hmm?”
“And that the helmsman is a good one,” said William. He couldn’t stop the sentence. It said itself. It was out there, hanging in the air.
Lord Vetinari gave him a stare that went on for several seconds beyond the necessary time. Then his face instantly broke into a broad smile.
“To be sure. And so they should, so they should. …” (pp. 105–06)

In classic newsroom style, the Times soon acquires a feisty dame. In slightly less classic style, it also acquires a vampire photographer, who only occasionally has to be reconstituted when the brightness of the flash reduces him to a heap of ash. They make the acquaintance of the cops on the beat, who are, after all, some of the best sources of news.

When something very peculiar happens in the Patrician’s office, the paper and the police are both after the story. It’s an uneasy relationship.

Vimes said, “I don’t trust you, Mr de Worde. And I’ve just realized why. It’s not just that you’re going to cause trouble. Dealing with trouble is my job, it’s what I’m paid for, that’s why they give me an armour allowance. But who are you responsible to? I have to answer for what I do, although right now I’m damned if I know who to. But you? It seems to me you can do what the hell you like”
“I suppose I’m answerable to the truth, sir.”
“Oh, really? How, exactly?”
“Sorry?”
“If you tell lies, does the truth come and smack you in the face? I’m impressed. Ordinary everyday people like me are responsible to other people. Even Vetinari always had—has an eye on the Guilds. But you … you are answerable to the truth. Amazing. What’s its address? Does it read the paper?”
“She, sir,” said Sergeant Angua. “There’s a goddess of truth, I believe.”
“Can’t have many followers, then,” said Vimes. “Except our friend here.” (p. 184)

Vimes follows this discussion with a request that the paper print a picture that could help the police with their investigation. So many questions of media and ethics in such a quick bit of dialogue.

The Times soon has competition, and of the tabloid variety. One of the concerned citizens looks on this development with no small pleasure. “But the Times will collapse … The young man [Wm. de Worde] is also an idealist. He has yet to find out that what’s in the public interest is not what the public is interested in … I mean, gentlemen, that people probably think he’s doing a good job, but what they are buying is the [tabloid] Inquirer.” (pp. 242-43) A media dilemma that’s even more acute now than when Pratchett wrote the book in 2000. Another 50 pages on, de Worde faces another problem: he breaks a big story and nobody cares.

In the end, though, the truth will out, a newspaper publishes a dog-bites-man story, and some of the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

One last quote:

“…And that is Mr Scrope saying?” [asked Vimes].
“Apparently he says he’s looking forward to a new era in our history and will put Ankh-Morpork back on the path of responsible citizenship, sir,” [said Carrot].
“Is that the same as the lobsters [flying through the air]?”
“It’s political, sir. Apparently he wants a return to the values and traditions that made the city great, sir.”
“Does he know what those values and traditions were?” said Vimes, aghast.
“I assume so, sir,” said Carrot, keeping a straight face.
“Oh my gods. I’d rather take a chance on the lobsters.” (p. 330)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/07/14/the-truth-by-terry-pratchett/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.