Op-Ed: Truth, Lies, & Useful Idiots

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In 1952, Doris Lessing, a Nobel prize-winning author, was one of a group of writers and prominent intellectuals who visited the Soviet Union, then in the iron grip of Joseph Stalin, one of history’s greatest criminals and murderers. She was introduced to the political leaders of the country, and escorted around the nation by the Russian secret police. Lessing, along with the others on the trip, returned home to write gushing praise of the Soviet Union, describing it as ‘a land of hope.’

In her later years, Lessing wrote a damning condemnation of her own naiveté during the visit. “I was taken around and shown things as a ‘useful idiot’… that’s what my role was. I can’t understand why I was so gullible.” She had seen only what had been shown to her, believed what her guides – all of whom worked for the secret police – told her, and accepted the testimony of the workers she spoke to, workers who had been carefully selected, and briefed to project the right message, or sufficiently intimidated to not let any of the real truth slip.

A ‘useful idiot’ is exactly how I feel all too often working in the MotoGP paddock. With no formal training in journalism, and only my gut instinct to follow, it is hard to sift out the underlying facts from the fiction being projected all around me. Most of motorcycle racing journalism – in fact, most of sports journalism – relies almost entirely on the word of others.

A journalist will speak to a rider, or a team manager, or an engineer, or a press officer, and write a news story based on what they have just been told. If they are a good journalist, they will try and verify what they have been told by checking with other sources. If they want to sell newspapers, they will write what suits them, and let the checking be damned.

Even checking may not get you very far, if the people you are checking your story with are in the pay of the same team or factory as your original source. Team members are either briefed with a company line, or understand from long experience what they can and can’t reveal, and just what they should be giving away.

Should you wish to know about Yamaha’s engine situation, for example, you can check with Lin Jarvis, who will tell you they have the situation under control. You can double check that story with Ramon Forcada, or Jeremy Burgess, or Maio Meregalli, or Wilco Zeelenberg, but all those men know exactly what they are expected to say as well. You can ask the riders, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, but they will only tell you what they have been told by their team managers or crew chiefs.

The underlying truth of the situation is hard, or more accurately, almost impossible to get at, as reporters simply have no direct access to the data, other than the published engine lists, which show only which engines have been used, not their mileage or their power output.

You could turn to an engineer from another factory for a comment or advice, but what they tell you is colored by their situation as well. While Yamaha want to convince you that they are not having problems with their engines, so that their riders do not worry about the situation, Honda or Ducati engineers may want you to believe that Yamaha are in trouble for exactly the opposite reason. With so much of motorcycle racing a matter of mental stability and strength, planting the seeds of doubt into the minds of your opponents can be a very useful strategy.

The question of Yamaha’s engines is just an example. There are countless other subjects where the truth is hard to come by, and the information you are being fed is both hard to check and potentially unreliable. A team manager may tell you he is talking to rider A about next year, because he may genuinely have an interest in signing rider A. But he may tell you he is talking to rider A in the hope that you tell his current rider, B, or rider C from another team, in order to force their hand.

By feigning interest in one rider, they may be trying to pressure another rider into signing a contract. If you as a journalist write ‘Team X is close to signing rider A,’ rider C may fear that he could miss out on the seat at Team X, and agree to ride for less money, or with fewer conditions.

Riders play exactly the same game, telling you they are talking to lots of teams in the paddock – maybe even close to signing with a particular team – as a means to put pressure on the team they would really like to sign for. The courteous team managers will tell you when this is what they are doing, but courteous team managers are few and far between.

So how do you know what to believe? And even if you do believe the information being passed to you, how do you know you aren’t being used? The answer to both those question is that you don’t.

You try to check, you try to dig, you ask everyone and anyone you can find if they know anything about the situation. The trouble is, of course, that the people you try to check the information with may also have their own motives for their reply, meaning that your efforts to check may be as unreliable as the original source.

This is the aspect of writing about MotoGP which I find hardest of all. Naturally, the longer you are in the paddock, the better your contacts and the stronger your network, but even then, it is never 100% reliable. Anything you learn cannot be trusted, and may have been revealed to serve a specific purpose.

Throughout my previous occupations (which have been many and varied) a sense of paranoia has been surplus to requirements. When someone told me something, then 99 times out of 100, I could simply rely on it being true. Now, I have to wander through information which is simultaneously swamp and minefield. What you see may not be what you think you see, and it could turn out to be very harmful indeed.

And so I serve my apprenticeship as a useful idiot, learning what I can, trying to verify what I can, and running it past the most cynical part of my soul to see if it passes the smell test. Trying to figure out if I have been told something because the person who told me is trying to use me as a conduit, to transmit a message to someone else, the contents of which I am ignorant of. Or just because they have no objection to the information they have just told you becoming public.

Even the traditional warning ‘of course, this is all off the record’ is of no use. I have been given a frosty reception a couple of times after failing to reveal information which had been told me ‘off the record’. I took the injunction to keep information to myself literally; the person who had passed me that information had intended just the opposite.

So next time you read anything I have written, either here on this site or elsewhere, bear in mind that, although I have done my very best to ensure what I write is accurate, and that I only write what I believe to be true, what I think I am reporting may not necessarily be what is going on.

I do as much as I can to get to the truth of a story, but even then, I sometimes find myself unwittingly passing on coded messages, the true meaning of which remains obscured to all but the intended recipient. ‘Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone.’

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.