Hamilton, Ontario, April 12, 2000
picture added by this website
The David Irving principle and me
For months, a courthouse in London, England, has been the scene of an especially twisted kind of obscenity: Author Deborah Lipstadt and her lawyers daily marshalling mountains of evidence in an effort to prove the Holocaust happened.
Lipstadt's ludicrous struggle is necessitated by a libel suit brought against her by an arrogant amateur historian and Nazi apologist, author David Irving.
Lipstadt has said Irving is "among the most dangerous of Holocaust deniers" or words to that effect, and Irving took umbrage. He then seized the chance to revive his flagging fortunes with the libel suit.
He lost the suit yesterday and, in losing, he solidifies his international status as a victim of the worldwide conspiracy.
I can tell you now, for the first time, that I am part of that conspiracy.
I never went to journalism school, so I missed what I imagine were repeated lectures on objectivity and the media's role as impartial observers in society.
I don't mean to offend any pigs among our readership, but I've always thought that was hogwash.
The only truly disinterested journalists I know are dead journalists. That's what makes them disinterested. Needless to say, their writing suffers.
But just as a doctor or lawyer doesn't have to love or even believe her clients to serve them well, neither do journalists have to agree with their subjects to write their stories fairly and truthfully. Rather than seeking true impartiality, good journalism is usually a matter of using your views and biases, your passions and paranoia to sharpen your understanding of the story, to refuse to be seduced by the first easy quote that comes along, and to keep digging deeper.
We are obliged, however, to strive mightily for accuracy and fairness. And like the much abused Hippocratic oath still taken by today's doctors, I think we journalists should also strive to do no harm. And mostly, I think I manage to meet those standards.
But life is never that simple.
Journalists are governed by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, an idea first developed by physicist Werner Heisenberg to explain the behaviour of sub-atomic particles and the difficulties faced in studying them.
Permit me to vastly oversimplify. Heisenberg's principle states that the act of attempting to observe the momentum or position of a sub-atomic particle actually affects that particle's location or motion.
Imagine if police radar guns had the effect of slowing you down, or speeding you up, or making you change lanes -- and you could never be sure which effect you'd have when you train your radar beam on a speeding car. In a sense, that is one of the dilemmas facing physicists studying the building blocks of matter.
To observe is to change.
This simple principle wreaks havoc with the journalist's comfortable notions of being a mere observer of the news, rather than a participant.
It was David Irving who taught me that lesson back in 1992 when I started a chain of events that led to him being barred for life from Canada, Australia, South Africa and Lord knows where else.
I knew Irving well, having spent years investigating, tracking and chronicling the white racist movement. Irving was an intelligent, sometimes charming, but ultimately arrogant interview, a man so sure of of his superior intellect and his ability to bamboozle his listeners that he routinely walked off rhetorical cliffs, confident he wouldn't fall.
As an author and historian, Irving's pro-Nazi biases had reduced him to selling his books via speaking tours organized by racists and Nazi apologists. The tours could be lucrative (he bragged to me that he stood to make $80,000 from his 10-city Canadian tour in 1992), but clearly he felt he deserved better.
But an October 1992 ruling by Canadian immigration officials that he was unwelcome in this country threatened to cost Irving even the cold comfort of his racist audiences and their Canadian cash.
Irving's Canadian lawyer, Doug Christie, had tried and failed to overturn the immigration decision banning Irving.[*] And the story had been covered nationally in the weeks leading up to his tour.
I was working at another paper at the time. Sources of mine in the racist world said no one was talking about cancelling Irving's tour, so I called Christie's Victoria, B.C., office to see what Irving intended to do. I was stunned to hear the phone answered by none other than David Irving himself.
Irving had snuck into the country.
"David! David Irving! What are you doing in Victoria?" I asked.
"Who is this?" Irving answered in his unmistakable, overly modulated British accent which sounds a bit like a BBC announcer from the 70s.
During our brief conversation, he dodged confirming his identity, refused to comment on his tour plans, and said he was just answering the phones while Christie was out of the office.
Here's where that Heisenberg principle pops up.
I was of two minds about Canada banning Irving. While I had no sympathies with his views or the movement he offered succour to, I'm no fan of banning speech and barring the door to ugly ideas.
Clearly, if we ran a story saying "Banned Brit author sneaks into Canada" the man would be scooped up by police, jailed and thrown out of the country in fairly short order.
If we did nothing, he could make a speech or two, collect a few tens of thousands of dollars and then slip back into the United States leaving Canadian immigration officials red-faced with embarrassment and Canadian anti-racists red-faced with anger.
After discussing the matter with my editor, I was told we needed proof Irving had answered a lawyer's phone in Victoria and we decided we needed comment from immigration authorities.
That last decision sealed Irving's fate.
For if we had just run a story the next day that Irving had snuck into Canada for a speech last night, he would have had time to sneak back out again.
But calling immigration authorities for comment would set them scrambling for him.
So what do you do?
I couldn't hide behind objectivity, or simply "getting the story." My actions would have clear -- and clearly negative -- consequences for Irving.
I hooked a tape recorder to the phone and called him back.
It was a hilarious conversation.
Unable to resist the offer of an intellectual sparring partner, Irving didn't do the sensible thing and simply hang up. He argued.
Irving talked about himself in the third person and attacked the Canadian government, Jewish organizations and the media.
But because he couldn't admit who he was, he ended up using tortuous constructions like "If I were to be David Irving, I can assure you that I would offer no comment to a Bill Dunphy, a journalist who writes scurrilous articles for the tabloid press..."
When I was finished with him, I called a contact in Canada Immigration and told him I'd just interviewed David Irving in Canada, and what was the department's reaction?
His immediate reaction was unsuitable for publication. His next move was to get a Canada-wide warrant for Irving's arrest and alert the RCMP in Victoria.
Five hours later, Irving was hauled out of his meeting in handcuffs.
He was eventually banned from Canada for life, and that ban has been used by Australia and South Africa to bar him from their countries as well.
To observe and report is to influence.
Maybe we can call that the Irving principle of certainty.
Website comment: * There was no such Immigration decision. Mr Irving legally entered Canada at the Niagara Falls post by car on Oct 26, 1989 and his passport was stamped accordingly. Incidentally, Prof. Werner Heisenberg (whom "amateur historian" David Irving interviewed twice) wrote a brilliant whole page review of Irving's book The German Atomic Bomb in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in about 1968.
April 12, 2000