Defend Truth


London Eye: Secrets and truth-telling lies


Margie Orford is the author of the Clare Hart crime series. The most recent title is Gallows Hill, published by Jonathan Ball. She is a member of the executive board of PEN International and of PEN South Africa. She is – to her surprise – currently living in London.

It was the mute presence of Hatice Cengiz, Jamal Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé, that provided the first and indisputable testimony of the exiled Saudi journalist’s disappearance. She watched him go into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to collect the papers he needed for them to marry. She waited. For hours. He never came out.

The Saudis said Khashoggi had left but, because Cengiz was there, it was not plausible – even though the Saudi authorities did claim that because there was “nothing to see”, she, and the world, should just move along. Because of her presence, Khashoggi’s absence held our attention.

There is audio – apparently – of Jamal Khashoggi’s agony. The Turkish government have not released it – not at the time of writing – but the sound of this man being tortured has played on repeat in our imaginations. The mind’s ears are filled with his cries, bearing witness to his erasure. That is the voice that filled the vacuum left by the Saudi silence. It disrupted their belated – and absurd – denials as it did the subsequent claims of a lethal consular brawl between Khashoggi, a portly middle-aged Washington Post journalist, and a group of murderous Keystone cops.

An interrogation gone wrong, a chokehold, a brawl, a mistake, an error, a bone saw. We learned that he was stripped before he was killed. And that the body double flown in with the rest of the group manifested himself on CCTV wearing Khashoggi’s bloodless clothes. A piece of theatre wasted because of the audience of one – the fiancé – waiting outside.

His fingers were cut off before he was killed,” a writer friend tells me.

This particular image, in the swirl of lies and half-truths that surround the cold hard fact that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate, is one that stays with me. It is his fingers, his writing implements, humble instruments of contemporary truth-telling or dissidence, which were the target.

So why has removing those offending digits made such a radical shift? After all, journalists are murdered or “disappeared” frequently. Iron-fisted regimes like Putin’s Russia or China silence journalists at will. Turkey – where this murder took place – has more journalists imprisoned than any other country on earth. In the European Union – which prides itself as a bastion of democracy and free speech – three journalists who have been a thorn in their governments’ sides have been killed in the last year. The Bulgarian investigative reporter Victoria Marinova was raped and had her head was crushed with a rock. Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kušnírová were shot in Slovakia and Daphne Curuana Galizia’s car was bombed in Malta. Evident in all these killings is a desire not just to kill but also to obliterate the body of the deceased. In the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia the memorial of flowers that Maltese citizens have built for her has been bulldozed 22 times.

Despite their brazen brutality, none of these killings caused an insurmountable breech in the publicly acceptable narrative of authority and power that Khashoggi’s has. His murder has blown the fictions not only of the Saudi monarchy, but also of powerful governments – the United States and the UK in particular – that trade in the same blood money-soaked orbit of the Saudis. What they needed – and what they don’t have is a good cover story. The belated official Saudi explanation of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in what they say was a lethal consular brawl brings to mind IN DETENTION. This poem, first published in 1979 by the wonderful South African poet, Chris van Wyk, evokes with chilling precision the way a brutal regime caught out in its violence, twists and turns the truth. Here is IN DETENTION:

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

The direct brutality of the Saudis is known. What must remain hidden are the indirect brutality of the United Kingdom and the United States and the sales of arms that have resulted in a lethal war in Yemen. That the Saudis did not prepare a story good enough to mask the disappearance of Khashoggi – and in these days of spin a good story is essential – is what frustrated Donald Trump.

And he made this clear. He said he wanted a story that he could use. He prevaricated about condemning the killing because, as Trump stated clearly, business must go on. Jobs must not be lost. The number of jobs was – in Trump’s way – greatly exaggerated. But he made quite clear that arms exports are more important than a (journalist’s) life.

There has been no pretense about seeking the truth. What was required was that business as usual should continue. For that to happen an acceptable lie was needed. It was unnerving that the possible, plausible lies were paraded quite openly in public. As if Trump and the Saudis were trying on different outfits to find the best fit. It seemed not to matter that the lies – and the coats – were utterly transparent. That tale – garbled as it is – is necessary to maintain that stitch between authority and power. That illusion is necessary for rulers to rule.

Trump – and other democratically elected leaders who trade with brutal states – needed to have at least the semblance story generated when they have sold arms quite openly to the Saudis, thus enabling the atrocities we see almost daily in Yemen. Why? Because authoring the story – even if it is known to be flimsy – is necessary to give Trump and others authority not only in their international dealings but at home.

Authority – the delegated right to act in a specified way – is different to power and it is key to democracy. But authority rests only if the stitching of authority to power is rendered invisible. It is that invisibility that makes it seem natural. The fictions that governments spin – and our collective suspension of disbelief – are essential. Khashoggi’s murder has exposed this.

The Saudis deal in naked power, or power stripped of the softening disguise of “authority’’. This everybody knows and understands – despite the PR campaign of the Crown Prince who is at the centre of this killing. However, their failure to have bothered with a proper story to cover up this murder exposes something chilling about the democratic societies that purport to value human rights. Khashoggi’s murder and the fumbled stories around it expose, with all the intensity of a crime-scene light, the increasingly frayed relationship between ceded authority and naked power in the West.

It took France and Germany a few days to suspend arms trade with the Saudis. The United Kingdom has refused – a mealy-mouthed foreign minister stating publicly that it was not the best way to suspend the (vast) arms deals with the Saudis. However, Trump’s America, which is increasingly enthralled to dictators and strongmen, has refused to do this.

Trump has been experimenting with a different domestic arrangement between authority and power. While the murder of Khashoggi might be on one end of the brutal spectrum of attacks on those who speak truth to power, on the other is Trump declaring in the same week that Khashoggi was killed that the thug elected as governor of Montana who assaulted a journalist is “my kind of guy”. That seems like yet another piece of stupid macho bombast but it is a disturbing shift to stripping away the limits placed on authority and choosing a raw and naked power which silences all stories but its own.

This crisis of truth has been a long time coming. If we think of journalists as playing – at times – the role of the little boy who called the fact that the Emperor was naked, what we are now seeing is not, as the original Hans Christian Anderson tale has it, the Emperor realising his error and hiding his shame. What we have is the Emperor turning on that child and machine gunning him for delivering the truth.

That death blow was dealt on Trump’s behalf by his trade secretary, Steve Mnuchin. He was in Saudi Arabia this week. He provided the photo-op that the Crown Prince desired. Khashoggi’s murder did not matter, that is what that picture is telling the world. And we don’t need to pretend any longer that it did. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.