Magazine article The Spectator

Almost Everything You Read about the 'War' Is Pure Speculation and Will Turn out to Be Untrue

Magazine article The Spectator

Almost Everything You Read about the 'War' Is Pure Speculation and Will Turn out to Be Untrue

Article excerpt


I suppose we all remember where we were on that fateful morning when the Times and the Daily Telegraph published their graphologists' reports on the handwriting of Osama bin Laden. I certainly do. I was choking on my All-Bran - choking with a mixture of hilarity and derision.

To readers with so much as the intellect of a gnat, a series of fatal objections to these reports would have occurred before they had even reached the end of the first paragraph of the story:

(1) How did we know the signature was indeed bin Laden's?

(2) Even if this was bin Laden's, and even if handwriting does betray character, how could you tell anything much from a signature alone, signatures being stylised and often quite unrepresentative of a person's normal handwriting?

(3) How could an English graphologist draw conclusions from an Arabic script? Unless fluent in the written language and familiar with hundreds of examples of its handwritten form, it would be impossible to work from any kind of concept of the norm, or note the deviations from it. There was no claim in either newspaper that their graphologists had specific expertise in Arabic.

(4) Who believes in graphology anyway? Would astrologists be reporting on bin Laden's stars next?

And, as you would expect, the two analyses, one in each newspaper, came up with wholly contrasting claims about bin Laden's personality. These graphologists must be naive creatures and lacking in the precautionary instincts of my own profession, for they did not appear to have consulted among themselves beforehand to make sure they both reported with the same story. One report, as I recall, makes bin Laden out to be unhappy and depressed. `He's got a lot of weight on his mind and there's a deep feeling in him that he has bitten off more than he can chew.'

The other was headlined `Giant ego with a wish for vengeance'. Three leading graphologists had said `last night' that the faxed signature `appears to reveal a rampant ego compensating for possible perceived childhood slights'. The signature also implied a strong libido driving the writer's actions. `He has to discharge this energy; if it gets too pent up he has to release it and he may go into a frenzy. He's a rebellions individualist and a non-conformist with a hedonistic drive for stimulation. Anticipation of punishment doesn't stop him. He might have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality.'

He might indeed. So might newspaper readers. Yet the conjuring into reality of these stories about handwriting marked a shrewd editorial judgment. They caught the eye, did they not? You read them, did you not? You remember them now, I think. I certainly do.

But I did think them monumentally silly. `Gripes,' I spluttered, `there's so much more serious stuff to go into the papers at a time like this: real stories about real events; serious comment; careful analysis. Reports from all over the globe. Anxious readers are buying newspapers in huge numbers, hungry for information. The press becomes important at a time like this.'

What nonsense. I had drawn precisely the wrong conclusion from those little journalistic adventures into graphology. I had seen them as pointing up a contrast between useful reportage on this 'war', and the merely trivial.

But, of course, the fluff-and-non sense stories were not piffling exceptions to the general rule. …

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