Truth is a tricky thing. What one person believes sincerely to be the truth may not harmonise with demonstrable facts. Truth is not as absolute as we might like to think. Perspective, conjecture, surmise and assumption each play their part.
But one can deduce the facts from a set of circumstances and, in so doing, make a judgement call as to the truth – based on hard evidence. Which is why, of course, independent witnesses are crucial when an issue in dispute comes before the courts.
In her recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Duchess of Sussex referred to ‘my truth’, a turn of phrase revealing that an individual’s perspective on events constitutes their truth. It would be heartless and disingenuous to suggest that her truth does not accord with the facts – but nonetheless a disinterested observer may well wonder what those facts were.
It was notable that Winfrey herself accepted the duchess’ description of events without question. You may argue this was disingenuous: the truth here was inferred, but as yet untested. It is this element of the interview, and this part only, that has struck me both as a lawyer and a journalist.
An impartial interviewer could have been expected to dig deeper. She referred to Harry’s conversation with a member of the royal family (note: hearsay) that included comments or concerns about how dark their future baby’s skin colour might be. As a woman of colour herself, Oprah’s gasp of horror was understandable, but very telling. She accepted the truth inferred to her: that Harry’s family must be racist.
Though Oprah is not a lawyer, she would have done well to have responded more cautiously, asking perhaps about the context of the conversation.
But the die was cast, the ‘truth’ was out and in some quarters of the media the royal family was declared racist. Meanwhile, in other quarters, the duchess’ testimony was thoroughly doubted. In realty, only the direct participants know the actual truth. Perspective is entirely different.
The players in this media maelstrom have their personal perspectives and feelings derived from their unique experiences and reflecting their own strengths and weaknesses. But this this cannot necessarily be equated with the absolute ‘truth’.
I’ve recently come across the television series Crown Court – filmed in the 1970s yet up to date in so many ways (and how I wish we still have the offence of being an incorrigible rogue!).
The stories portrayed illustrate the extent to which one person’s perspective can convey what at first blush appears to be absolute truth – and nothing but the truth. Then along comes another witness and that apparent certainty dissipates as quickly as a mist rising in the early sunlight on an autumn morning.
That’s not to say the individual is being untruthful in any way. Rather, their genuinely felt reality and experiences as told to the courtroom do not necessarily portray or substantiate an absolute truth as alleged or claimed. But the evidence needs to be tested.
Words matter. Truth matters. Perspective matters.
Disputes need never arise in many situations, if only communication had been maintained. Would ‘that’ interview have taken place if lines of communication were effective (or am I now making an assumption as to the truth - that communication has broken down between the players)? I can make a value judgment using the power of my perspective – but I cannot claim that to be ‘truth’.
Lawyers know the power of communication. This is one of the issues picked up this month by LawNet (March 2021 p13) who explains that exceptional client experience is vital to sustaining loyalty during this period of disruption.
Many a lawyer/client fallout is the result of misunderstandings and miscommunications – another example of where genuinely held perspective can give a flawed reading of the truth of the circumstances in dispute.
And please: give Crown Court a go - particularly the episode entitled Incorrigible Rogue.
Nicola Laver is editor of Solicitors Journal and a non-practising solicitor...