Denial: In Defence of Truth

On April 11 2000 judgment was delivered in the Irving v Lipstadt case. Historian and author Deborah Lipstadt, represented by Mishcon de Reya lawyers Anthony Julius and James Libson, had won. The events of that trial now form the basis of a film written by Sir David Hare. Denial, starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Wilkinson, went on general release in the UK on January 27 2017 – Holocaust Memorial Day. 
 
To mark the release of the film, we wanted to look into how a trial that took place in 2000 has relevance today. Working with Quite Frankly Productions and Alex Krasodomski-Jones of Demos, we have made a short film exploring truth, post-truth and denial in 2017.

Video transcript

Denial: In Defence of Truth

Mishcon de Reya

Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want.  What you can’t do is lie and then expect not to be accountable for it.  Not all opinions are equal.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

The way we consume news and the way our opinions are formed is increasingly governed by the internet.  My name is Alex Krasodomski-Jones, I am a digital researcher the think tank Demos and for the last five years we’ve looked at the way our lives have increasingly moved on-line and it hasn’t always been a smooth transition.

To mark the release of the film Denial I was asked by law firm, Mishcon de Reya to look into how a trial that took place in 2000 has relevance today.

As hundreds of millions of us turn to social media we will have to encounter some uncomfortable realities.  What do we do when we see something we don’t like?  Or something we know to be untrue?  How do we challenge it?

Denial is a story about testing the truth in the face of lies.  I have been lucky enough to meet some of the people from behind the film to find out how seventeen years later many of the lessons of the trial are still relevant today.

I started by visiting Anthony Julius at Mishcon de Reya who played a key role in the legal team who fought the case.

Anthony Julius
Mishcon de Reya

The obvious strategy was to produce the available evidence which was immense at the time and to confront Irving with that.  So we would deploy not just witness evidence from survivors but documentary evidence, photographs and all the rest of it.  But there were two objections to that. The first objection was it felt to me inherently offensive to put survivors in a position where they would be exposed to cross-examination by a parade ground, barking, hectoring, anti-semitic bully.  The second objection, why would we want to put Irving in the position where he was given the opportunity to consider and respond to the evidence that we were offering him and then engage with us as if he was one expert in controversy with another group of experts.  Why pay him the respect of that equality of approach.  So we looked at the documents that he himself relied on and we found that he utterly systematically misrepresented those documents in order to produce his bogus history.  We didn’t need to go outside of his work.  We didn’t need to stand survivors in front of him.  Instead we stayed inside his castle so to speak and demonstrated what faulty foundations it was built on.  And it finished him.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

But how do you capture that story and bring it to the screen?  To answer that I visited the studio of the man responsible for turning the events of the trial into a film script, Sir David Hare.

What was it about the Irving/Lipstadt libel case that really caught your imagination?

Sir David Hare
Screenwriter

I think I was interested in this idea that the two opinions would not be equal.  What the forty days of the trial proved by putting the evidence under scrutiny was that actually not all points of view are equal.  The point of view that is substantiated by fact is rather more valuable than a point of view that is not substantiated by fact.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

How much artistic licence did that give you when you were writing the film?

Sir David Hare
Screenwriter

Well none whatsoever.  In other words it seemed to me, you know, the minute I was asked to write this film it presented particular problems.  The subject of the film is verifiable truth and how truth defends itself against unsubstantiated opinion.  Deborah Lipstadt had a policy of non-engagement with holocaust deniers.  So that meant that I, in representing her life felt the same thing.  I cannot go and meet David Irving but more than that I refuse to speculate psychologically about him.

You can have opinions about the holocaust but I won’t meet with anyone who says the holocaust didn’t happen.

Professor Lipstadt I am that David Irving and I have got a thousand dollars to give anyone who can show me a document that proves the holocaust.

I will not debate you, not here, not now, not ever.

Because you can’t.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

James Libson is a partner at Mishcon de Reya who was also involved in the case.  He told us why this story is still relevant today.

When you heard that a Hollywood film was potentially being made, what was your first reaction?

James Libson
Mishcon de Reya

I didn’t take it all that serious, I didn’t think it would happen.  Only when we started sitting down with David Hare and someone of his stature had been commissioned to actually write a script did it feel realistic.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

I read an article that one of your initial reactions when you heard that the film was potentially being commissioned was – What’s the point?

James Libson
Mishcon de Reya

At the time and until recently I thought it was done and dusted and I didn’t think the story needed to be told in 2016/17.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

Has your opinion changed?

James Libson
Mishcon de Reya

My opinion has changed actually.  The first reason it has changed is when I first saw the on-line reaction to the trailer was almost universally exclusively vehemently anti-semitic, very hateful, very supportive of denial and Irving and the line that he had taken and it felt as if lurking under the surface is a sentiment that I had thought maybe we had dealt with but we clearly hadn’t dealt with and the second reason is that film is a passionate plea for truth and the importance of truth and what we have seen recently in the post-truth citing this vile phrase of a post-truth in common circulation is a warrant for honourant so I think a film that stands for truth and the way in which you establish truth is a good thing nowadays.

You don’t need to protect me.

No we are not protecting you, we are protecting our case.  Our strategy is to keep the focus on Irving and Irving alone.  It’s not a test of your credibility, it’s a test of his.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

Deborah Lipstadt  the historian at the centre of the libel case in 2000 shared how the issues in the case impact upon us in 2017.

Deborah Lipstadt
Historian

One of the things that makes fake news and post-truth possible is of course the internet.  Sixteen, seventeen, certainly twenty, thirty years ago and more than that people with outlandish conspiratorial ideas they were separated from one another, maybe one found another but it wasn’t so easy.  Today it is much easier because of the internet but I don’t want to make this a beat up on the internet kind of thing because in my research, in my work, in my writing I depend on the internet.  But with every privilege comes responsibility.  Just because you read it on the internet doesn’t make it true.  We have to be willing to make pains of ourselves you know, to be really annoying and demand a higher level of proof.

James Libson
Mishcon de Reya

What one would say in reaction to what one heard on the TV or the radio that you would say in the privacy of your own home, people now put immediately on the internet and it is circulated very quickly and that’s all through the facility of social media.  So for all of the good that social media and the internet can achieve, that is the price that we are paying for it and sometimes it feels as if the price comes very high.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

One person who knows this price all too well is Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow.  During a campaign to put Jane Austin on a ten pound note she was subjected to death and rape threats on-line.  I caught up with her and asked her what lessons the film might have for us in 2017.

Stella Creasy
MP for Walthamstow

What I think is interesting now and where I think Denial particularly fits into these kind of discussions is about this concept of what is a fact and peoples’ ability to find facts and to find in the bigger echo chambers that they are living in now, counter-facts to prove that they were right all along.  So we have a society where people are ever more engaged in debate and discussion but actually perhaps ever less critical of where information is coming from because there is so much of it about.  But I draw a line between speech which is designed to be expressing an opinion that I have and speech which is designed to evoke a reaction in somebody, particularly a reaction of fear and distress.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

Would you lay that at the door of the social media platforms?  Would you say they are part of the problem in this?

Stella Creasy
MP for Walthamstow

I would say it’s a problem for all of us.  It is actually about all of us recognising that we have to have a different type of debate.  So we do need  a different type of public sphere in which people take responsibility themselves for the kind of debates and discussions that we are having at a local micro grass roots level and indeed at an international level.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters and Tell MAMA has monitored the rise of Islamophobia on-line and has urged for it to be taken much more seriously.

Fiyaz Mughal, OBE
Tell MAMA

Social media has become really an amplification tool for these extreme, sometimes extreme, sometimes bigoted groups who effectively want to get their message across.  There is also a heightened sense of aggression, there is a heightened sense of people saying what they want to say which they wouldn’t say in real life and I think as part of that process it’s been a tool by which haters, whether anti-Muslim haters or anti-semitic haters for example, have used it as a platform to promote and amplify their hatred.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

In the report that you put to the Select Committee when asked about this, you were critical about what social media companies were doing in terms of keeping this content off the internet or at least reducing its volume.  What more do you think that they could be doing?

Fiyaz Mughal, OBE
Tell MAMA

They need to be acting faster on accounts that are clearly extreme in nature and promoting hatred over a period of time.  We are looking at long-term accounts which are running for one, two, three, four years that have been promoting anti-Muslim hatred and are still up and running.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

With billions of messages being sent by hundreds of millions of users every day the big social media companies are facing an unprecedented challenge.  

Richard Taylor is a technology correspondent based in Silicon Valley.

Richard Taylor
Super Rich Media

Thankfully the major tech firms are beginning to show signs of dealing with it very decisively.  Twitter is taking it seriously.  I think they have realised that it is something that affects not just individual users but of course it has enormous reputational implications as well and we are seeing now finally a new policy rolling out which makes it much easier for users to flag abusive content, to block users, to report offensive tweets, they recognise it’s a problem, they recognise they can’t simply sit back and say that they are a dumb vehicle or dumb platform where content can simply roam free, that they actually have to take concrete measures to make sure that this doesn’t happen in future.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

It seems as if the social media companies are catching up but what about the Justice system.  Are we doing enough to provide the same protection on-line as we’d expect off-line?    

To find out I spoke to Nazir Afzal, Chief Executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.

Nazir Afzal, OBE
Association of Police and Crime Commissioners

Facebook and Twitter as I understand it are signed up to a code of conduct last year which was aimed at sharing more information with each other and with the police to be able to identify people who are constantly abusing and threatening and committing crimes on-line.    Policing the internet is the same as policing the street, it is just a different environment and there needs to be greater training, there needs to be greater understanding of what people can do and what they can’t do and more cooperation and communication and ultimately it can be policed in the same way that you can police the street.  In 2017, post-Trump, post-Brexit, conspiracy theories everywhere all the time, it’s absolutely essential that we hold dearest to our hearts the truth and that we ensure the truth wins out and the legal system is here to try and ensure that and if, you know, I am absolutely pay tribute to everyone who was involved in the Irving trial because it set out a benchmark really for how it is we should be dealing with those who will try and deny the truth.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones
Demos

It’s often said that we live in an information age though that may now be an understatement.  We are under a barrage of news, articles, think pieces, memes, info-graphics, arguments and counter-arguments, facts and counter-facts out of which we must try to pull together some sense of the world.  But within this it is vital that people are able to identify truth from lies, signal from noise, fact from fiction and perhaps most importantly, to care about the difference.  

We’ve always been entitled to our opinion but now we all have the capability to share it.  It’s up to us to decide which of those opinions are worth more than others.

With thanks to
Alex Krasodomski-Jones

With thanks to
Anthony Julius

What was the experience of seeking somebody else play you on the big screen?

Well it was really quite demoralising because I appreciated within minutes that Andrew Scott is a better Anthony Julius than I am.

With thanks to
James Lisbon

What do you make of Jack Lowden, happy?

I am very happy with Jack Lowden, handsome and thin is all I wanted.

With thanks to
Sir David Hare

With thanks to
Deborah Lipstadt

With thanks to
MP Stella Creasy

I can prove to you that Elvis is running a bakery in West Bromwich because I’ve seen a picture on the internet.

With thanks to
Fiyaz Mughal OBE

With thanks to
Richard Taylor

With thanks to
Nazir Afzal OBE

Producers
Alex Bertschin
Jez Frankel
Hayley Geffin

Camera Operators
Orlando Stuart
Sam Taylor

Sound Recordist
Annie Needham

Editor
Rob Flynn

Graphics
Ben Emrich
Mishcon de Reya

With thanks to the contributors: Anthony Julius; James Libson; Sir David Hare; Deborah Lipstadt; Stella Creasy MP; Fiyaz Mughal OBE; Richard Taylor; and Nazir Afzal OBE. 

About the trial

Irving v Penguin Books Limited, Deborah E. Lipstadt went to trial in January 2000. Accused of libel, the burden of proof fell to historian and author Deborah Lipstadt, meaning she was forced to prove that her depiction of David Irving in her book Denying the Holocaust was a true and fair one. The trial lasted eight weeks and at its conclusion the Judge summarised the lengthy judgment thus:
 

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism... therefore the defence of justification succeeds.. It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.
 

Deborah's subsequent book on the trial, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, was adapted into a screenplay by Sir David Hare. 

Anthony Julius

Deputy Chairman
+44 20 3321 7025

James Libson

Partner
+44 20 3321 7132

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