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Does the truth matter – in entertainment, business, politics, and life in general?


Does the truth matter – in entertainment, business, politics, and life in general?   Yes, of course, you might say.  I was prompted to ask this question by the movie The Imitation Game, which I watched last week.  Billed as a historical thriller, but “based on a true story”, it tells how brilliant mathematician Alan Turing cracked the German enigma code to defeat Hitler at the time he might well have invaded Britain, sealing victory in the Second World War and making the Nazis undisputed masters of Europe.

In all fairness, it’s a powerful movie.  But large parts of the story are manufactured, true neither to the detail nor the spirit of what actually happened.  Does this matter?

Let’s start by acknowledging what the movie did portray that is reasonably accurate.  There was a brilliant British mathematician and scientist called Alan Turing, who was elected a fellow (don, professor) by King’s College, Cambridge University, when he was just 22.  He did work at the top secret Bletchley Park breaking German codes, he did help defeat Hitler, he was highly appreciated by Prime Minister Churchill, he had the idea of a “universal machine” capable of counting and analyzing anything could be computed, he was convicted in 1952 for homosexual acts, and he died aged 41 in 1954 from cynanide poisoning, which may or may not have been suicide.

So far so good – and one would have thought quite enough for an engrossing movie, particularly when added to the social detail of Bletchley Park, which was a unique mix of upper-class men and women (debs), mainly middle-class academics, who comprised some of the most brilliant minds at the time, and Wrens and other service people drawn mainly from working-class backgrounds.  The story of Bletchley is told extremely well by Sinclair McKay’s astonishing and fascinating book The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, which I would urge all of you to read – far better than any accomplished thriller, yet adhering fastidiously to historical truth.  I imagine it was read by the researchers for The Imitation Game, but you wouldn’t credit it.

Where the Movie Lost the Plot

To mention just a few of the howlers:

  • Turing is portrayed as insufferably arrogant, autistic, socially incompetent, a bad manager of people, and Spock-like in his inability to understand emotions and ordinary people. This is a total travesty.  In real life Turing was charming, popular and a team player.  In the movie he is just fascinated by numbers and mathematical abstraction, and indifferent to the war effort.  In reality, like everyone at Bletchley Park, he passionately wanted to defend Britain from Hitler.
  • Even further from the truth is the portrayal of the head of Bletchley Park, naval Commander Denniston, who seeks to impose “order, discipline, and the chain of command” on the recalcitrant Turing. The real Commander Denniston, though, was not like this at all.  He was a professional cryptographer who understood what his people were doing and would have liked to spend less time organizing and more time working at the coalface.  And in fact, Bletchley Park was not run as a military or hierarchical organization – it was just about as loose and democratic as any organization in the Britain of the day.  Unless it had given a huge amount of freedom to the creative individuals working there, Bletchley would never have produced the results it did.  All this went by the board in the movie, however, in order to manufacture conflict between Turing and Denniston – that did not exist at all.
  • Turing is represented as virtually the sole genius working at Bletchley Park, who pretty much single-handedly won the war. In fact there were at least half a dozen fantastically talented code breakers there, including Dilly Knox, Gordon Welchman, and Stuart Milner-Barry, each of whom made contributions almost as great as those of Turing, who worked constructively with all of them.
  • The breaking of the Enigma code is shown in the movie as a once-for-all event – it was impossible, then it happened, and from that moment the war was won. The truth is more complex and interesting.  There were crucial code-breaking victories at each of the key junctures of the war – such as the “Battle of Britain” in the air that made it impossible for Hitler to invade Britain in 1940, the sinking of the U-boats that otherwise would have starved Britain into submission, and the victories in North Africa against German and Italian troops, which marked the first turning point in the Allies’ favour – what Churchill hailed as “the end of the beginning”.  This could have made a much more dramatic movie.
  • Churchill’s support for Bletchley Park – often against his military advice – is largely hidden in the film. In fact, Churchill visited the place and gave an inspirational speech – which would have made a great scene in the movie – and avidly used the intelligence gathered to maximum, though discreet, effect.  Without Churchill, the code-breakers would have achieved much less, and perhaps little at all.  The PM ensured that they had the resources they so desperately needed.
  • As noted by A O Scott in a penetrating review in The New York Times, the movie depicts BP as essentially like Apple or Google. Many attitudes and phrases from the present are clumsily projected back to the 1940s.  Yet Bletchley Park was essentially British, combining the past and future sociology of an island people desperate to save their homeland from Nazi invasion.  I must confess, reading Sinclair McKay’s book, I discovered a depth of British feeling and patriotism I never knew I had.  I was proud of what these people from the past did, and how they made it possible for me – and hundreds of millions of other people – to live free from tyranny.  I felt none of these stirring emotions when watching the movie.

Does the Truth Matter?

To ask the question, as the late, great Peter Drucker used to say, is to answer it.

The defeat of Hitler and the triumph of Western democracy has affected every one of our lives.   When it comes to something so vital, falsification of the facts is not just distasteful and disrespectful to the heroes and heroines involved; it is also profoundly irresponsible.

Many movie-goers have only the haziest idea of history.  It is natural for them to assume that what appears on the big screen – purporting to be based on a true story – is not far from the truth.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for pure historical invention, or a new interpretation.  All history is interpretation (though good history is approximately consistent with the facts).  But to present something as if it were factual, when it is a direct lie, is reprehensible.

The movie would have been much more dramatic had it stuck to the truth.  Instead of the paint-by-numbers template of interpersonal conflict and phony love-interest, there was in1940-43 a real danger that Hitler would destroy British freedom and tolerance forever.  That danger brought out the very best in the British – despite huge problems and divisions within the society before the Nazi threat.  If that isn’t a great story – especially when Britain and America were successful beyond any reasonable expectation – I don’t know what is.  Only small minds chained to Hollywood clichés could have failed to see that.

Truth in Business & Our Daily Lives

Business and life can be seen as the pursuit of truth and beauty.  Both are essential.

Beauty comprises what appeals emotionally.  It includes the symbolic, aesthetic, and mythological.   Fantasy, poetry and dreams are powerful motivators and interpreters of what could become reality.  An austere regard for truth should be complemented by the softer virtues of imagination, welling up from the individual and collective unconscious.

Yet truth is the bedrock of reality.  Unless something is true at some deep, demanding level, its grip on reality is tenuous and temporary.

Here are some truths that cannot be evaded or avoided in business:

  • The customer is always right, even when he or she is wrong.
  • Profit and market value are delusions; only cash is real.
  • Market share matters hugely.
  • So does growth.
  • If a product or service is not better, cheaper, or more enjoyable or beautiful than that available elsewhere, it will never make a lot of money.

Here are some truths that cannot be avoided or evaded in life:

  • We are all going to die and we don’t know when, where or why.
  • We are unique because of our minds and emotions.
  • We are dependent on other people and how much they care for us.
  • The pursuit of truth and beauty make life intelligible and enjoyable.
  • “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” (Lennon & McCartney).
  • Anything “based on a true story” is quite likely to contain a pack of lies.