Book Review: Kompromat, by Stanley Johnson
I hesitated over this one in the work book sale, as I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for it, but in the end decided to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. After all, it’s a charity event, and this season’s charity at work is Alzheimer’s UK, so it’s a good cause and no money goes to any member of the Johnson family.
In the introductory “Author’s Note” it is stated that “Kompromat is, to use an old-fashioned term, An Entertainment”. In other words, there is no pretence to higher literary ground. This much it certainly fulfils, as the prose is prosaic indeed, sometimes a bit wooden, and never particularly sophisticated. The book begins with a cast list – metaphorically, if not literally, of thousands – which is probably unnecessary; most are minor characters whose role is stated in the text when they appear, and you quickly remember more or less who is who among the major characters.
When it comes to the story, it initially feels as though Johnson has just transcribed events from 2016 and changed the names, but as it gets going, there are some clever and fun twists to the story, filling in a fantasy (or rather, a nightmare) of what might have led to the events that took place. The Russians are spying on everyone, and blackmailing them wherever possible to undermine the West, and specifically the EU and NATO, in order to restore Russian prestige and imperial ambitions. However, the British tend to play with a more-or-less straight bat, and are smart enough to detect fake material; the Americans are variously clueless and sophisticated; and the Russians leak like a sieve anyway, particularly to the Chinese, whose own agenda is to sustain the EU as a balance against the USA. Add in a German Chancellor who used to be a KGB agent, an elderly Australian media mogul, and an assassination attempt in the Oxford Union, and you have … something that is fun, but can’t be taken seriously.
Where the book does score, though, is on making you reflect on the “democratisation” of information via the Internet. Twenty years or more ago, there were a limited number of media outlets, and whilst they could provide a wide range of views and opinions, one could in general be fairly confident about the provenance of their information, and that factual errors would not go uncorrected. But when anyone can put out any story and watch it go viral from within an echo chamber to the wider world, it’s inevitable that many people will exhibit confirmation bias. (I’m not suggesting that anyone is immune from confirmation bias, but I’d like to think people should in general be aware of the possibility of it and try to control for it.) Indeed, the current state of affairs seems to be that many people don’t care about “truth” if what they are given fits their existing beliefs – including the closing down or drowning out of opposing points of view. The Internet is a genie that’s out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in. Ultimately, I suspect those who have chosen not to hear warnings about fake news will be the ones who suffer most as a result, but if fake news continues, then they will always have someone else to blame. In my darker moments, I think about that term in the Drake equation about the length of time a civilisation exists, and I wonder if opposing groups, discarding evidence and shouting their views at each other angrily without listening, is how it ends.